Open or shut?

A new breed of academics is emerging in the digital age. They are the researchers and teachers who freely share their knowledge and studies online. They are circumventing traditional approaches and discovering new ways of sharing their work. They are the open scholars.

Increasing numbers of high profile academics (such as danah boyd and Martin Weller for example) are turning their backs on traditional methods of research dissemination, publishing their work exclusively on free-to-read open access platforms or on their blogs. Many have openly pledged to never write, edit or review for closed journals again. Others choose to continue publishing their work in conventional peer-reviewed journals, but also disseminate their work widely through non-peer reviewed digital channels.

There are clear advantages to publishing your work by open access (see this article on open scholarship) as this article by Melanie Fullick highlights:
"...for a growing number of academics the benefits of blogging outweigh the drawbacks. Those who blog – including me – agree there are positive outcomes, such as networking and collaborating, finding new audiences and opportunities, disseminating research more widely, and building one’s reputation. Bloggers argue that far from diluting scholarly success, online writing can be a serious tool for academic practice."
These are clear benefits that any academic who has blogged for a while will attest to. The opportunities of networking, discovering new audiences for your research and that rapid dissemination capabilities of the web are just a few of the benefits you cannot find easily in more traditional avenues of publication. Additionally, the potential of social media to amplify content and expand reach exponentially should also be acknowledged.  But there are also disadvnatages, mainly of a political nature. Fullick highlights the disdain some academics hold for open access publishing and personal publishing through blogging:
"Peer-reviewed articles are still the benchmark for academic professionalization, and some graduate students and early-career academics feel that blogging is a waste of precious time that could be spent on “legitimate” publishing. Because it’s a form of self-publishing that lacks peer review, blogging isn’t usually viewed as a legitimate form of scholarship."
Blogging and other non-conventional forms of research dissemination tend to hit a road block where tenure and promotion are concerned. They are not accepted by universities when it comes to applications for research funding either. Blogging and unconventional publishing are not for the faint hearted. Indeed, many early career researchers are forced to toe the traditional line just to stay within their posts. This is a shame, but a necessary obligation.

For established researchers and those who have gained a reputation, it's different story. The benefits of publishing your work through blogging can be huge. Some academic bloggers can boast of thousands, or even millions of views each month. Many would argue that this is what research dissemination is really all about - sharing your knowledge with as many people as quickly as possible, with maximum impact. Universities usually reject this approach because peer-review is absent from the process, and it is difficult to assure the provenance, quality, rigour and veracity of the work. Having had first hand experience of a number of closed journal review panels, I have to say that formal peer review doesn't always assure these. But the universities and the funding bodies persist in their support of this antiquated and far from effective method of research dissemination, and the dominant publishing houses rub their hands as they cash in.

And yet as increasing numbers of academics and scholars are pledging their allegiance to open scholarship and open publishing, so the blogs written by reputable scholars continue to appear. Recently, Dutch universities boycotted the publishing giant Elsevier because of its 'stranglehold' on the academic community. Academics are beginning to stand up and speak out. There is a sense that a change is in the air. We must fervently hope so, because our academic communities deserve to have access to the latest knowledge in a timely manner, in a format that is of high quality and, in an openly accessible form. What they don't deserve is for publicly funded research to be hidden behind pay walls that only a handful of academics will ever read.

Photo by Justinc on Wikimedia Commons

Creative Commons License
Open or shut? by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Mark said…
Hi Steve

I do hope that change is in the air. My experience of peer review is similar to yours, in that it was certainly not the gold standard it is held up to be and can often be petty and far from rigorous. It is also not timely, with limited feedback, if any, taking a very long time to be received.

As you also say, the fact that publically funded research ends up behind a paywall is just not acceptable.

The blog also allows for a different style of writing, take for example Martin Weller's recent post about personality that has led to a really interesting and insightful debate in the comments section. This was not by any means a traditional piece of writing that acted as trigger, but rather just some mulling and thinking out loud by Martin. This in turn quickly led to many very thoughtful and insightful thinkers joining a discussion and new blog posts responding to that original one. More traditional academic writing would not have allowed for either the ‘thinking out loud’ or the very quick response of so many others.

There is a place for many styles and types of writing in education, but none of them should be in the sole hands of publishers – to quote Anonymous “Knowledge is Free”.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your contribution to this discussion Mark. Agree wholeheartedly that knowledge should be free. In fact, if we all freely gave away the knowledge we have, the world would be a better place. 'Knowledge is like love - you can give it away as much as you like, but you still get to keep it...'
Ed Buckner said…
Remember there are two problems here. The first, potentially easier to solve, is the stranglehold that the big 'high status' journals hold over the profession. Authors aren't paid, reviewers aren't paid (except in kind), and professional copyeditors are paid a pittance. The publishers have a captive market in the university libraries and they take nearly all the profit. This problem could be solved if academics turned their backs on the traditional high status journals. But that is hard. When I am was offered the opportunity to publish in one of the traditional outlet, I take it.

The second problem is much harder, namely establishing a decent quality assurance. Standard peer review, as someone pointed out above, is rubbish. On the other hand, how do you distinguish the wheat from the chaff? I don't have any solutions to offer, at least not in a comment on a blog post :)

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