As Tony Hirst has blogged, his recent promotion case was unsuccessful. I'm obviously disappointed by this, for his sake, and because it was our first attempt at pushing through a digital scholarship case.
We don't know why it was unsuccessful yet (detailed feedback will follow I suspect), but today I was reading an excellent report from the Center for Higher Education Studies at Berkeley titled "Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: An Exploration of Faculty Valuesand Needs in Seven Disciplines". There are several points it raises which I think reflect on Tony's experience and others like him. Here are some key quotes with my interpretation of each of them:
"the peerreviewed journal article is the primary mode of scholarly dissemination in the sciences and the quantitative social sciences, while the more interpretive, historical, and qualitative disciplines rely heavily on the university press monograph with a varying mix of journal articles, critical editions, and other publications. These traditions, which rely heavily on various forms of peer review, may override the perceived “opportunities” afforded by new technologies, including those falling into the Web 2.0 category."
So, even if we acknowledge there are benefits to using new technologies, the cultural traditions may prevent us taking advantage of them. This was a theme I explored in my earlier presentation on researchers and new technologies and which I go into detail in for my forthcoming book.
"In most fields, however, a stellar publication record in prestigious peer-reviewed outlets usually counts significantly more in advancement decisions. At some institutions, scholarly contributions such as data curation or multimedia websites are considered to be forms of “service” or “teaching” in a scholar’s academic portfolio, or they may receive credit when presented in a peer-reviewed publication that “discusses” the resource or data set."
Even when other outputs are recognised, the peer-reviewed journal trumps them all to the extent that they may placed in an ill-fitting separate category.
"The degree to which peer review, despite its perceived shortcomings, is considered to be an important filter of academic quality, cannot be overstated."
This stuff is deeply entrenched.
"enthusiasm for the development and adoption of technology should not be conflated with the hard reality of tenure and promotion requirements (including the needs and goals of final archival publication) in highly competitive and complex professional environments. Experiments in new genres of scholarship and dissemination are occurring in every field, but they are taking place within the context of relatively conservative value and reward systems that have the practice of peer review at their core."
This reinforces the point I made in my research talk – the environment we have created works in direct opposition to innovation and adoption of new technologies. This is a dangerous situation.
If we take Tony as an example the way he works raises some interesting questions about what we mean by research. He typically explores new technologies and data visualisation in particular. A random sampling of recent posts include:
- An analysis of twitter connections between UK politicians
- A representation of online communities who use the same hashtag
- An interrogation of the Mendeley software to show users by institution
- Sharing his own promotion case
- A presentation on ‘data driven journalism’
Each of these is intended to promote discussion, and has suggestion for implications, for example in how higher education can make effective use of data. None of the posts arise from a specific research project, and each of them is fairly small in terms of time and resource. The use of a blog though (instead of publications) allows Tony to engage in this ongoing experimentation, as it has an outlet, and it simultaneously encourages it also since discussions will arise on the blog (or in other places such as Twitter). Taken as a whole then, the blog itself represents the research process, and in this context it is difficult to say that it is not demonstrating the REF definition of research: ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights effectively shared.’
A paper on scholarship has recently been approved by the OU Senate and there is undoubtedly a desire to engage with and recognise new forms of scholarly activity. But what the report demonstrates is that cultural practices are almost inextricably bound up with publishing. And when you unpick what publishing means it leads you to some difficult considerations. This is Bellow's Law in action. When a case like Tony's comes across it simply doesn't fit well with the existing framework. This is, I guess, one of the perils with being a pioneer. Not that this is much consolation.