Digital Scholars?

I ended the last column with some thoughts about subject specific information literacy- and whether we, as subject specialists, ought to be focusing on helping students with more universal information problems, such as information overload, productivity and keeping up in the field, as well as facilitating student engagement with Spanish/Portuguese tools and information practices. My research with bilingual Coloradans showed that, for the most part, people had come up with workable strategies to manage Spanish information challenges, but they really struggled with the process of working with information in the 21st century. Another group of people who often struggle with changing information landscapes are faculty. While they may be eminent researchers or well regarded teachers, many professors still stick to their own complex systems of citation storage or journal browsing, while also assuming that graduate students in the field will either just work it out, or were born knowing this type of thing (digital native, NOOO!) While, admittedly, learning to use a citation manager isn’t rocket science, I believe that digital scholarship capacities that graduate students and faculty will need in the future are important and go far beyond that. This column will explore some of these developments in an effort to think further about our role as subject specialists.

Like information literacy, “digital scholarship” is rapidly becoming one of those phrases that has multiple meanings and interpretations. Often encompassing digital humanities or big data, I’m using it in this context to mean the process of doing scholarship within today’s increasingly digital information landscapes. So, on a very basic level, this could cover using a citation manager such as Zotero or Mendeley; using RSS feeds to get Table of Contents; using productivity tools such as Evernote to keep track of your work; or perhaps using Twitter to build a network of colleagues, or a personal webpage to store open access journal articles. All of these are important tools that can make the process of scholarship more efficient, easier to manage, and you may already talk about them in your graduate seminars. More importantly, however, they make the process of scholarship more visible. On a practical level, this is another key reason why faculty and students might want to learn about these new tools, especially as research funding starts to be tied to scholar engagement and public impact, as happens in the UK and Australia.

However, this is a dospuntocero column- so, of course, it’s not just about the technology 🙂 Underneath all the new flashy import, share and collaborate functionality it is clear that there is a bit of a sea-change going on here- and what is most important is the change in scholars’ values and attitudes. So instead of thinking that scholarship should be shut off behind a paywall, researchers are starting to openly publish their work in Open Access (OA) journals or posting PDFs in repositories. Instead of making students purchase expensive textbooks, Open Educational Resources (OERs) and open courses such as MOOCs (well, ok, that could be contentious) are growing in number and usage. And finally, instead of closing scholarship off in an ivory tower, researchers are starting to develop places to debate research online, or create more of a “public intellectual” presence. So what, you may think. Well, take as a whole, these tendencies mean that digital scholarship is therefore becoming defined by “the open values, ideology and potential of technologies.” For many researchers, this is revolutionary- moving from secretive, individual scholarship, to public sharing and defending of your research and ideas. In addition, it requires a whole other set of literacies- from creating or nurturing an identity online to the ethics of digital participation to a critical consideration of tools and emerging trends. Again, maybe you are thinking, so what. Well, to my mind this is another opportunity for librarians- because it forms a key part of information literacy as well as our outreach and engagement with our liaison departments. In addition, no-one else is teaching this, and scholars are struggling with these concepts.

So, yet another question to think about- in particular, the shape and role and nature of our information literacy efforts. Combined with last column’s questions it adds another angle to the conundrum of how far should we, as subject specialists, be engaged in what could be classified as technically non- subject focused goals? If we don’t do this, who will? And while you may have a general library workshop series that looks at these questions, is there a way to capitalise better on the deep links we have with our departments? Of course, I have opinions (did you doubt that?!) but, recognising that many librarians and reorganizations have been trying to think longer and more broadly about these questions, no real clear headed answers as yet.

Alison Hicks


2 responses to “Digital Scholars?

  1. Alison, great column! Lots of good points to think about. One angle that interests me — in many ways Latin America as a region has led the way in promoting Open Access. Yet so few realize this since the U.S. experience of Open Access seems to always be the starting point. Two things come out of this w/ respect to instruction and support for students: 1)are they aware of the vast amount of content out there in open journals and repositories, and how hidden a lot of this is?; 2) what’s the student’s role in promoting this hidden content, and in contributing their research so that colleagues in Latin America will be able to access their work? In some ways that blends the awareness of relevant subject content with exposure to the politics of the information environment. Please share some of your answers!

    1. Hi Pamela,
      Great questions! I think it varies. Melissa Gasparotto’s recent research showed that Spanish students mostly used OA journals, which is super intriguing- but she doesn’t know whether this ie because they were unaware of library subscriptions or other factors. She also found that use of books far outweighed journals still. I think students are becoming more aware- certainly most students from Spain seem to have heard of DIALNET, and are accustomed to using Google Scholar which highlights more OA journals. However, whether they make the connection between OA and “hey a free journal I found on the web”, I don’t know. I doubt it, somehow… I love the idea of promoting student research- i think that makes research projects more valuable as the students have an authentic audience. I know many Honors theses are being digitized- and I hope that more professors use this pedagogic technique of writing for an audience through a blog or wiki etc.