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Tweeting out loud: ethics, knowledge, and social media in academe


Many of those of us kicking around the academic Twitterverse over the past few days have been witnessing (and participating in) an intense discussion that’s raised issues at the core of academic values and assumptions about knowledge and research. This discussion has been focused on the “ethics of live tweeting” as a practice at academic conferences, and the ways in which presenters and academics either support this practice or reject it. We can see that this topic has touched a sore spot from the extreme reactions it’s generated in some Twitter circles. A number of people have also written thoughtful blog posts addressing the issues in more detail, and I’ve linked to those throughout my own contribution here.

To begin, I have to say I agree with those who’ve argued that we need to respect other people’s boundaries and try to understand where strong reactions come from; there are reasons why people react the way they do. But those reasons aren’t necessarily personal (even when the reaction makes it sound like they are). So I want to take a look specifically at the accusation that academics “use” other people’s work in social media venues like blogs and Twitter to build their own reputation and academic “brand”, and ultimately to benefit their own academic careers (ostensibly at the expense of others). Tressie McMillan Cottom brought my attention to this critique in her post from September 30, and it’s more fully articulated here.

One of the key problems brought up in the online debate has been that of determining what knowledge is public and what’s private, and who gets to decide how dissemination of that knowledge happens (where, and when, and who the audience will be), who has the “right” to share ideas.

In my opinion, control is one of the fundamental elements of this discussion; this is something discussed critically by Roopika Risam, who points out the connection between access and control. Control is also exercised through authority, which is closely tied to expertise and peer recognition. So we see some scholars re-asserting a form of academic credibility by putting down other scholars as mere opportunists, not “real” academics. In this way the boundary between “academic” and “anything else” is re-drawn by those who are already inside it–or those who hope to be allowed in.

Why would academics, even those using Twitter themselves, cast such unpleasant aspersions upon their colleagues? To understand this, we need to consider that regular forms of academic promotionalism, such as book launches, listserv announcements, and of course conference presentations and guest lectures, simply aren’t seen as such; they’re perceived as ways of “sharing ideas” with colleagues; mentoring; and building professional networks.

However, academics using social media make similar claims; many argue that “opening up” scholarship to commentary, through public tweeting, brings attention both to the scholar doing the presenting and to the person sharing (tweeting) what is being said. Many of us also view Twitter as a tool, for note-taking or simply for the dissemination of scholarly insights to a broader audience, given that many people simply can’t attend academic conferences. We strive to properly “cite” our sources because we’re still academics and researchers, even online; because we respect our peers and colleagues; and also because it’s part of an ethic of sharing as something that actually increases the value of the research.

Some academics have also argued that they fear their ideas will be “scooped” or stolen by others. This is of course a reasonable point since real plagiarism happens online–as do myriad versions of misattribution, as in this article where a tweet from Roopika Risan was re-quoted, as an incorrect attribution, from a different Tweeter (it’s now been corrected).

But plagiarism happens in more traditional forms of academic writing, too. Anyone in the room at an academic conference could be “stealing” your ideas. Whether that person uses a notebook and pen or a notebook computer, theft happens and it hurts people, and that’s a risk we take when we present work at an academic event or elsewhere. I think this is a problem that’s been around for much longer than the short period in which we’ve had access to mobile devices and social media platforms (though of course, these technologies dramatically increase the possibilities). The problem is the motivation for the practice of theft, not the technologies that enable it.

The argument that those who tweet posts about others’ work are “selfish” and concerned only with academic branding is a rebuke in the harsh terms of promotionalism, which is highly disdained in academic culture (partly for reasons I’ve discussed in the past). But let’s not forget the flip side of this extreme argument, which is that true meritocracy should be free from crass self-promotion. Not only is the argument an inflammatory one, it also plays into a false binary. Making such an argument through social media channels merely adds the element of irony to that mix.

There’s another ironic point here, too. Accusing others of selfishness in this way reinforces an objectifying and proprietary concept of knowledge in which ownership trumps the added value of openness. And this is a neo-liberal concept of knowledge, one in which knowledge is constrained by its use-value within an (academic) economy, and bounded by the assumption that we can exchange it for various forms of capital. The increased competition and professionalization in higher education has only exacerbated this conflict between the need and desire to share ideas, and the imperative to claim them as protected “territory”.

The accusations of self-interested careerism also signal a shift in academic practice and culture, including the possibility of changing how we develop authority and prestige–vital currency in the academic economy. How is “academic capital” created? Will this change with the use of relatively open new media to disseminate knowledge? That’s a “disruption” similar to what has been predicted in the debate about online education, for example. It could be another facet of the effects of new communication technologies on the ways in which academic culture and work are changing. At the moment, social media activity from academics does not generate nearly as much academic credibility as publishing and presenting at conferences. This could change.

How can we deal with these issues in the academic context? Clearly, we can’t assume that everyone agrees on (social media) etiquette. The general level of awareness needs to be raised if problems are to be avoided. Conference organizers could include social media guidelines; presenters could ask politely that people refrain from Tweeting; attendees could check to make sure it’s OK before they share online. I don’t think there’s one practical answer that’s going to make everyone happy (other than this one), because context is crucial and also because of the very contentious underlying issues involved (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Ernesto Priego, and Bethany Nowviskie have good suggestions). But as E. E. Templeton commented, we can at least make sure everyone’s “on the same page”–and that this discussion is happening at all.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. J M Johnson / October 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Great post. Thanks for the round up and the call for civility!

  2. Christine Smith / October 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    I just don’t get this hysteria about tweeting. If there’s a good idea lets get it out there and shared. Stop being so protective and exclusive with ideas – they only flourish when they are truly shared

  3. Kevin Hodgson / November 21, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Interesting post, and I guess I will say (as one who tweets from conferences as a way to wrap my head around ideas and share with friends who are not there, and one who encourages others to do the same when I present) that apresentation in a public space means just that … it’s public. An academic who is worried about tweets might want to reconsider whether they should be on that stage, I guess. I agree that the sharing should be respectful, but that doesn’t preclude the concept of challenging assumptions, either.
    You have me thinking …

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