Was going to give my usual open scholarship talk, which looks at benefits and issues, but is largely positive. But when I sat down to do it I felt it didn’t fit any more. So you are getting a talk that is partly me thinking through some issues. I hope that this process is useful for you also and not just catharsis for me
We live in a very changed world now – post-truth is the word of the year, in the UK politicians compare experts to astrologers, fake news spreads more readily through social media than real news, in the US Trump was elected largely not on expertise but precisely because he lacked expertise. As well as being troubling times generally, all of these issues speak to education, and open scholarship in particular. So I wanted to explore what was the role of open practice in this new context.
I used to do unqualified talks about the benefits of open scholarship, but over the years shades of grey have crept in. But I still believe lots of the original benefits also. It is not a cse of being pro or anti open practice. I think we need to do a difficult cognitive feat when considering open scholarship, which is to hold two sometimes contradictory views in our heads. You have to simultaneously be both a dog and a cat person. So I have framed this talk as a set of paradoxes.
So before we start, what do I mean by open practice? I won’t go in to much detail as I have whole other talks on that. It covers fairly formal approaches such as open access publishing, OERs, open data, etc But more broadly it covers the public sharing of the academic process and profile – whether that is through twitter, blogs, preprints, MOOCs, etc. Best viewed as a collection of practices, each one of which any individual may be on a continuum of – rather like those slider dashboards you have in things like FB
So my first paradox is around the way in which open practice can really democratise space. For instance, many of the conferences I have been to over the past two or three years have featured keynote speakers who are not eminent professors with a long list of publications, but people who have established an online identity. They have interesting things to say online, have established powerful networks and communities and often give the best keynotes. They are also often women and people in professional positions who wouldn’t normally get to feature in a list of keynote speakers. That’s just one example, but it is possible to build up a network of very influential people regardless of who you are. It is a democratised, open space where traditional hierarchies don’t carry as much value
But remember we are holding paradoxes now – it is also absolutely true that the same sort of groups who are marginalised in real life are marginalised online. There have been lost of studies of people swapping gender identities for example, and a man writing as a woman will get more abuse than when he writes as a man, and vice versa. The same for POC, etc. Plus if you have a real life power and network, you can transfer that online. Many of us will have experienced confusion at how a ‘guru’ will state something either entirely bland or old and it will be treated as great wisdom. The matthew effect also states that power will accrue more to someone who already has power, so if you have 100K followers, you get more simply for existing.
I wrote a book called the Battle for Open and I argued in that that openness was now part of the mainstream, as evidenced by MOOC coverage, open access policies, open source, etc
But at the same time we now have a very protective culture, and also one that punishes people for making public statements.
On a similar note, openness in education has proven very effective – open textbooks are showing improved cost savings, retention and performance. Despite some of our reservations, millions of people have learnt via MOOCs and OERs.
But at the same time we now have a culture that is positively hostile to education and knowledge in palces. For example, climate change has probably been the most active area of open science. There are countless open data sets, blogs, open access papers, OERs, all educating about the science of climate change. And yet the US policy is now strongly climate change denial, and that obviously chimes with a sufficient number of the population. So we can’t say openness in our most prolific area has been an overwhelming success
There are paradoxes within openness also Some approach it through the lens of policy, effectiveness studies, clear definitions, cost benefits, etc
And for others it is more a mindset – all the formalised elements are an anathema to the spirit of openness which is about trying things, sharing and experimenting. These are two quite different schools and the extent to which they can be seen as one church is debatable
Open scholarship is genuinely a welcoming, warm place. I used to go to conferences and stand in a corner, now I walk around hugging people I’ve come to know online. People are usually willing to help you think throygh an idea, even if it’s ill formed, and construct excellent debate (as I’ve found in my blog comments this year). These are not “less than” working or friendships you have in real life, or real life friends in waiting but valuable, supportive and a key part of scholarly practice
But it can be also a very dangerous and unpleasant space. Particularly if you explore issues that attract that kind of attention – if you write about feminism, race, immigration, etc then you will experience actual death threats (especially if you are not a white male). And this has become more extreme over the past year.
Papers that are tweeted and blogged tend to get cited more, OA citation advantage, blogs to reach new audiences, etc
But equally we have fake news, and the absence of meaningful discourse on places like twitter
So, here are a set of paradoxes, or at least tensions. How should we approach them?
Taking into account the positives and negatives I touched upon, create online identities that you feel comfortable with. That could be just open access publications, or a blog or a full open identity. But being open to an extent is a counter to the “ivory tower” argument
It may seem unlikely at times, but I think our role is to show a model of how you can debate issues in a rational manner
Build it and they will come is not a solution in itself as we’ve seen. But it can be part of a solution
Without dumbing down we can certainly communicate through different styles and media now – so the academic paper may be in academic language, but an accompanying blog post or video can be more approachable
We have to learn the tactics of the trolls and anti-knowledge brigade, and know how to defend ourselves. This can be technical issues, ways of responding, support from institutions, etc
It isn’t good enough to ignore the online space, as it is where the offline world is being shaped. So as academics we need to understand how this operates (for example what are the tactics used by the Alt-right to radicalise young white men) and then put in effective strategies to combat them Eg learn how to make open articles the top searches in Google
It is not a case of developing alternatives to twitter and facebook, but either establishing good communities in these spaces or using other tools as “additional” tools and communities. We have experience of social media now so we have a clearer picture of what we want from our online world
Even now I suspect there are Vice Chancellors at some universities thinking “how can we tap into this anti-expert sentiment?”. It is vital that unis, and particularly leaders in education maintain their values regarding the development of knowledge, the power of learning. Things will change again, persisting itself will be vital.
So one last paradox to ponder
In many respects I couldn’t in all good conscience encourage someone to develop a strong open scholarship identity because it has become a risky place
But at the same time it is vital that we do so, we have to be in this space for our own existence, but also for the good of society too