Becoming a digital scholar -- some thoughts

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This post is based on a session of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP) 2017/18 student conference, and will also soon be published in its student-run journal.

The increasing digitisation of the world we live in is producing pervasive changes on the object of social science scholarship (both teaching and research) and on the ways in which scholarship across all fields is conducted, published and disseminated (for detailed analysis, see Daniels & Thistlethwaite, 2016). It is thus no wonder that PhD and early career researchers (ECRs) have developed a keen interest in understanding what this all means and in developing effective strategies to become ‘digital scholars’. This is not to say that scholars that have been in the game a bit longer have all gone digital, and ‘technology-averse’ or ‘technology-averting’ scholars are still very much present. However, as with many other entry requirements to the academic profession, it now seems that access to an academic job is almost conditional on establishing (or having established) a digital presence.

Against this background, I think it was a good call for the organisers of the SWDTP Student Conference to include a session on this topic as part of the programme dedicated to reflecting on ‘Research in a Changing World: Critical Encounters’. I am not so sure they chose the best facilitator for the session, but it was my great pleasure to exchange views and experiences with a great group of PhDs and ECRs. The following is a summary of the most salient points I took home from the discussion, which may or may not provide some useful guidance to scholars approaching their ‘digital transformation’.

1. There are different levels of engagement for ‘digital scholars’, and everyone can find an intensity with which they find themselves comfortable

Almost everyone employed by a higher education institution, research centre, public sector or private services provider will have some ‘involuntary’ online presence—if nothing else, due to the creation of a (possibly pictureless) personal profile page in their institutional website. Beyond that, developing a digital presence can mean different things to different people. Some will be comfortable with having their papers available in open access repositories (be they institutional, or general like SSRN), other people will take the additional step of blogging (again, either in institutional or specialised blogs, or in their own—which can be easily created with blogger, wordpress or my favourite squarespace), and the most enthusiastic will create profiles in social networks—either professional (academia, linkedin) or mixed (facebook, snapchat)—and/or engage with twitter (as well as some of the more techy-oriented add-ons, such as tweetdeck or hashtagify). I am not sure whether this would count as supporting one’s digital presence or goes beyond that, but there also are increasing possibilities to share presentations (slideshare, prezi) and videos (youtube) in digital platforms, which are used in different ways by academics and academic institutions.

It is important to decide ‘how far to go digital’ depending on one’s personal circumstances, but also bearing in mind that for a digital presence to be effective and convey the right messages (of being active and engaged, of having interwoven digital interactions as part of general academic activities), it will be necessary to keep a certain level of update or activity. While posting new papers on SSRN can hardly require any specific timing for updates and contributing guest posts to institutional or other blogs can also be done sporadically, running your own blog will require something between 3 and 10 posts a month, and having a ‘satisfied’ following on twitter will probably require some daily activity.

Therefore, it is important to consider how much time and energy it is possible to spend in these activities and how they fit around daily/weekly routines. Conversely, though, it also seems to me important to have very good reasons not to engage in non-recurring activities such as facilitating open access to scholarly publications and writing up more accessible blogs—as these can generate clear advantages (see below) and do not create an on-going commitment with the ‘digital world’. Thus, I would wholeheartedly invite everyone reading this to try to create a blog post on the basis of their most recently completed piece of research (Prof Dunleavy offers great tips on how to do so). The exercise will not be in vain, as it will help you reflect on your writing and, once you have your blog post, you will be one step closer to creating or boosting your digital presence (eg, by sending the blog post to a suitable platform in your field of expertise).

2. There can be great gains from nurturing a visible digital presence, but they may come late and most of them are rather serendipitous

Other than for those that genuinely enjoy those interactions, or those that use digital tools as part of their research method, the main advantage of engaging with the ‘digital world’ is probably not for the academic, at least in the short term, but rather for society at large. A big part of the content and effort that is put into developing the digital presence (eg blogs, active twitter interactions, etc) will primarily be for the benefit of the audience to which it is addressed—and, ultimately, for anyone engaging with those insights, with the knowledge, as a public good. Scholars will only benefit from making the content accessible to such broader audience—which would otherwise largely ignore academic research behind pay walls or solely disseminated in academic circles—to the extent that there is an engagement with the research and, in particular, if that research is adopted or followed by relevant stakeholders and policy-makers. Therefore, the main role that digital scholarship can have is that of supporting the core academic endeavour of pursuing and exchanging knowledge both for its own sake and for the bettering of society.

From a more utilitarian perspective, in my view, there are two additional important points to bear in mind here. One, that while one has control over his or her own digital strategy, the availability of content and one side of the engagement efforts, there is always an uncontrollable element in that ‘shouting at the internet’ does not mean that anyone is necessarily listening. This should not detract from the value of putting ourselves and our research ‘out there’ because we never know when someone might start listening. Second, it is worth stressing that impact (in particular in REF terms) can hardly be fabricated, but it can be facilitated. And, in an environment where most people (including professional researchers, journalists and policy-makers) are getting their information online (Google knows it all), having a digital presence can make a big difference in terms of being noticed and benefiting from important opportunities.

In my own personal experience, it has taken a long time of sustained effort in building a digital presence until it has generated some tangible benefits—but these have been rather substantial. I started blogging in 2011 in Spanish and then switched to English in 2012 when I joined UK academia. It took the best part of three years of blogging regularly to get my personal blog positioned as the blog of reference in my core area of expertise (EU public procurement law). But once the blog’s presence and reputation (and mine, indirectly) were established, a few high-profile opportunities emerged, such as the possibility of acting as an expert for the European Court of Auditors (2014), the European Commission (since 2015), being invited to submit evidence to the House of Lords (2016) and to engage with the Department for International Trade (2018). I am thanked regularly by practitioners for the update and insight provided by the blog, and I have also been contacted by journalists who had identified me as an expert in the areas they were intending to report about (sometimes rightly, sometimes not). Of course, this is not solely the result of my blogging and tweeting activities, but had my ‘deeper’ research or my ‘standard’ expertise not been disseminated through the blog, twitter and SSRN, they probably would have gone largely unnoticed. I think my experience may serve as an indication that there is value in being digitally present, even if it is not clear whether anyone is watching or listening, and even if the advantages are not immediate (or even observable). Thus, the investment of time and energy in blogging, tweeting or otherwise being active in social networks needs to be seen as cumulative and for the long term.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that more digital exposure also means more space for criticism or even trolling, in particular if one engages with controversial topics and/or holds controversial views (such as the ones I held concerning Brexit or the Catalan independence challenge). While constructive criticism should always be welcome (and digital exchanges are great at facilitating timely feedback), trolling or even online abuse can be quite annoying. That said, unless one becomes an ‘academic celebrity’, it is also fairly unlikely that dealing with the less pleasing side of twitter or other interactions cannot be restrained by simply ignoring or blocking a few trolls—who also tend to lose interest rather quickly.

3. What and how much to show?

A final point bearing some consideration before embarking in the construction or reconstruction of one’s digital presence is to consider how to balance academic (or professional) and personal aspects. Some people will not make a hard distinction between personal and academic personas (I do not, although I have a separate twitter handle for my blog and for myself), while others will prefer to keep their digital presence purely academic. This is certainly a matter of personal choice and I can see advantages and disadvantages in both approaches.

On the one hand, it may be that the audience one is trying to address is rather formal or even institutional, so that content or interaction based on personal experiences, hobbies or non-expert opinions is not necessary, welcome or even frowned upon. On the other hand, however, and within limits, it seems interesting to know more about the researcher/academic and his or her world view. Moreover, some distinctions can be somehow artificial. While I would have no problem in refraining from tweeting about jazz music or bread-making if I wanted to keep my twitter account ‘academic’, I would not be sure where to draw the line when I engage with current events, exchange political views, or discuss issues outside my core area of expertise.

I think that there will not be a right or wrong approach (although it is always good to consider whether we would be happy to share personal details and information with perfect strangers in a face-to-face interaction, which can help deflate a certain ‘online hype of anonymity’), but it is worth considering this issue at the outset and to keep a consistent approach, and with which one feels comfortable.

Wrapping up

On the whole, I think there is plenty that researchers and academics can happily embrace in the process of becoming digital scholars or building up a digital presence. I think that everyone should be pushing open-access agendas as far as possible and blogging about their research, with no exception. Other steps, which require more energy and time, will appeal to different people at different levels of intensity. The only advice I would venture is to consider those demands in advance and, if in doubt, to step into the digital world incrementally. I think that doing so and disseminating research to the widest possible audiences has value in and of itself. I also think that it can generate significant benefits for researchers and academics in the long run, which should influence the level of investment in time and energy and provide some comfort when the effort may seem to be lost. Finally, like in everything else, we need to decide what persona to project in the digital sphere, and the one certainty is that there is no one size fits all.

Rethinking the Law School and the way law academics publish (reference to @CarelStolker)

I have recently been flipping through the (electronic) pages of Prof. Carel Stolker's Rethinking the Law School. Education, Research, Outreach and Governance (Cambridge, CUP, 2014) and found some of the insights and views he expresses particularly stimulating. The chapter on "Lawyer's ways of publishing" is my pick of the day. 

As an academic blogger (blawgger?), some of his remarks could not be more central to my day-to-day activities and to the hopes I have for a renovation in the way academic outputs are produced, published, graded and recognised by Universities and the international community of scholars alike.

Prof. Stolker encapsulates the law blogging phenomenon and the challenges it puts to 'traditional academic publication' as follows 
An interesting development is the rise of blogs. Law blogs (‘blawgs’), sometimes complemented by online companions and other vehicles of ‘short form’ legal scholarship, may better serve the needs of the practitioners and enhance the scholarly debate among the academics. Their increasing popularity–especially in the US where law articles tend to be the very opposite of ‘short form’– raises new issues: might these blogs harm legal scholarship, or are they becoming a legitimate form of legal scholarship in their own right? Do blogs register intellectual property, as journal publications do? Will these blogs replace our thousands of law journals worldwide in the long term, and do libraries have a responsibility to preserve the blogs for future generations? All these new developments might even herald the coming of an era where legal scholarship will mainly be available online rather than in print … (pp. 233-34, footnotes omitted, emphasis added).
Prof. Stolker also links the raise of online access to content (not only in blogs) with the neighbouring issue of scholarship dissemination via the use of social networks, and rightly points out that

Overall, one-third of our scientists and scholars are reported to use LinkedIn and Twitter. Science and scholarship are rapidly transforming into a fascinating variety of digitally networked forms. Too often the distribution and communication of the products of legal scholarship are considered the exclusive responsibility of the publisher. However, making your work widely accessible is, as we have seen, primarily a duty of the scholars themselves. Until we make progress in this area, cross-border scholarly debate will continue to be seriously hampered (p. 260, emphasis added).
These two insights trigger some important questions for further reflection. In my opinion, the answers that Law Schools give (or not) to these questions will determine whether they manage to attract or retain innovative legal scholars--who wants to work at an Institution that considers blawgging something you do on your free time?--and, maybe more importantly from the institutional perspective, whether they maintain or develop an online reputation that allows them to attract the best students, particularly at postgraduate level.

In my personal view--the reader should bear in mind that I blog as a passion and that I am very fortunate of my scholarship being on the top 0.5% of SSRN authors by downloads, so I may quickly be seen as conflicted on this--blogging about legal developments and engaging in debates and dissemination of research in social media are truly valuable activities and they should be recognised as such. Blogs allow for an immediacy of academic debate that is impossible to match for any other platforms, either printed or online. Moreover, given the increasing constraints on publishing "proper", "printed" research [at least in the UK as an (undesired?) effect of the REF], some traditional sorts of legal scholarship such as case comments or book reviews are languishing as scholars are pressured into publishing (only) 4* outputs (which, almost by definition, cannot be of those sorts). Consequently, I do not think that they will substitute all other forms of legal scholarship, but they are bound to fill a gap that has existed for a long time and that may be (in part) responsible for the distance with which practitioners look at legal research (if they ever look into law books at all).

However, blogs remain at the margin (if not completely outside) of academic assessments and blawggers are simply aficionados that share their views out of personal interest, search for fame/impact, or boredom. In my view, this needs to change. Not because that would make the life of the academic blawgger easier (which it certainly would), but because more academics would feel tempted to "take the risk to go online" if the incentives were not so clearly against it. And that would benefit all of us, both when the quality of the blogging was good, and when it was bad, as I would expect that academic debate and peer-review would swiftly establish quality controls or, at least, interesting exchanges of ideas.

Overall, to keep this rant short, I would like to see all deans and heads of law school's reading Prof. Stolker's book, at least to get the conversation really started.