A open approach to book writing

As part of a book I am writing I am adopting an open approach, by posting draft chapters online as I go on Cloudworks[1] and then invited the broader research community (via Twitter and facebook) to comment on them. In this postscript, I want to reflect on this experience and consider the ways in which adopting such open practices might change the nature of academic discourse and scholarship.

Traditionally the process of writing research publications has been closed. An author would work on the publication and only submit it when it was in a near final state. Publication outlets were mainly of two types: i) conference presentations and ii) peer-reviewed journals and books. Conferences enabled the author to get feedback on the work, whilst a more formal form of feedback was possible through peer review. Once feedback had been received the author would incorporate comments made and produce a final version for submission. Many peer review journals unfortunately are still closed, whilst at least conference proceedings are usually available online. In recent years many researchers have taken to making their publications available in institutional open access repositories. Some journals are adopting more open approaches, for example JIME has an open peer review process, where the reviewers are known to the author and where both engage in an open, online discussion of the draft paper. Having had a paper go through this process (see for example Conole, 2005), I found it very constructive and felt that I got much more detailed feedback from the reviewers than in a normal journal and hence that the final article was much better as a result.

But the nature of publication is changing. Many researchers now keep a blog, which they use to post reflections and thoughts on their research work and often drafts of publications, which can then be commented on by the wider community. Using a blog enables a researcher to reach a far wider audience than publishing in closed journals. The blogosphere has enabled researchers to develop an alternative form of academic discourse (Conole, 2007a), a more informal, ‘of the moment ‘discourse, a stream of consciousness. In contrast, published papers tend to be narratives, weaved around a particular theme. They hide the real life, messiness of the actual research process and act as a final narrative. The blogosphere has its own federated peer-reviewing mechanisms, such as cross-referencing between blogs and indicators of esteem such as the Technorati authority. Increasingly academics are taking note of this new communication space – however one could argue that the uptake is slower than it should be, arguably in our field the majority of bloggers are located at the practical or technical end of the spectrum, there are few heavy weight researchers blogging at the moment. What are the reasons for this lack of uptake? Firstly, it may be that researchers are fearful of starting a blog, either because they are unsure of what their voice should be. Secondly, they may be fearful that by blogging ideas others can steal their ideas. Thirdly, it may be that they can’t see the benefit of blogging and don’t consider it to have the same academic kudos as peer-reviewed articles. In a response to one of my blog posts on these issues, Martin Oliver left this reply:

Please, don’t condemn me to having to wade through pages of peoples’ blogs in order to find the one or two good ideas in there! The prospect of blog entries substituting for slow publication isn’t something that thrills me. It has its place, but so does the discipline of shaping ideas in a format that can take a year or more to come to fruition. Distance brings its own perspective, and can help discern what’s of lasting value, rather than momentary excitement.

This is why, for all that they’re reviled, lectures and presentations can be so helpful. Listening to someone who’s thought about a problem for long enough and hard enough to shape a 30-45 minute argument – and argument that actually needs that sustained presentation, not just padding – is quite an indulgence. Think of all the months I won’t have to spend thinking, having had someone else do it for me!

By all means, blog away. But I think we’d be in a poorer state if we stopped books and articles. (Conole, 2007a)

This demonstrates some of the real concerns researchers have about the blogosphere. However the reality is in today’s rich technological and connected digital environment, we need to be embracing the power of these tools and using them effectively to widely distribute our research ideas and to engage with others in discussions around these ideas. My response to him was:

To my mind the different forms of communication have different merits and different purposes and certainly for me – formal papers/chapters, conference presentations and blogs are all valuable in their own right. BUT if some academics choose to only blog and some choose to only read ‘peer reviewed’ journals – where does that leave us??? Conversely as you say has the world just got a level more complicated with yet another communication medium we have to keep up with???

In a related post, I summarise some of the responses to the above post (Conole, 2007b). Romeis suggests that blogs report on ‘what’s happening now’, where peer-reviewed papers are ‘old news’ because of the lag time to publication.  McQuillan celebrates the ‘stream of consciousness’ nature of blogging, suggesting that it is a valuable route to publication and that by making thoughts publically available as they happen they are there and accessible for others to review and provide their perspective on. To conclude I reflected as follows:

I don’t think a direct comparison of journal papers and blogs is appropriate; people blog for a whole range of reasons not just for academic recognition and institutional ‘performance ticking’. I think what we are seeing is a confused transition, whilst we try and work out the co-evolution of tool use and our own working practice (both as individuals and as a society). 

But blogs are not the only mechanism for sharing and discussing research ideas. In recent years researchers are increasingly harnessing social networking sites such as facebook and micro-blogging tools like Twitter. My own practice in the use of these has changed over time. I increasingly rely on them as a mechanism for being part of a connected, distributed research community. I use Twitter in particular as a means of keep abreast of new developments, as well as posting pointers to my latest research. There is some duplication of my posts in Twitter in facebook, but I use the later probably more for casual exchanges. In addition, I use the social networking site that we have developed, Cloudworks, to live blog conferences and workshops, to post chapters and draft papers, to participate in question and answer debates about different topics and to aggregate resources and references. Chapter 12 in this book gives a more detailed account of how users are using Cloudworks.

So what has my experience of adopting an open approach to the writing of this book been? Firstly, I have found it motivating. It has been useful to post draft chapters and great to get useful and insightful feedback from people. Secondly, however I have found it nerve wrecking, it has felt like laying my soul bare to the world. I’ve been concerned that my ideas will appear half-baked. But overall I think it has been a valuable process.  I have been amazed at the number of views there have been of the individual Clouds and the overall Cloudscape. I have been able to update the chapters and incorporate the ideas and suggested people have provided, which I am sure has enhanced the quality of the writing. In some respects this has acted as a kind of peer-validated reflection on the work by the wider research community.

Although the theory of Connectivism has mainly being developed and applied in a learning context (Downes, 2007; George Siemens, 2005), arguably it can also be applied to describe what I have experienced in adopting this open approach. In a sense it is a form of professional Connectivism, both in terms of me learning from the comments made by people and in them getting insight to my work and research ideas through the draft chapters. To expand on this I refer back to the differentiation Siemens (2009) makes between Connectivism and other learning theories:[2]

1.     Learning occurs based on the recognition and interpretation of various patterns in distributed networks enhanced by technology

2.     Factors that influence learning are the diversity of networks, the strength of the nodes and context

3.     The role of memory based on adaptive pattern that is representative of a particular state

4.     The transfer of learning is generated by the addition of nodes and network expansion

5.     Learning becomes complex with a quick change at its core, based on various sources of knowledge.

In terms of the first point, clearly technology has enabled me to be part of a distributed and networked community. I have been able to learn from the comments of others, as well as get answers to queries by posting questions on Twitter. In Chapter 16 I cite Weller’s argument that Twitter can enable researchers to have access to immediate expertise (Weller, 2010) and this has certainly being my experience. I give an example of this in the conclusion to that chapter and show how I received a number of replies very quickly to a question I posed asking for examples of openness and open practices.

In terms of the second point, I am part of an extensive network of researchers across the world. I have over 2300 followers at the time of writing. This means that the chance of someone having an answer to any question I might post is high, as is the likihood of getting a near immediate response.

Participation in the global network acts as a cognitive repository, which relates the third of Siemen’s points. Essentially this network becomes a part of my distributed cognition (Salomon, 1993), enabling me to harness the collective intelligence (Lévy, 1997) distributed across my network.

As I become more proficient at working my network and as it expands to include new people to follow, my learning becomes more adaptive. I have co-evolved with the use of these tools, as I have increasingly embedded them in my everyday practice; and this relates to Siemen’s fourth point.

Finally in terms of his last point, my learning is dynamic and changing, feeding off the network of evolving ideas. A tweet might set off a host of new ideas or might lead to me engaging in a meaningful debate with the person who posted it.

Therefore overall my experience has been positive. I truly hope that more and more researchers in our field begin to harness the power of social and participatory media and that we start to see an opening up of research practice and associated academic discourse. Dialogue has always been at the heart of learning and the co-construction of knowledge. Never before have we had such a power set of tools to support peer-to-peer dialogue and the collective shaping of our knowledge and understanding of the world.

References

Conole, G. (2005). E-Learning: the hype and the reality. Journal of Interactive Multimedia Education, 12.

Conole, G. (2007a). The nature of academic discourse. http://e4innovation.com/?p=45

Conole, G. (2007b). The paper vs. blog argument http://e4innovation.com/?p=56

Downes, S. (2007, 25-26 June 2007). An introduction to connective knowledge. Paper presented at the Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring new Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies, Vienna.

Lévy, P. (1997). Collective intelligence: Mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace: Perseus Books Cambridge, MA, USA.

Salomon, G. (Ed.). (1993). Distributed cognitions – pyschological and educational considerations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International journal of instructional technology and distance learning, 2(1), 3–10.

Siemens, G. (2009). What is Connectivism? Week 1: CCK09. Google Docs. from http://docs.google.com/Viewdocid=anw8wkk6fjc_14gpbqc2dt

Weller, M. (2010). Thoughts on digital scholarship. http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2010/07/thoughts-on-digital-scholarship.html

 

 




 

[1] http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloudscape/view/2155

 

[2] See Chapter 18 for a detailed discussion of learning theories