#DigPINS Week 4: Scholarship is User-Hostile.

I’ve been in a feud with The Denver Post, one that they mostly don’t know they are a part of.

I keep on tweeting at them, telling them to remove their requirement for me to disable the “anti-tracking” features of my browser, just so that I can read an article on their website. For the record, I refuse to do this and I will live with the consequences. I will live by pushing the articles from their website into Pocket, which has a far better reading experience anyway. The consequences of this decision are that I do not see ads on their website, I do not see any of the other articles that are vaguely related to the one I wanted to read, and I see their content and service as something to avoid in the future.

Unintentionally, I found this idea of “User-Hostility” worth exploring for our #DigPINS Week on scholarship. While I do not see News and Scholarship as the same, I do see the same type of user hostility that The Denver Post is attempting here every time that I try to find a research article on Instructional Design or pedagogies for Authentic Learning.

So, I would like to set up some tenets for user-hostility I see living within our modern Scholarship ecosystem. Some may resonate more than others and some you may have heard before:

PDFs and Printed Journals Are User-Hostile formats

While I do love listening to a PDF using Voice Dream on my way into work, the PDF leaves a lot to be desired in terms of what the Open Web has to offer us. PDFs, and particularly, research PDFs (that form the vast majority of the scholarship I see online) are a DEAD medium. The words may as well be written on stone for all that they change after they are published. PDFs, once accessed and downloaded, will never change. Unlike a webpage that can be easily updated, reformatted, or shifted between platforms, a PDF is not adaptable to fill the needs of the learner or of the scholar herself. Once it is created, it is left untouched. By formatting the words and ideas into a page-based format, whether they end up being printed on paper or not, we are saying that there has been no advancement in the technology of sharing knowledge since the printing press. Page 1 of our writing does not have to the same on every device and it does not benefit the experience that it should be thus. Furthermore, our scholarship is more than just text and images. It is embedded conversations and video and manipulatable data. PDFs take all of that away from us and present a user-hostile learning experience without an alternative to access the content.

Pay-Walls and On-Campus Network access create User-Hostile platforms

For the most part, the scholarship that I most want to read requires one of two authentication methods. Either I need to have direct access via my own login and membership information OR I need to be on the wireless network for my institution (which show up as the partial screenshots above). Either of these things allows me to download full-text versions of research articles or to do advanced searches throughout all of the Pay-walled materials of a given repository. Clearly, I am grateful to our library for having the forethought to work with all of these partners to keep me from having to sign up (and pay for) each scholarly resource I would like to read or use within my work. But, this doesn’t change the fact that the moment I am off campus, I no longer have the “global credentials” that I require in order to conduct my research.

This has the (perhaps intended) consequence of forcing me to be on campus for all of the extended sojourns into academia. Alternatively, it also makes me put off doing this work until I can get a good chunk of time set aside. It makes me actively not want to do this type of work, and so I often will find (and use) lesser resources because I am able to do it from my phone or from my home. This kind of gatekeeping makes it so scholarship is more rarely seen by those outside of institutions of higher education. It feels like these platforms are actively discouraging scholarship by forcing a geo-fence around reading and interacting with existing works.

References/Works Cited/Citations without hyperlinks are User-Hostile practices

References are the stuff that great scholarship is made of. Building upon decades of learning from your peers is how giant leaps in knowledge and process happen. And yet, all of the references found within nearly every piece of research I read are simply lists of authors and dates. It feels like taking a time-warp back to my middle school days trying to look up MLA-style for my encyclopedia entry every time I look in the references to learn more about a particularly poignant author or idea.

And yet, there is a simple solution. Hyperlinks have built the web into the vast (and searchable) repository of the world’s knowledge. They help preserve connections between thoughts and build a through line across years of progress. References are not mysterious. They are how we build an argument or show our work. We should be able to hyperlink to individual articles, to paragraphs, to annotations, or to diagrams within another’s work. It shouldn’t be hard, and yet because most research is published as PDFs (see above for more ranting), these kinds hyperlinks break all of the time. It makes me think that perhaps we should be building canonical solutions for annotation built upon open standards that allow for us to reference specific words within a PDF. Oh wait. That already exists.

Regardless, this can’t be the way that we become modern scholars. Our world is hyperlinked. So too, should be our writing.

Siloed Publications/Sources create User-Hostile Research and Literature Reviews

As good as Google is about trying to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” they really struggle with doing this for materials that are stuck inside files not publicly accessible on the web. They also struggle to create the kind of robust filters and citation searches that a single publication or research aggregator can do for the works housed on their site (because they own all of the meta-data too). And so, as any good little researcher should, I go to the half-dozen sources I know will house the best research on a given topic and I do separate searches there.

In doing this, I know that I miss things. In fact, I probably miss more things that I find because this method of search (and taxonomy and repository) is so broken. Even if I diligently use my bookmarks and create custom search feeds for the different publications I trust most, I do not have any confidence that the materials I find will be exhaustive (or even robust enough to be considered thorough). And that is both user-hostile and incredibly frustrating.

Now, I’m not advocating for all research to be catalogued directly with Google. Rather, I’m advocating for treating scholarship as a first-class content type on the open web. Just like files or web pages or images or videos, research should be searchable (from anywhere). I should be fairly certain I will find the best resource if I search with the right terms, not search in the right repository.

Let’s make scholarship less like The Denver Post and more like #DigPINS.

The open network of learners that I have been learning alongside for the last four weeks has been amazing, and I want to thank each person I have interacted with on Twitter and in the Pedago.me Slack. Here are a few good ones that I can link to because they are an on OPEN PLATFORM:

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