A reply to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Why Not Blog?

Replied to Why Not Blog? by Kathleen FitzpatrickKathleen Fitzpatrick (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)

My friend Alan Jacobs, a key inspiration in my return (such as it is, so far) to blogging and RSS and a generally pre-Twitter/Facebook outlook on the scholarly internet, is pondering the relationship between blogging and other forms of academic writing in thinking about his next project. Perhaps needless to say, this is something I’m considering as well, and I’m right there with him in most regards.

But there are a few spots where I’m not, entirely, and I’m not sure whether it’s a different perspective or a different set of experiences, or perhaps the latter having led to the former.

I really like where you’re coming from on so many fronts here (and on your site in general). Thanks for such a great post on a Friday afternoon. A lot of what you’re saying echos the ideas of many old school bloggers who use their blogs as “thought spaces“. They write, take comments, iterate, hone, and eventually come up with stronger thoughts and theses. Because of the place in which they’re writing, the ideas slowly percolate and grow over a continuum of time rather than spring full-formed seemingly from the head of Zeus the way many books would typically appear to the untrained eye. I’ve not quite seen a finely coalesced version of this idea though I’ve seen many dance around it obliquely. The most common name I’ve seen is that of a “thought space” or sometimes the phrase “thinking out loud”, which I notice you’ve done at least once. In some sense, due to its public nature, it seems like an ever-evolving conversation in a public commons. Your broader idea and blogging experience really make a natural progression for using a website to slowly brew a book.

My favorite incarnation of the idea is that blogs or personal websites are a digital and public shared commonplace book. Commonplaces go back to the 15th century and even certainly earlier, but I like to think of websites as very tech-forward versions of the commonplaces kept by our forebears.

I’ve seen a few educators like Aaron Davis and Ian O’Byrne take to the concept of a commonplace, though both have primary websites for writing and broader synthesis and secondary sites for collecting and annotating the web. I tend to aggregate everything (though not always published publicly) on my primary site after having spent some time trying not to inundate email subscribers as you’ve done.

There’s also a growing movement, primarily in higher education, known as A Domain of One’s Own or in shortened versions as either “Domains” or even #DoOO which is a digital take on the Virgina Woolf quote “Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.”

There are a growing number of educators, researchers, and technologists reshaping how the web is used which makes keeping an online commonplace much easier. In particular, we’re all chasing a lot of what you’re after as well:

Part of what I’m after is consolidating my presence online as much as possible, especially onto platforms that I can control.

To me, this sounds like one of the major pillars of the IndieWeb movement which is taking control of the web back from corporate social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et. al. Through odd serendipity, I came across your micro.blog account this morning which led me to your website. A lot of the underpinnings of micro.blog are informed by the IndieWeb movement. In many subtle ways, I might suspect the two had a lot of influence on your particular choice of WordPress theme.

Tonight I’ve also seen your reply to Dan Cohen’s question:

I had previously replied to Dan’s original question, but somehow missed your side thread at the time. I suspect you didn’t see our branch of the conversation either.

Interestingly, your presumption that the replies/notifications stay within their own domains isn’t necessarily fait accompli, at least not any more. There’s a new web specification in the past few years called Webmention that allows notifications and replies to cross website boundaries unlike Twitter @mentions which are permanently stuck within Twitter. Interestingly, because of the way you’ve set up your WordPress website to dovetail with micro.blog you’re almost 90 percent of the way to supporting it easily. If you add and slightly configure the Webmention and Semantic Linkbacks plugins, the asides and other content you’re syndicating into micro.blog will automatically collect the related conversation around them back to your own posts thus allowing you to have a copy of your content on your own website as well as the surrounding conversation, which is no longer as diffuse as you imagined it needed to be. Here’s an example from earlier this evening where I posted to my site and your response (and another) on micro.blog came back to me. (Sadly there’s a Gravatar glitch preventing the avatars from displaying properly, but hopefully I’ll solve that shortly.)

This same sort of thing can be done with Twitter including native threading and @mentions, if done properly, by leveraging the free Brid.gy service to force Twitter to send your site webmentions on your behalf. (Of course this means you might need to syndicate your content to Twitter in a slightly different manner than having micro.blog do on your behalf, but there are multiple ways of doing this.)

I also notice that you’ve taken to posting copies of your tweeted versions at the top of your comments sections. There’s a related IndieWeb plugin called Syndication Links that is made specifically to keep a running list of the places to which you’ve syndicated your content. This plugin may solve a specific need for you in addition to the fact that it dovetails well with Brid.gy to make sure your posts get the appropriate comments back via webmention.

I’m happy to help walk you through setting up some of the additional IndieWeb tech for your WordPress website if you’re interested. I suspect that having the ability to use your website as a true online hub in addition to doing cross website conversations is what you’ve been dreaming about, possibly without knowing it. Pretty soon you’ll be aggregating and owning all of your digital breadcrumbs to compile at a later date into posts and eventually articles, monographs, and books.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s a growing group of us in the education/research fields that are continually experimenting and building new functionalities for online (and specifically academic) communication. I and a plethora of others would welcome you to join us on the wiki, in chat, or even at upcoming online or in-person events.

In any case, thanks for sharing your work and your thoughts with the world. I wish more academics were doing what you are doing online–we’d all be so much richer for it. I know this has been long and is a potential rabbithole you may disappear into, so thank you for the generosity of your attention.

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👓 Why Not Blog? | Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Read Why Not Blog? by Kathleen FitzpatrickKathleen Fitzpatrick (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)
My friend Alan Jacobs, a key inspiration in my return (such as it is, so far) to blogging and RSS and a generally pre-Twitter/Facebook outlook on the scholarly internet, is pondering the relationship between blogging and other forms of academic writing in thinking about his next project. Perhaps needless to say, this is something I’m considering as well, and I’m right there with him in most regards.

Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia

The blog was not just the venue in which I started putting together the ideas that became my second book, the one that made promotion and various subsequent jobs possible, but it was also the way that I was able to demonstrate that there might be a readership for that second book, without which it’s much less likely that a press would have been interested.  

This sounds like she’s used her blog as both a commonplace book as well as an author platform.

In fact blog posts are not the kind of thing one can detail on one’s annual review form, and even a blog in the aggregate doesn’t have a place in which it’s easy to be claimed as a site of ongoing scholarly productivity.  

Mine have gone more like (1) having some vague annoying idea with a small i; (b) writing multiple blog posts thinking about things related to that idea; (iii) giving a talk somewhere fulminating about some other thing entirely; (4) wondering if maybe there are connections among those things; (e) holy carp, if I lay the things I’ve been noodling about over the last year and a half out in this fashion, it could be argued that I am in the middle of writing a book!  

Here’s another person talking about blogs as “thought spaces” the same way that old school bloggers like Dave Winer and Om Malik amongst many others have in the past. While I’m thinking about it I believe that Colin Walker and Colin Devroe have used this sort of idea as well.

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I’ve come across many journals (and particularly many talking about Altmetrics1,2) that are supporting the old refback infrastructure and wonder why they haven’t upgraded to implement the more feature rich webmention specification?

I’ve been thinking more lately about how to create a full stack IndieWeb infrastructure to replace the major portions of the academic journal ecosystem which would allow researchers to own their academic papers but still handle some of the discovery piece. Yesterday’s release of indieweb.xyz, which supports categories, reminds me that I’d had an idea a while back that something like IndieNews’ structure could be modified to create a syndication point that could act as an online journal/pre-print server infrastructure for discovery purposes.

A little birdie has told me that there’s about to be a refback renaissance to match the one currently happening with webrings.

References

1.
Akers KG. Introducing altmetrics to the Journal of the Medical Library Association. Journal of the Medical Library Association. http://jmla.mlanet.org/ojs/jmla/article/view/250/403. Published July 3, 2017. Accessed July 2, 2018.
2.
Roemer RC, Borchardt R. Chapter 2. Major Altmetrics Tools. ALA Tech Source. https://journals.ala.org/index.php/ltr/article/view/5746/7187. Published July 1, 2015. Accessed July 2, 2018.
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👓 Introducing Janeway – the new open source publishing software | Birkbeck, University of London

Read Introducing Janeway – the new open source publishing software from Birkbeck (bbk.ac.uk)
The Birkbeck Centre for Technology and Publishing has released a new scholarly communications platform, Janeway, as an open-source download.
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👓 Self-platforming, DoOO, and academic workflows | Tim Clarke

Read Self-platforming, DoOO, and academic workflows by Tim ClarkeTim Clarke (simulacrumbly.com)
I see self-platforming as an expression of my own digital citizenship, and I also see it as my deliberate answer to the call for digital sanctuary.  The frequency and extent to which educators urge students onto extractive applications is of great concern.  Self-platforming offers opportunities to benefit from the collaborative, hyper-textual, asynchronous, and distributed qualities of the web, while diminishing the costs — often hidden to us — of working on proprietary and extractive platforms.

I love that Tim is looking closely at how the choices of tools he’s using can potentially impact his students/readers. I’ve also been in the boat he’s in–trying to wrangle some simple data in a way that makes it easy to collect, read, and disseminate content for myself, students, and other audiences.

Needing to rely on five or more outside services (Twitter, Instapaper, Pinboard, bit.ly, and finally even Canvas, where some of them are paid services) seems just painful and excessive. He mentions the amount and level of detail he’s potentially giving away to just bit.ly, but each of these are all taking a bite out of the process. Of course this doesn’t take into consideration the fact that Instapaper is actually a subsidiary of Betaworks, the company that owns and controls bit.ly, so there’s even more personal detail being consumed and aggregated there than he may be aware. All this is compounded by the fact that Instapaper is currently completely blocking its users within the EU because it hasn’t been able to comply with the privacy and personal data details/restrictions of the GDPR. Naturally, there’s currently no restrictions on it in the U.S. or other parts of the world.

I (and many others) have been hacking away for the past several years in trying to tame much of our personal data in a better way to own it and control it for ourselves. And isn’t this part of the point of having a domain of one’s own? Even his solution of using Shaarli to self-host his own bookmarks, while interesting, seems painful to me in some aspects. Though he owns and controls the data, because it sits on a separate domain it’s not as tightly integrated into his primary site or as easily searched. To be even more useful, it needs additional coding and integration into his primary site which appears to run on WordPress. With the givens, it looks more like he’s spending some additional time running his own separate free-standing social media silo just for bookmarks. Why not have it as part of his primary personal hub online?

I’ve been watching a growing trend of folks both within the IndieWeb/DoOO and edtech spaces begin using their websites like a commonplace book to host a growing majority of their own online and social related data. This makes it all easier to find, reference, consume, and even create new content in the future. On their own sites, they’re conglomerating all their data about what they’re reading, highlighting, annotating, bookmarking, liking, favoriting, and watching in addition to their notes and thoughts. When appropriate, they’re sharing that content publicly (more than half my website is hidden privately on my back end, but still searchable and useful only to me) or even syndicating it out to social sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instapaper, et al. to share it within other networks.

Some other examples of educators and researchers doing this other than myself include Aaron Davis, Greg McVerry, John Johnson, and more recently W. Ian O’Byrne and Cathie LeBlanc among many others. Some have chosen to do it on their primary site while others are experimenting using two or even more. I would hope that as Tim explores, he continues to document his process as well as the pros and cons of what he does and the resultant effects. But I also hopes he discovers this growing community of scholars, teachers, programmers and experimenters who have been playing in the same space so that he knows he’s not alone and perhaps to prevent himself from going down some rabbit holes some of us have explored all too well. Or to use what may be a familiar bit of lingo to him, I hope he joins our impromptu, but growing personal learning network (PLN).

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Some Thoughts on Academic Publishing and “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone” from Science | AAAS

Bookmarked Who's downloading pirated papers? Everyone by John Bohannon (Science | AAAS)
An exclusive look at data from the controversial web site Sci-Hub reveals that the whole world, both poor and rich, is reading pirated research papers.

Sci Hub has been in the news quite a bit over the past half a year and the bookmarked article here gives some interesting statistics. I’ll preface some of the following editorial critique with the fact that I love John Bohannon’s work; I’m glad he’s spent the time to do the research he has. Most of the rest of the critique is aimed at the publishing industry itself.

From a journalistic standpoint, I find it disingenuous that the article didn’t actually hyperlink to Sci Hub. Neither did it link out (or provide a full quote) to Alicia Wise’s Twitter post(s) nor link to her rebuttal list of 20 ways to access their content freely or inexpensively. Of course both of these are editorial related, and perhaps the rebuttal was so flimsy as to be unworthy of a link from such an esteemed publication anyway.

Sadly, Elsevier’s list of 20 ways of free/inexpensive access doesn’t really provide any simple coverage for graduate students or researchers in poorer countries which are the likeliest group of people using Sci Hub, unless they’re going to fraudulently claim they’re part of a class which they’re not, and is this morally any better than the original theft method? It’s almost assuredly never used by patients, which seem to be covered under one of the options, as the option to do so is painfully undiscoverable past their typical $30/paper firewalls. Their patchwork hodgepodge of free access is so difficult to not only discern, but one must keep in mind that this is just one of dozens of publishers a researcher must navigate to find the one thing they’re looking for right now (not to mention the thousands of times they need to do this throughout a year, much less a career).

Consider this experiment, which could be a good follow up to the article: is it easier to find and download a paper by title/author/DOI via Sci Hub (a minute) versus through any of the other publishers’ platforms with a university subscription (several minutes) or without a subscription (an hour or more to days)? Just consider the time it would take to dig up every one of 30 references in an average journal article: maybe just a half an hour via Sci Hub versus the days and/or weeks it would take to jump through the multiple hoops to first discover, read about, and then gain access and then download them from the over 14 providers (and this presumes the others provide some type of “access” like Elsevier).

Those who lived through the Napster revolution in music will realize that the dead simplicity of their system is primarily what helped kill the music business compared to the ecosystem that exists now with easy access through the multiple streaming sites (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) or inexpensive paid options like (iTunes). If the publishing business doesn’t want to get completely killed, they’re going to need to create the iTunes of academia. I suspect they’ll have internal bean-counters watching the percentage of the total (now apparently 5%) and will probably only do something before it passes a much larger threshold, though I imagine that they’re really hoping that the number stays stable which signals that they’re not really concerned. They’re far more likely to continue to maintain their status quo practices.

Some of this ease-of-access argument is truly borne out by the statistics of open access papers which are downloaded by Sci Hub–it’s simply easier to both find and download them that way compared to traditional methods; there’s one simple pathway for both discovery and download. Surely the publishers, without colluding, could come up with a standardized method or protocol for finding and accessing their material cheaply and easily?

“Hart-Davidson obtained more than 100 years of biology papers the hard way—legally with the help of the publishers. ‘It took an entire year just to get permission,’ says Thomas Padilla, the MSU librarian who did the negotiating.” John Bohannon in Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone

Personally, I use use relatively advanced tools like LibX, which happens to be offered by my institution and which I feel isn’t very well known, and it still takes me longer to find and download a paper than it would via Sci Hub. God forbid if some enterprising hacker were to create a LibX community version for Sci Hub. Come to think of it, why haven’t any of the dozens of publishers built and supported simple tools like LibX which make their content easy to access? If we consider the analogy of academic papers to the introduction of machine guns in World War I, why should modern researchers still be using single-load rifles against an enemy that has access to nuclear weaponry?

My last thought here comes on the heels of the two tweets from Alicia Wise mentioned, but not shown in the article:

She mentions that the New York Times charges more than Elsevier does for a full subscription. This is tremendously disingenuous as Elsevier is but one of dozens of publishers for which one would have to subscribe to have access to the full panoply of material researchers are typically looking for. Further, Elsevier nor their competitors are making their material as easy to find and access as the New York Times does. Neither do they discount access to the point that they attempt to find the subscription point that their users find financially acceptable. Case in point: while I often read the New York Times, I rarely go over their monthly limit of articles to need any type of paid subscription. Solely because they made me an interesting offer to subscribe for 8 weeks for 99 cents, I took them up on it and renewed that deal for another subsequent 8 weeks. Not finding it worth the full $35/month price point I attempted to cancel. I had to cancel the subscription via phone, but why? The NYT customer rep made me no less than 5 different offers at ever decreasing price points–including the 99 cents for 8 weeks which I had been getting!!–to try to keep my subscription. Elsevier, nor any of their competitors has ever tried (much less so hard) to earn my business. (I’ll further posit that it’s because it’s easier to fleece at the institutional level with bulk negotiation, a model not too dissimilar to the textbook business pressuring professors on textbook adoption rather than trying to sell directly the end consumer–the student, which I’ve written about before.)

(Trigger alert: Apophasis to come) And none of this is to mention the quality control that is (or isn’t) put into the journals or papers themselves. Fortunately one need’t even go further than Bohannon’s other writings like Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? Then there are the hordes of articles on poor research design and misuse of statistical analysis and inability to repeat experiments. Not to give them any ideas, but lately it seems like Elsevier buying the Enquirer and charging $30 per article might not be a bad business decision. Maybe they just don’t want to play second-banana to TMZ?

Interestingly there’s a survey at the end of the article which indicates some additional sources of academic copyright infringement. I do have to wonder how the data for the survey will be used? There’s always the possibility that logged in users will be indicating they’re circumventing copyright and opening themselves up to litigation.

I also found the concept of using the massive data store as a means of applied corpus linguistics for science an entertaining proposition. This type of research could mean great things for science communication in general. I have heard of people attempting to do such meta-analysis to guide the purchase of potential intellectual property for patent trolling as well.

Finally, for those who haven’t done it (ever or recently), I’ll recommend that it’s certainly well worth their time and energy to attend one or more of the many 30-60 minute sessions most academic libraries offer at the beginning of their academic terms to train library users on research tools and methods. You’ll save yourself a huge amount of time.

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Thoughts on “Some academics remain skeptical of Academia.edu” | University Affairs

Replied to Some academics remain skeptical of Academia.edu (University Affairs)
They warn scholars to €œthink twice€ before sharing their work on the popular social network.

This morning I ran across a tweet from colleague Andrew Eckford:

His response was probably innocuous enough, but I thought the article should be put to task a bit more.

“35 million academics, independent scholars and graduate students as users, who collectively have uploaded some eight million texts”

35 million users is an okay number, but their engagement must be spectacularly bad if only 8 million texts are available. How many researchers do you know who’ve published only a quarter of an article anywhere, much less gotten tenure?

“the platform essentially bans access for academics who, for whatever reason, don’t have an Academia.edu account. It also shuts out non-academics.”

They must have changed this, as pretty much anyone with an email address (including non-academics) can create a free account and use the system. I’m fairly certain that the platform was always open to the public from the start, but the article doesn’t seem to question the statement at all. If we want to argue about shutting out non-academics or even academics in poorer countries, let’s instead take a look at “big publishing” and their $30+/paper paywalls and publishing models, shall we?

“I don’t trust academia.edu”

Given his following discussion, I can only imagine what he thinks of big publishers in academia and that debate.

“McGill’s Dr. Sterne calls it “the gamification of research,”

Most research is too expensive to really gamify in such a simple manner. Many researchers are publishing to either get or keep their jobs and don’t have much time, information, or knowledge to try to game their reach in these ways. And if anything, the institutionalization of “publish or perish” has already accomplished far more “gamification”, Academia.edu is just helping to increase the reach of the publication. Given that research shows that most published research isn’t even read, much less cited, how bad can Academia.edu really be? [Cross reference: Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age]

If we look at Twitter and the blogging world as an analogy with Academia.edu and researchers, Twitter had a huge ramp up starting in 2008 and helped bloggers obtain eyeballs/readers, but where is it now? Twitter, even with a reasonable business plan is stagnant with growing grumblings that it may be failing. I suspect that without significant changes that Academia.edu (which is a much smaller niche audience than Twitter) will also eventually fall by the wayside.

The article rails against not knowing what the business model is or what’s happening with the data. I suspect that the platform itself doesn’t have a very solid business plan and they don’t know what to do with the data themselves except tout the numbers. I’d suspect they’re trying to build “critical mass” so that they can cash out by selling to one of the big publishers like Elsevier, who might actually be able to use such data. But this presupposes that they’re generating enough data; my guess is that they’re not. And on that subject, from a journalistic viewpoint, where’s the comparison to the rest of the competition including ResearchGate.net or Mendeley.com, which in fact was purchased by Elsevier? As it stands, this simply looks like a “hit piece” on Academia.edu, and sadly not a very well researched or reasoned one.

In sum, the article sounds to me like a bunch of Luddites running around yelling “fire”, particularly when I’d imagine that most referred to in the piece feed into the more corporate side of publishing in major journals rather than publishing it themselves on their own websites. I’d further suspect they’re probably not even practicing academic samizdat. It feels to me like the author and some of those quoted aren’t actively participating in the social media space to be able to comment on it intelligently. If the paper wants to pick at the academy in this manner, why don’t they write an exposé on the fact that most academics still have websites that look like they’re from 1995 (if, in fact, they have anything beyond their University’s mandated business card placeholder) when there are a wealth of free and simple tools they could use? Let’s at least build a cart before we start whipping the horse.

For academics who really want to spend some time and thought on a potential solution to all of this, I’ll suggest that they start out by owning their own domain and own their own data and work. The #IndieWeb movement certainly has an interesting philosophy that’s a great start in fixing the problem; it can be found at http://www.indiewebcamp.com.

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3 Rules of Academic Blogging

Bookmarked 3 Rules of Academic Blogging (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Not only is the form alive and well, but one of its most vibrant subsections is in academe.

1. Pick the right platform.
2. Write whatever you want.
3. Write for the sake of writing.

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Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age

Creation of a Task Force on Academic Freedom

Not long ago, my alma mater Johns Hopkins University announced the creation of a task force on Academic Freedom.   Since then, I’ve corresponded with the group on a few occasions and in the spirit of my notes to them, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts with others in the academy, science writers/communicators, and even the general public who may also find them useful.  Toward that end, below is a slightly modified version of my two main emails to the task force. [They’ve been revised marginally for their appearance and readability in this format and now also include section headings.] While I’m generally writing about Johns Hopkins as an example, I’m sure that the majority of it also applies to the rest of the academy.

On a personal note, the first email has some interesting thoughts and background, while the second email has some stronger broader recommendations.

Jacques-Louis David's  (1787) Oil on canvas entitled "The Death of Socrates"
Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” (1787, Oil on canvas)

 

My First Thoughts to the Task Force

Matthew Green’s Blog and Questions of National Security

Early in September 2013, there was a rather large PR nightmare created for the university (especially as it regards poor representation within the blogosphere and social media) when interim Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering Andrew Douglas requested to have professor Matthew Green’s web presence modified in relation to an alleged anti-NSA post on it.  Given the increasing level of NSA related privacy news at the time (and since as relates to the ongoing Edward Snowden case), the case was certainly blown out of proportion.  But the Green/NSA story is also one of the most highlighted cases relating to academic freedom in higher education in the last several years, and I’m sure it may be the motivating force behind why the task force was created in the first place.  (If you or the task force is unaware of the issues in that case you can certainly do a quick web search, though one of the foremost followers of the controversy was ArsTechnica which provided this post with most of the pertinent information; alternately take a look at what journalism professor Jay Rosen had to say on the issue in the Guardian.) I’m sure you can find a wealth of additional reportage from the Hopkins Office of News and Information which maintains its daily digests of “Today’s News” from around that time period.

In my mind, much of the issue and the outpouring of poor publicity, which redounded to the university, resulted from the media getting information about the situation via social media before the internal mechanisms of the university had the chance to look at the issue in detail and provide a more timely resolution. [Rumors via social media will certainly confirm Mark Twain’s aphorism that “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”]

While you’re mulling over the issue of academic freedom, I would highly suggest you all closely consider the increased impact of the internet and particularly social media with regard to any policies which are proposed going forward.  As the volunteer creator and initial maintainer of much of Hopkins’ social media presence on both Facebook and Twitter as well as many others for their first five years of existence (JHU was the first university in these areas of social media and most other major institutions followed our early lead), I have a keen insight to how these tools impact higher education.  With easy-to-use blogging platforms and social media (Matthew Green had both a personal blog that was hosted outside the University as well as one that was mirrored through the University as well as a Twitter account), professors now have a much larger megaphone and constituency than they’ve had any time in the preceding 450 years of the academy.  This fact creates unique problems as it relates to the university, its image, how it functions, and how its professoriate interact with relation to academic freedom, which is a far different animal than it had been even 17 years ago at the dawn of the internet age. Things can obviously become sticky and quickly as evinced in the Green/APL situation which was exacerbated by the APL’s single source of income at a time when the NSA and privacy were foremost in the public eye.

What are Some of the Issues for Academic Freedom in the Digital Age?

Consider the following:

  • How should/shouldn’t the university regulate the border of social media and internet presence at  the line between personal/private lives and professional lives?
  • How can the university help to promote/facilitate the use of the internet/social media to increase the academic freedom of its professoriate and simultaneously lower the technological hurdles as well as the generational hurdles faced by the academy? (I suspect that few on the task force have personal blogs or twitter accounts, much less professional blogs hosted by the university beyond their simple “business card” information pages through their respective departments.)
  • How should the university handle issues like the Matthew Green/APL case so that comments via social media don’t gain steam and blow up in the media before the university has a chance to handle them internally? (As I recall, there were about two news cycles of JHU saying “no comment” and resulting bad press which reached the level of national attention prior to a resolution.)
  • How can the university help to diffuse the issues which led up to the Green/APL incident before they happen?
  • What type of press policy can the university create to facilitate/further academic freedom? (Here’s a bad example from professor Jonathan Katz/Washington University with some interesting commentary.)

I hope that the task force is able to spend some time with Dr. Green discussing his case and how it was handled.

Personal Reputation on the Internet in a Connected Age

I also suggest that the students on the task force take a peek into the case file of JHU’s Justin Park from 2007, which has become a textbook-case for expression on the internet/in social media and its consequences (while keeping in mind that it was a social/cultural issue which was the root cause of the incident rather than malice or base racism – this aspect of the case wasn’t/isn’t highlighted in extant internet reportage – Susan Boswell [Long-time Dean of Sudent Life] and Student Activities head Robert Turner can shed more light on the situation). Consider what would the university have done if Justin Park had been a professor instead of a student? What role did communication technology and the internet play in how these situations played out now compared to how they would have been handled when Dr. Grossman was a first year professor just starting out? [Editor’s note: Dr. Grossman is an incredible thought leader, but most of his life and academic work occurred prior to the internet age. Though unconfirmed, I suspect that his internet experience or even experience with email is exceedingly limited.]

Academic Samizdat

In a related issue on academic freedom and internet, I also hope you’re addressing or at least touching on the topic of academic samizdat, so that the university can put forward a clear (and thought-leading) policy on where we stand there as well.  I could certainly make a case that the university come out strongly in favor of professors maintaining the ability to more easily self-publish without detriment to their subsequent publication chances in major journals (and resultant potential detriment to the arc of their careers), but the political ramifications in this changing landscape are certainly subtle given that the university deals with both major sides as the employer of the faculty while simultaneously being one of the major customers of the institutionalized research publishing industry.  As I currently view the situation, self-publishing and the internet will likely win the day over the major publishers which puts the university in the position of pressing the issue in a positive light to its own ends and that of increasing knowledge for the world. I’m sure Dean Winston Tabb [Dean of the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins] and his excellent staff could provide the task force with some useful insight on this topic. Simultaneously, how can the increased areas of academic expression/publication (for example the rapidly growing but still relatively obscure area known as the “Digital Humanities”) be institutionalized such that publication in what have previously been non-traditional areas be included more formally in promotion decisions? If professors can be incentivized to use some of their academic freedom and expanded opportunities to both their and the university’s benefit, then certainly everyone wins. Shouldn’t academic freedom also include the freedom of where/when to publish without detriment to one’s future career – particularly in an increasingly more rapidly shifting landscape of publication choices and outlets?

The Modern Research University is a Content Aggregator and Distributor (and Should Be Thought of as Such)

Taking the topic even further several steps further, given the value of the professoriate and their intellectual creations and content, couldn’t/shouldn’t the university create a customized platform to assist their employees in disseminating and promoting their own work? As an example, consider the volume of work (approximate 16,000-20,000 journal articles/year, as well as thousands of articles written for newspapers (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.), magazines, and other outlets – academic or otherwise) being generated every year by those within the university.  In a time of decreasing cost of content distribution, universities no longer need to rely on major journals, magazines, television stations, cable/satellite television, et al. to distribute their “product”.  To put things in perspective, I can build the infrastructure to start a 24/7 streaming video service equivalent to both a television station and a major newspaper in my garage for the capital cost about $10,000.)  Why not bring it all in-house with the benefit of academic flexibility as an added draw to better support the university and its mission?  (Naturally, this could all be cross-promoted to other outlets after-the-fact for additional publicity.)  At a time when MOOC’s (massively open online courseware) are eroding some of the educational mission within higher education and journals are facing increased financial pressures, perhaps there should be a new model of the university as a massive content/information creation engine and distributor for the betterment of humanity? And isn’t that what Johns Hopkins already is at heart? We’re already one of the largest knowledge creators on the planet, why are we not also simultaneously one of the largest knowledge disseminators – particularly at a time when it is inexpensive to do so, and becoming cheaper by the day?

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Expanded Thoughts on Proactive Academic Freedom

Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age

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Upon continued thought and reading on the topic of academic freedom as well as the associated areas of technology, I might presuppose (as most probably do) that the committee will be looking more directly at the concept of preventing the university from impeding the freedom of its faculty and what happens in those situations where action ought to be taken for the benefit of the wider community (censure, probation, warnings, etc.).  If it hasn’t been brought up as a point yet, I think one of the most positive things the university could do to improve not only academic freedom, but the university’s position in relation to its competitive peers, is to look at the opposite side of the proverbial coin and actually find a way for the university to PROACTIVELY help promote the voices of its faculty and assist them in broadening their reach.

I touched upon the concept tangentially in my first email (see above), but thought it deserved some additional emphasis, examples to consider, and some possible recommendations. Over the coming decades, the aging professoriate will slowly retire to be replaced with younger faculty who grew up completely within the internet age and who are far more savvy about it as well as the concepts of Web 2.0, the social web and social media. More will be literate in how to shoot and edit short videos and how to post them online to garner attention, readership, and acceptance for their ideas and viewpoints.

The recent PBS Frontline documentary “Generation Like” features a handful of pre-teens and teens who are internet sensations and garnering hundreds of thousands to millions of views of their content online.  But imagine for a minute: a savvy professoriate that could do something similar with their academic thought and engaging hundreds, thousands, or millions on behalf of Johns Hopkins?  Or consider the agency being portrayed in the documentary [about 30 minutes into the documentary] that helps these internet sensations and what would happen if that type of functionality was taken on by the Provost’s office?

I could presuppose that with a cross-collaboration of the Provost’s office, the Sheridan Libraries, the Film & Media Studies Department, the Digital Media Center, and the Communications Office as an institution we should be able to help better train faculty who are not already using these tools to improve their web presences and reach.

What “Reach” Do Academics Really Have?

I’ve always been struck by my conversations with many professors about the reach of their academic work. I can cite the particular experience of Dr. P.M. Forni, in the Department of Romance Languages at Krieger, when he told me that he’s written dozens of academic papers and journal articles, most of which have “at most a [collective] readership of at most 11 people on the planet” – primarily because academic specialties have become so niche. He was completely dumbfounded on the expanded reach he had in not only writing a main-stream book on the topic of civility, which was heavily influenced by his academic research and background, but in the even more drastically expanded reach provided to him by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show shortly after its release. Certainly his experience is not a common one, but there is a vast area in between that is being lost, not only by individual professors, but by the university by extension.  Since you’re likely aware of the general numbers of people reading academic papers, I won’t bore you, but for the benefit of those on the committee I’ll quote a recent article from Pacific Standard Magazine and provide an additional reference from Physics World, 2007:

A study at Indiana University found that ‘as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.’ That same study concluded that ‘some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.’ That is, nine out of 10 academic papers—which both often take years to research, compile, submit, and get published, and are a major component by which a scholar’s output is measured—contribute little to the academic conversation.

Some Examples of Increased Reach in the Academy

To provide some examples and simple statistics on where something like this might go, allow me to present the following brief references:

As a first example, written by an academic about academia, I suggest you take a look at  a recent blog post “Why academics should blog and an update on readership” by Artem Kaznatcheev, a researcher in computer science and psychology at McGill University, posting on a shared blog named “Theory, Evolution, and Games Group”. He provides a clear and interesting motivation in the first major portion of his essay, and then unwittingly (for my example), he shows some basic statistics indicating a general minimum readership of 2,000 people which occasionally goes as high as 8,000.  (Knowing how his platform operates and provides base-line statistics that he’s using, it’s likely that his readership is actually possibly higher.) If one skims through the blog, it’s obvious that he’s not providing infotainment type of material like one would find on TMZ, Buzzfeed, or major media outlets, but genuine academic thought – AND MANAGING TO REACH A SIZEABLE AUDIENCE! I would posit that even better, that his blog enriching not only himself and his fellow academy colleagues, but a reasonable number of people outside of the academy and therefore the world.

Another example of an even more technical academic blog can be found in that of Dr. Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel prize), and mathematics professor at UCLA. You’ll note that it’s far more technical and rigorous than Dr. Kaznatcheev’s, and though I don’t have direct statistics to back it up, I can posit based on the number of comments his blog has that his active readership is even much higher. Dr. Tao uses his blog to not only expound upon his own work, but uses it to post content for classes, to post portions of a book in process, and to promote the general mathematics research community. (I note that the post he made on 3/19, already within a day has 11 comments by people who’ve read it close enough to suggest typography changes as well as sparked some actual conversation on a topic that requires an education to at least the level of a master’s degree in mathematics.

Business Insider recently featured a list of 50 scientists to follow on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and blogs amongst others). While there are a handful of celebrities and science journalists, many of those featured are professors or academics of one sort or another and quite a few of them are Ph.D. candidates (the beginning of the upcoming generation of tech-savvy future faculty I mentioned). Why aren’t there any JHU professors amongst those on this list?

As another clear example, consider the recent online video produced by NPR’s “Science Friday” show featuring research about Water flowing uphill via the Leidenfrost Effect. It is not only generally interesting research work, but this particular research is not only a great advertisement for the University of Bath, it’s a great teaching tool for students, and it features the research itself as well as the involvement of undergraduates in the research. Though I’ll admit that producing these types of vignettes is not necessarily simple, imagine the potential effect on the awareness of the university’s output if we could do this with even 10% of the academic research paper output? Imagine these types of videos as inspiring tools to assist in gaining research funding from government agencies or as fundraising tools for Alumni and Development relations? And how much better that they could be easily shared and spread organically on the web, not necessarily by the JHU Corporate Umbrella, but by its faculty, students, alumni, and friends.

How Does the Academy Begin Accomplishing All of This?

To begin, I’ll mention that Keswick’s new video lab or the Digital Media Center at Homewood and a few others like them are a great start, but they are just the tip of the iceberg (and somewhat unfortunate that faculty from any division will have to travel to use the Keswick facility, if they’re even notionally aware of it and its capabilities).

I recall Mary Spiro, a communications specialist/writer with the Institute of NanoBioTechnology, doing a test-pilot Intersession program in January about 4 years ago in which she helped teach a small group of researchers how to shoot and edit their own films about their research or even tours through their lab. Something like this program could be improved, amplified, and rolled out on a much larger basis. It could also be integrated or dovetailed, in part, with the Digital Media Center and the Film and Media Studies program at Krieger to assist researchers in their work.

The Sheridan Libraries provide teaching/training on using academic tools like bibliographic programs Mendeley.com, RefWorks, Zotero, but they could extend them to social media, blogging, or tools like FigShare, GitHub, and others.

Individual departments or divisions could adopt and easily maintain free content management platforms like WordPress and Drupal (I might even specifically look at their pre-configured product for academia known as OpenScholar, for example take a look at Harvard’s version.) This would make it much easier for even non-technicalminded faculty to more easily come up to speed by removing the initial trouble of starting a blog. It also has the side benefit of allowing the university to assist in ongoing maintenance, backup, data maintenance, hosting, as well as look/feel, branding as well as web optimization. (As a simple example, and not meant to embarrass them, but despite the fact that the JHU Math Department may have been one of the first departments in the university to be on the web, it’s a travesty that their website looks almost exactly as it did 20 years ago, and has less content on it than Terrence Tao’s personal blog which he maintains as a one man operation. I’m sure that some of the issue is political in the way the web has grown up over time at Hopkins, but the lion’s share is technology and management based.)

The Provost’s office in conjunction with IT and the Sheridan Libraries could invest some time and energy in to compiling resources and vetting them for ease-of-use, best practices, and use cases and then providing summaries of these tools to the faculty so that each faculty member need not re-invent the wheel each time, but to get up and running more quickly.  This type of resource needs to be better advertised and made idiot-proof (for lack of better terminology) to ease faculty access and adoption. Online resources like the Chronicle of Education’s ProfHacker blog can be mined for interesting tools and use cases, for example.

I know portions of these types of initiatives are already brewing in small individual pockets around the university, but they need to be brought together and better empowered as a group instead of as individuals working separately in a vacuum.  In interacting with people across the institution, this technology area seems to be one of those that has been left behind in the “One Hopkins” initiative.  One of the largest hurdles is the teaching old dogs new tricks to put it colloquially, but the hurdles for understanding and comprehending these new digital tools is coming down drastically by the day. As part of the social contract in the university’s granting and promoting academic freedom, the faculty should be better encouraged (thought certainly not forced) to exercise it.  I’m sure there are mandatory annual seminars on topics like sexual harassment, should there not be mandatory technology trainings as well?

To briefly recap, it would be phenomenal to see the committee make not only their base recommendations on what most consider academic freedom, but to further make a group of strong recommendations about the University proactively teaching, training, and providing a broader array of tools to encourage the active expression of the academic freedom that is provided within Hopkins’ [or even all of the Academy’s] mighty walls.

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I certainly welcome any thoughts or comments others may have on these topics. Please feel free to add them in the comments below.

 

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