The future of scholarly communication: breaking down barriers


Scholarly communication is changing, has changed. Online access to both the means of downloading and reading, and producing scholarly communication, is changing everything. This doesn’t just mean we access journal articles online. It means that the way we communicate as scholars is changing and has the potential to change things within academia. More and more scholars are blogging about their work. If you are not you are missing an opportunity. But the biggest opportunity is in breaking down barriers. In particular, how does the changing face of scholarly communication challenge the distinction between research and teaching?

Before I was a researcher I was a teacher, although I don’t see a separation between the two things. Since I’ve taught less I’ve blogged more. I think there is a connection. But there are also differences. The tussle in universities between teaching and research is ongoing: the status issues, the question of what is more important. Putting students first by putting more resources into teaching? Putting students first by putting more resources into research, to enhance the reputation of the university, and the reputation of the students’ degree?

The dichotomy between teaching and research

In the UK we have the REF. Just so the ‘teachers’ don’t feel left out we now also have the TEF. This is divisive and costly. The last Research Excellence Framework 2014 appears to have cost the UK HE sector almost £250 million with the Teaching Excellence Framework costing around £20 million. The need to quantify excellence apart, surely these two exercises again reinforce the dichotomy between teaching and research.

Students can only be put first if the reputation of their university is built. But I don’t think this means playing metrics (National Student Survey, REF, TEF). Mostly this means producing, sharing, disseminating knowledge (although I’m very dubious of the concept that knowledge can be produced – knowledge is social, and cultural. It is not capital, an asset or a commodity, although it has been used as such. It isn’t produced and consumed. It is constructed)

Teaching-only universities cannot provide the reputation that students need to get a graduate level job and survive in the world of work. With the previous New Labour government’s target now (almost) met of 50% of young people going to university, institutions are doing students a disservice if they do not build a solid reputation for research. Without building such a reputation universities are competing with private for-profit companies offering teaching only and offering it a lot cheaper than universities. In universities, all universities, there are good and bad teachers and researchers. As in any profession this is a fact of life. Normally the bad ones should be sifted out, retrained or redeployed in more suitable jobs. I suppose in universities this means sifting them into administrative jobs!

Blogging as teaching and research

So, how is this relevant to the status of blogging in academia? It reflects a belief that research and teaching are two different things. For me blogging is teaching. It’s educating. It’s developing ideas. It’s spreading ideas. It’s getting feedback. It’s developing research. It’s developing research contacts. It’s also getting yourself known. It’s getting your ideas known. It’s inviting participation in future research. It’s suggesting directions for research. It’s suggesting directions for teaching. It’s teaching.

What is different about blogging are the key skills needed. You need to be a teacher, a researcher and have at least some of the skills of journalism, and probably some marketing skills as well. I think what brings it all together are akin to the art of journalism: although I would prefer to refer to this as simply writing, even employing the skills of the novelist. But although I like writing for (academic) blog posts, I couldn’t be a journalist or a novelist. I’m a teacher. For me blogging is teaching (in the best possible traditions of teaching: not imparting knowledge, but stimulating critical thinking, and hopefully getting participation – something academic articles don’t directly encourage). But it isn’t anything that could be measured by the TEF.

I haven’t mentioned Impact (with a capital ‘I’) yet. This is something that is ‘measured’ in the REF. I don’t think the type of impact obtained from blogging could be measure by the REF. Having said that, I developed one of my blog posts into an article for The Conversation. It was then picked up by Quartz and has now had over 25,000 reads. It’s based on research I published in two refereed journals. I hope it has educated. It has reached a wider readership than any academic article could ever do, and has reached a wider, and more diverse audience than giving a lecture. But I think the way I wrote the post bridges research (on which it is mainly based), teaching (as it seeks to reach a wider audience and to educate this audience) and even journalism (as it had to meet the criteria of an experienced editor/journalist). And, it produced quite a few comments, questions and enquiries.

Speaking to oneself
Speaking to oneself

Perhaps this impact could be measured in the REF. Certainly it wouldn’t have interest to the TEF, as the problem here is no joined up thinking: it’s either research or teaching! It doesn’t attract cites (well, it does, but not ones from a SSCI journal article – but please read this and this, if you want to cite social media or a blog post in APA style). It can’t be measured through student satisfaction scores.

This is perhaps where blogging is a leveller. It is neither research nor teaching, yet it is both of these.

I would also equate the status of blog posts to that of books. One of the consequences of the REF is the low status of books. Particularly textbooks (which are teaching) but also research-oriented books and monographs. But again blog posts are different. Books are mediated up front. Blog posts generally are not unless they go through an editor, such as the LSE blogs. In which case, the process of submitting a post to an academic blog is similar to submitting to a journal although not so rigorous. There is also a fine dividing line between online academic blogs and more journalistic outlets such as The Conversation. The latter is an academic blog of sorts, and probably more rigorous than most, but operating different criteria to academic journals, based more on readability, relevance and based on good research (so, not too different to academic journals). And one thing you can do in blog posts that your can’t in academic articles (at least not in my subject area), and you can do in teaching – visually representing your message. A good example is this LSE blog post.

The point about academic blogs is the way they fit into a new age of (academic) communication and gatekeeping. I’ve given a summary of Heidi Lane’s arguments against journal articles and in favour of internet dissemination in another blog post. It is well worth reading her original blog post. She argues eloquently that the journal article will become a thing of the past (although I suspect not given all the vested interests – which are nothing to do with good academic practice, knowledge creation and dissemination).

Gatekeeping in academic communication
Gatekeeping in academic communication

Good examples of an academic blog that educates: Daniel Little’s Understanding Society, and of course the LSE blogs such as Impact of the Social Sciences and Africa at LSE. A good summary of what a blog should be is:

LSE Blogs have grown into a hub for evidence-based commentary and accessible summaries of academic research. At LSE we also use blogs as platforms for student engagement and teaching (LSE blogs)

But I can’t build my career on blogs posts!

So, if you work in a university with all the time and resource constraints, and coping with the likes of the REF and TEF, and are trying to build a career, what should you do?

Okay, I admit that I’m not in this position, as I’m further along with my career. But there is something from all this that more juniors colleagues can take away.

Institutional academia is conservative and embroiled in neoliberal thinking about metrics and control, so there will be no sudden move away from the emphasis on academic journal articles. But academic communication is changing, has changed. This is exciting as it begins to break down barriers between teaching and research. Although blogging can be time consuming, it is relatively cheap to do, and can be effective in reaching wider audiences. It also connects well with other forms of social media such as micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter). It connects well with classroom teaching and engages students. It connects well with research at various stages from inception, building ideas, building teams and then through to collecting data, and then dissemination. But more fundamentally it is both teaching and research. It not only hones our skills in both, it joins them by breaking down the barrier between them.

Don’t abandon writing articles in scholarly journals just yet. But be prepared to do so within the span of your career……..

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