In the spirit of my earlier post, "Scholar or Public Intellectual?," I'd like to explore the concept of what it might mean to be an "open scholar." The traditional scholar, like the scholarship he or she produces, isn't open--open-minded, hopefully, but not "open" in a public way. No, a typical scholar is very exclusive, available only to students in specific academic programs or through toll-access scholarly publications that are essentially unavailable to all but the most privileged. In the digital age, the traditional barriers to accessing scholars or scholarship are unnecessary, but persist for institutional reasons.
To put that another way, institutions of higher education are invested in keeping their scholars and those scholars' intellectual products limited and cloistered. This is a profoundly poor use of valuable resources, but it's bound to continue until institutions decide to reward scholars for doing more than contributing to niche knowledge communities. Think of the many publicly funded institutions of higher education, then think of the way those colleges and universities only reward their scholars if they are willing to conceal their expertise from the broader public that funded the institutions they work at. It's as unethical as it is unnecessary, but it will continue until institutions learn to be more publicly responsible with their intellectual resources, or until scholars reject the restrictive identity they are held to through the traditional reward system.
There have been some exceptions along the way, but generally speaking, the traditional scholar truly doesn't care about reaching anyone except those peers whose judgment determines his or her reputation. I reject this identity and the coterie knowledge it promotes. Scholars should be public intellectuals, responsive to multiple audiences, engaged in meaningful interchange across disciplines and boundaries of all kinds. And their knowledge products can and should extend well beyond the scholarly article, the monograph, or traditional measures of teaching.
At this point it would be tempting for me to speak about Open Access publishing, the important alternative to toll-access scholarly journals. And as so many of my posts have indicated, I'm a big proponent of Open Access. But I am also its critic. As I said before, I see Open Access as a kind of Middleware. My great concern is that the agents of change today have set their sights too low. The current Open Access model is provisioning for legacy genres and formats of scholarly communication. That's great for archival purposes, but this is not the next real destination for scholarly discourse. Why? Because consequential intellectual work takes place in myriad ways outside of traditional scholarly genres, that's why, and the digital realm is ready to capture, organize, value, and disseminate those other ways of generating knowledge.
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.
Those pursuing the Open Science model are on the vanguard of this effort, and I wish to give special mention of Jean-Claude Bradley and the Open Notebook approach he has used in the classroom. Give this podcast episode a listen (from IT Conversations) to catch the vision of this, or check out the lab notebooks from OpenWetWare (which is an Open Science portal for biology and biological engineering).
It's like this: there is great value to others to see the methods used in pursuing knowledge, the various attempts in pursuing solutions (failures as much as successes), the data generated (especially beyond the subset of data used for drawing conclusions in the study at hand), and the various resources used to mount the investigation (whether that is lab equipment, social resources, bibliography, theory, or protocols). Again, there is great value in others being allowed to see this whole context of inquiry, not just the final outcome for the specific study at hand.
Let me give you an example. I met some people recently who are doing studies of tabacco harm reduction. In their research they have, of course, looked up any and all studies that have to do with tobacco harm. But it turns out a lot of studies exist that only bring up tobacco incidentally (such as studies of occupational hazards in general). Now, if these epidemiologists had had access to the data from the occupation hazards studies (including the statistical models for crunching the data), then they could have drawn additional value from the occupational hazards research.
That's a simple example of how having open data is in fact provisioning for serendipity and how profoundly it respects the broader goals of knowledge building on knowledge. Traditional scholarship shuts down the many possible re-uses of scholarship by not keeping the processes and data open as part of the publication. It would be better to adopt the Open Science catchphrase, "no insider information."
Because the Open Scholar reveals his or her processes, data, and procedures, this can bridge the great divide between research and teaching. Not only does the whole model invite collaboration (including drawing upon students and uncredentialed participants), but it allows the modeling of best practices that can help newcomers understand the whole field in question, not just the specifics of a given study. In that podcast I mentioned above, Bradley comments on how people consulted the open notebooks of his class's project to learn to do simple things like precipitate solutions. I am not a chemist and am out of my depth here, but at least I understand how something which Bradley and his co-workers saw as an incidental means to a more important end proved to be the destination point for others. And there we go, the Open Scholar respects this sort of potential secondary benefit of his or her work. There is always the chance that others will not take for granted something that is just a given within your own work.
It is exciting to think of the many benefits of being an Open Scholar, but it does of course clash with traditional ways of publishing knowledge. It invites those into the laboratory, as it were, who might be unschooled or simply ignorant of the discipline one is working in. It could reveal secrets about proprietary data or threaten privacy laws. These are important concerns to consider. But they are not sufficiently troublesome to stick with the closed system and its "dark data."
I refer you to an earlier post in which I discussed the "lost assets of academia"--many kinds of valuable output generated (by students as well as faculty) in the teaching, learning, and researching processes are needlessly going to waste while universities insist on measuring the value of their scholars only in terms of print paradigm commodities: the scholarly article or monograph. The Open Scholar does not wait for the university to wake up to the great value of documenting and narrating his or her research--too many other people could benefit from what he or she is doing to keep all that good stuff hidden from view.
The Open Scholar is also open in the sense that he or she is reachable and responsive--open to input from those outside of the project, the institution, or even academia. He or she is not impatient with amateurs. And I think this sort of openness does require some facility with the new tools of social media--a blog, a wiki, etc. Why not microblog one's progress via Twitter? I'd love to hear about those attempting to do this and whether they have seen a benefit from exposing and narrating their scholarly projects or research.
What do you think of the concept of the "Open Scholar"? If you are an academic, does this appeal to you? Would you dare publish your preliminary thinking, your drafts, your experiments, your data, your false starts and failures? If you are not an academic, does Open Scholarship sound like it would be a greater benefit for the advancement of knowledge or the improvement of teaching? I think you know where I stand. I'm going to try to be more public about those various back-burner projects, as well as the ones I'm currently in the middle of. Maybe I'll change my mind as I make my own scholarly investigation as public as any finished "publication." But based on my other online projects that have generated so much helpful feedback for so many years, I know better than that.