Franzen, Martina (2018). Die Digitale Transformation der Wissenschaft. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, 40:4, 9.

Story behind the Passage

What is scholarship? I have been struggling with this question ever since I became a scholar. And I still have not figured it out. To me, it always seemed weird how you, from one day to the next by signing up for a Ph.D., become a “researcher.” Before, you were considered a student but nothing has really changed. You are still doing the same stuff. In the humanities: reading, thinking, writing. Of course, all this is considered “scientific” because you adhere to certain scientific standards, e.g., citation rules and other rules of good scientific practice. You write for a closed scientific audience. The latter point is actually what bothered me most. For me, thinking and writing is for people who can do something with your knowledge. Now, with the rapid speed of digitalization, it seems that my questions and doubts will become superfluous soon because it is finally happening — Open Science!

I am researching and reading a lot about the future of science and the universities these days. I told myself over and over again to not do this because it does not really create value. Nobody hires people to tell them about the future of the university. Well, maybe people do but if that is not your “core” product, it is just a hobby. And spending time on a hobby like research is not efficient because people do not pay your for pursuing your hobby — or do they? I already have my hobby of blogging every day, right? Still, thinking about the future of science is so exciting because current events these days obviously deal a lot with education and the long-term economic and social consequence of the Covid generation. So, it is quite logical to also think of the role of the universities therein. Since this is a really huge topic, I will simply mention some brief thoughts about this essay entitled “The Digital Transformation of Science” (my translation) by Martina Franzen.

My Learnings

“innovative pathways in publishing (among them a substantial rise of Open Access journals)…” “Publish or perish” is the name of the game. I like the competitive aspect of it and I highly respect every scholar who is successful in this competition. The point it, sorry, this has nothing to do with creating social value in the present-day world. Yes, foundational research is the basis of everything and at some point in the future, this knowledge will create value for human beings. This is why, from my perspective, publish or perish has a quality-assurance function in some subjects (especially the natural sciences). In other fields, it only has the value of fueling internal competition in academia. That is alright, if you want to play the game.

The era of Open Science will be changing these and other rules completely. This era has already started with Open Access. What people from outside scholarship do not really know is that Open Access is immensely expensive for scholars. So, many people who do not get funding for their publications cannot afford it, even though they would wish to have their research results accessible for a wider audience. I am one of them, actually. But, as blogs and other outlets also show, scholars are changing the rules themselves. If you want to share your thoughts, you can do it for 0 Euros. It is up to you to decide, dear scholars. This will also mean that you will not have a big brand (press, university) behind you to back you up. Your name, your personality, will be the brand that determines the quality and credibility of your work.

“new scientific reputation systems…” The latter point is closely connected to the issue of reputation but I still want to devote some more thoughts to it. If your “reputation” does not solely depend on your publication record anymore because anybody can publish and nobody can keep track of it — what are the reference points? Is it teaching evaluations? Is it science communication? Or is it what you actually achieve? If it is about achievement, what can this achievement be? For me, achievement is always related to change. If you build a scientific center or graduate school, this is a sustainable achievement. If you consult for a private organization and this organization becomes more successful and can hire more people because you worked for them, this is sustainable achievement. If you just claim you are doing your daily job, i.e., you are teaching, grading papers, writing some papers, and acting as a good and reliable “administrator” — is this what your reputation depends on?

I am not judging. I am just asking. And I am asking because the only reference point for making any statements about “reputation” will be YOU.

“changes in the way the quality and impact of research are evaluated.” Again, my previous point is connected with the issue of “impact.” Let me add that I strongly hope that evaluation criteria will become more transparent — soon! In every leadership position in the private sector and most other organizations, you have management by objectives. This is not only to satisfy the hyper-ambitious nature of some workaholics, it is a necessary way of making sure that organizational goals are met. It also immanently ensures that criteria are actually defined in the first place. This is less a burden for the employee, I always argue, it is a relief because it creates transparency and clarity of expectations. If there is one thing that has been wrong with scholarship for decades, it is that there are no clearly defined goals (in most positions, apart from professorships). Hopefully, this clarity will not only be installed with respect to quantity, but above and beyond everything else with respect to quality.

Is all this really telling us that a new era has approached — the new age of Open Science in a completely new society that does not function according to the old rules of functional differentiation anymore? I do think so. And it is extremely exciting to be part of this. Yes, the pandemic certainly should not be taken as a reason to celebrate. People are dying. Others are mourning. But if you do not also pay attention to the dramatic change that is taking place due to the advancement and spread of technology, you are overlooking something really crucial that is just as much part of our present reality as the disease. We are really becoming more open as a society, in many ways. We are coming closer together because technology allows us to connect. There is no way that the universities will escape this irreversible change. They are already part of it. Let us hope that they will finally embrace and eventually also lead it.

Reflection Questions

1) What are the advantage of Open Science to you?

2) Do you think that printed books have a future?

3) Is there something that you are personally worried about when it comes to digital technology?

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