The relationship between pirate scholarly communication and open education – a beginning

Over the coming weeks I will be writing a series of posts about the relationship between pirate scholarly communication and open education as part of module H818 – The Networked Practitioner, that I am taking with The Open University.

I’ll start by providing some definitions of these terms.

By pirate scholarly communication, I mean online services, mechanisms and/or practices that provide illegal access to traditionally published scholarly literature in the form of journal articles, conference proceedings, books and so on. This content would usually have to be paid for but is made available for free via pirate scholarly communication. Examples of pirate scholarly communication include LibGen, Sci-Hub, Reddit Scholar, #icanhazpdf and AAAAAARG.

Openness in education can be seen broadly as “the adoption of measures to encourage widespread access to and participation in education” (Bell et al. 1993, p.2) but, in the current context, open education is often understood specifically as a movement that “encompasses resources, tools and practices that are free of legal, financial and technical barriers and can be fully used, shared and adapted in the digital environment”.

I will be examining these two phenomena, raising issues and asking questions in order to consider, among other things:

•   The extent to which pirate scholarly communication can be considered open education
•    The boundaries of open education
•    What role legality plays in open education
•    Whether pirate scholarly communication poses a threat to open education
•    The extent to which pirate scholarly communication can be considered innovative


Bell, R. 1930-, Tight, M. & Society for Research into Higher Education., S.E.-S. and O.U.P. imprint, 1993. Open universities : a British tradition?, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Assumptions and Challenges of Open Scholarship

As part of module H818 – The Networked Practitioner, that I am taking with the Open University, we have been asked to engage with Assumptions and Challenges of Open Scholarship by George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons. Specifically, we are required to examine the assumptions listed in table 1 and relate them to our own experience where possible. As part of the exercise, we have been encouraged to blog our thoughts on the article, so here are mine!

The first assumption presented is:

“Open scholarship has a strong ideological basis rooted in an ethical pursuit for democratization, fundamental human rights, equality, and justice”

This is a narrative I have heard a number of times from individuals and organisations involved in academia. It has been passed down and promoted by many librarians I know in relation to open access publishing and it is a message I have propagated myself.

However, on reflection, I have also encountered engagement with open scholarship for non-ideological reasons. For example, in my job I support academic engagement with HEFCE’s open access policy for the next REF and have seen how the policy has increased the number of publications being made open access. Granted, the policy itself may be driven as least in part by the values defined above but I would confidently guess that most of the deposits making up this increase were directly motivated by the necessity of having to comply with the policy rather than ideology.

Indeed, institutional repositories themselves are at least partly driven by reasons apart from this ideological basis. Not only are they used to ensure compliance with HEFCE and other funding body policies but they are often seen as a”shop window” that should be used to promote universities and researchers for their own benefit.

Scholars are often presented reasons for being open that are based on self-interest. A standard line in promoting engagement with open access is that it will increase the amount of people who read and cite scholars’ work.

Furthermore, there are commercial actors involved in the open access landscape, including numerous large traditional publishers who pre-exist the modern notion of open scholarship. These companies are concerned with making profit in addition to (and perhaps instead of) any ideological concerns.

The second assumption is:

Open scholarship emphasizes the importance of digital participation for enhanced scholarly outcomes

I agree that open scholarship does emphasize the importance of digital participation and that you need certain digital skills to get the most out of it. For example, I have seen evidence that an ability and willingness to promote open access research via social media can mean that it is downloaded more often.

It does need to be acknowledged that different scholars may need to participate digitally to different degrees, at least in terms of self-interest. For example, a well established figure whose work already appears in popular and prestigious publications may feel that digital participation enhances  their outcomes less than an early career researcher who is trying to build their career.

However, what would interest me is an investigation of open practices that exist outside the digital realm today and any that pre-exist the current notion of open scholarship. This is something I’ll have to research!

The third assumption is:

Open scholarship is treated as an emergent scholarly phenomenon that is co-evolutionary with technological advancements in the larger culture

As with my comments on assumption two, I would be interested to look into what open practices were already taking place before “open scholarship” as we now know it. I can imagine its possible to put a case for technological advancements as having simply allowed people to scale up and increase participation in existing practices rather than providing a complete paradigm shift.

Whilst the flat relationships provided by social media may be “incompatible with how relationships are structured in educational settings and other contexts offline” in some cases, I imagine that most people can differentiate between the relationships they have on social media and face-to-face e.g. that a student can be ‘friends’ with a tutor on Facebook and still accept their authority and have an appropriate relationship with them in the physical classroom.

However, I can certainly relate the issues of homophily and “the echo chamber” that the authors raise, having seen them in action in my own professional circles, and my gut feeling is that I agree with this assumption and the challenges to it that are provided.

The final assumption is:

Open scholarship is seen as a practical and effective means for achieving scholarly aims that are socially valuable

The authors believe this assumption is challenged by the fact that digital tools and open ways of working introduce problems for scholars as well as efficiencies.

I agree with them.When reflecting on my own practice, I can identify “new dilemmas” that I have encountered, such as the distractions inherent in the layout of my work email client and the need to cultivate my Twitter in such a way that it continues to benefit me. I sometimes feel  the information overload Veletsianos and Kimmons refer to and want to make more of an explicit attempt to manage it via the identification of a few trusted information sources (e.g. blogs, Twitter accounts) which will act as filters on my behalf. It is also worth acknowledging that increased connectivity can make it harder to escape from our jobs and, for some people, increase stress (it is worth listening to the radio series Oliver Burkeman is Busy to hear this and other relevant ideas explored).

I’m going to avoid drawing any overall conclusions in relation to this article for now as I have a couple of other thoughts but I think they’ll need a bit more time to mature before I write them up.

However, do take a look at the article yourselves and let me know what you think.