Scholars, It’s Time to Take Control of Your Online Communities

-Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Digital Humanities at Michigan State University, Project Director for Humanities Commons

A couple of years ago, I got a bit fed up with the ways that certain for-profit networks were purporting to provide scholars with opportunities to share their work openly with one another, and I decided that it was time to mouth off about it a bit: about the fact that their “.edu” address was deceiving many into believing that they were an academy-driven initiative, about the ways their uncertain business model endangered the future of the work being shared there, about the damage that network was doing to genuine open access.

Not long after, Sarah E. Bond issued a direct call to action: “It is time to delete your Academia.edu account.”

And many scholars did, taking their work to networks like Humanities Commons. And they told their friends and colleagues to do so as well. Since that time, Humanities Commons has come to serve more than 16,500 scholars and practitioners across the humanities and around the world. Those members are building their professional profiles, depositing and sharing work via the repository, and creating a wide range of websites to support their portfolios, their classes, and their other projects.

But where we’ve been less successful has been in attracting groups of scholars to engage in active discussion and collaboration. The Commons has a robust groups structure, permitting communities of a range of types and sizes — from private committees to public subfields, and everything inbetween — to host threaded discussions, to share files, and more besides. But that feature of the network remains somewhat underutilized, despite the extent to which many scholars today want to be able to communicate and collaborate with one another online.

The heart of the issue, I’m pretty sure, is that those scholars already have communities that seem to be functioning pretty well for them, a ton of them on Facebook. And the problem is, as I noted in my original Academia-not-edu post, is the gravity that such existing groups exert, especially when, as with Facebook, everybody is already there. (Or so it often seems, at least. People who are not on Facebook might be quick to tell you how annoying it is when we assume that everyone can be reached that way.)

If it’s hard to convince individual scholars to change their ways of working and take up more equitable, open, and transparent systems, it’s all but impossible to convince groups of scholars to do so.

And yet: it’s time.

Part of the argument I made for abandoning Academia.edu in favor of non-profit, scholar-governed alternatives, alternatives that were not out to surveil or data-mine their users, was based on my assessment that “everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before committing our professional lives to it.” The inverse is even more true: everything that’s wrong with Academia.edu is wrong with Facebook, and then some.

I’ll leave it to Siva Vaidhyanathan to delve into the details, but it should be apparent from recent headlines that Facebook is at the root of a tremendous amount of personal unhappiness, violent conflict, and political turmoil today. The company has routinely sold its users’ data to advertisers, to companies, and to highly damaging political agents like Cambridge Analytica. Facebook engages in deep surveillance of users and their activity both on the network and elsewhere on the internet, an activity that is not just being exploited by corporations but also by governments. Given that Facebook’s entire business model depends on selling us — our presence, our information, our clicks — to other entities, every interaction we engage in there supports that model, whether we like it or not.

Most of us know this already, and yet we use the network anyway, even if begrudgingly. Our distant family members and friends are there, and we don’t know how we’ll keep up with them otherwise. And our scholarly communities, too: there are active discussion groups on Facebook that we’d miss if we left. So we watch our privacy settings and try to be careful with what we share — and yet no amount of such prophylaxis can really protect us from malfeasance. Assuming that our ostensibly private groups are actually private is setting ourselves up for abuse.

On top of which, working in proprietary spaces like Facebook does ongoing damage to the scholarly record; we cannot control, preserve, or migrate the archives of our discussions as desired.

It’s extremely difficult to move an entire group of people, I know, but I hope that some of you might be willing to try. There are other non-profit scholarly networks grounded in academic values available out there, of course, but if you’re in or adjacent to the humanities, I hope you’ll consider moving your discussions to Humanities Commons. And if you’re not in the humanities, maybe come join us anyhow? We want to open the network up to all fields in the near future, and your involvement would help us chart a path toward doing so.

Rethinking Scholarly Communication: Open Peer Review

A central goal for Humanities Commons has always been to provide humanities scholars with a platform for communicating, sharing work, and collaborating. Beyond simply facilitating these processes––a significant task in itself––we strive to innovate on them, pushing for scholarship that is more open and engaged with communities. Often, this means rethinking the assumptions and practices that produce our work.

It was this desire to reimagine scholarly practice that led us to host a Twitter chat last month titled “Rethinking Scholarly Communication: Open Peer Review.” Twitter chats are synchronous social media events where moderators guide discussion of a topic using a particular hashtag. At the set time, everyone logs in to Twitter and follows the hashtag, answering questions and responding to each other’s thoughts as they’re shared through tweets. The goal of this Twitter chat was to generate community discussion of emerging peer review structures that are open, meaning the authors and reviewers of a work know who each other are and communicate about the work, usually with the facilitation of an editor or editorial team. While what this exactly looks like varies from publication to publication, most journals and organizations using open peer review put the author and the reviewers in contact with each other using a digital platform, allowing reviews to make comments and the author to respond to them in the process of revising the work for publication.

As the handful of questions and tweets below reveal, the discussion of open peer review covered many aspects of scholarly communication and how review contributes to clear and effective scholarship. Open peer review is a significant departure from traditional peer review, often described as double-blind or single-blind peer review (ableist terms that Cheryl Ball points out could be replaced with “double anonymous” and “anonymous”). Whereas double anonymous or anonymous peer review can often seem opaque, exclusionary, and even arbitrary, especially to early career scholars, open peer review makes the review process about a conversation that focuses on improving the work. As several participants argued, particular values and guidelines should shape that conversation with an emphasis on community and mentorship.

The tweets below are just a small sample of the Twitter chat. To view the rest of the chat, as well as check out more resources about open peer review, search for the chat’s hashtag, #OPReview, on Twitter.

  • Q1: What does open peer review look like in your experience? Which practices and tools are involved? #OPReview #Q1

 

  • Q2: Which values should guide open peer review? How should these values be enacted and communicated? #OPReview #Q2

 

  • Q3: How does open peer review affect the quality of reviews? Of the final publication? #OPReview #Q3

 

  • Q4: What are the limitations of open peer review? What are the barriers to more journals and scholarly communities adopting it? #OPReview #Q4

 

  • Q5: What are the future potentials of open peer review? How could it be improved in the future? #OPReview #Q5

 

The Twitter chat generated lively conversation about the values of scholarship, and collectively imagined what it would look like to publish our work as the result of open, transparent, and ongoing conversations between scholars. Of course open peer review isn’t a cure-all, and there are a number of institutional considerations (tenure, power, and workload, to name only a few) that limit what peer review can be and do. Still, open peer review can be one tool for research and scholarship that is more accessible and inclusive. This Twitter chat is not the last word on open peer review–far from it. Rather, it’s a point in an ongoing conversation that we can and must have together as we work to build the institutions and research practices that can sustain our communities.

Thanks to Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Cody Mejeur for moderating the chat. Kathleen is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University. Her most recent book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press, 2019), argues for a mode of scholarly engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, and collaboration over competition. She is also project director of Humanities Commons. Cody is a PhD candidate in English at Michigan State University specializing in new media, narrative theory, queer and feminist studies, and digital humanities. They have published on games and education, representation in games, and the narrative construction of reality. They are currently graduate lab lead for the Digital Humanities & Literary Cognition lab at MSU and work with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, founded by Adrienne Shaw at Temple University.