Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Borgman on digital scholarship - why it is a literacy matter

Borgman, C. (2007) Scholarship in the digital age. Information, infrastructure and the Internet. Cambs: London:MIT press

(warning: this is a rather long post)

Borgman is one of two references which are the basis of current discussions about digital scholarship at the open University. The other is the article by Boyer written about 20 years ago (see Nick Pearce's blog). Borgman locates her work within the context of the mass digitisation of print and the computerisation of data which is a feature of the current literary, academic, and scientific research environment. She sets out to create a 'social framework for data' incorporating notions of open access and research data as 'public goods'. Whilst her idea of scholarship is shaped mainly by its relation to research (Boyer's 'discovery' function) the focus on data and on scholarly communication has implications for integration, application, and dissemination/teaching as well.

Borgman's most valuable contribution to our discussion of digital scholarship is probably in her recognition of the phenomenon as a sociotechnical system. (And thus researchable through existing theoretical and methodological frameworks such as: social shaping, actor network theory, the social construction of technology, work practices etc). A sociotechnical perspective connects scholarly activity with institutional, political, social, technical and economic infrastructures. For example: she refers to traditional scholarly communication as a 'gift exchange culture' wherein value of a non-economic kind is exchanged between researchers, authors, reviewers, readers, universities, funding agencies etc. enabled by technical communication systems that are free and easy-to-use. These relationships confer a kind of stability on the process of scholarly communication. She contrasts this, with scholarly publication, which she claims is highly unstable ('discontinuous' is the preferred term) as interests conflict amongst researchers, librarians, publishers and the public and corporate worlds, over ownership of data, technical communication systems, and what counts as documented knowledge.

Borgman summarises the functions of scholarly communication as: the legitimisation, dissemination, preservation and curation of knowledge. At the foundation of this set of functions she puts data. The basis of her book is a description and discussion of different ways in which digital technologies are impacting on the role of data in the pursuit of these functions. The focus on data distinguishes Borgman's approach to scholarship from that of Boyer, whose perspective is that of the individual academic and their role in the University as institution. One way to unite the Borgman and Boyer perspectives might be to accept the centrality of data in the business of scholarship and to explore its role in scholarly activity through each of Boyer's phases: discovery, integration, application, dissemination/teaching. (I suspect that this would show that Boyer's phases are neither linear nor discrete, as data is likely to have a similar form in the discovery and dissemination stages -- although it's ownership and control may be different -- whereas its role in integration is probably less marked. It's role in application and teaching could be a matter of some very interesting speculation.

One important aspect of the informal sociotechnical systems of scholarly communication that she highlights, is the research conference. In a section on different types of conferences in different disciplines she draws attention to the operation of good scholarly citizenship, including the reviewing of contributions, and the increasing requirement for contributors to attend the conference to deliver their own papers. (The notion of scholars as a community of citizens is an ancient one, but it continues to inform the discussion of scholarship at every level). Virtual online conferences are not part of the discussion, though it is clear that in some fields at least (learning technology being one of course) these are increasingly being seen as alternatives to face-to-face conferences. Whether the social and disciplinary function of an online conference is identical to that of its face-to-face counterpart, or different in some technologically determined way, is a question for future research. The same research might enquire whether digital scholarship still implies scholarly community, or whether it now defines processes that cross different communities. Borgman refers to the concept of 'invisible colleges', referring to the informal affiliation of scholars from many institutions, often in distinct geographic locations (p. 57), which would seem quite close to what we understand as an online community. Critics of the concept, however, question how far an invisible (or virtual) college can be said to be a structural entity, as opposed to just a description of the processes of communication of its members.

Another important concept she introduces is that of the 'value chain' of scholarship, which are those activities which add value to data by enhancing the flow of information. Publication for example. She gives the example of the way social science and humanities researchers mine the documentation that results from interpersonal conversations and other informal interactions taking place online (p. 125) as an example of an infrastructure that maintains links between data, publications, and interim communication. The prospect of developments in the mining process enabled by new technologies she constructs as 'possibilities for new forms of scholarship'.

(Paradoxically, however, she cites references that suggest that representations of conventional academic publication online are not currently conducive to academic reading. Scholarly readers apparently disaggregate the contents of articles, rather than read them linearly or through associational links. Borgman claims that this is the reason there has been little take-up of hypertextual tools by scholars to date).

Overall she argues that while scholars continue to be rewarded for publication rather than the documentation and management of data, the emergence of a new infrastructure for data is unlikely to occur. What is needed she argues is tools to simplify the capture and sharing of data and policies to encourage scholars to work with them. Her definition of scholarship remains focused on the (mainly natural scientific) researcher, but she considers data generally in terms of relationships within the scholarly communication system, including in the humanities and social sciences, which clearly involves others who may not consider themselves to be researchers directly. However, she believes that the gift exchange model is breaking down, and looks to open access as a replacement model. By open access she does not mean to exclude publishers, who she thinks are still necessary for both the validation of research and the reward of researchers. But she does think that authors, publishers and libraries 'need a new equilibrium'. She looks forward to a situation where 'open repository' is a fundamental component of the public research infrastructure. Also to commons-based approaches for scholarly and creative content, such as are currently being backed by bodies such as UNESCO and the OECD (p.242).

Other changes she envisages, associated with digital objects, include a shift from 'authorship' to 'statements of responsibility', which may involve agents who take responsibility for content without necessarily being credited with the creation of it. Borgman is convinced that digital content will become the primary form for scholarly discourse and that this will produce the need for new trust mechanisms. Trust which has previously been invested in fixity, knowing that a document has not been changed, will in future be sought from other sources, who may be responsible for selection (library, archive, publisher, blogger), or recommendation, as well as authorship.

Whilst some of my colleagues have found this book to be a bit short on discussion in the areas of scholarship that they find most interesting, for example the scholarship of teaching and learning, I thought it was very insightful, well researched, and a good example of scholarship in its own right. It has certainly set me to thinking about the kinds of orientation to knowledge that are implied by our use of the term scholarship. This, as I never get tired of saying, is very centrally a matter of digital literacy, as it combines issues of the modality of representation with those of its associated social capital. Whatever scholarship is now, and whatever it set to be, we can be sure that it will involve communication practices that are variably valued by the communities and institutions in which it takes place. As other, non-academic, communities and institutions encroach on the University, the traditional domain of the scholar, in its business of teaching and research, the literacy practices of scholarship are certain to change. And with them the rewards and status accorded to those who call themselves scholars.

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