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An open letter to AERA

Dear AERA,

The deadline for submissions to the 2013 annual meeting is a few days away, but I won’t be submitting anything. I don’t expect to attend the 2013 meeting, and I let my AERA membership lapse a year or two ago. These declarations are unlikely to be of any significance to AERA given that there are still 25,000+ members of AERA and the conference will be well-attended, as usual.

Still, I feel compelled to explain my decisions, mostly because I really wish things were different. You see, I have a great deal of respect for educational research and scholarship; I have been actively engaged in educational research for about 15 years and I am regularly impressed by scholarly work of AERA members. Some of my best friends are AERA members…

In all seriousness…

The American Educational Research Association (AERA), a national research society, strives to advance knowledge about education, to encourage scholarly inquiry related to education, and to promote the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.

That’s a fine statement of purpose, and though there is nothing explicit about knowledge dissemination, I believe it is necessarily implied by terminology such as “advance knowledge” and “promote the use of research.” Furthermore, one of AERA’s key programs is the Communications & Outreach unit which is “…aimed at delivering appropriate and relevant information to key AERA audiences in order to build awareness, appreciation and support for education research.” In other words, AERA is very much in the knowledge dissemination business.

And yet

In a lecture before the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Harvard law professor Larry Lessig argued that the current infrastructure for scholarly communication is not consistent with the objectives of The Enlightenment. Rather, the system is more consistent with the reality of the “elite-nment.” That is, for the most part, knowledge created by academics is placed mostly in outlets that can be accessed only by “the knowledge elite.”

The Architecture of Access to Scientific Knowledge from lessig on Vimeo.

Lessig personalizes this problem by telling the story of his own child who was born jaundiced. As a scholar, Lessig’s first instinct was to investigate the issue by consulting medical research. By virtue of his university affiliation, he could access all of the research he needed through academic databases purchased by the university for which he worked. This caused him to think about other parents, especially those less economically advantaged, who have children with health concerns who cannot inform themselves through research and are, therefore, at the mercy of medical practitioners.

Lessig implies that there is potentially great consumer demand for medical research. That is, medical research is produced by and shared within the medical community, but medical professionals are not the only potential “consumers.” Virtually anyone who has ever been treated for even a slightly complicated medical condition can imagine the benefits of having access to medical research.

This stands in contrast to scholarship in the humanities, for example. Bauerlein (2011)  argues that there is an abundance of literary research that is well conceived, but of little to no import; it may well get read, but it has no impact as documented by a lack of references or citations to the work. He proposes cutting down the supply of literary research. John Carter McKnight (2011) replies by stating that:

Academics have no requirement, or indeed incentive, to read the articles their system demands they produce… Put another way, there is no market for academic research in the humanities. Well, aside from grad students forced to do literature reviews.

Thus, instead of cutting the supply, McKnight argues for increasing the demand. Specifically, he suggests instituting a continuing education requirement for humanities faculty members.

I have significant concerns with Bauerlein’s argument, and I don’t entirely love McKnight’s reaction. But, I am quite certain that education, as a discipline, is much more akin to medicine than the humanities. That is, there are tens of thousands of practicing educators (like medical professionals) and millions of parents of school-aged children (like patients) who could benefit from access to educational research. In other words, there is no demand-side problem facing educational research.

Yet, educational research still faces a significant supply-side or impact problem. That is, as abundant as the research is and as many potential consumers of the research there are, research utilization in education is not as widespread or as straightforward as one might expect. This lack of research utilization in education is not a new problem. For decades, educational scholars have pondered and studied how to make their work accessible and impactful from a policy standpoint. In 1979, Carol Weiss wrote:

This is a time when more and more social scientists are becoming concerned about making their research useful for public policy makers, and policy makers are displaying spurts of well publicized concern about the usefulness of the social science research that government funds support.

Over thirty years later, we’re still trying to fix this problem. Just yesterday, the William T. Grant Foundation announced six new grants on the use of research evidence in education. These investigations continue, even as entire books have been written about the problem as applied to education (See e.g. Hess, 2008). As a result, the manifold barriers to research utilization are well-documented. Coburn, Honig and Stein (2009), in their study of school districts’ use of research-based evidence, note that “[o]ften, there are not studies that address the pressing issues that the district is grappling with…and when the studies do exist, they may not be easy for district leaders to find and access.”

There are many barriers to utilization, but this access issue is crucial. In his seminal book on open access publishing, Willinsky (2005) argues for what he calls The Access Principle:

A commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of such work as far as possible and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it (p. xii).

Willinsky goes on to state that advances in computer-mediated communications mean that a commitment to the access principle now necessitates embracing these technologies “to do as much as can be done to advance and improve access to research and scholarship” (p. xii).

And, this is where my critique of AERA begins. I see no evidence of AERA’s commitment to the access principle, and that absence is more pronounced than ever in this era of advanced information and communications technology. AERA is not doing nearly enough to to advance and improve access to research and scholarship in education. Consider just the issues around publishing and annual meetings.

Publishing

I’ve written a bit about open access publishing, especially in a piece I wrote called Scholar 2.0: Public Intellectualism Meets the Open Web. Plenty has been written about open access publishing (see e.g. THIS and THIS; and for literature on open access publishing in education, see THIS and THIS…), so I won’t expound upon it here. But, the growth of open access publishing is clear, as evidenced by the following graph.

 

SOURCE: Laakso M, Welling P, Bukvova H, Nyman L, Björk B-C, et al.2011 The Development of Open Access Journal Publishing from 1993 to 2009.PLoS ONE 6(6): e20961. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020961

According to an article in The Guardian just the other day, the British government intends to “make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014…” AERA, as best I can tell, has no interest in promoting access to scholarship via open access publishing. Educational Researcher, AERA’s “signature journal” has a new editorial team who just announced a new vision for ER; there’s nothing in there about making ER available to anyone but AERA members. AERA also has an online paper repository which now boasts “nearly 10,700 papers from three years of annual meetings.” Who has access to that repository? Members only.

AERA, you and I both know why your journals and repositories are only available to members (or anyone with an access through an institution that pays for access). It’s about your financial relationships with for-profit publishing houses. It’s about how your very existence relies upon those financial relationships. In other words, you’ve chosen partnering with the publishers and your bottom line over a commitment to the access principle.

On this matter, I stand with Gideon Burton, Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University, who writes:

I don’t want to be complicit in sustaining a knowledge economy that rewards its participants when they invest in burying and restricting knowledge. This is why Open Access is more than a new model for scholarly publishing, it is the only ethical move available to scholars who take their own work seriously enough to believe its value lies in how well it engages many publics and not just a few peers (para. 7).

The AERA annual meeting

There was a time when information was scarce and, in the absence of a face-to-face meeting, sharing that information was limited to one-to-one communications.  In the days before e-mail and even the fax machine, the only way to share and discuss scholarship in the form of a manuscript with multiple individuals simultaneously was at a face-to-face meeting.  AERA’s annual conference was structured to facilitate that sort of information sharing (and, to a degree, discussion, but more on that later…); it was a time for scholars of education to come together to present their work to each other and to get immediate (or even distant in time) feedback (or “peer-review”) on their work.  Similarly, in the days before “the Internet” as we know it today, the only way to disseminate information or scholarship to the masses was to work with a publishing house that had the means to effectively and efficiently print and distribute books or collections of articles in the form of journals.

Those days have long since passed us by, but AERA continues to operate as if time has stood still. I cherish opportunities to discuss (i.e. actually talk about) educational scholarship with a group of people; especially face-to-face opportunities. Using the American Heritage Dictionary definition of “conference,” I hope for “conferences” where I can meet “for consultation or discussion;” where I can engage in “an exchange of views.” Short of the occasional roundtable and the informal gatherings before and after sessions, the AERA annual conference leaves no room for actual conferring. The modal paper session is 1.5 hours long and includes the presentation of 4-5 papers and the ramblings of a discussant. The session chair occasionally facilitates the session so that there are 15 (+/- 5) minutes for Q&A (which are often more about gaining clarity than about generating discussion).

In the days before the age of digital+information, this structure allowed lots of scholars, novice and veteran, an opportunity to share their work with many others in ways that were not otherwise possible. However, today, there are plenty of ways to “publish” work, even works in progress. You and I know that presenters are strongly encouraged to upload their papers to the repository well in advance of the conference so that attendees can read them ahead of time. But, you and I also know that this expectation is not really “enforced.” Furthermore, so long as attendees expect to attend and hear 15-minute presentations about the paper, there’s not great incentive to read the papers ahead of time. What if you did away with presentations entirely and enforced the paper uploading expectations? What if you “flipped” the conference and had presenters create short video presentations to be uploaded and hosted by AERA in advance of the conference?

I’m thrilled that AERA has created this repository of webcasts of presidential addresses and distinguished lectures. That’s a step in the right direction. But, what if AERA housed those videos in a space or on a platform that promoted community and engagement around the ideas in the addresses/lectures? I see that AERA has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. But, as of the writing of this post, the cover photo on the AERA Facebook page is about the 2012 annual meeting which has long passed. The Twitter account? The AERA Twitter account has sent a grand total of 140 tweets, and while there are almost 2,000 followers of that account, whoever runs that account is only following 1 other account. Using Twitter as only a broadcast medium misses the point of “social” media.

Related, we don’t have to wait until the annual meeting to have conversations about educational research. AERA is uniquely positioned to develop an online community of practice around educational research, a space where researchers and practitioners could come together to share information, exchange resources, have discussions, etc. Consider something at the intersection of academia.edu and Classroom 2.0.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we live in a time of knowledge ubiquity and not knowledge scarcity. We need to embrace the tools that allow us to adapt to that reality and remain relevant. I’m fully aware that my best strategy here may very well be to commit to doing the work of change from within the organization. But, I cannot. Until AERA takes serious steps toward modern (and, frankly, ethical) forms of knowledge dissemination, much like the Modern Languages Association has done, I will absent myself from all AERA proceedings and activities.

If you would like to discuss this letter, you know where to find me. And maybe, just maybe, like what happened for the MLA, this can have a happy ending. Call me, maybe?