Digital Scholarship

While traditional higher education institutions and academic publishers are not prepared for the future, digital scholars have embraced the participatory web, and take risks and innovate to exert pressure on academia to transform, particularly to benefit teaching and learning.

Academic scholarship is the last bastion of the old world. While the rest of civilisation has embraced both the advantages and the disadvantages of digital technologies, elite tertiary institutions and the publishers of research have successfully defended their control over a small, but important aspect of culture—that of academic scholarly writing. The concept of digital scholarship has emerged to challenge the ‘restricted hierarchy of functions’ (Stewart, 2015), and while there are some commonalities, categorised best by Boyer’s functions (1990), there are significant differences. The differences can be attributed to the opposing foundations of each endeavour, and questions remain as to whether they can be reconciled. There is tension between the new modes of open and participatory practice, and the out-dated copyright-restricted traditions. Scholars who leverage the web to advance their academic pursuits embrace open, participatory, and free ideals, both personally and professionally (Pearce, Weller, Scanlon, & Ashleigh, 2010), while those who remain part of the establishment value promotion and tenure, and question the quality of output produced through digital participation (Esposito, 2013). Digital scholars are innovators, attempting to threaten the control of the higher learning institutes, and momentum is building. A digital scholarship renaissance would benefit students, who are suffering most from this lack of common ground. Further research is required to force more institutions to view Web 2.0 technologies as legitimate tools for scholarship, and to acknowledge change is inevitable.


To define digital scholarship, proponents (Scanlon, 2014; Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012a; Weller, 2011; Costa, 2013; Borgman, 2007; Pearce, Weller, Scanlon, & Ashleigh, 2010) use Boyer’s four principles, aligning digital scholars directly with traditional scholars. Both groups engage in original research, integrate by connecting and making meaning from data, and apply findings to wider social contexts. They teach their specialised knowledge (Boyer, 1990). However, with the affordances of Web 2.0 tools, digital scholars have more scope (Weller, 2011), larger audiences (Scanlon, 2014), and more collegial connections (Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012a). Stewart (2015) argues digital scholars extend Boyer’s framework by collaborating with cross‑discipline connections, by giving voice to minority groups, women, and junior scholars, and by allowing more ‘horizontal and hybrid connections’ thereby fostering integrated scholarship. Scholars who build online identities must still publish traditionally to develop their academic stature (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014). Beyond that unavoidable, narrow process, digital scholars choose to risk their scholarly reputation by using informal and publicly accessible platforms (Weller, 2011; Costa, 2013), constantly sharing, building, and connecting with other scholars and laypeople, fostering democratisation, and validating their endeavours (Greenhow & Gleason, 2015; Costa, 2015). The perception is that digital scholarship desires to ‘seek a wider consensus on what knowledge is valued and valuable’ (Goodfellow, 2013).  Higher education institutions, with their elitism, exclusivity, and preferential treatment (Goodfellow, 2013) react against this perception, and against the more inclusive approach to knowledge construction (Weller, 2011). So while the definitions of digital and traditional scholarship remain aligned, digital scholars move beyond the status quo to embrace a greater scholarly practice in an emerging virtual space of flexibility and adaptation.


The concept of ‘the greater good’ (Davidson, 2016) is another ideal that influences both modes of scholarship. Neither group is paid for their publications, either closed or open (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014), and both groups engage in discovery to better society and to educate the next generation of scholars (Davidson, 2016). Boyer (1990) insists that application of research is an essential element of scholarship and confirms the value of studious pursuit. He argues scholars uphold the ideal of contributing to society (Goodfellow, 2013). Notwithstanding these noble intents, scholars have other agendas which reflect in their practice. Traditional scholars caught up in a publish-or-perish mentality (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014), must balance the symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between higher institutions and publishers to secure prestige and influence (Jamali, Nicholas, & Herman, 2016). In contrast, digital scholars inhabit a more inclusive community of collegiality and freedom (Costa, 2015). For example, Greenhow and Gleason (2015) reconceptualise the ‘social scholar’ as one who fully encapsulates the ideologies of social media and normalises these practices to give them legitimacy (Scanlon, 2014). While offering up research to scrutiny can risk an author’s control, and expose inaccuracies in methodology (Greenhow & Gleason, 2015), scholars recognise the transformative potential, and acknowledge that techno-cultural changes exert pressure on institutions and publishers (Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012b). During the time of St Augustine, scholars readily forfeited intellectual rights to the scientific community (Borgman, 2007) for the benefit of everyone. Contemporary digital scholars exemplify this powerful paradigm by accepting criticism while research is ongoing (Costa, 2013; Goodfellow, 2013), and with the rapid dissemination of ideas drawing multi-discipline collaborations, recognise further innovation is possible. Yet, traditionalists continue to conceal their research and findings until their final document is published. They regard the Internet as ‘a shed rather than an open space’ (Esposito, 2013), and prefer reliable and trusted peer review. They question the quality of research from ‘non-specified readership’ (Friesen, Gourlay, & Oliver, 2013) through open channels. Ultimately, even with differing agendas, both types of scholar work, research, and teach for the betterment of society.


Even with the two similarities, the underlying philosophies have the inevitable effect of keeping emergent versus traditional in a tense, and some claim, untenable relationship (Goodfellow, 2013; Weller, 2011). The open, participatory nature of digital scholarship is a fundamental difference. The participatory web constructs knowledge using online platforms offering autonomous control and reciprocal opportunities (Weller, 2011; Costa, 2013). Scholars who inhabit these spaces embrace the values and philosophies of democratic practices (Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012b; Costa, 2015), and continually challenge themselves and each other through conversations on microblogging sites, forum lists, and personal blogs. They claim this deepens their knowledge (Wolski & Richardson, 2014), improves their teaching (Brown, 2016), and increases their visibility (Scanlon, 2014). They also maintain it builds their professional credentials (Stewart, 2015). Ironically, articles about traditional scholars worrying that their findings will be stolen or plagiarised on the open web (Esposito, 2013) were accessed freely through a Google search, but the authenticated CSU library Primo search was necessary to locate articles about the transformative potential of the participatory web (Greenhow & Gleason, 2015; Scanlon, 2014). A recent study about how reputational sites, such as ResearchGate and, contribute to a scholar’s academic standing shows that although the sites are growing, most members believe they make no significant difference to their reputation (Jamali, Nicholas, & Herman, 2016). Digital scholars know they are perceived as risk-takers and unconventional because they choose to publish and collaborate openly (Costa, 2015, He & Jeng, 2015), but they believe they can ‘be the change they wish to see in the world’ (Gandhi), and believe transformative practice being the norm is the natural and inevitable progression.


Another important ideal of digital scholarship is free, in both the monetary and personal-freedom senses. Ironically, traditional scholars also write for free, but that is framed around the notion that scarcity of knowledge equals value (Stewart, 2015). Digital scholars now have open access to journals and institutional repositories (Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012a). Philanthropists, universities, and governments fund these online databases. These consortiums ensure the values and ideas of open and free proponents have a fully functional space in which to share their research (Davidson & Goldberg, HASTAC, 2016; ACER, 2016). Traditional scholars, on the other hand, bound by the confines of academic institutions, submit to journals that are controlled by a small number of publishing companies, which in turn, charge exorbitant fees for access (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014). Unsurprisingly, research shows that open access articles have greater readership and citation impact than those which are locked down (Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012a), but while they have value amongst the scholars in the digital realm (Costa, 2015), they have little value to those who regulate copyright-restricted journal publishing (Jamali, Nicholas, & Herman, 2016). Even an article printed in mainstream media in which leading scientific journalist, George Monbiot (2011) decried the greed of the scholarly publishers didn’t make any difference to the control of these oligopolies (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014). There is a strong belief that peer-review maintains an author’s high regard (Harley, Earl-Novell, Arter, Shannon, & King, 2007), and the established reward system ensures high quality research (Jamali, Nicholas, & Herman, 2016). The desire to be credible amongst peers overrides the belief that digital technologies could make scholarship more efficient and more equitable, and subsequently those aligned closely with an open ideology are often forced to publish in both arenas (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014). Digital scholars also embrace the personal-freedom meaning of free. Many blog autonomously, and while blog content could go towards their scholarly reputation (Weller, 2011), traditional institutes find such online outputs difficult to measure, and subsequently ignore them in favour of more easily recognisable standards (Tӧtӧsy de Zepetnek & Jia, 2014). As more scholars choose to publish in open communities, pressure builds on universities to recognise the diversity of scholarship (Anderson, et al., 2013; Wolski & Richardson, 2014).


Boyer’s (1990) principle of teaching is integral to all areas of scholarship, and deserves to be discussed separately as it highlights much of the tension. Most scholars are lecturers, teachers, mentors, or tutors. Digital technologies have impacted teaching and learning. One impact is the development of LMSs and MOOCs, giving educators a choice about how to deliver classes and content, and a full spectrum of student connectivity options (Brown, 2016; Stewart, 2013). It’s possible for teachers to remain entirely distant, offer course materials online, provide discussion spaces for students, and rarely interact personally. Digital scholars employ a full range of social networking tools to connect directly and readily. Their confidence in virtual worlds and understanding that ‘blended instruction’ (Brown, 2016) is more engaging, more equitable, and more likely to prepare students for the future (Stewart, 2015) is reflected their inclusive pedagogy. It is messier, more complicated, and more democratic than traditional scholars like; however, the increase in research about how organisations and individuals offer blended learning in their curriculum and pedagogy (Harley, Earl-Novell, Arter, Shannon, & King, 2007; Scanlon, 2014; Brown, 2016) means that universities must seriously consider how their institutions can support diverse and sustainable approaches to scholarship, teaching, and learning (Katz, 2010; Yair, 2008; Wolski & Richardson, 2014). Unfortunately, there is little research about how technology impacts learning, although Selwyn (2016) has shown this area is both critical and lacking.


Calls are made (Stewart, 2015; Veletsiano & Kimmons, 2012b) for a more critical stance on open and participatory scholarship to promote its validity and sustainability. Until now most of the studies have been descriptive (Friesen, Gourlay, & Oliver, 2013), and lack empirical evidence that participatory technologies result in the same high quality of research, teaching, and learning. Poor coherence among the proponents of digital scholarship, and their ‘lack of conceptual clarity’ (Friesen, Gourlay, & Oliver, 2013) doesn’t help their cause. Many scholars writing in this field are interested in how digital technologies impact on knowledge construction, and more data that demonstrates participation of scholars from diverse disciplines would enhance the body of research. While some articles were located (Hirst & Treadwell, 2011; Miller, 2012; Proctor, et al., 2015), it required persistence. Digital scholars are fortunate to exist in both the establishing virtual and the traditional communities. While they seem unable to reconcile their differences, they co-exist. If nothing disrupts the control of the higher institutes of learning, and the profits of the oligarchies of publishing, students will be forced to navigate the two realms, which can be confusing, and often detrimental to effective learning.


The ideals of a digital scholar indicate a preference for open and participatory practice reflected in their professional research and teaching, and this blurs into their personal online identity. Digital scholars believe issues of equity and democratisation are important aspirations, while traditional scholars conform and maintain the status quo. Although at first glance the material appears separate and disjointed, a thorough analysis reveals a larger, more coherent picture. Visually, the world of higher education is a monolith—large, immobile and foreboding. Conceptually, it embodies prestige, exclusivity, and homogeneity. Its governance is bureaucratic, output-oriented, and profit-driven. It represents a system that is slow to change and closed to adaptation. Imagine now, students about to enter this world. They see inflexibility, limitations, and judgement. They arrive with their academic requirements on a mobile device that transports them anywhere, anytime. The two paradigms—imposing, out-dated tradition and connected digital newbies—struggle to fit together. It’s the digital scholar who will ensure young people engage and learn. They are the negotiators, the engineers who seek to bridge the irreconcilable ideologies. Digital scholars continue to subvert the traditions and break away from conventional practices to secure legitimacy for their participatory ideals. They believe the future of scholarship, of innovation, and teaching requires transformational change, and soon.




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