Continuous Publishing and the digital republic of letters


It has become something of a truism that we (that is academics) live in a time of intensification of academic labour with its technologies of surveillance such as research assessment exercises, key performance indicators, and metrics of productivity.  We are caught up in what Mark Carrigan has referred to as the ‘accelerated academy’ and its toxic and murderous effects.  It is this ‘toxic academy’ that I have directed some of my own energy, partly through my blog but more recently through more ‘legitimate’ (?) forms of academic publishing (book chapter under review).

In response to this situation some have called for the institution of a slow university that draws on the ethos of the slow food movement.  Others, however, have championed forms of open scholarship and open access as alternative or complementary practices.  Indeed some initiatives, such as the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, deliberately situate themselves in this space.

Many of these debates congregate around the issue of academic publishing in these accelerated times.  In particular they attend to a number of intersecting issues:

  • the closed nature or privatisation of academic traditional publishing
  • the impact of the digital on traditional analogue publishing.

I won’t go into these issues in detail.  However, there has been growing concern about the dominance of academic publishers over the nature of academic labour, and that this constitutes a privatisation of what should be regarded as a public good.  The digital landscape has been seen by some as opening up a new republic of letters, a new way of reconnecting scholarship with its many publics.

My own scholarly practice has been impacted positively, in my view, by this more recent idea of a DIGITAL REPUBLIC OF LETTERS.  As Edward Said would note, there are many beginnings associated with this turn in my practice.  Specifically, I was inspired (and I use that term deliberately) by a number of articles in the LSE’s ‘Impact of Social Sciences’ blog.  These articles deal with the practice of continuous publishing.  One ‘beginning’ was my reading of Mark Carrigan’s discussion of The Open-Source Academic and the use of participatory media (for instance blogging and twitter).  I followed this discussion through two sister articles written by Mark and Pat Lockley.  They noted that “We need to have an ongoing and honest conversation about what academic publishing is, what it could be and what it should be.”, drawing attention to the perverse incentives generated by the particular kind of reputational economy that the accelerated academy is producing.  In this scenario university managers appear to fetishise metrics of academic productivity, being obsessed with improving their institutions’ relative position in an insular economy.  This particular reputational economy is increasingly divorced from the the big issues, and leads to public goods (research knowledge) being locked behind ever expensive paywalls.  They then go on to argue that multiple forms of publishing – journals, blogs, twitter, etc. should become the norm if we are serious about public engagement, and could enhance more traditional forms of reputational value.  Bonnie Stewart has done some incisive work looking at twitter activity as a measure of impact and contribution in open scholarly networks (which often sit alongside the traditional mode) (and it is important to mention Bonnie’s work here since a brief review of the LSE ‘Impact’ blog shows that men seem to be dominating this discussion in that particular space even though my personal empirical experience is of a dynamic network of women driving much of this forward).

But I think there is something beyond the #altmetrics buzz we are getting just now, something that has to do with ethical choices about the kind of academic you want to be.

I am struggling with this right now, caught between embracing digital and open scholarship as a strategy of increasing professional presence and public engagement (though the matter of publics is in need of serious deconstruction), and something more akin to #alt-ac.

My engagement with the work of Mark Carrigan and Pat Lockley came at a moment (a beginning) where I was reconsidering my place in academia, indeed whether I wanted to remain in it all.  A good colleague of mine had been gently nudging me to venture further into the digital and open scholarship space, and to build on my existing blog.  While my blog had initially been developed with a vague idea of the potential of participatory media as a platform for reflection, this was to be further and more deliberately developed later in response to my embracing of the digital identity.  This signalled a desire to refashion my professional identity and practice, to explore the opportunities afforded by ‘digital’, ’openness’, ‘connectedness’. 

In part this is a continuation of traditional modes of academic endeavour.  My sister blog ‘The Broken Academic’ is a vehicle for rehearsing ideas and writing leading to academic publication.  And in my main blog I am currently trying to tease out my understanding of various literatures in relation to aspects of learning and teaching in higher education, with the intent of publishing.  But I have taken to heart the ethic of continuous publishing as also being about uncovering the artfulness of academic writing, of its created sense; to capture in blog posts some of the messiness, the experimentation, so that it does not appear as ready-formed, as rationally produced, as the mere outcome of a recipe that one simply needs to follow.  In this it is a refashioning of the self and a framing of ‘engagement’ as making oneself vulnerable, and so undermining the potential mantle of ‘expert’.  Is this, though, a kind of ‘academic suicide’, a denial of the possibility of being an ‘academic’?

And this is why it is more than enhancing the traditional form of academic publishing (while not, as yet, refusing that offer completely). 

Jacque Ranciere is a fantom here, present not in his corporeal person but in his evocation of a spirit – the spirit that says “Enact openness and see what happens”.  I am seeing what happens, and what ‘openness’ might mean.

It is taking on interesting forms.

While for me the digital and open scholarship practices that I am trying to enact are about ‘connected scholarship’ I find myself enjoying the company of folks who might be described (inscribed?) by the term ‘connected learning’.  This space is defined by certain practitioners and certain concepts and certain networks, many of which overlap:

  • @catherinecronin; @bali_maha; @GoogleGuacamole (Laura Gogia); @JeffreyKeefer; @jessifer, @bonstewart, etc (just some most pertinent to this particular discussion) I am new to most of these folks and in a few short, but intense months, have learned so much that I doubt I can go back to where I was; and the use of ‘@‘ is deliberate because that is how I mostly know/communicate with them, the platform that carries the learning;
  • #connectivism; #connectedlearning; rhizomatic learning; digital scholarship; #digiped; #openscholar, etc. – and again the ‘#’ is instructive as to how I engage with these;
  • Hybrid Pedagogy/@HybridPed; @LSEImpactBlog; #TJC15 (via Laura Gogia); and now #rhizo15.

Now that most of my teaching has become f-2-f (having been distance/blended for so long), I find myself embedded in conversations about hybrid/connected/rhizomatic learning.  And although my concerns are with digital and open scholarship the crossover conversations are stimulating, push me beyond the familiar and habitual, push me into uncomfortable (but enriching) liminal spaces.

And, finally, perhaps this is what I really want to say:

I had imagined academia as a place where we regularly engaged in stimulating intellectual discussion, where, when one was teaching there would be pedagogic debate.  I never believed that this would happen all of the time.  But I had worked in spaces that on the surface appeared to share similar creative impulses (in community arts and education).  In those spaces debates/discussions/considerations of principle, of ideas, of pedagogy were central to what we did – TO OUR DAILY PRACTICE, TO OUR DOING.  Approaching 20 years in academia, in the company of the folks, the concepts, and the networks above, I find myself in that kind of stimulating arena, of being daily tested/attracted/disgruntled. 

BUT much of my normative/paid ‘academic’ doing is dominated by timetabling, meeting committee deadlines, instrumental demands around introducing modules rather than why we are doing it, what does it mean for teaching or for learning (and so for who we are or could be as academics).  Academic publishing and conferences are seldom experienced as invigorating but as enervating.

So, the discussions of continuous publishing speak, to me, of where we experience the kinds of discussion that academia should have, the spaces where we engage with people and ideas and practices that place us in liminal spaces, and therefore powerful learning.

What’s the point of this blog …….the author responds to himself

Following my recent blog post I feel the need to respond to myself.  Listen to the short podcast where I explore further ideas of digital scholarship and how they are affecting my pedagogy and scholarship.

I mention a number of inspirational (for me) sources:

The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice by Martin Weller

Designing for learning in an open world by Gráinne Conole

The Rights’ Future by Conor Gearty

What’s the Point……of writing this blog?


I have been thinking a lot recently about my aversion to writing this blog.

Of course, events in the summer disrupted the flow, introduced some new sense of urgency around particular concerns, then….very little.

It was as if I had lost faith in what I was doing here, of doubting the efficacy of this project.

Some recent reading around public pedagogyand digital scholarship has encouraged me to revisit my purpose here and to try and reframe what and how I want to write.

This is not necessarily a radical change in what I had set out to do initially, but perhaps simply gives me more impetus.  It picks up on an effort within my teaching to share with students the processes underlying the pedagogy, of revealing the pedagogic purpose of what I am inviting them to participate in.

This revisiting of the purpose of writing a blog like this is to bring my attention to certain key terms:

What do I mean by ‘public’?

What publics do I have in mind in engaging in this kind of writing? The kind of writing we engage in, the types of event or outlets through which we seek to present our intellectual work all speak to both who we want to enter into conversation with and what kinds of conversation we want to have.  Hopefully I can clarify this (to myself) as I continue the process of writing in this public forum.  The word public can also suggest a certain breaking down of hierarchies, but how true is that?

Scholarship – an elite practice?

I remember a response from Beatrix Campbell to a right wing politician who was deriding academics and ‘theory’, where Beatrix noted that ‘theory was another name for thinking’ so was the politician against thinking?  In the context of the managed academic CV where what we write about is of less importance than the ‘value’ our academic endeavours can bring to the institution (as if it was separate from us) – as the recent Research Excellence Framework exercise demonstrates – attention to academic work as a form of public good is critically important.  Higher education scholarship must speak to the major issues that affect people, and do so in a way that is not defined by the interests of institutional game-playing or private profit. This is allied to scholarship as a public activity.  Therefore, while we may, individually, have to keep in mind our scholarly outputs for promotional purposes, we have to be mindful of how public knowledge is increasingly being privatised by the dominance of the major publishing companies.

Which brings me to the digital scholarship debate.

And here I simply refer to the responsibility incumbent upon academic workers to make our work more publically available.

In particular I am going to revisit the idea of blogging as a form of continuous scholarship that simultaneously is focused towards the scholar (the development of ideas that may become other kinds of academic output) and outward as public scholarship that deconstructs the process of knowledge work, and contributes to a revisioning of scholarship as a public practice.

The Ethics of Academic Practice: Combatting Exploitation and Working for Social Justice

Is modern academia an economy of theft?

I am continuing with my contemplations on the 5 Mindfulness Trainings and how they can inform an ethics of academic practice.

In this second post I take the training on ‘True Happiness’:

True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.


What is meant by this ambitious declaration and how might it be imprinted on my academic practice?

I want to begin at the end, as it were, and the direct referencing of a commitment to reversing global warming.  This is a kind of aside but bear with me.

In referencing global warming specifically I feel that Thay is indicating that while the ‘trainings’ are universal, in the sense that their core orientations can be applied in any context, they should be adapted to the specific contexts within which we live.  This understanding of the universal yet contextual nature of the ‘trainings’ is important.  The ‘trainings’ are to be worked with rather than simply applied.  They are designed to sensitise us to certain ways of being rather than rules to be imposed.

The only authority behind the ‘trainings’ is our own commitment to ethical practice.

…and now down to business.

There are a number of topics that arise during discussion with colleagues on the academic development programmes I run that deal with issues of integrity and honesty.  They can arise in two specific contexts, those of academic integrity/plagiarism, and the ethics of authorship.  But I want to add another, that of the increasingly institutionally ‘managed’ nature of our academic CVs.

Plagiarism, authorship, and integrity

I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others

When writing, as academics or students, we are entering into discussion with communities of thinkers and writers – past, present and future.  Central to the idea of scholarly activity is the dispassionate exchange of ideas in the common pursuit of knowledge – that is, the ideal of the Republic of Letters (see the Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 project for an interesting piece of research on this).  I know this is an idealised notion of academic and scholarly activity.  I also know that it can hide the imperial and gendered natured of the enterprise.  But there is something in the idea that offers different ways of being an academic in the contemporary moment.

What I take from the idea is the notion that we are never the ‘owners’ of knowledge, of ideas, of text, but only ever the custodians.

Viewing knowledge-work in this way places a slightly different emphasis on issues of academic honesty and integrity.  Often, we come to these issues in relation to students who ‘cheat’.  Actual scholarly work on this demonstrates that it is seldom as easy or straightforward as our anecdotes would suggest.  This is usually how it is initially surfaced in discussions with colleagues in academic development programmes.  Then the discussion shifts towards considering the issue in terms of enculturation of students into the disciplinary forms of academic writing and of how we, as academics, deal with referencing.

But I think there is some value in also contemplating how we are custodians rather than owners of knowledge.  The idea of the custodian of knowledge can encourage practices of care and consideration which are, in my view, healthier and more productive kinds of sensibility than mere attention to the rules of referencing, or how to punish students who cheat.  The attention to proper referencing should not be an issue of rules but rather of the ‘public’ nature of our knowledge-work.  We not only share our knowledge-work, but make ourselves accountable through such mechanisms as referencing.  In modern parlance there is an ‘open source’ element to academic practice – we are revealing the code.

A possible negative side to the custodian metaphor is that we can become reverential towards knowledge, of attending to the gatekeeping function of protecting cannons of knowledge.  Such approaches are inevitably conservative and restrictive.  But if we think of the custodian role as one of care, and respect, this still leaves knowledge-work as open and as something we then leave to others to continue working with.

I feel that there is some mileage in this metaphor, but I need to explore it further.

…and institutional ‘management’ of academic CVs

But, perhaps the issue most pertinent to this ‘training’ is the increase in the way the institutions we work for seek to manage our scholarly activity in the pursuit of market advantage.

What do I mean by this?

The emergence of the what scholars such as Simon Marginson call the ‘global university’ and heightened global competition in higher education has brought in forms of management that views our individual scholarly ambitions as little more than institutional assets.  What I mean by this is the idea that my scholarly research and writing are viewed as contributing to or undermining my employing organisation’s stock of status capital.  The ethical, social, or cultural content of my scholastic activity is therefore of no real importance other than in its capacity to contribute to the university’s competitive ambitions as measured by various ranking systems.

This fundamentally undermines the idea of the Republic of Letters and of the scholar as a custodian.

It introduces a subtle, I think, change in the nature of social relations in academic practice.  This change is in the direction of making academic practice one of ‘value relations’ in the classic Marxist sense.  For more on this perspective I think it is worth looking at the work of Joss Winn.  In this change of relations the university acts much more like the traditional capitalist enterprise directly and indirectly appropriating my academic labour.  The drive is not to have control over my labour (and here I am referring specifically to academic writing and the direction of academic research) in order to produce better or ‘higher quality’ research, but as a private good (private for the university) in its efforts to improve its market position.

As well as leading to a ‘carelessness’ in the way academics and students are treated in universities, it changes the social relationship to knowledge.  Rather than being custodians of knowledge, as individual academics, we are increasingly encouraged to view writing and research and teaching as private property that can improve our individual status within academic markets.  It also means that our employers, universities, seek to appropriate (steal) the fruits of our labour.  Knowledge is there to be plundered.

Stealing from the poor….

It is one thing for employing organisations to be seen in the role of capitalist ‘robber barons’ of academic labour.  But when we see our role as custodians of knowledge then this also implies a certain social relationship to those who participate in our research and so form the basis for our writing.  Surely we have a duty of responsibility here as well?

Much of my research has been concerned with the impact of policy on different groups, often with an explicit social justice dimension.  When this work involves interviews I am inviting folks to talk with me about their experiences, concerns, interpretations, etc.  Some of these people will be those in positions of power, others not.  I believe that there is a duty placed upon me then to treat their participation with care, responsibly.  We are used to the various ethical protocols we are asked to sign up to.  But there is something that is not mentioned in these protocols – the duty of not appropriating their generosity and commitment of time, or their openness, simply to build a career.

Indeed there can be two levels of appropriation going on simultaneously.  As the academic I may appropriate their involvement in my research as part of a strategic manoeuvre designed to improve my career prospects.  And, my employing organisation may appropriate this as part of its strategy to improve its advantage in relation to other institutions.

Both are forms of theft.

The ethical cost of eroding the custodian role

What can we do in such circumstances?

It seems to me that we (academics), collectively, are allowing and enabling  this theft to continue.  Apart from complaining privately we seldom refuse, let alone resist this economy of theft.

The question remains, then, what can we do?

The (im)possibility of Academic Credibility

Science Reporter Spoofs

A recent post on the retractionwatch website ‘revealed’ that a journalist was able to successfully submit a ‘spoof’ article to a series of open access journals despite the article containing glaringly obvious errors.

Depending on who you are (the editors of said journals not being one) this is entertaining reading.  But is it news?  Is it revelatory?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because I feel it misses crucial points.

The unprofessional acceptance of such obviously bad scholarly ‘work’ should be a note of serious concern for the academic community, especially in an age when governments are all too happy to micro-manage our work.   As the UK media are now realising, the regulatory bargain whereby professions regulate themselves is a precarious ground upon which to establish oneself.  The more public scandal attached to professions the less self-regulation will be acceptable.  The key term here is ‘public’.  This does not mean an authentic public voice.  Public here means whatever is heated up in the fire of 24/7 news (including blogs).  If something can gain enough traction to be noticeable then the chances are the degree of self-regulation accorded a profession will be diminished.  We see this everywhere.  In the UK social workers and the whole social care field have been under intense public scrutiny because of yet another ‘failure’ to secure the wellbeing of a child, ending in their death.

Yes, there was systemic failure.

Yes, systems and training need to be improved.

But politicians and media comment on these tragedies as if they are not related to the wider political environment, to the dominant political ethics.  It is as if all of those decisions to cut or privatise public services have no consequence for the lives of those who should be served well by such professionals.

And so back to academic publishing.

The ‘scandal’ of online academic journals accepting hoax articles fails to note the true nature of the political economy of higher education.

It would be nice to think that academic publishing was primarily about the free exchange of scientific knowledge, whereby our peers could scrutinise our findings, assess our methodologies, and through collegial critique improve the lot of scientific inquiry, and by implication, improve our contribution to society more widely.  That is the myth.

The reality is rather different, and to me, is the real scandal.

Career progression and performance related funding are intimately linked and form the bedrock for such publishing scandals that ‘retractwatch’ deal with.

The particular elements that contribute to academic career progression will differ from one system of higher education to another.  But ‘publish or die’ is a key aspect to academic practice, and therefore job security, worldwide.  Where this works well the publishing record reflects an academic’s contribution to their field of study.  But, even here, it is not uncommon to see the same basic content distributed across a range of academic outputs in peer reviewed journals.  A little can indeed go a long way. In the social sciences for instance, a piece of work conducted in education could conceivably be written up for journals in a range of disciplinary areas – education studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy.  The motivated and ambitious academic could strategically place the same text in a range of journals on the understanding that they are unlikely use the same reviewers.  Of course, such strategists can come a cropper and be found out.  The reputational damage can be severe, and reputation is everything.  But there is an imperative to  publish, and the newer you are as an academic, the more pressure there is.  Another side to this is that acting as journal reviewers, indeed sitting on editorial boards, is good for the CV.  Taking short cuts can seem appealing when securing tenure is your main objective.  This pressure can increase when managers put pressure on you because they too are measured by the productivity of their staff (no matter how much the term ‘collegiality’ is used).

Linked to this is performance related funding.  It is increasingly the case that governments can nudge higher education into line through funding.  Although a degree of central funding is still quite normal around the world, some governments have also introduced elements of performance related funding.  Two areas where this is becoming increasingly evident is teaching and research.  By teaching I don’t really mean the evaluation of quality but rather the move towards student satisfaction surveys in determining levels of government core funding.  The good side of this is the attention it gives to teaching quality.  But in the real world Harvard, Oxford or Yale don’t really have to worry that much about how their teaching is judged because the fact you went to Harvard, Oxford or Yale counts a lot more on your CV that the poor teaching of Professor X.  Where this does impact the most is lower down the academic food chain, on intermediate institutions.

Alongside this is the rise of research as a quality judgement on academic institutions.  High research reputation attracts a lot of money.  It can attract a lot of money from governments looking for a good return on public investment.  We all teach.  We all do administration.  What differentiates one institution from another is research – both quantity and quality.  High research reputation can also attract the brightest faculty and students – and international student fees.  This leads to investment decisions within institutions and therefore what academic life feels like at an individual level.  If you are lower down the ranks this can be experienced as getting pressure from both ends – increased teaching, increased scrutiny of your teaching, and increased pressure to publish and attract research grants.  This can be pretty punishing.  You don’t want to have anything as frivolous as a young family while doing all that.  But, if you are reasonably successful as attracting research funding you can move all of that troublesome teaching and marking down the supply chain to part-time staff and post-graduate students.  In other words you can simultaneously reduce the unit cost of teaching and increase your own time to publish and conduct important scholarly activity such as editing and reviewing.

So, lets imagine a situation where an academic is fielding increased teaching due to the rise in student numbers; is conscious of needing to please their students (this doesn’t actually have to do with quality teaching as such which might not be necessarily pleasurable for students if it takes them out of their comfort zones); is dealing with pressure to publish; is trying to secure research funding; and is conducting their scholarly responsibilities by taking on the role of reviewer for a number of academic journals.

Is it really any surprise that poor, incorrect or bogus articles get published?

We, as a community of scholars, should do what we can to minimise such systemic errors.  But, the real scandal is that education, and higher education, has been made a commodity.  Any sense of the wider purpose of education in the cultivation of a whole person, an ethical citizen, is lost.