Minor forms of academic communication: revamping the relationship between science and society?

On October 14, OpenEdition organizes a panel dedicated to academic blogging in Montréal (Palais des Congrès) during the World Social Science Forum. This year, the forum will deal about “Social transformations and the digital age”.

The panel title is “Minor forms of academic communication: revamping the relationship between science and society?

Image by Emmanuel Milou, Creative commons licence.

Image by Emmanuel Milou, Creative commons licence.

First developed by physicists, the open access movement has significantly widened in scope and has been taken up by the European Commission and the G8. If the motivations behind this are essentially to do with innovation, competiveness and the economic efficiency of state investments, open access also introduces a major change in the relationship between science and society. Once citizens have access to the results of social science research, in real time and in their entirety, the whole nature of the relationship between science and society is renewed. However, the debate is focused on the major forms of academic communication: journal articles and books. And yet, in ways almost invisible to the academy, so-called minor forms of academic communication are developing in the interstices, creating a kind of “permanent virtual seminar” and intermeshing with promising heuristic, pedagogic and societal possibilities. Over the last decade, research blogs have embodied a new experience of academic communication, allowing for an experimentation of formats, schedules and interactions that differ from those of the traditional academic process, at both its early and later stages. These blogs dovetail with societal questions, open up new frontiers and step outside the academic ivory tower. From “just-in-time sociology” to probing interpretations of the “Arab Spring”, from analysis of contemporary visual culture to knowledge of contemporary movements such as rap, tattoos and religious conversions, academic blogs place the social sciences at the heart of the society they study. Academic blogs have already found a following. Through this readership a democratisation of access to science is underway. This momentum brings opportunities and reveals new ethical, epistemological and scientific questions.

See also  http://oep.hypotheses.org/319 and http://oep.hypotheses.org/322

For an academic, imparting knowledge revolves around two main activities. As a researcher, an academic must produce articles destined for a very limited readership and adhering to a very rigid process, one that involves severe constraints of time and form. As a teacher, an academic must think of his or her students; he or she must make knowledge accessible and arouse curiosity while also seeking to instil the notion of scientific rigour: outlining hypotheses; identifying the results that may be obtained if these hypotheses are borne out; questioning the validity of the said hypotheses. I will come back to the experience of the Freakonometrics blog, which originated as a response to a pedagogical difficulty and is based on two recent ventures. The first was Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s blog (then books), which aimed to explain economic behaviours using surprising and sometimes provocative examples. The second was the recent explosion of “data visualisation”, an offshoot of open data and big data that showed statistics could be elegant as well as informative. The Freakonometrics blog emerged from a desire to explain in very practical terms how econometric modelling works, by providing (or explaining how to find) data and sharing codes with which to produce graphics. This experience provided the opportunity to publish research studies in an unconventional form. If the rigour expected is the same as that of an article submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, the blog format allows authors to include anecdotes and exploit the rich potential of online documents (animations, links, etc.). Blog posts also extend the notion of reproducible research, the idea being not to impress the reader by making him or her think (s)he is reading something groundbreaking (which we all seek to do in an academic article), but instead to instil the idea of do-it-yourself by allowing all readers to reproduce the analysis.

My paper will discuss the creation of a blog on the Hypotheses platform in relation to my position as a “young academic” and drawing on my experience of academic blogging. I would like to put forward the hypothesis that for a young academic, blogging is a means to liberate oneself from the rules of the academic world. It offers unrivalled editorial freedom and potential academic recognition. I would like to show that, in turn, this academic liberation emancipates knowledge itself, allowing it to reach sectors and readerships beyond those originally intended. I also wish to point out the practical aspects of this interplay between the liberation of the young academic and the liberation of knowledge. First, I will show why for a young academic, blogging is a way to liberate (or at least distance) oneself from the rules of the academic establishment. Secondly, I will attempt to show that by freeing themselves from the academic sphere, young academics impart knowledge, skills and qualities that are useful to everyone.

In a context of financial difficulties and waning influence, the social sciences now place more importance on producing authority than producing knowledge. The new tools of digital micro-publication, which compete with traditional publications yet lack institutional legitimacy, have met with strong resistance. The characteristics that make them such formidable tools for research, communication and academic discussion, and for collective and collaborative work in particular, remain largely unrecognised. In the absence of suitable incentives and training programs, use of these tools is developing virally and falls far short of full potential. Will such tools continue to develop as best they can at the sidelines of the academy? While the humanities shun their social responsibilities, academic blogging will remain an art rather than a science.

See also Why blog ?

  • A blind spot? Digital infrastructures for digital publishing, and for academic blogging in particular, Marin Dacos (aka in English, @OpenMarin and in French, @MarinDacos)

After several centuries of development, knowledge technologies today form a highly organised ecosystem, structured around books and journals and with its own clearly identified professions, infrastructures and actors. From publishers to librarians, authors to booksellers, a book industry has emerged and encourages the circulation of ideas. With the rise of the network, these roles are slowly being redefined and new actors are rapidly emerging. The 2006 ACLS report (“Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences”) is one of the first signs of recognition of the need for digital infrastructures. These infrastructures are not simply confined to “noble” publications i.e. books and journals. They also concern the so-called minor forms of academic communication. Yet developing such infrastructures requires much more than simply installing a server under a desk. On the contrary, digital infrastructures necessitate the creation of platforms, which in turn entail the emergence of new teams and new professions – those of digital publishing. These platforms are often developed or bought up by predatory multinationals (for example, Mendeley absorbed by Elsevier). Academic-led alternatives do exist (Zotero for bibliographies, Hypotheses for blogs), yet the academic community has failed to fully recognise the associated opportunities and risks. The academy has every interest in making sure it does not become marginalised within its own infrastructures. The alternative is to reproduce the vagaries of the extraordinarily concentrated global publishing system, which has stripped the research sector of some of its intellectual and budgetary initiative-taking capacities.

See also :  “Scholarly blogs, a space on the side for academic dialogue” by Marin Dacos and Pierre Mounier. Part 1 and Part 2.

Marin Dacos

Director of OpenEdition Directeur d'OpenEdition

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1 Response

  1. 10/31/2013

    […] the panel was modestly titled “minor forms of academic communication,” I doubt academic blogging is going to remain a minor or peripheral activity for […]

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