We had a great discussion with my Domain of One’s Own cohort about the uncomfortable but wonderful space it can be to be an “open” digital scholar. What does it mean to be open, and where do you draw the line? What’s great about this cohort of faculty who are exploring their own space is that they come from a wide variety of disciplines and stages of their career. And what I learned today is just how strong the promotion and tenure track can be in influencing where and how much of one’s work an academic is encouraged to publish in open online spaces.
There is this odd dichotomy where academics rely heavily on the wealth of information available in online spaces to compliment their research, and yet it’s a real struggle to then put that same work out in the open. What’s also interesting is the distinction between publishing finished bodies of work and work in progress. While there is real value to publishing what might be considered incomplete thoughts or components of one’s research in order to get feedback, there are also not only copyright concerns but also junior faculty who are actively discouraged from posting any work online that could affect their tenure and promotion track. Mary Kayler spoke of how she used to openly give out all her materials and work until one year she sat in on a session where the presenter was presenting a paper she had written, practically verbatim with slides and everything. It’s a gut-punch to put yourself out there in open ways and then have that be abused. In fact I learned a new term related to sharing incomplete work: “peeing on a tree” where the idea is to stake a claim to an idea and present that incomplete work as work in progress (albeit still in offline ways like conference sessions) so that other academics will know your area of research and hopefully stay away. What a wild world academia can be!
As we talked about how one defines how far they are willing to open themselves I was reminded of how the structure of MakerBot has changed over the past year. It was just last year around this time when MakerBot, a company that had built their entire business on the open source community and contributed heavily to that community, announced their Replicator desktop 3D printer. As with all previous models they proudly proclaimed it would be an open source product and sure enough you can download all necessary files to build one yourself on the Thingiverse. And yet later that fall the message had changed. While all previous devices would continue to be open-source (a requirement of the open source license) their newest printer, the Replicator 2 would not be, nor would the MakerWare software announced at the same time. It seemed to be a complete abandonment of the original ideals of the company and what they had stood for for so long. Naturally the community that supported MakerBot for so long was livid with a handful removing all of their files from the Thingiverse and vowing never to support the company again.
In one of many blog posts Bre Pettis, the CEO of MakerBot, wrote following the outburst he talked about how difficult it is to grow their company in the face of increasing competition while still supporting the open source ideals that helped them begin. In particular he called out how companies would make identical clones of their machines and attempt to sell them to unknowing customers. With 150 employees it’s obviously a much bigger challenge to figure out how “open” they can afford to be. He cited Tom Preston-Werner, co-founder of Github, about running a company as open source as possible who wrote “Don’t open source anything that represents core business value.” For a company like SparkFun who shares much of the designs for what they sell they draw the line at their backend system, material sources, and financial data. In other words “open” is a moving target defined by each company and individual. And that resonates quite a bit with me when I talk with faculty.
So I can’t decide for a faculty member what’s the right approach, they have to decide for themselves. I can only speak to my own personal experiences and wonder if there might be some correlation. In my experience, I have had very few encounters as a result of my online expression of my digital identity that were negative. By stark contrast I owe much of who I am, where I work, and the connections I’ve made to the open sharing I’ve done here on my blog, on Twitter, and as a part of online communities over the years. It is no exaggeration that the results of these encounters have changed my life for the better. I have my own limits to how much I will share online, but my default setting is open and I’m better for it. And I can’t say enough how privileged I feel to be able to talk with faculty at UMW about this process and help them navigate this uncharted territory.