Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the independent scholar

a laptop lies in grass at a park

'Independent scholar' - it's the label on a conference name badge or schedule most likely to draw embarrassment, dismissal, or scorn. A term used to describe someone who undertakes academic work but who is not affiliated with an academic institution, the independent scholar has a long but troubled history with the academy that generally revolves around some designation of them as a second-rate researcher - an enthusiast, rather than a professional. (There's been some debate on what exactly independent scholars should call themselves, some of which you can read on the NCIS website).

I think it's time that we re-evaluate the independent scholar and their position in academic research. The landscape of higher education research and employment continues to change in ways that affect the status of independent scholars. I'd argue that we are at a crucial moment for independent scholarship in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere) and this post is my manifesto for why and how the academy needs to start giving non-affiliated scholars the respect they deserve.

Who is an independent scholar?


The traditional definition of an independent scholar is often given as a hobbyist - someone who conducts research on a particular topic but who is not paid to do so. An obvious example familiar to many is the local historian; someone who spends time in archives, gathering source material and evidence relating to the history of a community; local museums and archives are often reliant on these independent researchers.

I'm aware that many people undertake research outside of academia in both the private and public sector; industry, pharmaceuticals, and policy are all areas where intensive research is undertaken and published. While not primarily academic, I still don't consider these researchers to be independent scholars because they are still being paid for their work - they are not unaffiliated.
Frederick J. Furnivall (1825-1910)

Independent scholars have been part of academic research for a considerable time, not least in the two fields in which I conduct most of my research: medieval studies; and popular romance studies. Few medievalists who work with Middle English texts will not have heard of Frederick James Furnivall, who established the Early English Texts Society (EETS) and edited over a hundred medieval texts. My University's library held an almost complete collection of EETS texts which I spent many hours reading during my doctoral studies. Yet, aside from a position teaching English and grammar at the Working Men's College which he co-founded, Furnivall was not a University-affiliated researcher; as Antonia Ward has pointed out, he remained 'outside the academy' for his entire life.

In the relatively new field of popular romance studies, a number of researchers could be classed as independent scholars: Laura Vivanco is a particularly prominent example, whose work is regularly cited in publications and conference papers by researchers who are affiliated with universities. Popular romance studies is a research field populated with readers, authors, librarians and others whose identity doesn't fall into the category of university-affiliated academic, but whose contributions to the field are nonetheless significant.  



So what's the 'problem' with independent scholars? 


I'm going to outline the 'problem' with independent scholars with the caveat that I don't think this is a 'problem' that independent scholars themselves can or should solve. One of the most common complaints about independent scholars is that their scholarship is not up to standard: the quality of their research is seen as lacking; they have not published in the top journals; and their methodological and subject-knowledge is considered not as up-to-date. 

Sometimes, this might be true - Furnivall, for instance, never had any work published by an academic press and he did not conform to contemporary standards of academic writing; Antonia Ward argues that it was his "idiosyncratic prefatory style which excluded him from the Victorian academy" (p. 45). Yet, many of these accusations are a result of the exclusion of the independent scholar from knowledge jealously guarded by universities. If independent scholars are denied access to training, resources, and recognition (all things hoarded by universities) then it is surely self-evident that they will not be as familiar with the latest research methods, or have access to the most current research in the field.

In a research world where it can costs hundreds of pounds to subscribe to academic journals or to buy monographs, where conferences are priced according to an assumption that your institution will pay for you, and where your institutional affiliation (or lack thereof) is a deciding factor in your eligibility for funding or acceptance of your manuscript, the unequal gap between university-affiliated researcher and independent scholar is stark


Why this matters now: changing demographics of independent scholarship 


So why do I think the question of independent scholars is so important right now? To me, it's clear that in an increasingly fractional and fractured higher education research environment, we've not only got many more independent scholars, but the demographic is changing. Today, the designation 'independent scholar' is equally applicable to a recent PhD graduate who is continuing to carry out research while in precarious, adjacent or adjunct employment (or unemployment), or to a teaching fellow who is paid only for their teaching and not for their research (such as yours truly). This is also a refutation to the (still persistent) idea that independent scholars are not employed by universities because they are somehow 'not good enough'; researchers work independently for many reasons (work-life balance, freedom to research 'unfashionable' topics) including the fact that there are not enough paid research jobs for all the excellent, qualified candidates.

In a postdoctoral climate where publications can make the difference between getting an academic job and not, it's unsurprising that so many precariously-employed people are effectively working as independent researchers, even when the research environment is so stacked against them. It might be easy for an independent scholar who has already established a reputation to get published and to be invited to speak at conferences and events, but this is so much harder for a new PhD graduate who has yet to make their mark, and it seems like there are so many more people in this position now. The revival of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS), a 'non-profit organization providing professional affiliation, support services, and camaraderie to scholars outside of tenured academia', is a good indication that this is a timely issue.

Possible changes to the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK might also change things for independent researchers (possibly in their favour). For those unfamiliar with REF, it's a rating exercise that takes place every four or five years where the research published by academics employed in universities is rated by panels of their peers, after which research funding is distributed based on rankings. It's a pretty big deal in UK higher education.

While we won't know for sure until Summer 2017 what the next REF will look like, what's been proposed for the next cycle is that rather than academics themselves 'owning' their research (meaning that institutions can effectively 'buy' in star researchers just before submission), any research published during an employment contract will be 'owned' by the employing institution and won't be able to be taken to another institution. In other words, if I am employed by University A and publish a journal article while working there, when I move to a new job at University B that piece of research can't be submitted by University B for the REF as it was undertaken while I was working elsewhere.

The status of independent, non-affiliated scholars is currently unclear but this new rule potentially opens up a benefit for those who want to return to an academic job, as they'd technically be free to take their research anywhere with them (as it isn't 'owned' by an institution).



What we can do


It's important to recognise the difficulties associated with being an independent researcher: empathy can go a long way. There is a great list of articles with advice for independent scholars (here called freelance academics) on the Vitae website. Here are my own suggestions of five relatively simple, practical steps that university-affiliated researchers can do to help support and value independent scholars and their research contributions.If you've got any more suggestions I'd love to hear them in the comments.


1. Offer discounted conference fees.


Independent scholars (which includes teaching fellows and those with no access to research expenses) can find conferences prohibitively expensive. Because big subject-area events are usually the place to network and share research findings, many independent scholars will pay to attend and pay out of their own pocket. This can often be very expensive (prohibitively for some). Many academic conferences offer lower fees for students and unwaged people. If you're organising a research event, try offering a lower registration fee for independent scholars. Hosting at least some events in the evening or streaming them online also makes your event more accessible for those with a non-research day job as they no longer have to take a day of annual leave in order to attend. Writing a statement of who is welcome to attend that specifically invites independent scholars is a nice, inclusive touch.


2. Make the most of independent scholars' connections to the community or industry.


Independent scholars often have close connections with local enthusiast groups, libraries, charities, and companies. This might be because of their historical exclusion from academia (you've got to find your friends somewhere) but it means they have developed strong relationships in areas that university researchers often have not. In recent years, university-affiliated academics have had to provide evidence of their research 'impact' beyond the academy; working with independent scholars is a great way to do this, making use of their particular skills and experience.


3. Include independent scholars as co-investigators or researchers on funded projects.


Many UK funding bodies require principal applicants to have a job or some other formal relationship with a university (an example of this was raised in a Times Higher Education piece from 2012 and it's still the case for most big funders). This means that many independent scholars miss out on opportunities for funding and the prestige that goes with it, because they are simply not permitted to apply for it. Researchers who are employed by universities can help by including independent researchers on their bids where they can gain experience, skills, and reputation. The potential for increased research impact when including independent scholars is an added benefit. 


4. Make your research open access.


The cost of academic publishing is not a new subject of discontent amongst academics. However, many of us are able to largely ignore or sidestep these inconveniences due to our institutional subscriptions (or a research budget that allows us to purchase materials). Many independent scholars do not have such an option. While I'm not advocating sharing publications with non-affiliated colleagues (although I'm sure we've all done this), one thing university-affiliated researchers can do is store your publications in an open-access repository so it can be accessed freely. Your institution almost certainly has one, or you can post on your blog or sites like Academia.edu (although this option is not unproblematic, as this Forbes article points out). Making a pre-typeset copy of your research available freely is actually a requirement for the Research Excellence Framework in the UK; an excellent additional benefit is that it allows far wider access to your work and means that independent scholars can get access to up-to-date scholarship. If you edit an academic journal, you might also consider making all or part of it open access; the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, the main journal in the field of popular romance studies is fully open access; and the Open Library of Humanities hosts a range of open access journals.

5. Co-publish with independent scholars.


A barrier for independent scholars can be that their lack of institutional affiliation limits their options for publication. They are thus more likely to seek out alternative presses that might offer less rigorous editing or have a less specialist peer review panel, thus perpetuating the perception of independent scholarship as less rigorous. If university-affiliated researchers made a point of co-publishing with independent scholars, this would help address this barrier.  


I'd love to hear more ways we can support our independent scholar colleagues, so let me know in the comments!

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I cited Antonia Ward's chapter "'My Love For Chaucer': F. J. Furnivall and Homosociality in the Chaucer Society," in Medievalism and the Academy, ed. Leslie, J. Workman, Kathleen Verduin, and David D. Metzger (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), pp. 44-57.

The image at the top of the post is by Picography and is used free for commercial use from Pixabay.

The image of Frederick J. Furnivall is from his Wikipedia page and is in the public domain.