Obstacles to social scholarship

As I noted in an earlier post, humanities scholars are beginning to experiment with social scholarship, embracing open access, creating and using social networking sites and collaborative tools, and undertaking joint research projects. But I must acknowledge that social scholarship (which I’m using as a catch-all term to include open access, web 2.0, and a culture of collaboration) is in its early stages and faces significant obstacles—economic, cultural, and technological. These challenges include:

  1. Lack of awareness of social scholarship: According a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Researchers Develop Online Tools for Science Collaborations“), few scientists are aware of collaborative resources such as blogs and social networking sites. I’ve noticed this lack of awareness among faculty members from pretty much every discipline at my university. As the article points out, many people don’t use new technologies or communication methods unless they have specific needs to meet—why invest the effort in changing how you do work unless there are concrete payoffs?
  2. Intellectual property concerns: Some researchers worry that if they make their work available online before publishing it with a traditional publisher they will lose control of it. For instance, a competitor may read their blog entry about ongoing research and scoop them—or even plagiarize their work. They also fear that publishers will refuse to publish a work that has already been made available online. From another perspective, copyright law also limits what material you can incorporate into your own work and share—for instance, museums and other cultural institutions seem to be levying higher fees for publication of digital images to which they hold the copyright.
  3. Skepticism about the quality of electronic-only publications: According to research by UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, faculty in five disciplines—English, biostatistics, law and economics, anthropology, and chemical engineering–associate electronic-only publication with the lack of peer review and thus the lack of quality. If researchers don’t believe that tenure committees will give them credit for publishing in open access journals, then they will stick with more traditional means of publication.
  4. Lack of recognition for social scholarship: In many disciplines, there is currently little incentive for researchers to embrace social scholarship; the incentives are with the traditional system. When I talk to faculty about social scholarship, many appreciate the vision of sharing but worry about the implementation, particularly whether tenure committees will give them credit for collaborative scholarship. What kind of rewards and recognition do you get for commenting on a colleague’s blog, publishing your articles through an institutional repository, sharing your bibliographies, or keeping an open notebook documenting your research? The UC Berkeley’s new report “Publishing Needs and Opportunities at the University of California” finds that “a significant minority” of faculty are experimenting with alternative publishing models, but that they “are increasingly frustrated by a tenure and review system that fails to recognize these new publishing models and hence constrains experimentation both in the technologies of dissemination and in the audiences addressed.”
  5. Lack of time to make work available online: Contributing content to user-generated sites, reading and commenting on blogs, sharing bookmarks and doing all of the other work of social scholarship take a lot of time—time that many busy academics don’t have. In a blog post on why Web 2.0 hasn’t been adopted in the biosciences, David Crotty, executive editor of the online publication Cold Spring Harbor Protocols, details how traditional methods of doing research can often be more efficient than Web 2.0 approaches, at least initially, since you can just email a file rather than finding a collaborative site, setting up an account, uploading the file, inviting participants to view it, waiting for them to establish accounts, etc.
  6. Cultural obstacles: Engaging in online discussions and making public thoughts that are in process are not yet part of mainstream academic culture. As David Crotty notes, many academics are unlikely to make critical comments in a public forum, since they don’t want to piss off potential reviewers, employers, or collaborators.
  7. Need for sound economic models for open access publication: Producing academic journals isn’t free, as I learned when I served as the managing editor of Postmodern Culture—even if editors donate their time, funds are needed for copyediting, coordinating editorial review, covering travel costs for editorial meetings, paying for web hosts, etc. How will open access journals be paid for—through author fees? University, society or foundation support? What will guarantee the sustainability of these journals and provide long-term access to their content? If scholars worry about the viability and reputation of open access journals, what will entice them to publish in these journals rather than traditional publications? In Open Access Publishing and the Emerging Infrastructure for 21st-Century Scholarship, Don Waters, Program Officer for Scholarly Communications at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, expresses skepticism about the open access model: “One worry about mandates for open access publishing is that they will deprive smaller publishers of much needed subscription income, pushing them into further decline, and making it difficult for them to invest in ways to help scholars select, edit, market, evaluate, and sustain the new products of scholarship represented in digital resources and databases. The bigger worry, which is hardly recognized and much less discussed in open access circles, is that sophisticated publishers are increasingly seeing that the availability of material in open access form gives them important new business opportunities that may ultimately provide a competitive advantage by which they can restrict access, limit competition, and raise prices.”

I believe that these challenges can be overcome and will sketch some strategies for promoting social scholarship in my final posting on this thread.

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4 responses to “Obstacles to social scholarship

  1. This post assumes that digital humanists would use web 2.0 for publishing. What if we used it to gather evidence. The Dictionary of Words in the Wild (dictionary.mcmaster.ca) is a project meant not as a site for publishing scholarship so much as a place for people to reflect on public textuality to share images. I guess I’m hoping we will use social networks for something more interesting than just more of the same.

  2. Thank you for this insightful overview. I’d like to add an uninhibited link to the source in your first point:
    Researchers Develop Online Tools for Science Collaborations . I found it via Googling the Title.

  3. Pingback: Strategies for Promoting Social Scholarship « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  4. Pingback: Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

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