Neither digital or open. Just researchers. Views on digital/open scholarship practices in an Italian university
First Monday

Neither digital or open. Just researchers. Views on digital/open scholarship practices in an Italian university  by Antonella Esposito



Abstract
How do university researchers consider attributes such as ‘digital’ and ‘open’ as regards to their research practices? This article reports a small–scale interview project carried out at the University of Milan, aiming to probe whether and to what extent actual digital research practices are affecting cultures of sharing in different subject areas and are prompting emergent approaches such as open publishing, open data, open education and open boundary between academia and society. Most of the 14 interviewed researchers seem not to see any clear benefit to move to further technological means or new open practices and call for institutional support and rules. However, a few profiles of ‘digital, networked and open’ researchers stand out and show both a self–legitimating approach to new modes of knowledge production and distribution and a particular sensitiveness towards values and perspectives driven by ‘openness’ in digital networks.

Contents

Introduction
Theoretical frameworks
Digital and open scholarship
Digital tools and cultures of sharing: Empirical studies
Research questions and methods
Findings: Views on digital and open research practices
Discussion
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

To date, the topic of changing research practices in digital environments results as a field of study under–researched in the Italian higher education setting. This paper reports a small–scale, exploratory study on this field, focusing on an Italian university’s context and considering digital scholarship’s practices. In other words the article is concerned with research practices — such as information access, authoring, sharing, networking, publishing — mediated by technology. In particular, this study intends to add to empirical knowledge of changing research practices in higher education, probing comparable behaviours of technology use in different subject areas. Furthemore, digital research practices are analyzed as a possible enabling factor in the adoption of open approaches and practices both in the inquiry process and teaching activities. This paper challenges notions of ‘digital scholarship’ as a set of digital behaviours, currently being transformed by Web 2.0 tools (Pearce, et al., 2011) and leading to a widespread uptake of ‘open scholarship’ (Anderson, 2009). In this view, new networked environments and tools would enable, widen and reinforce a more extended culture of sharing in academia. This is increasingly grounded in emergent phenomena — such as open publishing models, release of open research data, initiatives of open education and a high–level popularization approach — aiming to blur boundaries between university and societal contexts.

This research set out to draw from individual researchers’ accounts overlaps, contradictions and mutual influences of traditional and new research practices as currently mediated by personal and infrastructural technologies. The research setting is higher education, in which the scholarly communication system has to date preserved a substantially stable asset (Borgman, 2007) and where social norms and distinctive conventions of disciplinary areas have being well–established over time (Becher, 1989; Becher and Trowler, 2001) and implicitly define what is acknowledged as good practice and culture of sharing across communities of researchers. The participants in this investigation are individual researchers working in specific disciplinary fields and communities and coping with an increasingly complex digital landscape. Considering how research practices are evolving in higher education — in relation to technologies — also reveals emerging modes of knowledge production and distribution (Gibbons, et al., 1994) and related problems of legitimation of new behaviours. This paper considers research practices as a socio–technical system; fundamentally, how are underlying structures of knowledge production and distribution challenged by digital environments and tools?

Well–established and young researchers were interviewed about their current digital scholarly practices, examining their views on emergent research behaviours and needs that might generate new values, rules and requirements for training and support from institutions. The interviews aimed to reveal reasons why faculty are adopting specific behaviours rather than investigating what they are doing with technology. The goal is to provide a ‘snapshot’ of both actual modes of uptake of digital tools for research purposes and informed opinions about trends towards adopting open scholarship.

This paper first discusses theoretical frameworks and concepts, and presents an overview of current large–scale empirical studies. It then provides a synthesis of findings in the context of theory and, as a conclusion, points to the need for further research.

 

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Theoretical frameworks

This section provides a discussion of a range of relevant theoretical frameworks, in order to better understand debates on the notion of digital/open scholarship and the findings of this interview project. As well, we will examine models to interpret knowledge production and distribution in academia and its evolution; develop a framework to understand inherent features in different subject areas and their use of ICTs; and, treat analytical approaches to understand motivations of researchers using ICTs.

The ‘new knowledge production’ model

In their large–scale study across Australian research institutions, Houghton, et al. (2003) widely utilize the framework of new knowledge production — based on Gibbons, et al.’s work (1994) — to explain typologies and the evolution of the research process and approaches to digital environments. This framework posits conceptualizations of a traditional mode of production of knowledge (Mode 1) and an emerging, transdisciplinary and problem–oriented mode of knowledge production (Mode 2). This descriptive model has become popular for its central tenet of new knowledge production as socially constructed, interactive and reflexive, although its conceptual and empirical validity has been often contested in research policy studies (Hessels and van Lente, 2008).

“Mode 1 is disciplinary, while Mode 2 is transdisciplinary. Mode 1 is characterised by homogeneity, Mode 2 by heterogeneity. Organizationally, Mode 1 is hierarchical and tends to preserve its form, while Mode 2 is more heterarchical and transient.“ [1]

Mode 1 refers to a cluster of traditional values and practices in scholarly production and dissemination in which knowledge is being driven by disciplinary conventions and communities. In Mode 2, knowledge is intended as transdisciplinary, integrative and consensual and inquiry work is characterized by an emphasis on collaborative approaches and diverse and informal modes of communication and by a diversity of location of research activities. Gibbons, et al. (1994) maintain that there is interaction between Mode 1 and Mode 2 and that the latter supplements rather than replaces the former [2]. Moreover, Mode 2 is described as critically dependent on new information and communication technologies, due to its transdisciplinary, dispersed and interactive nature. It also prompts reflexivity and social accountability, that is a greater awareness for researchers of the societal impact of their inquiry work.

Houghton, et al. (2003) utilize the model proposed by Gibbons, et al. to understand whether evolving research practices enabled by technologies are merely improvements of pre–existing ways of inquiry conduct or whether they are disruptive breaks against tradition (e.g., open access repositories), which should be regulated and supported. ICTs are identified as a key factor in Mode 2, while features of Mode 2 help to identify distinctive approaches to ‘openness’ — beyond any ideological positions — as signs in a research landscape in transition, driven by a plenitude of contextual, political and economic factors. However, Houghton, et al. seem to not consider the ‘reflexivity’ element — featuring Mode 2 — to investigate to what extent researchers intend their work as a dialogical process and show sensitivity to its societal consequences, that are integral part of an ‘open research’ approach.

The framework of the contrasting Modes 1 and 2 of knowledge production provides a useful tool for interpreting change in scholarly practices from a number of viewpoints, but caution is needed. For instance, it is worth underlining that in the Gibbons, et al.’s model the dimension of teaching — so typical and controversial in academic scholarship — is quite missing. Furthemore, Hessels and van Lente [3] highlight the inherent lack of understanding of characteristics and evolution of individual disciplinary domains. As these authors suggest, it is worth thinking of the relation between Mode 1 and Mode 2 of knowledge as a continuum rather than as a dichotomy, in order to utilize it as an heuristic model and position real, current and emerging research practices.

ICTs appropriation and subject areas

Whereas Mode 2 of knowledge production and distribution relies on an information technology asset, it becomes a key issue on how different subject areas relate to technology for research. Fry’s (2006) study focused on how “the local work organization and communication practices of scholars within specialist fields influences the use of networked digital resources“ [4] both in formal and informal communication. For instance, whereas there is high level of ‘task uncertainty’ (scarce agreement of research priorities) and low level of ‘mutual dependence’ (researchers hardly made use of colleagues' outputs), an individualistic culture is more likely to be developed. Fry links such variations in cultural attitudes in different subject areas to diverse modes of appropriation of ICTs by researchers:

“(Academic) fields that have a highly politicized and tightly controlled research culture will develop a coherent field–based strategy for the uptake and use of ICTs, whereas domains that are pluralistic and have a loosely organized research culture will appropriate ICTs in an ad–hoc localized manner.“ [5]

It would seem fairly easy to assign the former type of behaviour to scientific areas such as physics, in which there is strong agreement about research priorities and sharing and re–use of outputs, whilst the latter one is more likely to occur in humanities. However, to identify bounded academic fields with specific cultural features is an oversimplification, due to increasing high specialization and interdisciplinarity of research (Becher and Trowler, 2001). This framework suggests a different propensity towards innovative ICT–mediated research approaches for researchers working in domains either embedding a “coherent field–based strategy for the uptake and use of ICTs” or an appropriation of ICT’s “ad–hoc localized manner.”

Individual researchers’ motivations for ICTs uptake

Issues of ICT uptake in different disciplinary fields should also consider motivations of individual researchers relative to prevailing activities in their careers [6] and their attitudes towards emerging tools (White and Le Cornu, 2011).

In the conceptual schema of a ‘balanced scorecard’ [7], six evolving fields of activities of scholars’ careers are identified: research (building of inquiry skills through training opportunities and theoretical and empirical studies); authoring (publication of research outputs); teaching; administration (engagement in bureaucratic and coordination activities); networking; and, celebrity (management of one’s ‘personal branding’). Engagement in a particular subset of these dimensions depends on one’s career, as well as diverse professional choices by individual researchers. I argue that there might be a close relation between engagement in a particular subset and the adoption of technologies by an individual researcher. In particular, the increasing convergence between ‘networking’ and ‘celebrity’ [8] sheds light on new forms of research that might be undertaken by an individual researcher and thus affect ICT uptake. In this sense, social and participatory media — that open up new spaces of personal intervention, compared to institutional ones — would seem to better fit researchers working within disciplines in which an individualistic attitude towards technology is more common and the appropriation of ICTs is more likely to occur in “ad–hoc localized manner.”

However, it is worth considering that the emergent environment of the social Web is constituted by new kinds of computing applications that are better explained with the metaphor of ‘place’, that is of “a sense of being present with others” (White and Le Cornu, 2011) rather than that of ‘tool’, that is “a means to an end”. This implies a paradigm shift from a type of online engagement by individuals as ‘visitors’, who use the Web to select tools for specific purposes, to an attitude as ‘residents’, who intend the Web as “a place to express opinions, a place in which relationships can be formed and extended” (White and Le Cornu, 2011), and where content and digital identity overlap. The visitors/residents typology is considered by White and Le Cornu as a continuum in which individual digital behaviour can be located: the propensity towards the former or the latter can be valued within a frame of digital literacies, referring to a whole skills set required by the context and subject area in which the individuals usually carry out their activities. In other words, a researcher aiming to get more research impact by intersecting ‘networking’ and ‘celebrity’ dimensions is likely to be more successful by adopting a resident approach rather than a visitor one. This provides a perspective on researchers’ motivations in using digital tools that may even prescind from disciplinary conventions for ICT appropriation but also differs from ethical values of a culture of openness.

 

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Digital and open scholarship

Whereas ‘scholarship’ is a broad term — encompassing methods, discipline and attainment of scholars — generally speaking ‘digital scholarship’ can be considered as an ensemble of practices

“concerned with technologies that support all the processes involved in research including (but not limited to) creating and sustaining research collaborations and discovering, analysing, processing, publishing, storing and sharing research data and information.“ [9]

The notion of ‘digital scholarship’ assumes a range of interpretive perspectives, as design, predisposition and preservation of digital scholarly resources (Marcum and George, 2004; Andersen, 2004; Cross, 2008); as infrastructural changes in scholarly data work and communication practices in digital environments (Borgman, 2007); and, as a possible convergence with the values of ‘openness’ in higher education (Pearce, et al., 2011; Garnett and Ecclesfield, 2011; Weller, 2011b). For the purpose of this study the latter two threads are particularly considered.

In her seminal work on scholarship in the digital age, Borgman (2007) extensively examines how the evolution of digital infrastructures has challenged traditional scholarly publishing and transformed notions of data across different disciplines. In her view, ongoing changes are enabling a new kind of scholarly communication and data– and information–intensive, distributed scholarship, as well as more collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches. Producing and distributing data in the ‘public domain’ and the diffusion of open publishing alternatives are seen as fitting the emerging needs of a new kind of scholarship and enabling ‘open science’.

In fact, the phenomenon of alternative publishing models in scholarly communication, enabled by Internet infrastructures (Laakso, et al., 2011), represents one of the two broad movements that have shaped the “nature of openness” (Conole, 2013) in higher education:

“Openness is becoming a trend, both in terms of the production and sharing of educational materials, as well as making research publications (and even research data) freely available.“ [10]

The second movement refers to open education stances (Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar, 2008), that are closely dependent on the recent and rapid spread of ‘social media’, embedding the “powerful ideas“ [11] of the Web 2.0: architecture of participation, collaboration, user–generated content, openness as ‘philosophy’ and work practices drawn from the open source movement. Within the realm of open education, ‘openness’ is seen by some as a subversive force for innovation in higher education (Wiley and Hilton, 2009; Katz, 2010), framing ‘open scholarship’ while focusing on changes in teaching and learning. Open scholarship allows a “pedagogy of abundance” [12] of resources, providing increasingly complex problems to scholars and students, in contrast to a trend towards the ‘commodification’ of knowledge.

Considering this background, discourses on the interplay between digital scholarship and open scholarship have been developed largely within educational technology domain: on the one hand by defining an emerging profile of the digital researcher and, on the other hand, by building on the popular model of the four dimensions of scholarship, as devised by Boyer (1990).

The new researcher working in the networked environment is variously named as the ‘open scholar’ (Burton, 2009; Anderson, 2009), ‘participatory scholar’ (Veletsianos, 2010), ‘open faculty’ (Andersen, 2010) and ‘digital scholar’ (Weller, 2011b). Burton (2009) suggests a model of the public intellectual that endorses a number of open approaches beyond open access publishing, in spite of current institutional rules for rewarding, dissemination and quality measurements:

“The ‘Open Scholar’, as I’m defining this person, is not simply someone who agrees to allow free access and reuse of his or her traditional scholarly articles and books; no, the Open Scholar is someone who makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it — at any stage of its development.“ (Burton, 2009)

Anderson (2009) highlights the ethical value implied in Burton’s notion of ‘open scholar’, to outline a view of open scholarly practices strongly grounded in a rethinking of higher education teaching and learning approach as characterized by media richness, social learning, connectivist pedagogies and production of open data and resources.

Working on a definition of ‘open faculty’, Andersen (2010) distinguishes between an analog and digital open scholar and identifies “a nature influence and a nurture influence” respectively as individual and institutional factors may determine a faculty predisposition towards openness. She argues that the surrounding context — being shaped by institutional interventions — can influence the second factor over time. The acquisition of technological skills can act as a catalyst to sharing, enabling a transition from analog to digital.

Weller (2011b) defined a “digital scholar” as “someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field”. Thanks to the nature of the network and online identity, a “well–respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation” (Weller, 2011b).

A major thread of debates on changing research practices in digital environments builds on Boyer’s (1990) model of ‘scholarship’. This model outlines four aspects: discovery (creation of new knowledge in a specific area); integration (position of individual discoveries in a wider context); application (engagement with the world outside the university); and, teaching (management of all these elements supporting teaching and learning). Pearce, et al. (2011) build on this model, matching these dimensions with “trends towards openness” that are changing the nature of academic practices — ‘open data’, ‘open publishing’, ‘open boundary between the academia and the public’ and ‘open education’. Pearce, et al. suggest a conceptualization of ‘digital scholarship’ that assumes ‘openness’ as the only actual ‘break’ relative to traditional research practices. It is worth noting that neither ‘digital scholarship’ or ‘openness’ are being conceptualized as further dimensions that transform those ones posited in Boyer’s model: digital tools and practices are apparently embedded in current research practices, while ‘openness’ is merely defined by identified practices — open data, open publishing, open boundary, open education. Indeed, if Borgman focuses on digital infrastructures as enabling new data–driven research practices, Pearce, et al.’s version of digital scholarship strongly relies on the use of Web 2.0 tools by individual researchers increasingly acting as networked scholars, working beyond discipline– and institution–bounded conventions and constraints.

This revision of Boyer’s model is empirically supported by Weller (2011b) that more explicitly holds a close relation between digital scholarship and openness:

“Digital scholarship is more than just using information and communication technologies to research, teach and collaborate; it also includes embracing the open values, ideology and potential of technologies born of peer–to–peer networking and wiki ways of working in order to benefit both the academy and society.“ (Weller, 2011b)

However, this individual–centric view of inquiry activities — being transformed by networked tools — can be located within a ‘digital scholarship resilience matrix’ (Weller, 2011b). This matrix considers the role of resistance to change at governmental, institutional, disciplinary and individual level.

Whereas Pearce, et al. (2011) and Weller (2011b) lead attention to typologies of emerging open practices that are challenging traditional dimensions of scholarship, Garnett and Ecclesfield (2011) focus on the epistemological transition being enabled by the current networked environments. They work on a significant conceptual re–thinking of the Boyer’s model, as based on the blurring distinction between knowledge production and knowledge transmission in higher education. To this purpose, they add the dimension of ‘co–creating’, that refers to the participation process of both teachers and students (and practitioners) to the ‘perpetual Beta’ of knowledge, through a collaborative creation of learning. Indeed, such a new dimension informs all the four dimensions in Boyer’s model of scholarship, including that of ‘discovery’, reformulated in a “co–creation of research agendas” that originally updates the traditional role of researcher and goes beyond Boyer’s institution–centric approach. This position is explicitly inspired by the Open Scholarship movement (Anderson, 2009) and is linked to arguments endorsing a close relationship between ‘e–research’ (here being used as an alternative term with respect to ‘digital scholarship’) and ‘e–learning’ (Borgman, 2008; Haythornthwaite, 2009). This leads discourse to frame ‘digital scholarship’ as a form of academic literacy, and more precisely as a re–conceptualization of “academic practice in terms of its technologies of communication” [13]. In this sense, digital scholarship and open scholarship come to be combined in a new long–term project of revision of scholarship in which an emerging teaching and learning dimension enabled by networked environments is able to develop an iterative process of knowledge production and distribution practices. These practices assume features that resonate the socially constructed, interactive and reflexive Mode 2 by Gibbons, et al. (1994) and opens up the possibility that such a mode can be shaped by a new type of online engagement (White and Le Cornu, 2011) to be undertaken by the individual researcher.

It is worth noting that whereas claims on the emerging profiles of new researchers underly a belief on the transformational power in part of individuals versus the well–established conventions of specific research contexts, often discourses on overlapping digital/open scholarship are drawn from changes occurring in other sectors (e.g., media industry) or are constructed on an idealized perception of the teaching role of faculty. This latter risks to overlook the further components that in the last decades have been added to the scholarship’s activities being required to researchers [14]. Moreover, so far claims on open research practices heavily rely on the same argument of ‘potentialities of social media’ that affects recent debates on innovating education: an analysis of ‘openness’ in research may be in danger of becoming another “edtech bubble” [15], that is a “self–contained, self–referenting, and self–defining” [16] debate which tends to attribute value–driven ‘digital’ behaviours belonging to a group of early adopters in specific disciplines (e.g., educational technology), to all subject areas, every national and local university contexts and irrespective of any individual researchers’ attitude towards technology use. However, also thanks to such critical views, some maintain that “the field is in dire need of empirical data” (Veletsianos, 2011) and urge on informing research agendas with the investigation of actual digital research practices.

 

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Digital tools and cultures of sharing: Empirical studies

This section mainly aims to provide an overview of key findings from four main large scale studies on changing research practices (Maron and Smith, 2008; Harley, et al., 2010; Procter, et al., 2010; CIBER, 2010). Except from the latter one — an online survey addressing researchers all over the world — the inquiries being considered were carried out across U.S. and U.K.

Adoption of technologies

In the perspective of future development of university libraries, Maron and Smith (2008) identify eight principal types of new scholarly resources, that are supplementing the traditional printed publications: e–journals; reviews; pre–prints and working papers; encyclopedias, dictionaries and annotated content; data; blogs; discussion forums; professional and scholarly hubs. These emergent scholarly resources are being produced and used across every subject areas and present both old constraints (e.g., following legitimacy mechanisms such as credentialing, peer review and citation metrics; reaching credibility through longevity and quality controls) and new opportunities (e.g., reaching narrow, niche audiences; blurring boundaries among typologies of scholarly work, e.g. video articles).

However, many recent studies particularly focus on social media in research activities and agree that there is very limited evidence of the spread among faculty of the celebrated new channels of communication (Harley, et al., 2010; Procter, et al., 2010; Schonfeld and Housewright, 2010). Traditional channels (such as conferences, seminars),

“often made more efficient by the transition to digital but otherwise largely unchanged — remain the most important ways in which faculty communicate both formally and informally.” [17]

Web 2.0 tools (e.g., blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, twitter) are not cited as popular mechanisms and are even seen as a “waste of time because they are not peer reviewed” [18]. This is also confirmed by small–scale inquiries, such as Kraker and Lindstaedt’s (2011) carried out in the e–learning research field and Pearce’s (2010) within the Open University.

On the one hand Procter, et al.’s study reveals that “The process of experimentation and innovation is currently highly localised and dispersed, and likely to be protracted.” [19] On the other hand, CIBER’s one — explicitly surveying social media adopters — states that “Social media have found a place in the research workflow for many academics and are proving their worth.” [20]

Focusing on demographic factors, whilst in the U.K. the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies is increasingly spread across Ph.D. students (British Library/JISC, 2011) and early career researchers (James, et al., 2009), data related to the frequency of usage of new tools reserve some surprises in favour of older generations of researchers (Procter, et al., 2010).

More interestingly, Procter, et al. (2010) and CIBER (2010) investigate reasons why researchers are likely to adopt any of social media tools:

“The services most likely to succeed are those where researchers are actively involved in uncovering, exploring and exploiting new capabilities, and adapting them to their own purposes, in accordance with the broader cultures and contexts and contexts in which they undertake their work.” [21]

Moreover, whereas working with peers based in other institutions may be a driver in the adoption of new technologies [22], the most important barriers to uptake of digital tools are reported to be the “lack of clarity over the precise benefits that might accrue to the researcher” [23] and the fact that “few services have achieved yet the critical mass needed to achieve the positive network effect that stimulate pervasive use by particular communities” [24].

However, it is worth noting that these kinds of studies focusing on emergent media fail to get the whole picture of technology adoption in research practices, because they often do not appropriately link ‘old’ with ‘new’ tools and patterns of adoption, overlook studies on ICTs in research before social Web (see Fry, 2006), and omit to consider the role being played by well–established institutional digital environments and tools such as personal Web pages, digital libraries, email accounts, research information systems (Bittner and Müller, 2011).

Cultures of sharing and publishing

Following the traditional conventions of scholarly communication system, researchers keep on strongly relying on formal publishing in printed journals and — more recently — e–journals, even if networked environments provide informal opportunities to open up academic publishing in various modes and in different moments within the research process (e.g., Lockley and Carrigan, 2011). In fact, it is commonplace that “a broad circulation among a faculty’s members own peers is the ultimate motivating factor in determining where to publish” [25]. Other types of behaviour belong to a small minority of enthusiastic open researchers that are used to “publish their outputs and their work in progress openly, using blogs and other tools” [26].

As Harley, et al. [27] draw from their interviews in 45 prestigious U.S. research universities:

“it is premature to assume that Web 2.0 platforms geared toward early public exposure of ideas or data, or open peer review, are going to spread among scholars at the most competitive institutions.” [28]

It seems that there is no significant difference between users and non&nash;users of social media (CIBER, 2010): however, social media users are more likely to use the Internet as a complementary activity in disseminating research findings.

Physicists, political scientists and economists have the lowest threshold for sharing scholarship prior to formal publication, but they share only works that have already reached a good level of quality, rather than actual work–in–progress (Harley, et al., 2010). Moreover, the same authors report that in some subject areas such as sciences, economics and political sciences, journals are increasingly requiring authors to publish datasets along with their papers. However, concerns about ownership and privacy, lack of personal time to prepare data for publication, lack of directions on how to do it, general lack of institutional support are reported as many common hindrances in the spread of data sharing.

Finally, recent studies investigating the dissemination of research findings report an increasing acceptance of open access publishing models in part of researchers as authors (Dallmeier–Tiessen, et al., 2011). However, issues such as charges for publishing and the perception that open access journals are of lower quality than traditional publications deter researchers across all disciplines from the open access route.

 

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Research questions and methods

The preliminary literature review reveals that there is a hype on the transformative potential of new digital tools and environments on current research practices, enabling a culture of sharing — instantiated in the adoption of open publishing, open data, open education and open boundary between academia and society — as a disrupting force with respect to the traditional research system in universities. On the other hand, critical approaches and empirical studies highlight a gap between the proven uptake and use of new digital tools for research purposes and the actual adoption of open scholarship’s practices. Here it seems to occur the same discrepancy between the discourse on the “state–of–the–art” and that on the “state–of–the–actual”, argued by Neil Selwyn (2011), referring to educational technologists’ accounts of revolutionary use of digital tools and actual evidence on technology adoption from educational settings. It is this gap that it is worth investigating, because the relationship between digital and open scholarship can be considered as one of the loci in which transformations of research practices are being enacted.

However, the definition of the research questions also took into account the small–scale dimension of the study, carried out in a single university context by an individual researcher, in a limited timespan and only relying on one data–gathering technique.

Given that, the reported study aimed to: 1) identify current and emergent digital scholarly practices from researchers in an higher education setting, considering different subject areas; and, 2) explore whether, in which ways and to what extent, such emerging practices in digital environments constitute a ‘break’ against tradition, and how open approaches in researching and teaching are implied.

In particular, the study intended to answer the following research questions:

  • What are current uses of digital tools and environments for research purposes in an higher education context?

  • What do researchers think of a likely impact of digital tools and environments on changing research practices towards an ‘open scholarship’ approach?

This research embedded an exploratory and qualitative approach, aiming to gain a picture of faculty views in different subject areas and to draw prevalent behaviours and trends. To this purpose, an interview study was undertaken by adopting convenience and snowball sampling strategies, using face–to–face, semi–structured, individual interviews as data gathering and reporting tecnique, and thematic analysis as a method to interpret data.

The interview approach approximated Holstein and Gubrium’s (2004) ‘interpretive’ concept of the ‘active interview’, in which meanings are being produced through “collaborative accomplishments” [29] between interviewer and interviewee. Moreover, I set out to draw from each interview comparable data, to be analyzed though thematic analysis. To this purpose, I chose to carry out a semi–structured interview [30], in which the sequence and wording of the questions are considered as many cues to structure an “interview-as-event as a setting for data collection” [31].

Sampling strategy

The study was carried out across one institution, the University of Milan, in which I have been working for years. My condition as an “insider” at this university allowed me to effectively use convenience and snowball sampling strategies to recruit research participants. The initial aim was to select a group of 12 informants, and to interview at least three academics for each area, preferably belonging to different generations (e.g., a senior researcher, a young researcher, a doctoral student). Cases and interviewees were selected on the basis of expectations of information content they were likely to provide [32]. The construction of the sample was progressively guided by the goal of “maximizing variation” [33] of opinions, searching for examples of specific research practices as undertaken in digital environments within different work contexts and traditions of disciplinary conventions. This approach is apparent in the choice of the four broad subject areas: humanities, social sciences for soft sciences, physics and medicine for hard sciences. Each subject area in turn represents distinctive research needs and practices, but particular attention was applied in order to not select interviewees working in the same discipline, department or project. Moreover, when it was possible, one researcher was selected from an interdisciplinary context (e.g., informatics for humanities) and/or from a research setting located at the boundary between the university and external research institutes. Furthemore, in order to pursue the goal of maximizing variation, the number of interviewees was raised to 14, increasing from three to four informants for humanities and medicine.

Ethical issues

When collecting data for analysis, ethical issues were also considered. Providing detailed information about the research project was the basis to start building trust: an extended abstract was sent to potential informants, together with the invitation to participate to interviews and a copy of the informed consent form. Moreover, a Web space (Cloudworks, 2011) was set up to disseminate additional information about the dissertation work, rough materials and links drawn from my literature review. In addition, a blog (WordPress, 2011) was run as a research journal on methodological aspects, in order to practice reflexivity, mark my presence in the field over time and contribute to give a sense of transparency to the research process. The maintenance of such online spaces also made sense as a tentative ’open‘ research approach, that however did not imply either participative research or disclosure of data while the study was underway. Although the topic being researched was not particularly sensitive and the involved research participants were all adult professionals (senior, young researchers or Ph.D. students), default anonymization of personal data (in any reports, including the devoted Web space and blog) was applied, in order to preserve all informants from an overexposure [34]. Moreover, every participants were given the possibility to withdraw at any time and hierarchical relations within the respective departments were taken into account, in order to obtain permission for the doctoral students to participate.

The interviews’ audio recordings, transcripts and/or e–mail messages were kept confidential and statements drawn from specific interviews were explicitly quoted only in agreement with respective authors. Finally, the dissertation report was due in English, but the interviews were conducted in Italian to enable a more natural fluency of discourses. However, a translation of selected quotes in English were sent to interviewees for approval and any further integration or adjustment, if needed.

Data analysis

The collected data were transcribed using ‘unfocused’ transcription technique, to provide a general overview of the entire data set “without attempting to represent its detailed contextual or interactional characteristics” [35] and thus analyzed through thematic analysis. Preliminarily the interviews’ transcripts were read through to get an overall impression. Then the transcripts were read again to sift statements significant for the specific questions of the interview schedule and indicating different attitudes from researchers, by using techniques such as noting patterns, clustering and making contrasts/comparisons among data [36]. Then, data were indexed under the respective subject areas, grouped in topics relevant to match the two main research questions and to be compared with findings from previous empirical studies. The aim was on the one hand to provide a detailed ‘conversational’ account of patterns of technologies adoption and related problematic areas, on the other hand to draw emergent themes through a comparison of findings with a wider empirical domain. Finally, interviews’ excerpts were interpreted considering modes of knowledge production and distribution being adopted, ways of ICTs appropriation in different subject areas and individual researchers’ motivations with respect to their own career and their type of online engagement.

 

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Findings: Views on digital and open research practices

The presentation of findings to a degree follows the same sequence of the interview schedule, grouping recurrent themes arisen from interviews.

In fact, one interview schedule with 12 questions was produced, building on the two initial broad research questions reported above. So, a first group of questions focuses on informants’ technological practices in everyday life and in research activities, attempting to understand whereas and how the use of technology shapes the research process, which digital resources are being utilized and produced, and what are the boundaries of the research community. A second group of questions aims to reveal behaviours and beliefs concerning the role of technology on interdisciplinarity, collaboration vs exchange of information and engagement with the public. Finally, some synthesis questions were asked: on the meaning of the expression ‘digital researcher’, the comprehension and degree of acceptance of any form of ‘digital reputation’ in the research evaluation process and any foresight on the development of one or more dimension of ‘openness’ in scholarship (referring to trends to openness identified in Pearce, et al., 2011).

‘Old’ and ‘new’ technologies

E–mail and digital libraries are the most utilized tools (beyond basic desktop software) across the totality of interviewees, irrespective of subject areas, age groups, personal attitudes and specific work context. However, the landscape becomes more nuanced when choices of other devices occur and any relationship between everyday life and technological needs at work is considered. So, certain types of common instruments, such as an audio/video recorder, may be an integral part of everyday life of a social science researcher (#2), whilst a number of ‘general purpose’ devices may serve a range of specialized functions for another investigator:

“Currently I use a Kindle to read e–books; an IPad, that supports Unicode, to read classic texts in Greek language; a smartphone to syncronize home and work activities, including time spent in digital library and to keep in contact with students, if needed.” (Humanities, #3)

Among new generation tools, undoubtedly Skype results to be as the most favorite one, since it is commonly used to multiply opportunities to meet distant peers and/or faculty/doctoral students (Social Sciences, #1, #2; Medicine #4), whilst others (Humanities #2; Medicine #3; Physics, #2, #3) especially find it very useful to quickly solve problems whereas collaborative projects are at stuck or to re–negotiate collective decisions at the beginning of a new task in the work plan.

On the contrary, blogging activity is scarcely spread and is not acknowledged at all as a rewarding and/or recommended activity, sometimes even as a means for post–graduate students to practice their scholarly writing:

“I would be cautious about blogging for post–graduate students, especially in scientific areas: they first need to listen to experts, for a long time, then they will be able to express their opinions. The scientific method embeds specific constraints and instruments that you must acquire, before being able to build on. You cannot overlook such prerequisites. It might be a danger for students to expose themselves too early. The danger is just to make it public a loosely–scaffolded approach, a little scientific one.” (Medicine, #3)

However, in a social sciences context one researcher runs a blog for musing in informal way on his own research agenda (#3), whilst another one is used to contribute to a multi–authored blog, intended as a “showcase of some research threads being undertaken within the department” (Social Sciences, #1).

How researchers use digital tools

Among the interviewed researchers the most common approach in the adoption of technologies to support inquiry work generally appears to be quite pragmatic and efficiency–driven:

“The use and choice of a digital tool is definitely functional to my research needs, questions and to the specific sample being researched: it doesn’t matter how difficult a new tool is, if it can help and suits the research situation, I am willing to spend the needed time ... this is the key.” (Medicine, #3)

Attributes such as “speed”, “completeness of information” (Humanities, #3), “facilitation of existing practices” (Social Sciences, #2; Medicine, #4) characterize the way of intending technologies as means to solve practical issues.

However, a subgroup of researchers (Social Sciences, #3; Humanities, #3; Humanities, #4) seems to be more inclined to experiment with new tools as well as building an academic digital identity:

“I use a range of tools and environments, that I am used to classify as frequent, academic, personal tools, often being used in mobile mode (IPad, BlackBerry) and for a variety of objectives, such as to manage projects, online surveys, blogging, microblogging, bookmarking, scheduling of meetings, etc. Above all I use Twitter as a ‘knowledge feeder’ drawing from an international network: it works better for me in this function than other social networking tools. Instead, in Facebook I usually discuss research topics, studies, personal opinions, ‘views of the world’, with people I am familiar with, including my students. On these themes my blog hosts more personal reflections: a ‘readership’ is being created by linking posts to Twitter. Finally I use Linkedin to attract new contacts around my professional extra–academia commitments.” (Social Sciences, #3)

It is worth considering that this intensive use of new digital tools does not seem to alter research communities:

“I don’t believe that digital environments really challenge the boundaries of my research community, that it is mainly based on a direct acquaintance of peers. My research community consists in an international network of colleagues and collaborators that I have being get to know over years. Indeed my daily use of social media aims to gain insights on a number of perspectives on reality, to receive hints and suggestions to further reflect on reality.” (Social Sciences, #3)

However, an exploratory attitude undertaken by the individual researcher does not seem to be rewarding in certain disciplinary fields:

“I have a profile on a number of popular technologies, such as sites for social networking, social bookmarking, social citation ... but so far I have not be able to identify any real benefits for my research work ... for instance, I used CiteULike for a while, to exchange references. But I realized that a few Classicists are used to feed references, so my permanence there was worthless and I was not able to draw anything significant for my research.” (Humanities, #3)

It is worth noting that such contextual hindrances do not prevent this researcher from originally curating a digital identity in literature–focused networks “in which I can play a different role that does not affect my responsibility as a university researcher” (Humanities, #3).

Otherwise, the emergent state–of–the–art of her own disciplinary context fosters collaboration via digital networks for a (doctoral) researcher in ‘digital archeology’:

“First of all at the National Research Council — where I am based — there is an intense team working activity, that is for instance highlighted in the use of Google Docs for co–writing any documents. But, more importantly, in our field it is vital to search for new contacts and closely collaborate at a distance with the international community of open source software developers, for co–programming graphics and modeling tools that enable us to build virtual museums of archeological sites. As ‘digital archeologists’ we are still a relatively small number of researchers and so we are open to look for other experiences, solutions, outputs, browsing any kind of sites, mailing lists and communities on the Web.” (Humanities, #4)

For two doctoral researchers social networking environments represent an informal bridge between professional and academic experiences (Social Sciences, #1; Humanities, #4), to share their engagement between different research institutions they are dealing with. More interestingly, these doctoral researchers find online networking activity as a way to compensate for methodological training not proerly provided at the university (Social Sciences, #1; Humanities, #4). Otherwise, online activities undertaken by a doctoral student in Physics (#2), being involved in a prestigious international project, are totally absorbed and structured by formal and informal interactions within a large but project–bounded community of about 500 researchers scattered all over the world.

The idea of a ‘digital researcher’

When being asked if any meaning and sense is attributable to the definition of ‘digital researcher’, almost every interviewees smiled, being inclined to reject any label. Indeed, a group of them justify their own rejection of this label for opposite reasons: because ‘being digital’

“is not directly inherent to the ordinary practice of Humanities research, even if some fields of study have been developed a systematic reflection on technology and its impact on ways of thinking about inquiry work.” (Humanities, #1)

Others confirm that in certain disciplines the label has an obvious meaning, since typically hard sciences cannot be conceived without digital instruments, that are integral part of the research environment and practice (Physics, #1; #2; #3; Medicine, #1; #2; #4).

On the contrary, one researcher in the Humanities (#3) came to terms with the ‘digital researcher’ label relating it to the availability of a great deal of digital resources that constitute her ordinary work environment. However, her own attitude towards technology issues contrasts her own disciplinary context, that is still scarcely inclined to utilize technologies to support research:

“I am not be able to see among my colleagues, also in international contexts, a predisposition, an interest in making use of any tech applications, even if the use of these ones can apparently facilitate a certain phase of the research process. However, personally I feel a ‘digital researcher’, because I actually make an intensive use of digital services to conduct my research, from the access to databases of classic texts to thesaurus to bibliography search engines. Moreover, I have been undertaking a constant relation with computer science colleagues or software developers, discussing technical solutions and future projects.” (Humanities, #3)

One interviewee from the social sciences noted that “it’s commonplace that social scientists are digital scholars, since they use computational power to collect and analyze data” (#2). Another researcher felt that this label as directly aligned with his own thread of “study of phenomena related to uses of social networking environments” (Social Sciences, #1).

However, there is also awareness that the networked environment is becoming a condition that significantly creates one’s own approach to social inquiry:

“First of all it comes to mind the ‘digital ethnographer’, for instance Michael Wesch. But there is also a way of thinking of a ‘digital researcher’ dealing with our views of the world. Indeed the world of my research ideas is strongly affected and is continuously fed with all that is being shared on the Web, through digital mechanisms.” (Social Sciences, #3)

This latter interviewee (an associate professor) claims that his interest and attendance in social media are perceived as an “odd thing” by his colleagues and that such a behaviour is ‘tolerated’ only because he has already gained a solid reputation in his field and is well acquainted with the internal dynamics of the university. Another researcher in the humanities highlights how the label ‘digital researcher’ can also make sense “considering reflection effort on both instrumental and epistemic impact of technology on research process” (Humanities, #2). Finally, the research student in archeology advanced an idea of ‘digital researcher’ as a bearer of innovation, under different aspects:

“Indeed in my field the idea of a ‘digital archeologist’ could make sense, because there are still a few investigators attempting to ‘renew’ archeology’s study. On the one hand a digital researcher utilizes new tools to collaboratively model new methods that broaden the knowledge of archeological sites and finds. On the other hand, this approach also enables researcher to think of very new and effective ways to make a large lay audience aware of an extraordinary cultural heritage. So, I think that the commitment of a digital researcher should encompass a focus on popularizing archeology and dealing with a wider community.” (Humanities, #4)

How ‘digital reputation’ is perceived

Most interviewees appear to be very cautious in attributing any value to the expression of ‘digital reputation’, especially if it is linked to an individual researcher’s evaluation procedure. Some hold that

“digital reputation might be a component in the resume of a researcher in Communication Science, Humanities or Social Sciences, but it is of null importance in hard sciences.” (Medicine, #1)

In the same subject area, it is underlined that

“sometimes it was even argued whether an online publication was to be considered as valid in a researcher’s evaluation process. Indeed I can’t imagine how informal sharing, like blogs, could have a role in this.” (Medicine, #2)

Others stated that “indeed digital reputation might be an additional element to be evaluated when selecting a doctoral student as well his/her predisposition for teaching activity” (Physics, #1). But concerns were also highlighted relative to a likely discriminatory character of a ‘digital reputation’, that is perceived as “other with respect to the core competencies of a researcher” (Physics, #3) and as “an additional burden, that could be accepted only as a substitute of, say, some administrative commitment” (Social Sciences, #2). More generally, there is awareness that

“digital reputation can be an important indicator for scholarly reputation, even if it is difficult to identify criteria through which to assess this indicator in an evaluation process. Certainly the current formal evaluation approach is far from accepting indicators different than traditional ones.” (Social Sciences, #1)

In one single case, the notion of digital reputation was explicitly linked to the idea that “the democratization of knowledge is being enacted in the democratization of researchers” (Social Sciences, #3):

“I would be willing to evaluate the capacity to ‘move ideas around’. It is our responsibility to play a role as researchers in a wider context. The institutional impact of faculty’s ability to communicate to a larger audience than the academic one ... this has a key value. Sometimes it has a greater value than an Impact Factor has, this latter embeds a very ‘selfish’ (sic) value.” (Social Sciences, #3)

Indeed, the general idea that a researcher was able to express his/her public persona in many Web–based informal modes is positively shared in the humanities, but caution is reported against

“the risk to radicalize this trend on relying on crowdsourcing to define expert’s reputation and misrepresent digital reputation with quality of research outputs: I still believe in the validity of higher education’s mechanisms to filter access to inquiry work. It is neither possible or desirable to lower such a threshold.” (Humanities, #2)

Otherwise, ‘digital reputation’ is even interpreted as “presence in international subject–based rankings on the Web” (Medicine, #4) and is hoped for being a means of greater transparency of research, teaching and professional activities’ results, in a highly competitive research system.

Cultures of sharing

Sharing work in progress definitely does not belong to the common conventions of the interviewed researchers, across different subject areas:

“There is too much fear that your ideas can be stolen.” (Humanities, #1, also shared by #3 and Social Sciences, #2)

“Competition is too strong and often the nature of your research does not allow a partial disclosure of your underway study without missing the opportunity to be published as first.” (Medicine, #1; also #4)

Provided with examples of sharing drafts of book chapters, some state that “it deals with ‘star researchers’ who are so famous that their original work will be surely preserved” (Social Sciences, #2).

However, for all of the interviewees in medicine and physics the use of ‘open access’ repositories, such as PubMed and arXiv, constitutes a well–established mode to share unpublished works among peers, in order to activate “a peer critiquing process and quickly disseminate scientific results through the Web” (Medicine, #2). But also in this case the disseminated papers are always to be intended as “refined studies being exposed to peers’ judgement and not mere drafts of any piece of research underway” (Physics, #1).

Trends towards openness

The answers to the final question about trends of openness in the respective research fields revealed that most respondents formulated an early opinion on the theme while being interviewed. Sometimes there was a need to produce some examples related to the proposed trends (open publishing, open data, open boundary between academia and society, open education).

In places (Humanities, #1; Physics, #1; Medicine, #3; Social Sciences, #2) responses illustrated a sense of ‘not invented here’, referring to open practices in research and teaching that are currently reported elsewhere. One recalls that “practices and not values are to be investigated among researchers” (Social Sciences, #2).

As expected, ‘open publishing’ was the most familiar trend, since it is now acknowledged to be a real alternative in the dissemination process. In Medicine (#1, #2, #3) open publishing counts prestigious journals like PlosOne (with significant impact factors), but some observed that the economic model requiring a fee of authors created a group of “open journals that have little to do with the quality of scientific peer review” (Medicine #4; also Physics, #3). In physics, the role of arXiv is even more valued than the diffusion of open e–journals (#2, #3), that need time to gain credibility in international contexts. However not all disciplinary sectors within the hard sciences (Medicine #3 for psychology; Physics #3 for optics) are used to publish in renowned open access e–journals.

In the soft sciences, open publishing was seen as a sustainable alternative to create spaces to disseminate new topics and arguments:

“A great deal of publishing activity has more to do with an hand–crafted activity than with a real scientific approach: the research sector which the editor comes from is largely influential in the selection of papers and produces a sort of repetitive stylistic patterns. So, a really ‘new’ paper might not be ever published in these mainstream journals. Open access journals provide opportunities for new views to emerge, even if also within OA journals the same conservative dynamics might be developed in the next future.” (Social Sciences, #1)

Open e–journals are also seen as an opportunity to create original monographs, in which an editor is responsible for structuring content and involving selected experts, without applying traditional peer review (Humanities, #1). The sustainability factor — the local library department set up a devoted (free of charge) OA e–journal service — is reported to be a key issue in the endorsement of e–journals among humanities (#1, #2, #3) researchers.

Elsewhere, open publishing was discussed together with peer review, with some skepticism towards open peer review, that is likely to embed the same types of social dynamics and power relations occurring in traditional peer review (Social Sciences, #2; Medicine, #1).

A general interest about open education initiatives — MIT OpenCourseware was the most quoted example — was connected with concerns about the costs to adapt and update suitable content (Medicine, #1) and the lack of institutional rules protecting and acknowledging authors’ work (Humanities, #3). Only one researcher applied his own open approach, in a changing view of knowledge production, to his specific disciplinary sector:

“Open education, linked to open boundary: in the next future — at least in Human Resources Management inquiry — the flows of issues in which a researcher will be involved as an advisor will be paramount in the exercise of scholarship, rather than lab abstractions.” (Social Sciences, #3)

It is worth noting that two researchers (Humanities, #3; Social Sciences, #3) that appeared as the strongest users of networked technologies, also endorsed open education as an institutional moral responsibility. In fact, they adopted a participatory approach in their teaching activity. The former (Humanities, #3), convinced that “digital natives do not exist” but strove to involve freshmen in activities within the institutional e–learning platform. The latter (Social Sciences, #3), dealing with senior students, created debates and collaborative projects though social media.

Relative to ‘open data’, no researcher reported any pilots in their respective disciplines or to date has been required to publish own research data by any e–journal. This issue is closely related to the nature of data in different subject area: for instance in medicine (e.g., #1) there might be privacy problems, even if datasets are designed to be shared across researchers at different institutions.

An interviewee in the social sciences (#2) stated that the utilization of quantitative data for re–use in future studies was more likely than with qualitative data, due to predictable ethical issues but also to reduce over-exposure to peers’ evaluation. The question is even more complex with an international project (Physics, #2), in which there are complex copyright issues: however, a re–use of a subset of such data for teaching is thought as a ‘doable’ way to deal with open data.

As regards to issues related to the ‘open boundary’ between academia and society, many refer to ‘analog’ instances — such as face–to–face popular seminars, conferences and demo lectures (Medicine, #2, #3; Physics #1; #3) — that constitute a common and effective means to involve large non–specialist audiences as well as prospective students. Moreover, there is some skepticism that specific, highly specialized fields of study may meet cultural interests of a general audience already engaged in digital networks:

“On the one hand I can‘t imagine myself writing a blog about, say, Patrologia Latina after a day long devoted to intensive research work; on the other hand, I am experiencing how it is difficult to attract an ‘audience’ for an academic e–journal: this does not deal with, say, media studies or communication issues.” (Humanities #1)

Otherwise in Physics (#2) — in the field of high–energy physics — there was a need to popularize highly specialized scientific research, to justify huge investments that have no immediate recognizable and direct impacts on society.

On the contrary, in the social sciences (#1; #2) the threshold between academics’ knowledge and expertise and layman’s tended to blur, increasingly in digital environments: this on the one hand often constituted “a fantastic opportunity to social inquiry, but on the other hand it makes it hard to preserve integrity of research and to get acknowledgment for our ‘expert’ analysis by large audience” (Social Sciences, #2).

Nonetheless, some claimed that “weaving discourses in open networked environments can draw real advantages to better respond to real–life problems” (Social Sciences, #3). Finally, a doctoral researcher (Humanities, #4) noted a specific research output (a virtual museum) that constitutes per se an “outreach product”, being designed to blur boundaries between the specialist archeology domain and society that funds this research.

 

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Discussion

In the previous section I attempted to provide a detailed account of personal experiences and opinions of researchers, coming from four different subject areas, about their use of technologies for inquiry purposes as well as any informed predisposition towards open research practices. However it is worth reminding that these findings are narratives of 14 varied individuals rather than a representative sample of researchers adopting old and new technologies in four broad subject areas. Since the sampling strategy relied on convenience and snowball sampling, there are considerable problems in drawing large conclusions from such a small sample. However in spite of these limitations, it is possible to identify recurrent themes, shared experiences among participants and extreme cases that allow to provide some informed considerations on the relationship between digital scholarship and the practices of open scholarship.

My findings show a general picture of research practices in which the uptake of technologies by researchers underlies a functional and efficiency–driven approach to digital tools and environments and gives some evidence of a poor diffusion of and a cautious interest in Web 2.0 tools to support inquiry activities. These conclusions are in line with findings from large–scale empirical studies (Harley, et al., 2010; Schonfeld and Housewright, 2010; Procter, et al., 2010). However, among the humanities and social science researchers in the sample there are a few champions of an eclectic and self–legitimating approach to new technologies of communication, despite indifference in some disciplines to the potential of new digital tools and environments. Even though openness is loosely accepted across the disciplines, these champions imagine a ‘digital researcher’ as extending the culture of sharing in academia and engaged in undertaking tentative open practices, such as blogging, social networking and a participatory attitude in teaching. Apart from these rare exceptions, however, the general impression gained from the responses is of a ‘rhetoric of openness’ (White, 2011), ill–defined and full of uncertainties arising from a variety of tensions.

Common and uncommon cases of digital research practices undertaken by individual researchers can be interpreted more in details — from general to specific — whether considering analytical approaches, such as prevalent mode of knowledge production and distribution, type of ICTs appropriation in different disciplines and individual attitudes and motivations of researchers towards research use of technologies.

As reported in the literature review, Mode 2 of knowledge production and distribution by Gibbons, et al. (1994) can be intended as a frame enabling open research practice. Drawing from the interviews, researchers’ practices seem to be embedded in a prevalent Mode 1 of knowledge production and distribution, referring to an inquiry approach in which work practices are mainly driven by disciplinary and community conventions. The model of the ‘isolated scholar’ — typical in this traditional mode of knowledge — results to be still popular in well–established disciplines within soft sciences and is occasionally present in the statements by the hard sciences informants. Whether it is mentioned, the idea of one’s own community of research mainly refers to temporary work groups that are activated on demand, according to the needs of a specific paper to be written or project to be carried out, rather than to an inherent approach in which the collaborative work informs all research priorities and work phases.

Otherwise, a trend towards Mode 2 of knowledge production and distribution is particularly evident from the interviews of two researchers (high–energy physics; digital archeology). These two researchers rely on digital environments and adopt a problem–driven and collaborative approach, but differ in the boundaries of their research ‘fieldwork’ and typologies of personal technologies. In high–energy physics, the researcher works in a large but project–bounded online environment, in which ‘traditional’ digital means, such as e–mail and forums, allow continuing document sharing and peer critiquing activities. In digital archeology, the researcher works in a more fluid environment, defined by the networks that are established over time, and inclined to adopt a variety of both old and new tools for authoring and networking purposes. In high–energy physics, the culture of sharing is actually embedded in the specific subject area (physics) and allows a strong collaborative approach, but means for collaboration do not belong to open source ‘philosophy’ and activities are undertaken in a ‘closed’ circle (David, et al., 2009). In digital archeology, it is an example of a discipline in transition to the digital age (Borgman, 2007). It is also worth noting that in this case the transition of archeology towards the Mode 2 of knowledge production and distribution is driven and supported by a research institution external to the university (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) or the National Research Council).

However, as Houghton, et al. (2003) observed, in general features of Mode 1 and 2 co–exist: the presence of commercial publishers are usually accepted together with open access solutions (e–journals and/or online open repositories); a rigid defense of traditional rules for scholars recruitment co–exists together with the need to somewhat make sense of ‘digital reputation’; a need to pursue tenure and promotion beside an aspiration to involve new kinds of audiences; and, a confidence in traditional modes of knowledge production in well–established disciplines beside an early interrogation of the epistemological challenge coming from emergent networked environments.

Moreover, the findings reveal that there are differences in the uptake of digital scholarship according to diverse modality of ICTs appropriation inherent to diverse disciplinary areas, as interpreted by Fry’s (2006) framework. So, on the one hand, researchers working in subject areas in which a systematic approach to ICTs use (physics, medicine) is prevalent, are more likely to assume stable, structured and shared digital behaviors, within a collaborative work asset. Under such a condition of ICTs appropriation, community and scholarly rules are stronger factors than individual subjects to determine adoption of new tools and new practices. Although this attitude is shared among interviewees in the hard sciences, once again the current experience of a doctoral student in physics is the clearest example of such systematic approach to ICT use: he mostly relies on means and practices shared in a large online community to learn and practice research methods and to actively contribute to a collective project. However, I argue that whereas this kind of digital frame easily supports new and well–established researchers and make them ‘digital scholars’ by default, at the same time it is less enabling in the case of exploiting individual researchers’ technological attitudes and initiatives addressing communication and informal publishing activities. This is likely to weaken any influence by individual ‘early adopters’ of new technologies on a scholarly system that effectively works.

On the other hand, interviewees in subject areas in which work practices tend to be more individualistic, approaching ICTs in an “ad–hoc localized manner” (humanities, social sciences), are more likely to occasionally assume highly autonomous digital behaviors and pilot new tools and networking practices at an individual level. However, such new practices are less likely to become mainstream, because they are not grounded in a collaborative division of labour (Borgman, 2007). Moreover, the individualistic approach to inquiry work could partly explain the preference for open e–journals as new formal spaces of visibility for research or the lack of subject–based online repositories: for these latter humanistic researchers do not feel the competitive pressures to quickly disseminate works as their peers in hard sciences have, in their subject–based archives. However, some niches of co–evolution of digital environments and emerging research practices can be identified (digital archaeology) where there is a methodological and instrumental gap to be fulfilled and work practices in humanistic and scientific domains tend to converge. In the interviewee’s words, open collaboration is an efficient means to respond to a need of producing a more fine-tuned definition and advancement of methods in a ‘born–digital’ field.

Focusing instead on individual appropriation of ICTs, selection and patterns of use of technologies among informants reveal an approach that mostly matches the Visitor’s attitude rather then the Resident’s one (White and Le Cornu, 2011): the majority of researchers across the disciplines considered to fit the ‘Visitors’ approach, because they seem to mainly conceive technologies as tools to be used, if needed, in specific situations and for defined purposes. Their conception of the Web refers to the metaphor of a shed rather than to that of a social space. Introduction of new digital tools and environments mainly occurs where they are able to improve efficiency in existing practices and have a clear utilization: this is the case of the diffusion of an online conferencing tool such as Skype, supporting typical interaction at meetings. However, there are a few researchers that show a more exploratory approach towards emergent tools and in fact attempt to combine both Visitor and Resident type of online engagement, by building their own digital identity in various social media. However, a tension may occur between a subject’s attitude towards a Resident approach and current prevalent digital practices within a defined research discipline. Two different behaviours emerge. On one side, there is the case of a well–established social scientist that that makes his scholarly discourse available online and chooses to self–legitimate his digital engagement within his discipline, by combining ‘authoring’ and ‘networking’ activities with the construction of his role as a public intellectual. On the other side, therew is the case of a young researcher in the humanities that is a digital pioneer in her discipline of classics and prefers to play her own digital identity by focusing on her ‘professional expertise’ (as literature expert), keeping it separated by the online ‘traces’ of her academic profile. In Weller’s (2011b) terminology, these ‘digital scholars’ are ‘digital’ by being ‘networked’, since in fact they create and manage online a defined profile and a range of scholarly activities. However, only the social scientist — due to the character of his discipline and the strength of his mid–career position — really succeeds in playing a (parallel) role as a ‘digital scholars’ that is “less defined by the institution which he belongs to than by networks and online identity” (Weller, 2011b). Nonetheless, both researchers find in teaching — supported by technology-mediated environments — an opportunity to exploit a participatory attitude towards students that approaches a sense of ‘open scholarship’ as ‘co–creating’ mode of knowledge production and distribution (Garnett and Ecclesfield, 2011).

The doctoral researcher (archeology) embodies a more integrated mode to being “digital, networked and open”, in her commitment as an apprentice scholar focusing on ‘research’ (learn and scaffold research methods), ‘networking’ and, to a degree, ‘authoring’ activities, where ‘authoring’ means both writing reports and co–modeling inquiry work instruments within a community of software developers. Her online engagement as ‘Resident’ is enabled by an emergent disciplinary field in which there is alignment of old and new technologies, plus a variety of methodological challenges to be managed in working conditions in two different institutions, the inherent transdisciplinarity of the original field and the production of final research output (a virtual museum).

 

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Conclusions

This interview project provided a ‘snapshot’ of the digital research practices and related uptake of ‘openness‘ of a small sample of researchers in an Italian university, belonging to four different subject areas. Although it is not possible to generalize these findings, prevalent behaviours and beliefs and peculiar cases can be accounted.

Using the tentative definition of ‘digital scholar’ by Weller (2011b) as a synthesis tool, the majority of the interviewed researchers were traditionally ‘digital’, moderately ‘networked’ and occasionally ‘open’. These researchers generally made a consistent and efficient use of ‘old’ technologies that seem to fit well all communication and distribution needs, within the formal constraints of the scholarly system. Likewise, the most popular forms of openness were related to open publishing (open e–journals, subject–based online repositories) that better responded either to the needs of sustainable publishing venues for humanists or to the competitive nature of some subject areas in the hard sciences. Most interviewees seemed not to see any clear benefit to move to further technological means or new open practices, especially in the absence of information, institutional support, new rules within their own disciplines and any acknowledgement by peers.

However, there was an emergent ‘digital–as–networked’ behaviour undertaken from a small minority of researchers in the soft sciences. Their intensive use of the social Web was linked to a particular sensitiveness towards values and perspectives driven by ‘openness’ in digital networks. Nonetheless their digital identities and online activities constituted a ‘parallel’ academic life that developed as a self–legitimating approach within a traditional mode of knowledge production and distribution. These tentative efforts were not acknowledged in their respective communities, struggling to become identifiable open research practices. Indeed, some interviewees called for clear institutional rules enabling sharing practices — especially in teaching and learning — that might slowly produce a general change of attitude and overcome current isolated initiatives by a few pioneers of open scholarship. Otherwise, the case that better approached the label of ‘digital, networked and open’ scholar seemed to be that of an apprentice researcher in an emergent disciplinary context matching the features of ‘new knowledge production’. She was engaged in a sort of ‘limbo’ related to her doctoral work, activities shared between two institutions, between study and work and her own discipline in transition from traditional to digital assets and forms of scholarship. This case is emblematic of the need for research training not limited to the boundaries of a single institution, succeeding by becoming systematic and effective co–creation.

There are apparent limitations in this study: lacking previous inquiries on this topic within the national context, the analysis was founded on studies carried out in other higher education settings and might be somewhat misleading; the focus on four broad subject areas might not provide evidence for all typologies of disciplines; exclusively relying on individual researchers’ accounts does not permit an understanding of contextual factors or an investigation of scholarly practices as situated practices. Indeed, further research is needed in order to sample and investigate champions of digital and open practices in a range of disciplines, to gain in–depth understanding on motivations and patterns of practices. Moreover, a focus on doctoral students could be of interest from an institutional perspective, outlining prospective actions of academic literacies and design projects of innovative online communities of practices. End of article

 

About the authors

Antonella Esposito is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the E–learning doctoral program of the Open University of Catalonia. In 2011 she submitted a dissertation on the interplay between digital and open scholarship’s practices for the requirements of the M.Res. in Educational and Social Research, Institute of Education, University of London.
E–mail: esposito47 [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to give a special thanks to my supervisor Dr. Lesley Gourlay (Institute of Education) for her outstanding guidance and advice in this research. I would also like to thank all the interviewees for their time and insightful responses. They made this study per se rewarding.

 

Notes

1. Gibbons,, et al., 1994, p. 3.

2. Gibbons, et al., 1994, p. 14.

3. Hessels and van Lente, 2008, p. 757.

4..Fry, 2006, p. 302.

5. Fry, 2006, p. 303.

6. LSE Public Policy Group, 2011, pp. 38–58.

7. Op. cit.

8. LSE Policy Group, 2011, p. 45.

9. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/themes/eresearch.aspx.

10. Conole and Alevizou, 2010, p. 42.

11. Anderson, 2007, p. 2.

12. Weller, 2011a, p. 1.

13. Lea and Goodfellow, 2009, p. 3.

14.Becher and Trowler, 2001, p. 18; LSE Policy Group, 2011, p. 127.

15. Selwyn, 2010, p. 11.

16. Op. cit.

17. Schonfeld and Housewright, 2010, p. 25.

18. Harley, et al., 2010, p. 25.

19. Procter, et al., 2010, p. 8.

20. CIBER, 2010, p. 16.

21. Procter, et al., 2010, p. 8.

22. CIBER, 2010, p. 21.

23. CIBER, 2010, p. 25.

24. Procter, et al., 2010, p. 7.

25. Schonfeld and Housewright, 2010, p. 25.

26. Procter, et al., 2010, p. 5.

27. Harley, et al., 2010, p. 12.

28. Harley, et al., 2010, p. 15.

29. Holstein and Gubrium, 2004, p. 141

30. Fielding, 2003, p. 136.

31. Brown and Dowling, 2007, p. 74.

32. Flyvbjerg, 2004, p. 426.

33. Larsson, 2009, p. 31.

34. Cohen, et al., 2007, pp. 51–77.

35. Gibson and Brown, 2009, p. 116.

36. Miles and Huberman, 1994, pp. 245–246.

 

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Editorial history

Received 4 December 2011; revised 3 March 2012; accepted 20 March 2012.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Neither digital or open. Just researchers. Views on digital/open scholarship practices in an Italian university
by Antonella Esposito1
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 1 - 7 January 2013
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3881/3404
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i1.388





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