Editor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly developed by Gisèle Yasmeen, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, Canada. Dr. Yasmeen raises a series of important issues in the build-up to a call for a “structured dialogue” on the nature and role of knowledge in society.
Innovative and Engaging Communications in and Beyond the Academy
Gisèle Yasmeen, University of British Columbia
Research and scholarship is primarily about asking and answering questions as well as conserving and constantly reinterpreting fragile and easily forgotten knowledge. When I started graduate studies more than 25 years ago, there was no talk of the world wide web, no blogs, no Twitterverse, Facebook, Academia.edu and so on. I grew up in an era of card catalogues, photocopying, typewriters and hand-written letters with supervisors and collaborators. My first experience with computers was with a mainframe “Amdahl” where you had to learn complex codes to do simple word-processing! I am convinced that the dramatic communications revolution we are experiencing is and will continue to transform research, teaching and academe beyond anything we are familiar with now in the next twenty years. So, how might we succinctly envision these changes and start to prepare for the scholarly world of the possible future? Or as I was asked recently by a university Vice-President of Research, “what are the implications of digital media for post-secondary institutions?”
Many of us are still getting our heads around these questions – myself included – and follow with great interest the work of those like John Willinsky, Leslie Chan, and John Wilbanks. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to reflect on the actual and potential role of ICTs in research, teaching and scholarly communication, and to humbly offer in the conclusion my own suggestion that the time has come for a new “knowledge commission.” Hence, the intended audience is those who are new to the file and others who may be wondering, where could we take it from here?
Research: the importance of ICTs for asking and answering questions
New media tools in general – and high performance computing in particular – enable us to mine vast quantities of data (numeric, text, images, sound) at lightening speed compared to the past, which enables not only research questions to be answered but new research questions to be asked, which could not be asked before. This exciting approach to (re)discovery is at the forefront of a variety of (inter/multi/trans)disciplines ranging from bio-informatics and social statistics to the digital humanities. Examples of ICTs, “big data” and other emerging technologies leading to research breakthroughs in the natural and health sciences are well known. Most of us are familiar with the Higgs boson or “God-particle” confirmed through the CERN Hadron collider and revolutionary work on human genomics through the “barcode of life” dataset. What is perhaps less known is the growing use and study of emerging technologies in the social sciences and humanities. For example, advanced imaging technologies allowed literary scholars funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities to read and analyse an illegible and deteriorated copy of explorer David Livingstone’s diary, as reported by the New York Times. The study and use of emerging technologies, such as advanced ICTs is predicated on the development of appropriate tools for research and, as Clifford Lynch eloquently argued last year, the builders of those tools often do not get the respect they deserve as necessary “enablers” in the world of research compared to those who spend time using those tools.
In fact, the concept of what is a “discipline” is worth reflecting on in an era of joint faculty appointments between computer science and literature or philosophy and the growing number of innovative instructional programs that combine information technology, creative arts and business. What are the implications of this for institutional and program design? After all, as the English language Wikipedia entry on academic discipline, drawing from the Encyclpaedia Britannica reminds us, “The University of Paris in 1231 consisted of four faculties: Theology, Medicine, Canon Law and Arts”. We need to be vigilant about how we classify and institutionalise structures of knowledge, particularly in an era of rapidly evolving collaboration between knowledge communities. Karoline Postel-Vinay of Sciences Po, at a recent Asian studies conference in Paris, encouraged participants to challenge our currently established conceptualizations of disciplines and areas of research.
Digital media is also facilitating communication and collaboration between researchers in specialised fields in order to collectively advance and explore knowledge and is also enabling interaction with communities and experts beyond post-secondary institutions leading to the growth of “citizen science” and inter-sectoral modes of knowledge production (ie the co-creation of knowledge with “lay” collaborators). Hence, the issue of where legitimate knowledge lies and audience is an evolving one – or is it? Perhaps we need to begin by refuting the ivory tower myth. The walls of universities are and have always been porous for faculty and students. Virginia Woolf attended Oxford as one of the first women on campus and historical examples abound regarding restrictions on enrolment with respect to certain minorities either not accessing the hallowed halls of advanced education or being subject to quotas. Thankfully, this has changed for the better though barriers for many still remain, as many scholars argue. This is yet another reason to have a discussion on what is legitimate knowledge and how to structure our institutions around questions of its generation, conservation, transmission and value-addition – including reinterpretation.
Furthermore, students are the single-biggest “export of universities”. One of the fundamental purposes of higher education and research is to foster the development of the next generation as well as be challenged by the innovative ideas of youth. The Socratic dialogue continues to this day and is a necessary step in the growth and development of ideas on an individual and collective level. Young people graduate and go on to lead productive lives across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors as well as the academic world.
What we may be seeing accelerated via ICTs is an increasing blurring of boundaries with respect to knowledge intended for and/or accessed by academic audiences as well as those beyond. Data-intensive research is an area where we see sometimes very esoteric research questions being resourced and explored through digital means (e.g. medieval languages and literature) with user groups as well as commentators and “content providers” going well beyond academe. This might be compared to marketing a niche product to a global audience as well as sourcing suppliers through a global, often volunteer, network. The possibilities are endless.
However, with ICTs, as with all tools, there is always a “dark side”. There are concerns and critiques by longstanding observers of emerging and disruptive technologies, such as Heather Menzies, of the negative impacts of “real time” communications and the sometimes-associated lack of depth, reduced attention spans, and difficulty to maintain meaningful inter-subjectivity. It is said that 80-90% of human communication remains non-verbal, hence we need to be vigilant and attentive to the dynamics of learning, thought and social interaction through emerging multidisciplinary fields such as cognitive neuroscience. We need to see new media as one tool, for knowledge generation and sharing but, by no means, the only one.
A central challenge now confronting the scholarly community is how to assess the quality and impact of various types of content accessible to potentially millions of readers and commentators. This includes the conundrum of what to do with “user-generated” or self-published content. Furthermore, how do we conceptualize and classify who is a “peer” and their commentary on one’s work in various contexts given the accelerated blurring of boundaries between the academic, public, private and not-for-profit sectors? Who best plays the curatorial role of quality control in the information deluge? These are some of the fundamental and normative questions facing the world of research and scholarship, which the following section will attempt to unpack, at least in a preliminary way.
Knowledge sharing – maximising value from good quality knowledge
The previous section focused on “research”, commonly thought of as (re)discovery and analysis, but how does knowledge get documented, vetted, shared, commented-upon and preserved for present and future generations? It goes without saying that teaching in its many, rapidly evolving forms – is primarily a form of knowledge transmission and, I would argue, two way exchange between generations. Others have written in great detail about the impact of ICTs on teaching, especially the growth of on-line learning, MOOCs, Khan Academy and the like so I will not go into detail about this topic here. Suffice it to say that ICTs are having a significant impact teaching in post-secondary institutions – some of which are having difficulty rising to the challenge. Rather, I’d like to focus on the impact of ICTs on scholarly publishing and debates on how to assess the quality published output, without expecting to resolve this complex conundrum.
Bibliometrics, impact factors and indices such as the H-Index are, on the one hand, gaining importance and, on the other, coming under greater scrutiny for sometimes excluding entire scholarly communities such as humanities scholars who typically write books and those with a policy orientation who often produce “grey literature” such as technical and policy-oriented reports. In addition, there have been scandals of peer review “rings” in journals trying to enhance their impact factor. There is a tautology built into the issue of impact factor, namely that a more accessible publication tends to have wider readership and citations. Public Library of Science, or PLOS, a not-for profit publisher of open access journals that accepts roughly 70% of its peer-reviewed manuscripts and has a relatively high impact factor since it’s journals are open access. Articles rejected by PLOS journals often get published elsewhere so a general discussion on the meaning of acceptance and rejection rates are probably needed. John Willinsky also noted in a recent interview that PLOS requirements to include open access data also forces researchers to think through the quality of the datasets used to support their publications. How, therefore, to meaningfully establish the quality and impact of a publication?
The growing “open” movement, which includes open access (OA) publishing, open source technologies and open data are revolutionizing the scholarly enterprise by being based on the premise that knowledge is a public good – particularly when it is publicly-funded – and that the outputs of research and related activities should be freely available, without charge, ideally on the internet. Part of rising to the “open” challenge is an infrastructural one but this is improving through the creation of OA platforms at the institutional level. The importance of open access to research results (journals and books) as well as raw datasets (numeric, text, images and sound) is hugely important to both the world of research and broader society and lead to greater readership and impact. One concrete example to note is when a number of Québec journals dramatically increased their readership within a few years when they went OA by joining the Ėrudit platform. Another example is the journal RNA Biology requiring several years ago that all its authors to submit their abstracts to Wikipedia. Another “open” phenomenon to mention is the growth of open peer review– strongest in the health world – where open access publishers are employing fully transparent processes in their review of articles. In other words, the identity of the reviewer is disclosed, as are his or her comments on the article being submitted, the author – and others for that matter – can respond and comment. We will likely be seeing more of this type of review and resulting publications.
Conclusion – Dialogue on the nature and role of knowledge in society
I recently published an article on scholarly and research infrastructure in the new 2nd edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, which begins to expand established knowledge boundaries to include an unprecedented number of contributions by non-Americans, women, non-anglophones, and minorities to get a more complete picture of contemporary scholarship. The next step would be to give more serious thought to the idea of “knowledge commissions”. Examples – some considered more successful than others – include the Indian Knowledge Commission as well as Canada’s Massey Commission in the 1950s, which ultimately led to the creation of national research funding infrastructure. Given advances in technology and associated virtual and intersectoral communities of interest, practice and purpose, are we at the point where we need to establish such knowledge commissions to review the place of knowledge in society and the institutions that support its creation, conservation and transmission/exchange? New media tools have enabled us to interact in real time on a regular basis with like-minded others around the world via exchange of knowledge and information in multiple directions. This helps researchers gather and curate precious information and often engages “fellow travellers” in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. New collective voices are emerging, which were not heard before. Yes, it’s time for a structured dialogue.
The author would like to acknowledge Chad Gaffield and Kris Olds for constructive comments on an earlier version of this article