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Eleni has drawn my attention to Veletsianos & Kimmons’ new paper on Networked participatory scholarship. They take a historical approach and “delineate how scholarship itself is changing with the emergence of certain tools, social behaviours, and cultural expectations associated with participatory technologies.”

They build on Burton, Cohen and Weller, and then define Networked Participatory Scholarship as “scholars’ use of participatory technologies and online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship.”

So far, so good.

However, while noting that, “it could be argued that scholars have always shared their work with colleagues (eg. face-to-face, via correspondence, over the telephone, through conferences, etc), and disciplines have always had open (and less open) scholars,” they go on, in the rest of their argument, to rely on Kumashiro et al’s characterisation of earlier sholarship as “monastic and lacking ongoing participation, support, and conversation”. In doing so, are they missing some of the most interesting things?

If we accept that scholars have always shared their work, and that disciplines have always had open scholars (there is lots of evidence to support these contentions), then what changes with use of participatory technologies?

One thing is the synchronicity with which the public, and other scholars, can observe the debate, and hence the ways in which they can contribute to it. Some of the ways in which scholars shared and reflected upon their work in the past were private at the time, perhaps not through intention, but because that was what the available technologies enabled. We can re-capture the sharing and reflection now, through archives of correspondence. James Clerk Maxwell, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), and Peter Tait, for example carried on an extensive correspondence with the frequency and brevity of blogs or email, all on postcards, in the 19th century, bouncing half formed ideas off each other. They also published in journals, books, and lectures, their ideas at various stages of development, but these were all in different media. It was only after their deaths, too late to join in, that the entire corpus could be assembled and the debate traced.

Another is our ability to capture the debate (or that element of it that takes place in digital technologies). Debate has been at the heart of what scholars do, at least since medieval times, and to enable debate in the absence of easy communication technologies was what prompted the formation of the first universities. Universities brought scholars together in physical proximity over extended periods of time so that they can talk to each other; conferences brought geographically dispersed scholars together temporarily for intensive bursts of talk. But that is what it was – talk – and most of it has left no trace. Only the published papers or books are seen.

Synchronicity and the ability to capture, then, enable both different geographic and temporal dimensions to the debate. Are these changed dimensions what constitute “openness” today? Scholars are doing the same things they ever were, but by using participatory technologies to do them, the dynamics have changed, and the nature of the debate is likely to change too?

Jim Secord has chronicled the changing nature of scientific conversations in the 19th century. Social norms governed what types of topic were appropriate in what situations, and these changed in response to wider social changes, such as the rise of a professional class and the changing organisation of science. Are any such norms and conventions yet evident in scholars use of participatory technologies? Can we observe and chronicle their changes?

If we view things this way, then perhaps there is a wider context in which we might view the adoption by scholars of participatory technologies. Bollier argues that until the 1960s or so, universities operated on the principle that academic research and innovation depended upon cooperation, collaboration and sharing. Aligned with this belief, university management, and funding policies, were based on collegiate principles, allowing considerable autonomy to scholars (McNay 1995*, Van Rooij 2011). The last 40 years, however, have seen increasing managerial control of universities and a “a frankly acquisitive ethic that aggressively seeks private ownership and profit from the fruits of university research” (Bollier). Might one of the social stimuli underlying increasing use by scholars of participatory technologies be the desire for a space in which they can assert their autonomy and ideals of collaboration and sharing? In this case we might expect to see norms emerging about what gets discussed there, and these norms will be affected not only by the scholars, but also by the expectations and interests of the “public” who join the debate – so the question of who else is involved in these debates, and what they contribute, becomes interesting also.

*McNay, I.(1995),“From the Collegial Academy to Corporate Enterprise: The Changing Cultures of Universities”, in T. Schuller (ed.), The Changing University?, SRHE/Open University Press, Buckingham