Open Access: Towards Fairer Access to Research

My article  “Open Access: Towards Fairer Access to Research” is up on the Impact of Social Sciences blog.

There I argue that practical and sustainable ways of increasing access to scholarly materials will require a more thorough transformation of the entire academic landscape, which includes publication, assessment and promotion.

I reused two previous blog posts to emphasise yet again that ultimately, open access advocates are fighting for the right of scholars at all career stages to ensure their work has more prospects of getting read, cited and ‘reused’. I believe that the role of early career scholars in adopting open access is essential if the model is to have a sustainable future.

This piece will also appear in the eCollection in for the Open Access Futures in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference on Thursday 24 October 2013 in Senate House, University of London. Printed copies will be available as well as electronic versions then.

More information on the collection and the conference is available here:


Blogging and Open Access in Mexico

I am writing this from Mexico City. Last Thursday I gave a lecture at the lifelong learning division of theschool of humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. 

The topic was “Blogging as a Tool for Teaching and Research”, and even though my personal perspective has been defined by the arts, humanities and social sciences, the lecture’s scope included other academic fields as well. Emphasis was made on the importance of open access and of an open access policy as best practice for academic electronic publishing.

The lecture was live-streamed (I’ve been told that we had 60 participants online), the backchannel was encouraged through the #BlogHumX hashtag and even the TV showed up! 

You can see the TV news clip on blogging and digital humanities here.

And my presentation is embedded below (please click on the link if you can’t see the presentation on this post). The original presentation had embedded edited video clips, but I made this version linking to the complete source YouTube videos as a surrogate version that could be shared online. 


Networking Research as Paradigm Shift: Opening the Door

“It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.”

Franz Kafka, ‘Before the Law

I know: that term, ‘paradigm shift’. It embodies its own contradiction: easier said than done.

Declarative rather than performative. Simply saying it does not make it happen. It has been said countless of times, the digital age and its related values, transparency, openness, collaboration, collective authority, timeliness, crowd wisdom, democracy, acting locally thinking globally, etc. pose great opportunities and challenges to researchers.

The future, it is tweeted and retweeted and blogged every day at all times, lies in ‘harnessing’ (that other over-used term) ‘the power of social media’ and electronic publishing, in collaborative research, in open access resources, in sharing knowledge internationally, in increasing impact through sustainable, good practice-abiding public engagement strategies.

Nevertheless, for many of us, this ‘future’ happened yesterday. We have been working collectively online and sharing our work openly for quite some time now. The so-called paradigm shift is not here for us yet, though. We remain doing this work for free and without official academic recognition. Thousands of hours and words spent sharing information, expertise and knowledge through open access blogs and other web-based services such as Twitter, Slideshare, Facebook, Prezi, Google Docs still seem to many a waste of time, at best desperate attempts at gaining visibility. You may attend the conferences, write about them, link in and link out, create and monitor hashtags and other metadata, listen and participate and share, and still, if you’re not already in, well, you’re not in.

A shift towards a widespread social and academic acceptance of the contribution that scholars make online through official and ‘alternative’ (non-institutional) channels has taken and is likely to take a long time to take place. The cause lies at the heart of that great unspoken, largely-uncontested fact, the academic status quo, in other words, the social pragmatics of current institutional scholarly practice.

In spite of important efforts and successes in developing awareness of the benefits of multidisciplinary approaches and inter-departmental, inter-institutional collaboration, university researchers are still divided by the tall –though transparent– walls of funding. It has been pointed out to me in several conference coffee breaks and dinners that ideas, research questions and objectives are not necessarily, in practice, defined by a desire to make a contribution to any given field, but to fit specific fellowship and funding schemes.

For many PhD candidates and early career scholars, research topics are not for them to decide based on specific personal and professional interests (let alone passion). Apparently, a great number of PhD students’ research topics are received facts, determined by the available funding. It is money, not knowledge, the carrot in front of the cart.

"The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom", by Jorge Cham, 20 July 2011
“The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom”, by Jorge Cham, 20 July 2011

Savage budget cuts to academic research has meant that there are less sources of funding for everyone, and also less available jobs for recent PhDs. Moreover, the über-specialisation which is characteristic of academic research promotes the logical creation of tightly-shut research groups whose members will understandably protect each other. This means that institutional collaborative research does not necessarily imply an exercise in openness and collective intellectual authority, but a survival mechanism to accelerate measurable impact through peer-reviewed publications and presentations in established academic conferences where most people already know each other in one way or another.

It cannot be emphasised enough how this is clearly at odds with the values of collective openness frequently attached to the digital age. Nevertheless, in both theory and practice, social media continuously provide examples of how closed practices of standard academic research are simply replicated online. What makes it more problematic is how online media, even if it has the power to counteract that (and there are very valuable projects doing that already), simply makes academia’s inwardness cynically transparent. Not many people complain because no one else is really looking: rarely ever anyone who is not already a guest does know there is a party. Public engagement #fail, right?

Where social media has the power to reduce the height of the fencing around the ‘Ivory Tower’, in specific academic settings the so-called backchannel is reduced to an amplification of academic endogamy, strengthening the ties of an already tight-knit happy few. (This does not have to be thus: in my experience, there is great interest by members of the public in what goes on at the type of conferences I attend and microblog from, to the frequent amazement of many participants and organisers alike).

It can be said that everything is in the eye of the beholder, but it seems this is accepted as the-way-things-are, an uncontrollable fact like the weather or inflation rates. This is a phenomenon very few dare to discuss publicly: academia is a very small world, early-career scholars are a hungry and highly competitive bunch, and there is not enough money or opportunities for all (or so it seems). In this context, it is essential that students, PhD candidates and early-career scholars feel like they can express their views freely with an aim to reconfigure the current system. Unfortunately, most of us are terrified that our online activity will be held against us.

It is in this setting I have presented that I would like to suggest the following questions:

  • How to contribute towards change as a student or recent graduate?
  • How long can independent researchers keep working constructively in unpaid online scholarly engagement before throwing the towel?
  • How can we promote the necessary desinterestedness to become true ‘networked’ researchers, contributing collectively and openly to the construction of knowledge when there does not seem to be life outside traditional structures?
  • How can we convince senior and junior academics to engage in the public creation and sharing of knowledge when ‘informal’ openaccess online scholarly work keeps being ignored by selection committees and academic employers?
  • How can the dominant funding-first-research-later scheme be interrogated and hopefully re-imagined, so that it is funding that follows the existing research initiatives?
  • When will it become clear that it is essential to ‘do the walk and not jut the talk’ and find ways to encourage and support new generations of researchers to work on openaccess electronic publishing, dissemination and engagement, employing mechanisms appropriate to the demands of what is now mostly a digitally-networked age?

In the current social context, many junior and senior academics see sharing as counterintuitive– why would you give your work away for free, if on top of that it will not be recognised? Others resent the imposition of what they perceive as technological determinism and/or technological imperialism.

At the same time, as awareness of the potential of online publishing for academic works becomes more and more apparent, new funding opportunities appear. Those who were not interested before become interested now. The contradictions between technologies that enable the blurring of boundaries and the pragmatics of a self-preserving, institutional, gate-kept model of scholarly communications is creating short-circuits here and there.

We know what the ‘paradigm shift’ should look like. Opening that door seems possible, but we cannot do this alone.


Originally published on Networked Researcher, 26 July 2011

On Collaborative Blogging as Open Access Scholarly Activity. The Case of The Comics Grid.

A longer version of this post was originally published in two parts by PhD2Published on 12 July 2011 and 14 July 2011

“If collaboration and team working are going to be expected more of humanities researchers in future, then we need to think about how to make it seem more normal.”


Claire Warwick, 15 June 2011

One of the most satisfying and challenging projects I’ve been involved with recently is The Comics Grid. When people ask me what it is all about, I say “collaboration.” After I submitted the final draft of my PhD dissertation (ambitiously titled “The Comic Book in the Age of Digital Reproduction”), I couldn’t wait any longer to to create an actual platform, a research and teaching tool, something concrete (online resources are very much concrete and not “virtual” in the sense of “unreal) with which to address a lack I perceived in the field.
This field is actually a multiplicity of fields. Since what has been called “comics scholarship” studies multimodal texts the methodologies employed to study them should equally be multmodal, i.e., combining different disciplines until not too long ago perceived (and in some cases still perceived) as essentially different. Media studies, communication studies, information studies, cultural studies, film studies, archeology, library science, history, geography, you name it: people studying comics within and outside academia have always employed a combination of approaches and terminologies produced and transmitted from these disciplinary areas.

What I wanted was to develop an open online platform to foster collaboration between scholars based in different parts of the world, to empower them to self-edit and self-publish original research online in tight collaboration with their peers, and to help make a contribution towards the acceptance of

a) comics scholarship as a valid academic activity and

b) online scholarship/academic blogging and social media as a valid expression of scholarly publishing and scholarly communications.

In spite of efforts like the Modern Language Association’s “Short Guide to Evaluation of Digital Work (2010)“, evaluation, appreciation and referencing of online scholarship still has a long way to go. Teachers all over the world still request their students not to “cite from the Internet”, but often fail at developing digital research literacy strategies to address this problem (and often, when they do, they replicate old paradigms which digital publishing debunks in practice).

In comics scholarship, proper attribution of sources (as Martin Barker noticed back in 1989) is equally troubled by a lack of standards, notwithstanding the existence of resources like Allen Ellis’ “Comic Art in Scholarly Writing. A Citation Guide” (1998). Moreover, the humanities have a long tradition of employing visual material to illustrate research and teaching, but have traditionally failed to see these sources as worthy of citation (as it keeps happening today).

So I knew that the obstacles were multiple: if non-funded, open online research faces plenty of resistance (accused of complacency and lack of academic rigour, persistence, “impact”, authenticity and authority), comics scholarship faced similar deeply-rooted prejudices, based on unfounded notions of what is worthy of academic study and what is not. In brief, the obstacles seemed insurmountable, but this was what, precisely, made them irresistible to challenge consistently and systematically. In order to do it, the only logical option was to do it as a coordinated front.

“Every moment has its discontents, its challenges and failures. Yet no moment is every truly last, at least not so long as we persist in human conversation.”

Stuart Moulthrop, 2005 [PDF]

From the start I knew that if The Comics Grid project was attractive to others it was going to grow fast. I therefore considered essential to design specific guidance documentation, that was later reviewed by the core editorial team. What started with one person, then five, has become now thirteen active contributors, including reviewers and editors. We have published 52 posts since January 2011, and have since maintained our publication schedule of two original posts per week. The blog has been viewed almost 28,000 times, and our analytics reveal that most readers find us by making comics research-related queries on Google.

A sense of mission is what has kept editors and contributors working together in spite of the logical challenges imposed by lack of face-to-face interaction (all work is done online, by email, on shared Google docs and on the blog’s dashboard). In what follows I’d like to share with you one the points that summarise our mission:

General Mission

The Comics Grid wants to consolidate an international network of comics scholars and to offer a forum to promote their academic work online. It functions as an online open access laboratory where different critical approaches to comics are publicly and collectively put to test. Though our scope wants to be as diverse as possible, our initial aim is to focus on the analysis of specific comics page layouts and panels. Our content is media-specific. We foster public engagement through social media tools and other dissemination activities.

Our detailed mission statement,  draft schedule, and editorial and contribution guidelines exist as online documents which are shared amongst all contributors and editors.

Our editorial guidelines and other internal documents are available to serious interested parties upon written request.

We aim to follow good practice in electronic publishing and seek to make our content as widely available as possible through reliable metadata, standardised image file description/referencing, search engine optimisation, human-readable permalinks, RSS and Mobile platform capabilities, etc.

We have clear open policies regarding content sharing and community management

All the original content published on the blog  is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, but individual authors retain their respective intellectual property rights.

We believe that online open access scholarship needs to be taken into account as valid academic work.

We believe that online open access scholarship has a real impact within scholarly communities and is naturally well-suited for public engagement.

All contributors are requested to actively engage in the promotion of our content through social media tools, conferences and other dissemination activities.

I hope that sharing these notes with you will have helped you understand what is that guides us and keeps us working together, and perhaps even see the similarities with your own projects or even (who knows!) inspire to start your own online collaborative project. For me these first six months have been incredibly exciting but also exhausting. In comparison, working individually, thinking only of your own benefit, seems incredibly easier. Also, having someone else to do all your PR and promotional needs is way easier than having to do it yourself. But we built something, and now we want others to use it, and to achieve this we need to work hard in spreading the word.

Until now we don’t have the institutional back up that other similar resources have. This also means that some of our colleagues may look down on us as “just a blog”. It would be a lie not to say this is also on my mind every day I spend hours working on the Grid, talking to people about it, commissioning contributions, working hard to convince established scholars that contributing a piece of research to us is worth it.

Working in a team, remotely, with mostly words as your main channel of communication, without any immediate, direct financial gain in sight is not an easy thing to do. I keep the faith it will be worth it. I am convinced this system of academic work is a logical reaction to the way culture is taking shape in the 21st century. This conviction, the idea of work as a constant conversation with others, is what keeps me going.