Our shared values as scholars
Identifying our values as scholars is the first step toward making needed change in our academic culture (see Part One of this three-part blog series). In this blog post (cross-posted on the Ronin blog), we provide a summary of scholarship values and solutions aimed to help scholars extract themselves from exploitative and harmful systems, and engage in efforts that align better with our values and current socioeconomic and environmental context.
This post summarizes the themes that emerged from the breakout table discussions held in “Session 2: Propose values & solutions” at the Scholarship Values Summit 2021–an unconference that was co-hosted by the Ronin Institute and IGDORE during September 14–16, 2021. The summaries were put together by the authors of this post, and are based on real-time note-taking from participants during the sessions. They reflect additional contextualization by the authors, and some sections are the synthesis and distillation of more than one table discussion. Therefore the summaries are not fully comprehensive of what was discussed in the session.
Acknowledgements: We would like to acknowledge the contributions of participants at Session 2 of the Scholarship Values Summit 2021, and particularly the leads of breakout tables and individuals who took notes to summarize the discussions.
A culture of care
Academia and scholarship have been traditionally grounded in values associated with the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the modern university system, these values have been put into practice by emphasizing the quality of science and performance-driven metrics, leading to a culture where fierce competition between academics is the norm. Values like integrity and accountability are often enforced through administrative requirements that leads to box-checking rather than introspectiveness. Institutional research ethics reviews are one example of how compassion was intentionally re-introduced to hold researchers accountable for the possible harm of their research (i.e., weighing the benefit of research against its potential harm). A main criticism of ethics review, however, is that it has become so bureaucratized that it has veered away from its original goals.
By being more intentional about the care that we put into our work and for each other, upholding standards like integrity and accountability within our scholarship can make activities like peer review, mentoring, and collaboration more joyful experiences.
Human-focused qualities like kindness, generosity, mindfulness, care, compassion, indigenous traditions, spirituality, and sympathetic joy can be used to re-frame research goals and improve critical thinking. Without a more compassionate approach to scholarship, we create a false dichotomy between the practical nature of scholarship, and the how and why we do scholarship. Such a dichotomy has led to the high tolerance for toxicity in academia that often drives out certain groups from scholarship, particularly women and people of colour. At this same time, we harm ourselves and the people around us by internalizing and becoming socialized to the norms of exploitation in academia. By being more intentional about the care that we put into our work and for each other, upholding standards like integrity and accountability within our scholarship can make activities like peer review, mentoring, and collaboration more joyful experiences.
To help make this change, we can make space in our research systems to allow compassion for ourselves, general compassion for all beings, and caring for each other. We can reconnect with a sense of place, including centring ourselves to restore and regenerate our natural systems of land, community, and all the species within. Such re-connection can generate more empathy and compassion for the world around us, and result in better and wiser outcomes in any practice, including academia.
What epistemic virtues are most important to scholars searching for truth? Epistemic inclusivity (the virtue of embracing diverse ways of knowing) is rare, in part because investigating ideas and research questions outside of the accepted mainstream is not even considered scholarship by many. While reliably seeking the truth requires that scholars maintain their scepticism and critically evaluate the evidence for and against different hypotheses, especially in scientific fields, scholarship often adheres single-mindedly to specific types of approaches and methods, and often without question. Intellectual curiosity has provided the motivation for many important discoveries about the world (“anything goes”), but the current bureaucracy, metrics, and incentives of modern universities limit the extent to which many scholars can follow their curiosity. Academic freedom in institutions and fields appear to be needed for researchers to cultivate epistemic virtues and put them into practice.
With urgent systemic crises looming in society, such as climate change and food insecurity, more courage and cooperation are needed to include broader pools of people and groups in our goal to find new and innovative solutions.
Knowledge creation outside academia
To broaden our knowledge society, and gather more innovative solutions and ideas, encouraging knowledge generation outside of conventional academia can help. Community-based approaches can broaden participation in knowledge generation, and encourage more people to take ownership of solutions. For example, community-owned intellectual property in biotechnology could improve collaboration in development and access to health problem solutions. Scholar-activism encourages scholars to interact more equitably and collaboratively with communities that benefit from or participate in research. Citizen science helps to increase the breadth of people involved in research ranging from microscopy to astronomy; it is now being taken up by governments seeking to increase public participation in research efforts. Independent scholarship institutes can encourage more investigation and exploration around such decentralization of scholarship by hosting discussions, and developing database(s) on relevant models, approaches, and literature (see the next section).
There is still much work to be done to close the gap between academics and the broader community; academics must develop their skill set to collaborate equitably with citizen scientists/scholars rather than unilaterally controlling the knowledge generation processes. In addition, there are existing power dynamics that create obstacles for such change, and funding for outside-of-academia research and action is limited. With urgent systemic crises looming in society, such as climate change and food insecurity, more courage and cooperation are needed to include broader pools of people and groups in our goal to find new and innovative solutions.
A new academia
Independent research is the freedom to do the type of research that you want. Indeed, scholars not employed by universities do conduct and publish research. In fact, more knowledge production may occur outside of the university environment than we think–some scholars may use university affiliations without being employed or interacting at the institution at all. However, there are few resources and little support available for researchers outside of the formal academic system. Challenges that prevent independent scholars from succeeding include, working without a traditional academic affiliation and graduate degrees, gaining experience doing research, and accessing funding sources and ethics review for human subjects research.
Publishing together, interacting together, working together — by owning their ‘independent’ affiliation, independent researchers can collectively improve…[by]… building, extending, and reinventing an academic ecosystem that includes niches for all researchers to co-exist and support one another…
Research funding agencies, as well as the constellation of organizations around these, often base their recognition of a scholar’s research on the affiliation they hold. This conservative approach to funding eligibility makes it either technically or practically impossible for scholars without traditional affiliations to apply for funding from most mainstream grantmakers. The U.S. National Science Foundation awards only 5% of its research and education funds ($8 billion in 2021) per year to organizations outside of conventional academic institutes (78%), private industry (13%), and federally funded research and development centres (3%).
To overcome some of the challenges of not being affiliated with a conventional institute, scholars have started non-profit organizations as an affiliation to do their research and access funding streams. This sometimes means working as a professional to fund their research on the side (e.g., landscape architect, patent clerk, editing, teaching), and strategizing to match research interests to professional work, even if that means changing research interests. Such researchers can also increase their external visibility by collectively developing infrastructure for doing research, such as IGDORE and the Ronin Institute. Publishing together, interacting together, working together — by owning their ‘independent’ affiliation, independent researchers can collectively improve their recognition from the existing academic system, increase their access to opportunities within it, and potentially create a new, parallel, academic system. Such interaction can also contribute to building, extending, and reinventing an academic ecosystem that includes niches for all researchers to co-exist and support one another.
The competitiveness and zero sum thinking of academia creates a collective action problem, where we know we should cooperate but feel that we have competitive interests…We should aim to build better communities that encourage our mutual support of each other.
Figuring out how scholars can cooperate and organize ourselves can lead to powerful change. However, scholars continue to contribute to and support systems that we know don’t match our values and goals. For example, we still publish our research in for-profit journals that make huge profits off of the work of scholars (for more examples, see the first post in this series). The competitiveness and zero-sum thinking of academia creates a collective action problem, where we know we should cooperate but feel that we have competing interests.
What can we do to re-shape our academic system? One solution is to create and adhere to Rules of conduct (or a Code of Conduct), which go beyond the quality of our research, but also address how we do our research and treat one another. We should also aim to build better communities that encourage our mutual support of each other. Taking pledges on concrete actions like publishing in open access journals or sharing a post-print of an article after it has been published are being organized on platforms like Free Our Knowledge and journals like Research Ideas and Output (RIO) can help increase recognition, visibility, and collective actions of our goals. Aiming to encourage and support intersectionality in science and research (e.g, “intersectional open science”) helps increase social equity within the academic system, and therefore improves the quality of our knowledge and application of that knowledge overall. We can also use replicable strategies to track our impact and follow through on actions.
Arika Virapongse is a Research Scholar and Community Director of the Ronin Institute. She is a social-ecologist who works with human-environmental issues including, community resilience, natural resource management, and the application of science. In addition, she is the Founder of Middle Path EcoSolutions, a consulting firm that helps organizations with community building.
Gavin Taylor is a researcher and global board member at the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE). His research background is in visual neuroscience and computational biophysics, and he is currently trying to establish infrastructure that facilitates independent research and Open Science.
Daniel Mietchen is a biophysicist whose research areas span the temporal and spatial scales of life, with an additional focus on integrating scholarly workflows with the open parts of the web. He frequently contributes to the Wikipedia ecosystem, edits the journal Research Ideas and Outcomes and recently joined the Ronin Institute.