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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.3  Shifting to the digital

An image of an old black and white photograph of a truck outside a small factory.
Figure 3 Shifting to the digital

To return to the three key characteristics of [The Digital Scholar], what is required then to realise this frictionless generation of content is to embed the practices of generating digital, networked, open outputs. While many of the outputs in Table 1 are already in a digital format (e.g. code and data), there is still a cultural and institutional change required in order to make these outputs open and networked. The open aspect can be addressed in one of two ways: the first is to have an institutional policy on open access, and the second is to encourage staff to adopt sharing practices.

Some universities have developed policies around open access of teaching and research content. Wiley (2009a) states that ‘as of July 2009, forty one organizations in the United States have open access mandates: seventeen at the institutional level, ten at the departmental level, four at the college level, and six at the funder level’. These policies are categorised as dealing with four main issues relating to open access:

access (i.e., access to scholarly works by faculty, students, and administrators), cost (i.e., the price of continuing to subscribe to increasingly expensive journals), copyright (i.e., the common practice where faculty members relinquish their rights to the written work), and tenure (i.e., the manner in which current tenure review procedures consider open access publications).

(Wiley, 2009a)

The biggest shift though is likely to occur when we consider the outputs which are not necessarily digital in nature and make the shift to realising these in digital, shareable formats. This is only achievable through such practices becoming second nature for academics.

Two common objections to producing these types of output are money and time. In both cases I would argue that we underestimate the time and money we spend in many current wasteful activities, which we do not question because they are standard practice in the workplace. For example, meetings can be notoriously expensive, and often unproductive, if one takes into account all of the salaries involved, yet are perceived as a necessary evil in the modern university. As with lectures, though they are often disparaged, meetings can be useful and the best way to achieve certain goals, but as with lectures, they are also often uninspiring and ineffective. Holding virtual meetings is one approach (these can at least be recorded and shared if useful), but other means of achieving the same ends might be to share blog posts, brainstorm ideas in shared documents and so on.

Similarly keeping blogs is often seen as an additional activity, but it can be seen as a by-product of academic activity, such as keeping notes, working up ideas and so on. Clay Shirky (2008a) talking of cognitive surplus, recounts how a TV producer responded when he told her about Wikipedia:

She heard this story and she shook her head and said, ‘Where do people find the time?’ That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, ‘No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years’.

The same might be true of generating outputs. The analogue methods of working may well be hiding the sort of cognitive surplus Shirky refers to. They don’t necessarily take extra time, but we have spent much of that time creating non-shareable resources. A small but indicative example is that when I used to attend conferences I was required to write a report on the conference which would go to the funding committee in my department but which would not be read by anyone else. Now I write a blog post, or create a Slidecast or make a YouTube video which is accessible to everyone. The shift is to producing an output which is shareable.