Digital Research Literacies, part 2

by Paul Maharg on 04/08/2015

‘Literacies’ might suggest a basic set of competencies, one that’s highly teleological, but I mean the very opposite of it — a complex unbounded, uncertain collection of capabilities, awarenesses and moral positions.  Actually that’s really what literacy is in any case — a hugely complex process.  As an adult education tutor many years ago I found myself learning again and again in one-on-one sessions and small group reading & writing classes just how complex it was, and how much of the process of learning literacy goes on unseen, hidden and largely forgotten, because most of us learn when we are quite young.  As I point out in this post, helping adults to learn literacies was a profound experience because it went to the heart of many social and cultural as well as cognitive processes; and as Freire and others remind us, it’s a democratic and ethical necessity:

What the literacy classes taught me was that, in the midst of poverty was richness. My students relied even more on what the New Literacy Studies movement has called ‘multiliteracies’, where reading and writing are embedded in diverse cultural contexts, and in multimodal forms (Street 1984[1], Scribner & Cole 1981[2]; also Brandt & Clinton 2002[3]). In other words their strategies for negotiating reading and writing in what might appear a context of deprivation and social shame were complex, intelligent, highly purposeful – examples of ‘transcontextual transfer’ (Brandt & Clinton), where identity, reading/writing, purpose and social context were inextricable (for reading and writing are examples of embodied knowledge in many ways).

So digital research iteracies plural, because I’m with Gunther Kress and James Paul Gee — these complex skills are multiliteracies, are multimodal, and depend on many cultural and social variables.  As I pointed out in this seminar given to doctoral students at ANU, when we learn a discipline, we learn as adults the textual ways of reading and writing used in the discipline – we become adult literacy learners.  In that respect the importance of occluded texts is critical when learning the textual forms one is expected to produce in the research process.

The same applies to our first readings of a ‘text’ such as ResearchGate, which is much more interactive with us as people and as research-producers.  What does it occlude, what does it it count, how does it communicate and who else sees that, what does it counts as value-laden activities.  A while back I could find no way properly to upload a book to RG – is that because scientists scarcely produce books, but their article-based work is heavily metricised in ways that social sciences cannot be?

Similarly, take a conference such as Quantifying and Analysing Scholarly Communication on the Web (ASCW ’15). What the researchers are doing there is analysing how an environment such as ResearchGate affects our work as researchers.  Not at a fundamental literacy level, but how it influences the ways that we go about our research thinking and processes of knowledge representation.  We need a lot more of this kind of research generally, but legal researchers in particular need to engage in forms of digital research literacies much more, to determine what’s useful for our discipline and sub-disciplines in Law.  Which would be the best digital research site for us, if sites like ImpactFactor and ResearchGate are too focused on science-based citation counting, and not enough on altmetrics.  Nor are these simply a matter of personal choice.  Inevitably, we shall be using these tools more and more; our institutional research managers will be attracted to their powerful metrics; and if we don’t want to put our research futures in the hands of others, then we need to take action ourselves.

The slides give a rough guide to what we discussed.  In brief, I argue with James Wilsden in his recent report that we should be very careful about the effect of both citation systems and metrics.  Unlike him, though, I’m less impressed with peer-review as a system of quality assessment.  And unlike him, I think that altmetrics may contribute to a rounder portrait of researchers than peer-review and citation metrics alone.  And above we need to engage with these measures and understand their effects.

As I said, the session was a one-hour overview of a three-hour workshop given at IALS late last year, where we spent much more time exploring and discussing how we might understand and use peer networks, altmetrics, etc.  One subject doesn’t appear on the slides, though, and that’s the effect of publishers’ strategies in the digital domain.  Why is this important for us?  For these reasons —

  1. It is scandalous that at a time when we support the LII movement (eg AUSTLII, BAILII, CANLII), we allow our research to be locked away behind paywalls from all those who have not the privileges of belonging to a scholarly institution.  Knowledge is a public good, not a private good to be sold only to the privileged few who can afford it.  Our journals should be a public good.  Green, gold or ‘compliance’ of any other colour still contravene this principle. See the exemplary work of the mathematician, Tim Gowers.
  2. Our libraries have faced huge increases from publishers in recent decades. In the era of digital commons, it’s unacceptable that we allow this to happen.  Libraries protest, but ultimately academics create the huge costs by allowing publishers to publish our work at almost any cost – indeed we turn the other way, and from those least able to afford it.  If you’re a law school in Africa or India, struggling with tiny library budgets, how are going to afford that cost?
  3. Journal publication is one of the best publishing cons of modern times.   For information on publishers’ practices, see  I’ve signed up — I won’t be publishing, reviewing for, or being on an Editorial Board of an Elsevier journal.  Or see this Guardian article, where Monbiot comments that in 2010 ‘Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn)’, which he observes was the same as in 1998 – and in the midst of a global  financial crisis (see the fully-referenced version) – and profits are now higher.  Who is paying?  You do, because  your institution does.  Your institution pays you to research, and then it pays again to get the results of that research into its libraries.  And what is it that publishers do for all that income that we cannot easily do for ourselves? Dissemination (but see below), and some editorial assistance (which is being cut back all the time), and citation tools (which we could easily design better for ourselves) are the sum total of their contribution for the colossal sums they demand from our libraries.  Others have had enough – Dutch universities are planning a boycott of Elsevier.  For myself,  I’ve resigned not just from Elsevier but from all journal editorial boards that are not open-access.   Why give my work free to the ample pockets of Wiley’s, Taylor & Francis/Informa’s, Springer’s, Elsevier’s shareholders and investors?
  4. We accept the demands of publishers far too easily, we give away our copyrights into their hands.  And we do so at the expense of the research impact of our work.  Open accessibility has greater impact.  See Antelman’s study a decade ago (yes, and it’s open access too); or Harnad & Brody.  There are many more.  When you publish your work in a paywall journal you lessen its impact.
  5. We can surely do better than this, ethically and practically.  We can surely organise ourselves around our professional organisations and re-envision what a rich online environment might look like were we all to contribute to it.  Look at any well-organised peer-reviewed open-source journal on the web (here’s the directory).  See the historical work of Steven Harnard on the subject, and the burgeoning literature on open-access journals and in particular Open Journals System (eg Edgar & Willinsky, 2010).  Nor need we think that publishers are in some way important to the scholarly enterprise. What’s essential is the quality of our work and the processes by which we assure that.  Diversity of citation, even publication of highly-cited papers is slowly moving away from elite journals.  I’m the co-editor of an online open-access peer-reviewed journal, and know that it can work, and at a tiny fraction of the cost that publishers charge.
  6. Back in 2007 Nigel Duncan and I published on an experiment in online peer-review – Black box, Pandora’s box or virtual toolbox? An experiment in a journal’s transparent peer review on the web .  (And yes, reverse proxies at the ready, it’s behind a paywall.)  Even then, we argued for at least considering a move towards open-access publishing.  The case becomes increasingly urgent as publishers become increasingly predatory on knowledge.  I’m a signatory to the Budapest Open Access Initiative and the Cape Town Open Education Declaration.  I’d strongly encourage others to sign up.
It might appear that this topic dominated the hour’s session.  Actually it didn’t, but I’ve focused on it here not just to give background to the issues but to demonstrate how it’s one of the many vital issues that digital research literacies presents us with.  It’s not something we can read about and then do nothing.  It’s one example among a myriad of how digital changes things fundamentally: epistemological frameworks, the ontology of information systems, measurement of knowledge and its worth, the power relations between publisher, writer and reader, financial conduct and responsibilities in HE, privacy, freedom, democratic accountability, human rights.  This session was a plea for us all to become involved in the struggle to create better universities, and to shape better conditions for the creation and dissemination of our research.


  1. [1]Street, B. (1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, New York: Cambridge University Press
  2. [2]Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981) The Psychology of Literacy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  3. [3]Brandt, D., & Clinton, K. (2002). Limits of the local: expanding perspectives on literacy as social practice. Journal of Literacy Research 34, 3, 337-356

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Hand September 6, 2015 at 04:08

Hmmm, 3rd try today…

I tried commenting in some detail a while back but an apparent widespread wordpress error swallowed it up (link deleted) so shall just say:

thanks for an interesting post; and

presumably through the virtues of green open access versions of ‘Black box, Pandora’s box or virtual toolbox? An experiment in a journal’s transparent peer review on the web’ are available at SSRN, CORE (link deleted), City University repository (, etc.


2 Paul Maharg September 8, 2015 at 21:38

Sorry to hear about the Wordpress error losing your comment James. You’re right that various digital collections have the article, the City U link being one, and ANU Digital Collections being another. But my argument against green open access is that this shdn’t be necessary. It’s hugely wasteful of university personnel time and effort (and having gone to the effort of putting virtually all my prior publications in ANU’s Digital Collections, even with the fantastic support of Library research assistants, I know how much that costs). And different publishers have different rules, which means contacting them individually to argue the case to make public a social science or arts article published 20 years ago or so. Also, the original article is paywalled for anyone not with the reading privileges that go with being a staff member of a University Library. It’s virtually impossible these days to be an independent researcher because so much of our knowledge is now locked up in DRM; and green access is just a messy workaround to serve the interests of publishers and ensure that they can go on charging massive fees, protect the interests of shareholders, etc. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal’s School of Library and Information Science found that over half the market in scientific papers is controlled by five corporations (see here) with almost 40% profit margins. Access is the least of our problems. Fundamentally we have to change the system.


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