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