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More Brains!

Page history last edited by Martin Weller 13 years, 5 months ago

‘More brains!’ – the perpetuation of the zombie scholar


Martin Weller &
Jim Groom

A draft paper for the Zombies in the Academy book


Scholars engage in a number of different activities, which operate within specific cultures. These cultures are defined in part by technology and reward and recognition frameworks. In this paper we look at the functions of the scholar, particularly focusing on research. The uptake of new technologies in research and associated practices can be seen as a barometer for innovation within higher education.
We argue that the context within which academics operate is akin to the spread of the zombie virus, with new entrants rendered zombies by the constraints of the environment. We suggest one possible antidote to this zombification of higher education is the use of new technologies and particularly the cultural norms they embody.


Research and new technology

There have been a number of recent studies examining researchers use of new technologies, and the conclusion one can draw from this is of cautious experimentation. Perhaps more than any other of the scholarly functions, the use of new technology in research is the most conservative, maybe because research is the practice still most highly valued. In this article we will look at some of the current evaluation research and the research environment which perpetuates a conservative approach.
If we look at technology uptake first of all, most studies indicate that researchers tend to use a variety of tools, some of which are provided by their institution, and others they have selected themselves (Kroll and Forsman 2010). In terms of web 2.0 technologies, there is tentative take-up, for example Proctor, Williams and Stewart (2010) found that:

“a majority of researchers are making at least occasional use of one or more web 2.0 tools or services for purposes related to their research: for communicating their work; for developing and sustaining networks and collaborations; or for finding out about what others are doing. But frequent or intensive use is rare, and some researchers regard blogs, wikis and other novel forms of communication as a waste of time or even dangerous”

As Bennett, Maton & Kervin (2008) have argued in examining the digital natives myth, there is little evidence to suggest that age is a factor in the use of new technologies. This seems true for researchers also, as Carpenter et al (2010) found:

“there are no marked differences between Generation Y doctoral students and those in older age groups. Nor are there marked differences in these behaviours between doctoral students of any age in different years of their study. The most significant differences revealed in the data are between subject disciplines of study irrespective of age or year of study.”

There is a general suspicion around using social networks to share findings, although many researchers use them for personal and professional networking (James et al 2009, Carpenter ibid). Carpenter et al describe the researchers as ‘risk averse’ and ‘behind the curve in using digital technology’. Similarly Harley et al (2010) state that

“We found no evidence to suggest that “tech-savvy” young graduate students,

postdoctoral scholars, or assistant professors are bucking traditional publishing practices”

The relationship with publishing is a tense one. While many researchers effused support for open access for instance, with James et al reporting 77% agreement with the principle of open access publishing, but also reservations about quality, or more significantly, perceptions by others of quality. Similarly Proctor, Williams and Stewart found that print journals were rated as more important than online ones.
What this indicates is the strong relationship between academic journals and promotion. It is through publishing in well renowned journals that researchers are likely to gain tenure or promotion. There is thus a disincentive inherent in scholarly practice to explore new forms of publication, even when the majority of researchers themselves may support them.  This is also related to reputation and identity. If other forms of output are perceived as frivolous then early stage researchers in particular will be discouraged from engaging with them. The academic with tenure however is often more willing to experiment with new technologies and forms of dissemination, as their reputation is already established. For instance Kroll and Forsman (ibid) claim that

“the issue of open access publishing elicited strong support with faculty who want to share their publications freely. However, faculty express a strong preference for their graduate students to publish in traditional high-impact journal”

Harley et al (ibid) put it even more bluntly:

“Established scholars seem to exercise significantly more freedom in the choice of publication outlet than their untenured colleagues,

… The advice given to pre-tenure scholars was consistent across all fields: focus on publishing in the right venues and avoid spending too much time on public engagement, committee work, writing op-ed pieces, developing websites, blogging, and other non-traditional forms of electronic dissemination”

One area that is seeing significant change is the open access approach to data. There is a driver here from research funders, who are implementing policies which place data sets as a public good, with frameworks and services for discovery, access and re-use. In the UK five of the seven research councils now have such policies (Swan and Brown 2008). There is variation across the disciplines, where many have an established practice of sharing data already, and others where this is not the norm.
The use of social networks to form research teams is still rather tentative, with well established practices still prevalent. Kroll and Forsman stress the importance researchers place in personal contacts:

“Almost all researchers have created a strong network of friends and colleagues and they draw together the same team repeatedly for new projects…

Everyone emphasizes the paramount importance of interpersonal contact as the vital basis for agreeing to enter into joint work. Personal introductions, conversations at meetings or hearing someone present a paper were cited as key in choosing collaborators.”

This perhaps indicates something of a closed shop – successful researchers have established personal networks which have been built up from years of attending conferences and collaborating previously. As financial pressures begin to bite in research funding, competition for grants becomes more intense, with success rate decreasing from 31% in 2000 to 20% in 2009. The average age of first time principal investigators has increased over the same period (Kroll and Forsman ibid). Both of these factors may suggest that having previously successful teams will become more significant, thus creating a research funding spiral, where a greater percentage of the smaller funds goes to a smaller group of researchers.


Zombie perpetuation

The picture we have then of research is one where scholars are exploring the use of a number of different technologies to perform certain functions individually, but the overall uptake and attitudes vary enormously. This is partly because ‘research’ is such a catch-all term which encompasses differences in disciplines, widely varying research methodologies and of course, many different personalities and attitudes. The engagement or uptake with new technologies is less than might be expected or found in other communities. As Neylon (2009) puts it

“The potential of online tools to revolutionize scientific communication and their ability to open up the details of the scientific enterprise so that a wider range of people can participate is clear. In practice, however, the reality has fallen far behind the potential”

Given the potential benefits of new technologies, why might this be so? The environment within which research operates can be seen as contributing to a lack of engagement. For example, in the UK there was a Research Assessment Exercise, now superseded by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/research/ref/), which assesses the quality of research in UK universities and then allocates funds on this basis. The current proposals for the REF have an aim to “support and encourage innovative and curiosity-driven research, including new approaches, new fields and interdisciplinary work.” However, the types of outputs mentioned focus on journal articles, and the exploration of metrics is restricted to a few commercial publishers’ databases. There is no explicit encouragement to engage with new forms of outputs or to forefront an open access approach. As with all such exercises they end up shaping behaviour, and not merely measuring it, so the message that discourages exploration of new tools is reinforced.
Where researchers are using new tools they are doing so in conjunction with existing ones, finding appropriate uses for the tools to make their work more effective. Proctor, Williams and Stewart summarise it thus:

“there is little evidence at present to suggest that web 2.0 will prompt in the short or medium term the kinds of radical changes in scholarly communications advocated by the open research community. Web 2.0 services are currently being used as supplements to established channels, rather than a replacement for them”

This may be an entirely reasonable approach, since research is at the core of what it means to be a scholar, and issues around quality and reliability are key to maintaining the status and reputation of universities. A cautious approach is therefore not surprising as researchers seek to understand where the potential of these new tools can enhance their practice, while simultaneously maintaining the key characteristics of quality research. We would argue that it is this integrity of research which should frame discussions and experimentation with new technologies, and not the negative influence of promotion criteria and funding frameworks, since a concern about the nature of research is just as likely to accept new methods if they improve its efficacy as reject them if they threaten its reputation.
The research context then, in particular funding and publication models, may work against the adoption of new approaches, but that may not be the only reason. There may be intrinsic conflicts with the ingrained practices of the discipline itself. For example, examining ‘Science 2.0’ in Nature, Waldrop (2008) found that while wikis were being used regularly as collaborative research tools, blogging was less popular. The reasons for this may not be simply a reluctance to embrace new technology, but rather that the form of communication runs against the training and values scientists have developed over many years:

“It's so antithetical to the way scientists are trained," Duke University geneticist Huntington F. Willard said at the April 2007 North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, one of the first national gatherings devoted to this topic. The whole point of blogging is spontaneity--getting your ideas out there quickly, even at the risk of being wrong or incomplete. “But to a scientist, that's a tough jump to make,” says Willard, head of Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. “When we publish things, by and large, we've gone through a very long process of drafting a paper and getting it peer reviewed.”

There may be a dilemma with science in particular and the informal lightweight technologies: scientists are engaged in the business of predicting the future. Given certain variables then these outcomes will ensue with a certain probability (or these outcomes are a result of these input variables). But as we explore below, the benefits of many ‘web 2.0’ ways of working are wrapped up in unpredictability. An author won’t know which blog posts will be popular, they can share ideas on twitter but can't predict who will take them up, they can release research data but won't know what the uses for it will be. It might be the case then that scientists in particular want predictable benefits and outcomes from engaging in this type of activity, and at least at this stage these benefits are less than predictable.
Academic research is then in the strange position where new entrants are encouraged to be conservative while the reinterpretation of practice and exploration is left to  established practitioners. This seems the inverse of most other industries, where ‘new blood’ is seen as a means of re-energising an organisation and introducing challenging ideas. This should be an area of concern for academia if its inherent practice is reducing the effectiveness of one of its most valuable inputs.
In Dan O’Bannon’s zombie film The Return of the Living Dead (1985) there is a famous scene where the zombies ambush paramedics and police sent to the scene, in the process converting these people to zombies. One of the zombies uses the police radio to request: ‘Send more cops’.
This scene can be viewed as an almost perfect metaphor for the current research climate in higher education. There is a relentless demand for more ‘brains’ to feed the process, and as new entrants arrive they are converted to the current state of zombification. Although as an enemy the zombie is slow-moving and vaguely comical, it has the fear of contagion. One bite renders the victim a zombie and it seems that one encounter with the existing publishing or funding model has a similar effect on innovation for researchers.


The zombie scholar

Research is only one element of the work a scholar performs, although it is often the one that is most highly regarded. Probably the most influential work on scholarship in recent years is that of Boyer. Using data gathered from more than 5,000 faculty members, Boyer (1990) classified the types of activities scholars engaged in. This was partly a response to the research vs teaching conflict, with recruitment and promotion often being based on research activity, while it is teaching that is significant to most students, and to over 70% of faculty. The report sought to place all scholarly activity on an equal footing:

"What we urgently need today is a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar--a recognition that knowledge is acquired through research, through synthesis, through practice, and through teaching." (Boyer 1990: 24)

In Boyer’s definition of scholarship there are four components, each of which he suggests should be considered as of equal value by Universities and government policy:

  • Discovery - the creation of new knowledge in a specific area or discipline and is often taken to be synonymous with research. This is probably closest to the public conception of scholarship, as universities are often the site of significant breakthroughs.
  • Integration – integration is focused on interpretation and inter-disciplinary work. It is moving away from the pure, ‘genesis’ research of discovery. Boyer states that it is ‘making connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in larger context, illuminating data in a revealing way, often educating non-specialists”
  • Application – this is related to the concept of ‘service’, but Boyer makes a distinction between citizenship and scholarly types of service, and for the latter it needs to build on the scholar’s area of expertise. It can be seen as engagement with the wider world outside academia, which might include public engagement activities as well as input into policy and general media discussions. This can also include the time spent peer reviewing journal articles and grant applications and sitting on various committees.
  • Teaching – much of the interpretation of Boyer can be seen as an attempt to raise the profile of teaching. He argues that ‘the work of the professor becomes consequential only as it is understood by others. Yet, today, teaching is often viewed as a routine function, tacked on’.

We have already addressed research, which is perhaps the area where the zombification of practice is most prevalent, but with the other scholarly functions we see a similar pattern.
For integration, the work of interdisciplinary study is often hampered by many of the restraints we saw in research. . Indeed the globalisation of many issues, often driven by the internet, can be seen as an impetus for interdisciplinarity. Kockelmans (1972) summarises that there is an “inexorable logic that the real problems of society do not come in discipline-shaped blocks.”
However, even with an agreement that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary for the solution of some problems, it is not always easy to achieve. C.P. Snow (1960) famously decried the two cultures division of arts and science, yet the cultural differences can be seen as even finer grained than this broad binary division. There are differences in disciplines and even sub-disciplines, in terms of how research is performed, what constitutes valuable knowledge, approaches to collaboration and what form dissemination should take. For instance, in many ‘hard science’ disciplines work is performed by large teams and the conference publication is seen as a primary means of dissemination, whereas in the humanities work is often performed by the lone scholar, researching in archives and publishing in journals. Overcoming many of these explicit and implicit differences is one of the challenges of interdisciplinarity. It is by no means an easy task as Bauer (1990) suggests:

“Interdisciplinary work is intractable because the search for knowledge in different fields entails different interests, and thereby different values too; and the different possibilities of knowledge about different subjects also lead to different epistemologies.

Thus differences among practitioners of the various disciplines are pervasive and aptly described as cultural ones, and interdisciplinary work requires transcending unconscious habits of thought.”

Some of the barriers to interdisciplinarity are that journals tend to be disciplinary in nature, and publication in journals is closely allied with promotion and tenure. The prestigious journals tend to be strongly disciplinary and research communities have views regarding quality outputs and research which are either expressed indirectly or reinforced directly through exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework (Conole et al 2010). So while there are calls for interdisciplinary work to tackle some of the ‘big problems’ the culture created in higher education and research works against it.
Boyer’s function of ‘Application’ can take many forms. One common interpretation is that of public engagement. Here the routes to public engagement are often strongly filtered, with broadcast media being the most easily recognised. The concept of the ‘public academic’ is often derided, and is limited to a very small proportion of academics who meet the requirements of broadcasters. This usually involves a high level of compromise because producing traditional broadcast is expensive and thus needs to reach the widest audience possible.
The last of Boyer’s activities is that of teaching. Here we see the highest level of experimentation, perhaps because it is the area where individual academics have the highest level of control and autonomy. As with the other functions however, technology can be seen as playing a negative role. The use of an enterprise Learning Management System has seen uninspiring adoption of elearning and the internet as a delivery channel.
In all four practices technology plays a crucial role in perpetuating current practice, but more significantly are the standardisation practices it facilitates. These lead to the creation of zombie scholar, shuffling through education because they have been infected by the accepted culture of research, discipline boundaries, communication channels and teaching methods. This is not to criticise the academics involved, the zombie scholar is positively encouraged. In a world full of zombies, we often see survivors pretending to be the undead in order to survive.


A zombie antidote

In the zombie canon there is no antidote, since the pure zombie is already dead (although some films such as 28 Days Later (2002) play with this and render it as an infection which passes). We would like to suggest one possible antidote for the zombie scholar however. Just as technology has proven to be part of the problem, so it may prove to be part of the cure. This is not in a technology determinist fashion, but because the tools both allow a set of liberating behaviours and come with a set of cultural values which can act against the zombie perpetuation cycle.
These might loosely be categorised as ‘web 2.0’ technologies, but we prefer Brian Lamb’s (2010) definition of technologies which are ‘fast, cheap and out of control’. This may appear to be a flippant characterisation, but if we examine each of the three elements they reveal why the use of such tools can act as our required antidote.

  • Fast – such technologies adapt quickly and also have a high turnover rate. Users move between them, finding the technology which best suits their needs. There is no need, or indeed time, for a full evaluation and contract with central IT services. Their speed of adaptation and the speed with which an individual can learn and use them places them under the control of the individual, not the institution.
  • Cheap – these third party tools are usually created by companies or individuals outside of higher education and are either free, or cheap to use. This means they do not fit well with the established decision making process for procurement within organisations. With no upfront costs or contracts there is an implicit encouragement to experiment with such tools.
  • Out of control – this should be interpreted as outside of the formal, centralised control. If communication channels are not centralised then they are not subject to the same cultural pressures. Thus we see academics bypassing journals or broadcasting media to publish their findings online, or ignoring official environments to communicate with each other via social networks.

One key factor is that the technologies often come with their own culture, which has developed from the bottom up and become accepted practice. If we take blogs as an example, then obviously there is nothing inherent in blogs themselves that force users to behave in a specific manner. But successful use of the technologies often requires the adoption of certain approaches, whether it is deliberate or not.
The blogger and entrepreneur Loic Le Meur (2005) suggested a number of aspects of a blog community including

  • a willingness to share thoughts and experiences with others at an early stage
  • the importance of getting input from others on an idea or opinion.
  • launching collaborative projects that would be very difficult or impossible to achieve alone.
  • gathering information from a high number of sources every day
  • control over the sources and aggregation of their news
  • the existence of  a ‘common code’: a vocabulary, a way to write posts, and behavior codes such as quoting other sources when you use them, linking into them, commenting on other posts, etc
  • a culture of speed and currency, with a preference to post or react instantaneously
  • a need for recognition, bloggers want express themselves and get credit for it

By becoming a blogger then, one begins to adopt these practices, because they make for a successful blog, and they are represented in the blogs that constitute the cultural norms. Ehrlich and Levin (2005) state that “Norms and metanorms provide a cultural stickiness or viscosity that can help sustain adaptive behavior and retard detrimental changes, but that equally can inhibit the introduction and spread of beneficial ones.” The cultural stickiness of the blogging community then is to share ideas, link and acknowledge others, gather and share information quickly and operate in a timely manner. These are all attributes which can be seen to counteract the zombie perpetuation of culture we see in all scholarly functions.



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