The Digital Scholar revisited

I’m writing a paper at the moment which is revisiting my 2011 book The Digital Scholar, and asking ‘what has changed since then?’. Back in 2011, although elearning had entered the mainstream with widespread adoption of VLEs, much of the focus was on the potential of digital scholarship. A number of studies at the time indicated that adoption of new technology by academics was cautious and often greeted with suspicion. Proctor, Williams and Stewart (2010) summed up the prevailing attitude, finding ‘frequent or intensive use is rare, and some researchers regard blogs, wikis and other novel forms of communication as a waste of time or even dangerous’. Since then a lot has changed, so it was interesting to revisit. In thinking about what has changed since, I’ve ended up with five themes:

Mainstreaming of digital scholarship
The use of digital, networked technology in all aspects of scholarship has become part of the mainstream of practice. Not only is it no longer unusual to meet an academic with a blog or a Twitter account, but online identity is now seen as a central part of what it means to be an academic. Research projects will make use of twitter accounts to both disseminate findings and recruit subjects, online digital databases now form part of a researcher’s toolkit and tools for analyzing social media, VLE and geo data have generated new insights and approaches. In teaching, the advent of MOOCs may have been accompanied by hype but it also raised the profile of online education in general. Digital scholarship is now just part of scholarship in many respects.

The shift to open
Closely allied to digital scholarship is the development of open practice, which can be seen as a third component in the requirements for digital scholarship, building on digital and networked aspects.
In education ‘open’ has become a modifier for many terms, giving rise to open textbooks, open data, open pedagogy, open science and open educational practice. The increase in profile of open practice then underpins many of the subsequent themes, to the extent that open scholarship may in fact be a more descriptive term than digital scholarship.

Policy development
A further aspect of this mainstreaming is the development of institutional, regional or national policies with respect to different aspects of digital scholarship. Most prominent of these are the development of open access mandates which state that the outcomes of research funded by a particular body need to be released openly. ROARMAP tracks such policies at the funder, research organisation and multiple organisation level. It indicates that in 2011 (when the Digital Scholar was published) there were 387 such policies in total, compared with 887 at the end of 2017, in 68 different countries.
Related to open access publication mandates are policies relating to open data, which state that, as with publications, data arising from publicly funded research projects should be openly available. This area is less well developed than open access publications, but growing rapidly, in part because such policies can build on the work established by open access mandates. For example, SPARC Europe found that 13 European nations had open data policies at a national level, with most having been implemented recently. About half of these used the existing open access policy to expand coverage to open data.

Network identity
Perhaps the area of digital scholarship that has seen the most growth, both in terms of practice and associated research, is that of networked, academic identity. Veletsianos & Kimmons refer to Networked participatory scholarship (NPS) to encompass scholars’ use of social networks to “pursue, share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship”. This has been an area of growth as social media use in general has grown in society.
However, researchers are also increasingly identifying the negative aspects of networked scholarship also. Stewart comments that ‘network platforms are increasingly recognised as sites of rampant misogyny, racism, and harassment’. The initial promise of digital scholarship has often turned dark.

Criticality of digital scholarship
Following on from the recognition of the drawbacks of developing an online identity, is the last of the major trends, which is a growing body of work that examines digital scholarship through a critical lens.
This comes in different forms, but one prominent strand is suspicion about the claims of educational technology in general, and the role of software companies in particular. One of the consequences of digital scholarship and open practices entering the mainstream of education is that they become increasingly attractive routes for companies to enter the education market. Much of the narrative around digital scholarship is associated with change, which quickly becomes co-opted into broader agendas around commercialisation, commodification and massification of education.

While there has been considerable change, it is worth indicating that much has remained unchanged also. The ‘approach with caution’ attitude towards digital scholarship that was prevalent in 2011 still prevails to an extent.
What has been realised then is not so much a revolution in academic practice, but a gradual acceptance and utilisation of digital scholarship techniques, practices and values. This means that depending on your particular perspective, it can seem to be simultaneously true that radical change has taken place, and nothing has fundamentally altered. Much of the increased adoption in academia mirrors the wider penetration of social media tools amongst society in general, so academics are more likely to have an identity in such places that mixes professional and personal.
The relationship between digital and traditional scholarship is best viewed as one of dialogue and interaction between the two, rather than competition and revolution. Using these five themes provides a model for considering how this symbiotic progress will develop. Mainstreaming, the shift to open and policy development will act as drivers for the uptake of digital scholarship across all aspects of Boyer’s framework. Network identity can be seen as the lived experience of these drivers for many scholars, which can act as both an inhibitor and promoter of further uptake. Criticality provides a much needed check on unquestioning adoption, and analysis of the impact on learners and scholarly practice.

Of course, if things had really changed, I wouldn’t be writing an article at all, and instead would just submit a naff meme:


One Comment

  1. On Bonnie’s observation that “The initial promise of digital scholarship has often turned dark.” I suspect that this isn’t unique to digital scholarship and is reflective of a wider societal trend. I’m not a researcher, but it certainly feels to me that that the entire digital landscape (and social media in particular) has become increasingly dark, hostile and generally bleech compared to the more collegial and convivial space that I experienced 10-15 years ago.

    One thing I was wondering about. Do you think there has been a shift in acceptance about the value of digital scholarship within institutions themselves? Are digital scholars being encouraged (and perhaps rewarded through tenure or promotion) to be an open, networked, digital scholar?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *