The Digital Library of the Unaffiliated: Workaround practices

Ask me about Open Access by Molly
Ask me about Open Access by Molly CC BY-NC 2.0

The practical bit of this post is about my workarounds to get articles online that are behind paywalls. Scroll down a bit if you want to cut to the chase.

For about 30 years off and on I was affiliated to a university, and appreciated the access to books, journals and other resources that accompanied that affiliation. I used it daily in my teaching and research work.  As a Masters programme leader in the early 2000s, I was tasked with interviewing a student who had been found razoring out an article from a print journal. I tried to convince her that her action was against a commons where many could share the same resource. I remember reflecting that this wouldn’t have happened if we had a digital subscription to that journal. But of course the library card or login that go with affiliation are the gate through which we pass for access to the institution’s digital library.

Since retiring in 2013, I have had to become much more inventive about gaining access to resources as I realised more sharply what I already ‘knew’. There is no single digital library: our personal digital library is shaped by our access and our practices. When affiliated, I found articles that I wanted to read that were in journals for which my university had no subscription. This is when I turned to friends affiliated to wealthier universities who might have access to the journal and be willing to share a copy. I also realised that Scholar Google and Google could also be my friends, turning up links to self-archived articles, dodgy uploads for class resources and links to institutional repositories. I learned much about the vagaries of copyright and licensing in my service as co-editor of ALT’s Research in Learning Technology, particularly during the process of transition to becoming an Open Access journal to fulfil ALT’s commitment to scholarly publishing. In my research for the editorial of the first Open Access issue, I learned that instead of digital libraries bringing cost savings that could be used to expand access and/or reduce institutional costs, expenditure on serials subscriptions increased.

Recently, archives such as and researchgate provide spaces for authors to self-publish data or papers, and to self-archive their papers published elsewhere. My retirement has given me more time for reading and writing (and craft and gardening) but lack of affiliation has increased the challenge of access to articles locked behind paywalls. Over the last few years, I have moved to publishing in Open Access journals (where that also suits my co-authors), and most of my reviewing work is for OA journals or conferences.

This morning, Mariana Funes tweeted to me about a new app that might help me find Open Access articles but as she said, it didn’t really add that much to my existing practices.

Tweet exchange with Mariana Funes
Tweet exchange with Mariana Funes

Talking to Mariana encouraged me to blog how I engage with my unaffiliated digital library.

Apps, tools and buttons

There are quite a few of these – I have the Google Scholar button, Openaccess button (not currently working), and but I haven’t found that any of these add much to my usual approaches.  For example, when I plugged in the DOI for Langdon Winner’s  article “Do artifacts have politics?” here is what the app returned:

langdon_Winner Search

It’s true that the article is behind a paywall, but when I was looking for it a couple of weeks ago, I tried my Plan A, and it came up trumps.

Plan A

I searched Scholar Google for the title, and here’s what came up. All 3 link to the paywalled version at JStor. The first and third also have a link to downloads of the JStor version. When I find an unofficial version such as these, I download the pdf and add it to my Mendeley library on my hard disk. The second link is to Google books which will persist but rarely has the full source.

Scholar Google search for Do Artifacts have Politics?
Scholar Google search for Do Artifacts have Politics?

If Plan A doesn’t work, then I try :

Plan B

Google search for article title plus .pdf. This is the search for the Langdon Winner article. It turns up one of the articles from Plan A plus a scanned version. Sometimes Plan A or Plan B turn up links to institutional repositories. If the full paper isn’t there, many repositories offer the chance to request a copy from the author. I have other plans too.

Plan C

If I have had no luck I search and researchgate for the title. For the Winner article, there was nothing on but Langdon Winner had uploaded it to Researchgate.

Plan D

If I know the author, I will contact them directly by email, otherwise I ask a friend if it’s possible for them to share a copy with me. I wouldn’t then pass on this copy to others, as it often contains clues to who might have downloaded it.

Plan E

There is also the Twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf that works by people sharing their request for an article and the Twitterverse responding. I have used this once.

Practices and Networks

My plans and friends serve me fairly well while we wait for universal Open Access. My personal unaffiliated digital library is distributed across the Mendeley on my hard disk, networks of open access publications and my friends who are willing to share articles from behind paywalls – I give thanks for all of those.

If you have any more ideas or comments please share them.


I should have mentioned that Caroline Kuhn reminded me of the Langdon Winner article in her comment here.  It was really good to read it again.

Open Access and Social Media: Networking around a scholarly article

(The short version is in the last paragraph if you want to skip to there).

Many places
Many places

Heterotopic communication

In writing about heterotopic communication (see Foucault’s Heterotopia ), the prescient Leah Lievrouw showed that public and private can relate to strategies for engagement behaviours rather than being properties of spaces (Lievrouw 1998 ).  As we communicate apparently within one space, we are simultaneously performing across multiple physical and digital channels and spaces with others who have related but different sets of spaces.  Communicating across spaces around the publication of an open access paper that I co-authored has been a long learning ‘moment’ for me over the last week, and I wanted to capture and share my reflections before I forget them.

OA Publishing and Social Media

I have been thinking about the links between Open Access scholarly publishing and social media for some time, inspired by my privileged involvement in two ventures. The first was Cristina Costa’s PhD entitled Participatory Web in the Context of Academic Research: Landscapes of Change and Conflicts. I learned so much from listening and talking to Cristina as she planned, conducted and wrote up her research. The second venture was my involvement as (then) co-editor in the move of the ALT journal Research in Learning Technology to Open Access publishing (including the entire archive). In the editorial of the first open access issue, we said

By attending to, and even influencing, the emergent practices of our members (as well as authors and other researchers) as ALT introduces innovations, we can continue to exploit the opportunities presented by the openness and web presence of articles in Research in Learning Technology. The read/write web, as represented by blogs and social networking services such as Twitter and Google+, offers the potential to develop conversation and interest around our articles, and thereby promoting their use.

That seems very relevant to my current reflections, since I find my own practices to be emergent, with rapid change having occurred in the last week.

Encouraging engagement via Social Media

On 13 Feb 2015, Jenny Mackness and I had a paper published in Open Praxis  an open access journal. Conscious that we wanted to maximise the impact of the fruits of our labour and that of the participants who supplied such rich data, we considered briefly how best to share it . We shared the (open) link to the paper on Twitter, including the hash tags for rhizo14 and rhizo15. Open Praxis use Twitter to market their activity. They stream their own tweets on their web page, and have some means of picking up occurrence of their links in Twitter that they then helpfully retweet including authors’ handles where they know them. On reflection, it occurs to me that it would be really helpful for connectivity purposes for (willing) authors to include their Twitter handles within the paper, and for a share button to be next to the paper that could include author twitter handles when the link to the paper is shared. I don’t know of any journals do this. I have checked out a few publishers and whilst some enable creation of post that links to paper, the twitter post often exceeds 140 characters and included publisher rather than authors’ handles. These look like devices for marketing rather than scholarly engagement.
We decided to blog the publication of the article at Frances’ blog and later at Jenny’s blog and the comment streams are evidence of rich engagement with the paper. We have used the posts to link to activity on Twitter and elsewhere. For example, the very wonderful Laura Goglia decided, on the spur of the moment, to live tweet her reading of our paper (we recorded this via storify) and she blogged the experience too.
Twitter was a very useful way of sharing and commenting around the paper. One less positive (for me) use of Twitter was a reader who used Direct Messages to quiz me about aspects behind the paper ( 17 messages in less than 30 minutes). I suggested redirection to the blog.
During the live tweet there was a playful suggestion that what the paper needed was a hashtag but perhaps this turns out to be something worth deciding at the start (possibly even including within the article as a keyword). We used Storify to capture the chat around Laura’s live tweet of the blog post.

Rhizo14’s most active space is the semi-permeable Facebook group that has a membership of 320 of whom a small proportion are active.  Typically, longer threads will engage ten or more people but one has a sense of not so much an invisible audience, but rather an unnoticed audience. We had not directly posted our paper to the Facebook group but two threads emerged around a link to the paper. The first was started by a positive comment and fizzled out fairly quickly. The second thread was introduced by a comment raising doubts about the extent of ethical obligation of the leader of a voluntary extra-institutional cMOOC like Rhizo14, and ran on to include some other concerns about the paper. post by Rebecca Hogue that was actually about her planned blogging course but I mistakenly thought was about the rhizo14 cMOOC.  I engaged in both threads, trying to respond to points about the paper as they were made. It was strange – I had been active (less so in recent months) on this Facebook group for over a year but I came to feel that my presence as author (particularly in the second thread) wasn’t helping the discussion that people wanted to have (see my comments on cognitive dissonance). Eventually one participant expressed that they felt that I was categorising them and lecturing them. I was mystified by the first point but reread the thread and could see that my contributions could be seen as having ‘lecture-like’ attributes. I was speaking about collaborative work with Jenny on which I had spent many hours, and unsurprisingly my contributions were in an authoritative register that was probably out of place in the context of this particular Facebook group, for some participants at least.

So what are the outcomes of my reflection?

  • there are positive links between open access and social media
  • open access publishers can and do support the dissemination of articles using social media and this can increase the readership of articles
  • publishers and authors could investigate the possibilities of using social media to create engagement with the article that could more easily include authors themselves (if that is what authors want)
    consider creating a hashtag for an article that can be used to tag it and aggregate discussion around it
  • it can be useful for authors to blog the publication of an article, enabling dialogue and using this as a hub to link to other direct and curated interactions around the article
  • Twitter has many affordances for supporting sharing and commenting around articles but DM was less useful from my point of view
  • in future I would not directly engage with discussion of our work in the Rhizo14 Facebook group as my engagement seemed to be of little use to the group participants or to me

Comparing two publication channels – academic journals and blogs

Henry Jenkins by Tamaleaver CC by 2.0
Henry Jenkins by Tamaleaver CC by 2.0
Journals on shelves
Journals by Bezanson CC by 2.0



I am going to throw out a few initial ideas about comparing academic journals and blogs as publication channels, as a kick off to a writing project I’ll be doing with Cristina Costa.

Let me start by saying that it is very difficult to generalise about either academic journals or blogs as channels since they are each in a state of flux, changing and interpreted differently  by different users and audiences. This post has been provoked by recent discussion on peer review and journals within my (albeit limited) network.  The issues that interest me are:

  • development of research and writing
  • the role of peer review and editing
  • dissemination of research

Obviously, I will be collaborating with Cristina and we will both improving our review of the literature to find what is already known on the subject.

development of research and writing

Blogs can play a role in the development of academic writing.  An author can try out ideas and get feedback.  I have tried this myself  (but can’t point to the posts as they are sadly lost) on a paper I wrote for Networked Learning 2010.  Also I recall a learning developer who posted successive drafts of an essay on their blog in response to readers’ feedback (would love the link to this if anyone has it). I think the intention of this was to reveal the sometimes messy journey of writing rather than to recommend this as a method of writing.

I see writing as a process with a product that emerges from privacy to publication with more eyes seeing and commenting along the way. A tweet may take only a minute to write but increasingly this text is wraparound/trigger to click a link to another text /multimedia artifact such as a blog post or video created over a much longer period.

There are different styles of blogging and plenty of tips on how to do it and writing for different audiences is very useful for an author’s toolkit.

Writing an article for a scholarly journal is likely to be a much more lengthy process with commenting and revisions emerging from the exchanges between authors, reviewers and editor(s) not all which are ‘public’ in the sense the article itself is.  The process for rejected articles is private with no publication endpoint. Journals with a commitment to the development of their authors will try to ensure that peer review is as much about development as about selection/ rejection.  I am interested in the role that blogging and other social media can play in writing development.

the role of peer review and editing

Journal peer review can be double blind (where neither reviewer nor authors are known to each other – though it is sometimes possible for them to guess each others’ identities); single blind where the reviewers know the authors’ identities but they remain anonymous to authors.  Usually peer review remains a relatively private exchange with comments and responses sent by email.  Different levels and types of openness are possible.  JIME, Journal of Interactive Media Education conducted very interesting dialogic review  and I am interested to research into evaluations of that and similar approaches.  I do know that reviewing can help writers develop, and that editing has had an impact on my reviewing and my writing.

I was also interested in Alan Cann’s experiment with open review but  think that much more work needs to be done to tease out more and less effective methods of using feedback to develop writing. I am not at all convinced by Doug Belshaw’s linkage of transparency to better in relation to peer review (see last sentence).

With blogs, comments are usually (but not always) invited and open, but may be moderated by the blog owner who may choose to reject comments e.g. spam comments.  The blog owner has quite a few powers at his/her discretion moderation, deletion, opening/closing comments. You could say they are their own editor – as they make the decision on publication of post and comments.  Some bloggers (like Seb Schmoller at Fortnightly Mailing ) invite guest contributions that they then edit before publication. So power relations are exercised in both blogs and journals in relation to what is published and how, and in both cases there may be room for more research into how the dimensions of power are operationalised.

dissemination of research

At Research in Learning Technology, we are keen to explore the role of social and other media in disseminating the research articles we publish in our newly Open Access journal.  I have blogged about this here and here .  The joy of Open Access is that every article has a clickable link so we can safely tweet links to articles knowing that all readers can open the article and read some or all of it as they wish. In Actor Network Theory terms, we hope to grow our network of human (readers, authors, etc.) and non-human (articles, web sites, tweets, blog posts, etc.) actants.  And if you wish to read more about ANT you can check this article or this one or this one.


It will be really interesting to see what the literature throws up on journals and blogs as publication channels, and I would also be very grateful for any comments and suggestions that you have to make.  Clearly the openness of processes in writing and publication is worthy of question and shifts in practices should be observed and evaluated to achieve potential benefits of digital publication for readers, authors and others.  Clearly there are cases when openness can help to emancipate but I can’t help but wonder if slavish openness can also have the potential to reinforce existing power differences and may even aid discrimination if not handled carefully.

Open Access is a piece for cake for Research in Learning Technology

open access cakes

Research in Learning Technology , the journal for the Association for Learning Technology, is going Open Access from January 2012 (with Rhona Sharpe, I am co-editor of the journal).  ALT’s plans for Open Access publishing have developed over several years, and we are very keen that this move can extend the impact of the journal – gaining us more readers, more authors and more citers.  Just today, I came across this blog post from @melissaterras “What happens when you tweet an Open Access Paper” that is very persuasive of the benefits of Open Access publishing married to institutional repositories.

@A_L_T has developed skills in the use of social media integration of its multiple publication and presentation channels, and openness makes that so much easier.  Typically for ALT, the tendering process was done meticulously and fairly around this time last year, and was even written up and published in ALT’s (Open Access) repository.  The winner of the tender was Co-Action and they have been a pleasure to work with so we are very confident  that our journal can develop and go from strength to strength.  The really great news is that even content that is currently closed will be open from January 2012. Watch this space!

When the web site is launched, we will be sure to splash it over all channels, but I wanted to alert you two publishing opportunities with Research in Learning Technology:

1. Although we have not yet got an upload url, we are eagerly awaiting your copy so please keep writing, writing, writing.  Here are the interim arrangements.  Open Access is such good news for authors especially where the scholarly society (and all the volunteer editors, reviewers and editorial board) invests in the publication and does not expect authors to pay.  We already have all of the copy we need for the the first issue, and some in hand for the second issue but we want to fill Issues 2 and 3, especially as we will be having 4 issues (1 more than previously). Of course, you can always contact Rhona and I for informal advice, if you have any questions.

2. The fourth issue of Research in Learning Technology is a Special Issue on Digital Inclusion and Learning, edited by Profs Jane Seale and William Dutton.  The Call for Papers is here.  This will be a seminal issue – please be part of it.

If you want to get news of this exciting venture, you can follow me @francesbell or @A_L_T on Twitter or watch out on the ALT web site.  Please tell your colleagues about our move to Open Access – we are proud and really rather excited by the opportunities it presents.

Be careful what you wish for

Peer Review Monster

Peer Review Monster Gideon Burton




Some say peer review of research articles is broken and needs to be changed, others that peer review needs a killer app that allows readers within a social network to vote a paper up or down. Cameron Neylon says Don’t (peer review) – the risks outweigh the benefits of publication. He says “publishing anything does no harm’ whereas peer review is costly in expert time.

jch Mary Mc Kinnon




Before we throw the baby out with the bath water, let’s think about what’s good about peer review and what could be improved.

Peer review can be good when:

  • it offers blind review when reviewers do not know gender/age/race/status of authors (unless this is revealed by text and context)
  • reviewers offer constructive advice for authors to improve their article/ creative work
  • it winnows submissions to journal (or other publication outlet) to improve quality of what is presented and filters content for readers

Peer review can be bad when;

  • it introduces delay in publication of work (tardy editors/ reviewers, backlog of accepted articles)
  • opinionated reviewers destroy confidence of authors

Alternatives to ‘traditional’ blind (author does not see identity of reviewer) or double-blind (neither author or reviewer see each others’ identity) reviewing include open peer review and the various recommender systems such as reviews on, Facebook ‘likes’, etc.

What are the risks of abandoning peer review ?

Well of course, the short answer to that is “I don’t know” but a search of reveals that it is a topic worthy of discussion.

“The refereed journal literature needs to be freed from both paper and its costs, but not from peer review, whose ‘invisible hand’ is what maintains its quality,” Steven J.Harnad from Peer Review : A critical inquiry by David Shatz.

What concerns me is that abandoning peer review will leave us more exposed to the gender, race and other identity biases that remain with us, and flourish in online communication where identity is key.

What do you think?

Do the benefits of abandoning peer review outweigh the disadvantages, and why?

The Paradox of Openness: The High Costs of Giving Online

The following abstract is for a Symposium that will be presented at ALT-C 2011 by

Frances Bell, Cristina da Costa, Josie Fraser, Richard Hall and Helen Keegan

It is considered, eclectic and interesting and we hope it will attract rich discussion before during and after ALT-C 2011. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to guess who wrote which part (and I have to say one of them is pretty easy to guess), and then to go on to engage in meaningful discussion.


This symposium will examine the paradoxes of giving and receiving online in education in a changing economic climate.  Each of the panellists will briefly address topic areas within the symposium theme, followed by an opportunity for present and at distance audiences to contribute, concluding with a 25 minute plenary discussion.

Symposium delegates will be provoked to reconsider the costs of participation online by paid and unpaid participants in ‘open’ discussion and sharing of resources.

Open Educational Resources exist within communities that create, use and sustain them (Downes 2007). When ‘communities’ in Higher Education break down due to redundancy and casualisation of labour what happens to OERs? Are they sustained? Can they reach out to other contexts?

All areas of education, including the school sector, currently face significant financial challenges and uncertainties. Institutions are increasingly reviewing the provision of devices and services, and looking at learner owned devices and commercially owned ‘free’ cloud-based services. What is the real price of an education system supported and transformed by embedded learning technologies?

Ownership in the age of openness calls for clarity about mutual expectations between learners, communities and ourselves. Ideas and content are shared easily through open platforms, and yet attributions can be masked in the flow of dissemination: does credit always go where it is due?

Openness in the production, sharing and reuse of education/resources is meaningless in the face of neoliberalism. Where coercive competition forms a treadmill for the production of value, openness/OERs are commodified. Control of the educational means of production determines power to frame how open are the relations for the production or consumption of educational goods or services, in order to realise value. The totality of this need, elicited by the state for capital, rather than the rights of feepayers, parents, communities or academics, shapes how human values like openness are revealed and enabled within HE.

Scarce research monies focus attention on impact factors, arguably stagnating practice. For publications, Open Access can increase wider societal impact but at the expense of career progression.We explore the tensions, paradoxes and professional costs on societal benefits, individual agency and academic progression.