Assumptions and Challenges of Open Scholarship

George Veletsianos, Royce Kimmons

We should be able to recognize some common themes and assumptions about openness, sharing, and Internet technologies that unite such practices. First, open scholarship has a strong ideological basis rooted in an ethical pursuit for democratization, fundamental human rights, equality, and justice. As the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002) explains, the aim of openness is “building a future in which research and education in every part of the world are … more free to flourish,” thereby reflecting ideals of democracy, free speech, and equality. Caswell, Henson, Jensen, and Wiley (2008) further explain this ideological basis with a statement of belief:

We believe that all human beings are endowed with a capacity to learn, improve, and progress. Educational opportunity is the mechanism by which we fulfill that capacity. Therefore, free and open access to educational opportunity is a basic human right, … [and] we have a greater ethical obligation than ever before to increase the reach of opportunity. (p. 26)

Directing these desires for ensuring basic human rights, transparency, and accountability is a sense of justice or fairness in scholarly endeavors. Based on this ideological foundation, openness and sharing in scholarship are seen as fundamentally ethical behaviors that stand as moral requirements for any who value ideals of democracy, equality, human rights, and justice.

Second, open scholarship emphasizes the importance of digital participation for enhanced scholarly outcomes. Arguments for openness tend to focus on addressing the short-comings and limitations of current institutionalized practices through faculty participation in online spaces. For instance, Greenhow, Robelia, and Hughes (2009, p. 253) argue that Web 2.0 “tools might positively affect—even transform—research, teaching, and service responsibilities—only if scholars choose to build serious academic lives online, presenting semipublic selves and becoming more invested in and connected to the work of their peers and students.” Throughout these arguments for openness, the undesirable alternative is depicted as being “closed” or unresponsive to calls for equity, sharing, and transparency.

Third, open scholarship is treated as an emergent scholarly phenomenon that is co-evolutionary with technological advancements in the larger culture. Though ideals espoused in the first assumption are not new developments, their reintroduction into and re-emphasis in discussions of scholarship come in conjunction with the development and diffusion of a variety of social technologies. As Wiley and Green (2012) point out, open practices “allow the full technical power of the Internet to be brought to bear on education” (p. 82), and though causal relationships between technology developments and social trends are multidimensional, historical precedents suggest that social trends evolve in conjunction with technology development in a negotiated and co-evolutionary manner (cf. Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2012; Binkley, 1935). Thus, when discussing openness in scholarship, technology must be seen as both being an actor (i.e., influencing changes in scholarly culture and thereby influencing cultural behaviors) and being acted upon (i.e., being influenced by scholarly and other cultures and thereby reflecting cultural behaviors).

Finally, open scholarship is seen as a practical and effective means for achieving scholarly aims that are socially valuable. Such aims might range from ideological values (as mentioned above) to a variety of others including reduced cost of delivery, improved efficiency, greater accuracy, and so forth. For instance, one argument in favor of OA journals is that “the cost savings alone are likely to be sufficient to pay for open access journal publishing or self-archiving, independent of any possible increase in returns to R&D that might arise from enhanced access” (Houghton et al., 2009, p. XIX). Similar arguments have been made about improved research efficiency in sharing data sets (Trinidad et al., 2010), increasing the reach of universities via MOOCs (Carson & Schmidt, 2012), and using SNS for research purposes (Greenhow, 2009). Considering an educational perspective, such efficiency may also have pedagogical value because as Wiley and Green (2012) argue, “Education is a matter of sharing, and … [open practices] enable extremely efficient and affordable sharing” (p. 82). In their view, “those educators who share the most thoroughly of themselves with the greatest proportion of their students” are seen as successful (p. 82). From this perspective, openness is seen as an effective vehicle for achieving various scholarly goals like affordability, efficiency, accuracy, accessibility, sustainability, dissemination, and effective pedagogy.

Assumption #1: Ideals of Democratization, Human Rights, Equality, and Justice

Though few would argue against framing practices around ideals such as democratization, human rights, equality, and justice, it is presently unclear whether these ideals are essential components of the open scholarship movement or are merely incidental to those who are pioneering the field. That is, at the moment, such scholarly practices may largely reflect the values of early adopters who already engage in them, and these values may not be held as inviolate, or even important, by others who begin replicating them. For example, Cohen (2007, ¶4) presents a list of fourteen characteristics that describe “social scholars” (e.g., “a social scholar initiates or joins an online community devoted to her topic, using any of a number of social software services or tools”). Burton (2009, ¶5) describes the “Open Scholar” as someone who “makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it–at any stage of its development.” In both of these descriptions, there is no clear necessity for the scholar to value democratization, human rights, equality, and so on, and we should consider the possibility that scholars engage in open scholarly practices for a variety of reasons that may not be entirely noble (Veletsianos, 2012).

While open scholarly practices may share some of these noble goals (e.g., providing access to scholars who could not otherwise afford access to recently published research), scholars and institutions need to evaluate the purposes and functions of scholarship and take part in devising systems that reflect and safeguard these values of scholarly inquiry. For instance, the development of OA journals that charge authors (and by extension their institutions) to publish their manuscripts limits the diversity of voices in the scholarly process to those able to pay for publication. As with those in any community, scholars engaging in open scholarship are susceptible to the risks of making decisions about the future of their community which may be arbitrary, prejudiced, or otherwise harmful to the community’s well-being, and, thus, scholars should be vigilant and reflective of their digital and open practices as these practices continue to emerge and develop. Such vigilance should focus both on determining who profits from such practices and who is excluded from them so as to combat both under-use by some (e.g., those lacking entry to or knowledge of useful networks) and over-use or exploitation by those with the wealth, power, and prestige necessary to effectively strip mine sources (c.f. Chander & Sunder, 2004). While solutions to these problems may not be simple, forward-thinking approaches to proactive prevention with regard to the protection of scholarly freedom, and the upholding of these early-adopted ideals, are superior to post facto reparation.

To illustrate further, massive open online courses (MOOCs) were originally designed as moral imperatives and alternatives to traditional higher education, as attempts to offer free education that was co-created with learners (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier, 2010). In this formulation, MOOCs were flexible enough to offer self-directed learners the ability to define for themselves the types of outcomes they desired, while at the same time offering opportunities for communal learning (Rodriguez, 2012). During 2011-2012, we saw burgeoning interest in distance education by entrepreneurs, investors, and universities, and a resulting appropriation of MOOCs followed, such that the original MOOCs offered by Siemens, Downes, Cormier vis-à-vis the ones popularized by initiatives such as Coursera and Udacity share little resemblance other than the fact that they are freely available online courses. While the mass media celebrated the disruptive nature of online education and the death of higher education institutions (e.g., see McKenna, 2012 in The Atlantic, and Lewin, 2012 in the New York Times), a potential future defined by Coursera- and Udacity-type courses contrasts starkly with the narrative of MOOCs as flexible and empowering courses.

Many contemporary MOOCs can be more appropriately described as commodified education, rather than the type of open education initiatives suggested by their acronym. A clear example of this commoditization can be found in the rapid adoption of business-oriented models of distance education. While the intention of distance education enthusiasts and scholars from the inception of the field was to devise approaches to provide learning opportunities to individuals who could not otherwise physically attend educational institutions, such as learners who live in remote geographical areas (Davis, 2000), distance education is increasingly characterized as a product to be packaged and reused for efficient delivery to massive numbers of students (c.f. Noble, 2002; Wilson, Parrish, & Veletsianos, 2008). While Coursera, Udacity, and EdX allow access to educational opportunities, this argument conceals the fact that (a) the type of education offered by these initiatives appears to be reserved for students who are intrinsically motivated, self-directed, and have the necessary prior knowledge to succeed; and (b) education has goals broader than effectiveness and efficiency, namely engagement and social justice (Wilson, Parrish, & Veletsianos, 2008). In the words of Stewart (2012, ¶22), “the problem with EdX is that, scale and cost aside, it IS essentially a traditional learning model revamped for a new business era.”

Given these dichotomies, we should consider whether current implementations of open scholarship and open education (e.g., in the form of MOOCs) hold true to the ideals of democratization, equality, and justice or whether organizations might be appropriating the garb of open education without necessarily embracing the ideals of its founders.

Assumption #2: Emphases on Digital Participation for Enhanced Outcomes

While technological advances may enable scholars efficient access to up-to-date information, networks of colleagues, and the potential to connect and network with diverse audiences, scholars need to develop an understanding of participatory cultures in order to take full advantage of open scholarship. For example, scholars need to develop an understanding of the affordances of the participatory web for scholarship and consider the implications of online identity and digital participation (c.f. Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008).

To participate productively in scholarly networks online, scholars not only need to understand the participatory nature of the Web, they also need to develop the social and digital literacies and skills essential for effective engagement with such networks. Unequal access to technology and/or lack of digital literacies is referred to as the participation gap (c.f. Jenkins et al., 2006). In the context of open scholarship, the participation gap may refer to those scholars and learners who participate in networked spaces and are able to take advantage of digital literacies to advance their learning, teaching, research, and career (e.g., learning new teaching approaches, bringing their research to the attention of broad audiences, organizing colleagues to tackle important professional issues) vis-à-vis those who have had no exposure to participatory cultures or who do not have the essential literacies to engage in such activities online. Rheingold (2010) is convinced that individuals need literacies affording them to decode and encode digital information. These literacies relate to attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and critical consumption (Rheingold). Without access to these literacies, contemporary scholars and learners will be ineffective participants in online spaces. Subscribing, following, and commenting on other scholars’ blogs, for example, will at some point become too much of a time commitment. Nevertheless, scholars who are literate in digital matters are capable of devising ways to manage participation. For instance, the use of web services to alert scholars of newly published information relating to their research interests (e.g., through the use of Google Alerts) allows scholars to effortlessly remain current in developments in their field.

These issues introduce a need to redesign university curricula preparing future scholars to account for the changing nature of scholarship. In such curricula, we envision the teaching of tools to manage scholarly participation online and engagement with issues such as participatory cultures, open access publishing, information management, digital literacies, community-engaged scholarship, and scholarship evaluation metrics. In addition, we envision the development of learners’ skills in situ, where their learning occurs in scholarly communities of practice, enabling scholars-in-training to understand both the content and the digital culture of open scholarship. For instance, digitally conscious scholars might employ the services of text-mining technologies (e.g., Google Alerts) to track mentions of their name or their publications such that they can take an active role in managing how they are represented online. These issues become increasingly important because, given the amount of information that exists online, including the publication of journals in digital form, the presence of university profiles, and the use of social media services for personal reasons, it is highly likely that scholars are already searchable and findable online.

Assumption #3: Co-Evolutionary Relationship between Technology and Culture

Technological innovations present opportunities for advancing how education and knowledge are negotiated and enacted, but we must recognize that technology, and social media in particular, are not neutral. Importantly, while contemporary discourse suggests that technology can transform and disrupt current educational and knowledge-creation processes (e.g., Mazoue´, 2012), such discussion is largely guided by techno-enthusiasm and techno-determinism, focusing on viewing technology as a solution for cultural, systemic, and economic problems. However, technologies have embedded values and norms that may be in conflict with the values and norms of higher education cultures, advancing tensions and compromises.

For example, social media tools currently structure relationships and power structures in relatively flat and non-hierarchical manners (e.g., all connections are “friends,” or all connections are “followers”), and such a stance may be incompatible with how relationships are structured in educational settings and other contexts offline (Veletsianos & Kimmons, in press). At the same time, while participation in social media offers opportunities for connectedness and sharing of knowledge, we need to remain vigilant of the potential that social media might reinforce existing structures and norms. The tendency to connect with similar or like-minded individuals online as offline, what Thelwall (2009) calls homophily, means that social media may not foster diverse spaces for knowledge exchange and negotiation, leading instead to “echo chambers,” a situation in which we share knowledge and perspectives with individuals who already share the same views as ourselves. At the same time, social media may shape the information that scholars access online via algorithms that are intended to support personalization but have the side effect of blinding users to diversity and encouraging uniformity. Pariser (2011) describes this phenomenon as the “filter bubble” and presents a convincing array of examples in which Internet tools have limited users’ exposure to diverse information because web algorithms are designed to retrieve information that they deem relevant to the user (i.e., that which confirms prior behavior).

Given the fact that various technologies are negotiated spaces with embedded values, we should recognize that practices developing in conjunction with emergent technologies (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Google) will be influenced by the embedded values of those technologies and that not all of these influences may be positive. For example, though Google Search may give scholars quick access to a wide array of open resources, the presentation of such resources might be biased to support the researcher’s opinions, thereby hiding conflicting evidence. Additionally, though Twitter might allow researchers to follow one another and discuss topics of interest, such discussions may go unchallenged if participants are only followed by those who have similar educational training and beliefs.

Assumption #4: Practicality and Effectiveness for Achieving Scholarly Aims

Though open scholarship may offer some clear benefits to improve scholarly efficiency and to practically address perennial problems in scholarly institutions (e.g., data sharing, research dissemination), such practices may also open the door to new dilemmas and make some aspects of current practice less efficient. For example, authors argue that the volume of information online has skyrocketed (Aro & Olkinuora, 2007) and that the information age has produced a data “deluge” (Baker, 2008) or “explosion” (Delen & Al-Hawamdeh, 2009). Though information overload is hardly a new concept (Rosenberg, 2003), due to the increasing availability of scholarly publications online, the data trails left behind by scholars when participating in social media, and the ease with which scholars can access resources from a diverse range of sources (e.g., from YouTube, to the New York Times, to this journal), scholars may come to face a personal information management challenge that entails (a) keeping up-to-date with newly published information, (b) filtering information, (c) rapidly differentiating between helpful and irrelevant information, and (d) saving helpful information for future retrieval. In other words, though open practices may make some aspects of scholarly practice more efficient (e.g., information sharing), such efficiency may create bottlenecks for other aspects of scholarly endeavor (e.g., differentiating between important and peripheral information).

To overcome this challenge, scholars need to develop skills, devise methods, and use technologies to manage (e.g., efficiently collect, categorize, and retrieve) digital information pertinent to their work and their digital participation. RSS readers and aggregators for example are viable solutions to information management challenges. RSS readers are applications that individuals can use to subscribe to feeds (e.g., blogs). These applications monitor feeds and download new content when it becomes available. Because RSS feeds download content to a central location as it becomes available, the user no longer needs to visit sites in search of content that is of interest to him/her. Scholars can use such applications to efficiently retrieve and archive digital information relevant to their professional interests via blogs, twitter feeds, journal feeds, and other sources of continuously updated information.

However, merely developing digital literacies, effectively using technologies, and participating in online scholarly communities does not mean that scholars will necessarily become efficient or equal participants in online spaces. Social stratification and exclusion in online environments and networks is possible, especially if scholars do not understand the cultural norms of networked participation. While digital literacies and an understanding of social technologies may enable scholars to engage in open scholarship, it does not necessarily follow that participation will be without perils or inequities. Where there is freedom to share and collaborate, there is often also freedom to abuse and exploit, so we should be careful not to indulge in idealized notions of participation, sharing, and openness that may be misguided. As Chander and Sunder (2004, p. 1332) point out when discussing what they term the romance of the public domain,

[c]ontemporary scholarship extolling the public domain presumes a landscape where each person can reap the riches found in the commons [equally] … [b]ut, in practice, differing circumstances – including knowledge, wealth, power, and ability – render some better able than others to exploit a commons.

Thus, in the case of open scholarship, issues surrounding the provision of MOOCs, use of open access journals, accessibility and use of OER, participation in scholarly networks, and use of social media by diverse audiences will arise and should be a matter of concern for participants when considering who profits from, and can efficiently and practically use, their collaborative or shared work. As a simple example of this issue, while we can advocate that individuals should publish in OA journals or that they should use social media in their professional practice, we must recognize that if we engage professionally with these practices ourselves, our advocacy comes from a position of power and we might be better positioned to benefit from these practices than others whose individual circumstances prevent them from fully adopting such practices.

Citation (CCBY):

Veletsianos, George and Royce Kimmons. “Assumptions and Challenges of Open Scholarship.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Vol 13, No 4, October 2012, http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1313/2304.