digital technologies

Does Science 2.0 foster greater academic freedom?

Digital technologies challenge what it means to be an academic

The freedom to conduct and disseminate research, to teach and to engage in scholarly debate without discrimination, institutional censorship and restriction from governments is at the heart of academic life. A plethora of documents recognise the value of academic freedom. These include the EU charter of fundamental rights, a Council of Europe’s recommendation and the constitutions or national legislations of most Member States. In addition, UNESCO set up its recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel back in 1997. Since the advent of the era of open science, or Science 2.0, attitudes in academia are gradually changing. As a result,the debate as to whether digital technologies help or hinder academic freedom has yet to get fully started in Europe.

Freedom restrictions

A number of issues hamper academic freedom. For example, the increasing demand bestowed upon scientists to apply for funding within pre-defined areas of research–be it at European or national level–and to demonstrate in advance the impact of their research may be problematic. Indeed, they could hamper the freedom of academics wanting to pursue research according to their skills while leaving little room for creativity.

Due to increasing private financial support for research, experts also see a need to explicitly affirm academic freedom. Besides, in fields of research that relate to ethical or security issues, for instance, a tension between freedom and responsibility may arise. This means that academics and institutions may have to balance the two aspects.


In parallel, as many academics increasingly collaborate across borders, legal restrictions or bureaucratic regulations may hinder their ability to make full use of recent technological developments, such as online data sharing or content mining tools. However, technologies also facilitate better access to the wealth of academic knowledge and foster collaboration. At the same time, it is increasingly difficult to define clear boundaries between an academic’s private and professional life in an online world.

Thus, going online may allow academics to re-gain a certain level of freedom. For example, by engaging in debates that are at the heart of their professional interests and abilities. Meanwhile, technology may also help monitor violations of academic freedom. However, scientists sometimes cannot fully embrace the greater freedom afforded by science 2.0, due to a lack of open infrastructure. Resolving these issues may require, amongst other things, institutional guidelines, training and establishing European networking infrastructures.

Taming new tech

Because the technologies that drive science’s ongoing transition are so new, “nobody really knows, how to deal with [them],” says Isabella Peters, a professor of web science at the Leibniz information centre for economics in Kiel, Germany. This may be particularly true when it comes to academic freedom.

Indeed, most academics in Europe “have only a limited understanding of academic freedom,” holds Terence Karran, professor of higher education policy at the University of Lincoln, UK. Already, some years ago, Karran called for a magna charta protecting academic freedom across Europe. “Although I did not write it at the time, [this should include] something about the way in which new media [is used] by academics for the purposes of research–especially disseminating research findings–should be relatively free,” Karran says.

Current debates on threats to academic freedom often relate to growth of so-called managerialism in higher education. This resulted from the “desire of governments, particularly in the UK, that universities should be financially more autonomous and less reliant on government funding,” Karran says. This trend has also been confirmed in other European countries, such as France. Similarly, following the so-called autonomy reform, Swedish universities “are increasingly run in a top-down fashion by professional managers,” says Erik Olsson, professor in theoretical philosophy at Lund University, Sweden. “Scholars are now experiencing the full force of this development in their own professional lives,” he adds. Consequently, the interest in academic freedom has been rapidly growing.

Reinventing academics

Recent changes also affect what it means to be an academic, says Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the Open University, UK. “One of the key elements of academic identity is the idea of autonomy. You do what you think is interesting and valuable,” he says. But due to the pressure, for example, to account for the time people spend on research or supervising students, “a lot of academics feel that this core of autonomy has been eroded,” he says.

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Whether the era of science 2.0 increases or alleviates these pressures is subject to debate. Karran acknowledges that by using new social media people can disseminate research findings faster and more broadly than ever before. “In that sense, academic freedom is increased”, he says. But he also sees a danger that speedy communication may diminish the quality of scholarly debate. And there is another downside in Karran’s view. “The managerialism will also affect what we should be considering for our research. The role of new technology will be to increase these pressures faster and faster,” he says. This in turn may further restrict academic freedom, he fears.

Others are more positive. By going online, via blogs, Twitter or other social media, scientists may rediscover the reasons why they become academics in the first place, Weller holds. “They can regain autonomy. They can join a network, which is perhaps more aligned to their interest than [the one] they might have in their own institution,” he says. Academic freedom benefits from the use of social media tools because “a key function of universities is to engage in debates to progress the discussion,” says Maria Murphy, a lecturer in law at Maynooth University, Ireland. In her view, new media are also useful from an education perspective as “it demystifies the whole concept of academia and academic debate.”

Online persona

But while more and more academics build an online identity, the boundaries between an academic’s individual role and an academic’s institutional role are increasingly blurred. Universities may benefit from the online reputation of their researchers. “But if anything bad happens, it could damage the university,” Weller says. For example, when individuals get caught up in an online storm it is often unclear whether the university should be supportive. “If academics use social media to disseminate something outside of their subject area they are not covered by academic freedom. But they have the same right for freedom of speech as anyone else within civil society,” Karran points out.

But often “people are not sure of their rights and may be put off from embracing the platform,” Murphy says. Weller agrees. “When people are worried saying the wrong thing they might end up saying nothing,” he says. These problems might be tackled through training and seeing good practice, he holds. More importantly, on an institutional level, there should be “clear codes of conduct that recognise the right to academic freedom in this new digital context,” Murphy holds. Such framework would “encourage the conscientious researcher who might feel hindered because of these fears,” she adds. In this line, a report on academic freedom and electronic communication by the American Association of University Professors recommends “that each institution work with its faculty to develop policies governing the use of social media.”

Amongst other issues, the report also stresses that institutions need to ensure access to information technology and tackle problems resulting from outsourcing such resources. This issue is also relevant for Europe. Research institutions and organisations may establish policies outlining which types of networking tools individual researchers are allowed to use. For example, because of privacy concerns, academics may not use Google Docs, Skype, Dropbox or similar tools in some institutions, according to Peters. The trouble is that no alternative tools exist. “We thus need a regulation and infrastructure to be able to fully embrace the possibilities offered by science 2.0,” Peters holds. Indeed, respondents to the recent EC public consultation on Science 2.0 had similar requests.

Open access mandate

There are also problems associated with mandates for open access. While experts generally support the idea that publicly funded research should be openly available, they consider the effects of the so-called gold route to open access as a threat to academic freedom. This route of publishing levies article-processing charges for each paper published. In Karran’s view there is a danger that articles that are “worthy of publication” may not be published because of lacking economic resources.

There is also a risk that other criteria than scientific rigour may determine what is published. Moreover, “it is an essential part of academic freedom that scholars should be able to publish their result wherever they choose, which literally includes non-open access journals,” says Olsson. Indeed, as soon as a government mandates or prohibits open access this would interfere with academic freedom, an analysis of the German case concludes.

But there is more to academic freedom in the digital age. New media are also useful because they allow for documenting and publicising violations of academic freedom online, Olsson holds. In his view, “this potential has not yet been fully realised and appreciated.” In Sweden, Olsson and colleagues set up an Internet platform called Academic Rights Watch (ARW). Their idea was inspired by the organisation FIRE in the United States. Since the start in late 2012, “ARW has documented some sixty violations, including reduced collegial governance and violations of institutional autonomy and freedom of expression,” Olsson says.

Clearly, academics need to re-think what academic freedom means in the age of Science 2.0. However, the extend to which academics embrace new tools and engage in debate often depends on the country and the discipline, Peters stresses. She also holds that one should not overstate the case. “These media are really new. We do not know yet where they will take us.” She concludes: “We need to be patient.”

What needs to be done to reach greater academic freedom?

Photo credit: Charis Tsevis

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Constanze Böttcher

Constanze Böttcher

Constanze has been covering a broad range of science topics, inlcuding life sciences, geosciences, technology and science policy, for almost 10 years. With a background in marine science, she has a passion for writing about what science can tell us about the natural world. She also likes exploring science’s role within society. Her outlets include German quality online and print media as well as EuroScientist.
Constanze Böttcher

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