Digital Scholarship debate

A structured debate, held at 2pm on Mon 20 June in the Jennie Lee Building, The Open University, on the following motion:

“In the next decade, digital scholarship (in open journals, blogs, and social media) will achieve the same status in academic settings as traditional scholarship.”

Martin Weller is presenting the pro argument for 5-10 minutes, followed by Rob Farrow presenting the con argument. Then 5 minutes’ response, open to the floor for 30 minutes, and then the vote. Jude Fransman is chairing.

This is a dress rehearsal for a similar debate planned for ED-MEDIA. There were a little over a dozen members of the audience. There’s a survey monkey poll to vote on the answer.

These are my liveblog notes.
246/365 - When I ruled the world (Explored!)

Some argument that having the vote online rather skews the debate! So agreed that we’ll do it by show of hands.


Powerpoint presentation liberally sprinkled with Flickr/CC images.

Definitions, and Wittgensteinian language games. It’s the intersection between open, networks, and digital. ‘Changes in all aspects of scholarly practice as a result of the application of digital, networked and open technologies and changes in practice’

Ten arguments, overlapping.

1 – Impact – everyone likes it. Citation advantage to open access journals (MacCallum & Parasarathy, 2006); also ORO downloads – top is 110 pageviews a day, but Martin’s own blog has more than that. A slideshare presentation of his has 7000 views – versus a trad keynote to a few hundred.

2. Efficiency. It’s a good way to work.Traveling and conference networking is inefficient – global networking before I’ve had my breakfast. DS106 as an example of open course production – ideas in from others. Getting feedback on work in progress over Twitter – e.g. on his book.

3. Efficacy – the drugs do work! My post on Stephen Fry 50k hits from a Tweet vs small impact from trad news coverage. Nigel Warburton huge podcast audience – more effective than TV/radio broadcast. New ways to reach people, open source.

4. Complementarity – boosts ORO downloads. Social networks leads to keynote invites.

5. Institutional benefit – students don’t just look at the glossy brochure, in social spaces, so need to be there. Can’t just give out standard PR response, need trusted members. ‘Can you tweet about this for us?’ as a request.

6. Alternatives – a book becomes many different forms – videos, audios, slideshare, blog, open courses, DJ set (!).

7. Richness – conference archive – ten years ago was just the papers, now photos on Flickr, Twitter hashtag, streamed presentations, social network, liveblogging.

8. Competition – universities trying to recruit and reward digital scholars, arms race.

9. Exclusion – if can’t partake because not online, and that’s where all the good networks are.

10. Shame (!) – digital scholars quite open and public, they’ll be blog about it, will shame and embarrass them.

11. (!) – It’s cool!

Top-down pressure from institution, bottom-up from individuals getting rewards. In the middle is the awkward stuff about recognition and quality. But pressure makes it inevitable.

It’s not a simple road to utopia, there are problems. But it’s more right than wrong.  Example of dismissing e-commerce as irrelevant in 1995. It’s about the direction of travel, not the absolute position.


Prezi presentation.

Martin didn’t say much about the motion, he seemed a bit rushed. (Oops, problem with the Prezi.)

Will digital scholarship achieve the same status in the next decade? Hard to decide either way, so should reject it. And other reasons to reject too.

Martin didn’t want to define it – it’s very hard, it’s not quite clear. It’s a compound phrase, but without analytical definition … Lots of people use this already. Needs clarification.

Is this a coherent idea? All academics use digital technologies – word processing, telephones – what’s the qualitative difference?

People use them, but not to establish the validity of their work. Can put a spin on it, but not saying it’s valid because of the technology, it’s the basis of the investigation of itself. Validity is a theme here.

‘the same status’ – problematic. Can say is doing something valid, without saying it’s the same. If it was, we wouldn’t be having the conversation about status. Equal validity? Best way to construe it. Or recognise as valuable in its own right? Only in combination with traditional scholarly values. Or, as a supporting function – so mainly to do with PR, impact. Maybe can support in that way, but not establishing that you’re seeing it as the same.

Contention – this fundamental ambiguity is enough to reject the motion.

‘in the next decade’ – who can say what’ll happen? Maybe ‘it is likely’, ‘is’ is a problem. Outside TEL, academics are often sceptical or even hostile to technologies, feel taking them further from the work they do. Resent pressure (top-down) from institutions. Big barrier to introducing recognition across the board.

Even if you think they will recognise it, chances of it happening across boundaries of discipline and institution in next ten years are slim.  These things – academic cultures – change slowly. Because insular. Maybe, with greater impact and exchange, that may be ameliorated, but we’ve no basis for thinking that. Also, people who make the decisions tend to be older, less likely to use the technologies. Maybe when current 5-year-olds are VCs, but not in next 10 years.

Reasons to vote against: The idea of ‘digital scholarship’ isn’t clear enough. Martin does have a whole book about it. Hasn’t shown that it is coherent. Crucially, the two will never be ‘the same’, even if validity of digital activities is eventually recognised at some level. Validity systems in academic work has taken hundreds of years to establish, grown up organically, reached maturity – true value of social media to scholarship are just not known. We are finding things that might work, but the data is not there.

So either (I) digital scholarship is continuous with traditional scholarship (convergence) – so should reject motion on a flawed premise. If points on same spectrum, motion makes no sense. or (II) digital activities depend on traditional ones for their validity, in which case they’ll never be the same.

Either way, you must reject the motion.


Response to Rob.

I won’t need five minutes – attacking the definition is pedantic. Like with learning objects. We all know what we mean. We could work away at it, but that’s an old academic game. (!)

Validity – are seeing a real shift. It’s not just the same old stuff. Removal of filters, can publish anything in any format, is a new way of representing an identity. The same status, means equally respected. Not that it is the same.

Disagree that is only justified in supporting traditional scholarship. Can get a digital scholar, will research in different ways, done differently, disseminated differently, public engagement – all will be done differently. Need to have things in place to recognise those.

It’s possible to reject the motion on a pedantic and nit-picking definition, but it’s about the direction of travel.


Response to Martin and to his response.

Responding to the response, it’s rhetorical sleight of hand to say definitions don’t matter. All of the words are more important. Early or late Wittgenstein! Meaning is in its use (later) – not that definitions are unimportant, but only relative to context. Still a need for a definition.

Interpreting Martin as saying he wants a different motion – isn’t this a nice direction. Maybe, but make that the motion.

Someone may do something in a different way – working in this way is suitable for some areas, especially e.g. being a digital scholar about digital scholarship. Are benefits to networks, dissemination, impact – useful tools. Motion asks, is it the same? And it isn’t. As a whole, is it a fundamental shift? No.

Firstly, impact. The X Factor gets a lot of hits. Lots of traffic doesn’t mean good impact. It’s communicating to the right people. It’s not quantity. Most academics are skeptical of this way of measuring value, that a lot have seen it – not about showing people who don’t care, but about demonstrating to people who can see the value. Research isn’t PR. This pushes research to become a matter of getting hits and that sort of impact – when it should be about finding out new things.

Martin’s presentation is a loose way of thinking. Concentrate on definitions, does this make sense in the first place? IET people already immersed in this; take a step back. Martin hasn’t spoken much about the motion itself.


law of nature

Gill: To both speakers. I felt you were both having an argument which wasn’t the question posed. Rob is about whether it’s a good thing, Martin presents it as a good thing. My interest is whether or not it’ll happen, not whether or not it’s good. Initial statement was ‘is this thing happening’, not ‘if it is, is it a good thing’ – want to focus not on value judgement, but can we see this change. Whether we like it or not!

Robin: Not about questions, about debate from the floor.

Jude: Ok, but a question has been answered. Both will respond.

Robin: At the end? They sum up.

Jude: Note questions, you will both have two-minute opportunity to respond in a final closing statement.

Robin: Following on from Gill. Has put her finger on the difference between traditional academic debate, and an internet approach. Whether or not we want something, is the Internet – it’s about wish fulfilment, a buzz, consensus and convergence. The academic is more a step back, reflection tradition, examine it. Gill’s point encapsulates this. Martin wants this to happen, Rob doing the step back. There’s a divide between the two. If our vote made a difference, we’d have to go down Rob’s route.

Linda Price: Want to get to definitions. ‘Will achieve the same status … as traditional scholarship’ – but no clear definition of traditional scholarship. We don’t agree on what traditional scholarship is either. Need some contextual understanding. Definitions are important.

Jan: Validation in with status. Not arguing for or against either position. The route by which new knowledges or practices are validated are changing. How do these arguers see how this plays out in to the situation in ten years, by which there are equivalent statuses?

Adrian: Both speakers talked about impact. Impact upon whom? A major difference. May have many thousands reading a blog, if they’re all fellow-travellers, not a big impact on the community. Or practitioners in HE generally, problems with existing ways of doing e.g. peer review, publication, has very little impact on what goes on. Should the digital scholarship aspire to that level of non-impact? Would it have impact on those who make decisions about status – power is about including or excluding paper. RAE – replace old boy network of funding with one ostensibly using measures, but old boy network decides the ‘objective’ measures. Not in favour or against the motion, but unpacking the definition. Status implies power.

Tim: A lot of what’s talked about are novel technologies – we’ve had digital technologies. A lot of new techs are transitory, fragmentary. Worrying how that might pan out. In ten years, nobody might use Twitter or it’ll have gone like MySpace. Without a stable platform, doesn’t inspire people to stick with it. Novel things that have happened seems to be the focus.

Denise: Coming back to Adrian’s point. Is it going to be the same in ten years? Who’s going to contribute? People who already have their chairs, or people at the lower end who can sustain it for ten years who don’t care about promotion?

Jonathan Vernon: Not sure if for or against, think it’s already occurred. Search for it amongst the 150m blogs, would find scholarship. It’s been happening for a decade, must be examples already. Having blogged since 1999, have worked with online people on to their 3rd, 4th or 5th successful novel. If people writing successful academic stuff – the numbers matter. Andrew Sullivan, writes NY Daily Dish, highly qualified, writes about politics. Because journalism, not considered scholarship, but wouldn’t take much to make him produce scholarship. My argument is that it already exists. It’s not the next decade, it’s the last one.

Jude: Does the digital blur the notion of scholarship?

Jonathan: Not at all. What’s online is as real as us sitting here. Scholarship is the same.

Robin: Taking up point about blurring the distinction. What is likely to happen – the most upheaval will not come in digital or not, but whether publicly engaged or not. Issue of status is central. Whether a scholar can get equivalent recognition for work outside ordinary boundaries is a more fundamental question than the digital question. Just happens that digital is a good way of doing that, so they do come together. But digital scholars being recognised isn’t the main issue, it’s about reaching wider communities.

Gill: Problematise ‘academic settings’ – no stability in what that constitutes. One thing underlying that – commercial drivers changing nature of Internet and teaching. As academics least well qualified to understand it. Issues about changing location of power to define the authority, so much comes through commercial pressures, or commercial funding – we really have to engage in all of this stuff. If we say we’ll protect something that has been special for the last 100 years, we’re a dinosaur. The whole structure of education in the west is changing. What are the Chinese going to do? The balance of power is changing.

Jude: Rethinking academic settings, within changing global knowledge economy.

Tony Hirst via Twitter: Pushing people to think about it (not clear transcription!)

Jan: On Start The Week, raised question of manipulation of gatekeeping in social media. The gatekeepers are dinosaurs in scholarship, but we know them, even if they are the old boys. Is there a lot of manipulation that will go on that comes out with traditional scholars, academics, that we don’t know how to deal with? Was a new book about manipulation of filters in social media.

Linda Price: About issue of status. There’s research drivers, political. Don’t have much control over that. If e.g. REF framework remains the same, given that is unlikely to change since is a reflection of last 30 years. It’s unlikely that digital scholarship will achieve the same status as traditional scholarship.

Linda Wilks: Tweeting and listening. Wonder whether having different platforms dilutes the quality. Missed half the stuff people ahve been saying in an effort to increase my status online!

Doug: Does anyone know of anyone who has succeeded in achieving status (e.g. a chair) through digital media? Know plenty digital scholars without chars, and some who had chairs already and do it, but none who’ve moved on that way.

Summing up

Rob: Reiterating points about the motion. Don’t think distinction is clear enough. Ten years is optimistic if it is going to happen. Whole thing is not clear. There were many questions of clarification. The motion is not about what you want to happen, about how optimistic you are.

Martin: Gill/Robin, positive or negative argument? – I didn’t mean just positive, meant these perceived benefits create pressures which will make it happen. Linda – we don’t know what trad schol is, but we do it! Gets back to definition. Impact – any impact you like – citation counts increase through open access. It’s a richer picture – before, we only had citations. I know views don’t equal impact, but references don’t equal impact either. Camelot comparison – old version was all fantastic, we should avoid. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it – we’re academics. Tim’s point that Twitter might disappear – some things will, but there’s a general direction of travel. Not motion that it’ll replace. General idea is that digital scholarship will be recognised. Doug’s question – starts where Michael Wesch, Alec Couros tenure case; also someone else included Wikipedia edits in theirs. Plenty universities having dig schol guidelines. Question about relevancy – we could reject this motion, or we should accept and move forward with it.

Jude: Two slightly selective summaries. Will do as show of hands – do it online afterwards.

Motion read out again.

Those in favour: 6

Those against: 7

(Panel not allowed to vote.)

Those against have it!

Robin expects the online audience to reverse the verdict. (Was 3:1 in favour when I checked it on posting this!)

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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