Extreme writing

In February 2010 I came across this blog post discussing the possibility of writing a draft literature review in a short period of time i.e. 1 hour, which I found intriguing. I left a comment on the post saying I was keen to try, and also bounced the idea around on Twitter a bit, but nothing came of it. I’ve kept it in the back of my mind though, and recently tried to put more structure into the idea. The following is a simple method for putting together a small, focused team to write an academic article very quickly, without sacrificing quality.
The idea is to produce a draft article in a short period of time (a “sprint” of a few hours) by collaborating in small teams of distributed authors, potentially even from different disciplines, who each bring different skills to the writing process (e.g. editorial, methodology, theoretical frameworks, etc). The primary author is the organiser / planner / person who pulls it all together.

The team is organised by the primary author according to the skills that are necessary for a particular piece of work. In addition, unless the work is only going to be a literature review, someone needs to bring the data to the sprint. Since the person with the data is the most likely person to have a good understanding of the study, this person will most likely be the primary author.

Contributors are all acknowledged as authors, unless their contribution only qualifies for an acknowledgement. For example, if certain team members are asked to conduct a critical review of the draft when it is finished, they may not qualify for author status. See below for a template of the tasks required to complete a draft. All team members will agree to their tasks prior to beginning the writing process, as well as understanding the requirements for authorship credit.

Writing tasks

  • Introduction (written near the end of the sprint, probably as each team member adds a short section based on the work they’ve done)
  • Literature review
    • Primary author to identify the main aim / theme / outline of this section
    • Secondary author/s to identify and distribute (e.g. via a shared folder on Mendeley) relevant articles prior to beginning the sprint
    • Secondary author/s to also build the Reference list during this process
  • Method (completed by study designer / primary author)
  • Results (completed by study designer / primary author)
  • Discussion (Secondary author/s identified based on expertise with linking ideas from Literature review and Results sections)
  • Conclusion (Primary author ties the work together, possibly based on points highlighted by others)
  • Reference list (bulk of this work to be done by Literature review author/s, but also sees contributions from other authors as they add their own citations)
  • Additional tasks that may not be eligible for authorship credit if no other tasks are completed by these team members:
    • Editorial (team member who will take responsibility for spelling / grammatical / formatting work, as well as ensuring a “unified voice” throughout the article)
    • Critical review (at least 2 reviewers, who may or may not be team members, who will take responsibility for critically reviewing the final draft)
Team members choose a date and period of time to dedicate to the process. The primary author determines the main tasks and preparatory work that the team must complete so that when the sprint arrives, members are prepared. This includes clearly defining the aim, objectives, etc of the article prior to beginning writing.

The idea is to use the time to write, not to search for literature, so all preparation should be done beforehand. Authors should use online collaborative tools like Google Docs and Skype where possible, in order to work together in real time.

Let me know if you think I’ve left anything out, or if you think it’s just a silly idea 🙂

Innovative practices in education (colloquium)

Last week I attended a teaching and learning colloquium at Granger Bay, near the Waterfront. It was organised to showcase some of the teaching practices being used at the 4 teaching institutions in the Western Cape. I was fortunate to be invited to present one of the keynotes on Friday morning and since I’ve been thinking about PLE’s lately, that was the focus of my talk. Below you can see the graphical notes taken by Ian Barbour of the 2 keynotes of the conference.

[nggallery id=25]

Here are my notes from the 2 days.

Innovation through foundational provision and extended programmes: future trends, threats and opportunities (Professor Ian Scott)

It can’t go on with us doing “more of the same”.

Higher education is elitist, with a tiny proportion of the population being recycled through the system.

We are moving towards mass participation, with all the associated problems that this brings

Innovation = taking new approaches, doing things differently from the mainstream (creative solutions to problems)

The main difference between HEI that do well and those that don’t, is the attention of the institution (Carey, 2008). There is effort and professional accountability, systemic enquiry and research

Success = developing strong foundations and completing the qualification well. Not just about access. It’s dependant on complex issues e.g. teaching and learning approach, affective support, material resources

Future challenges in academic development:

  • Meeting the needs of the majority
  • Low participation and racially skewed
  • Poor and skewed graduation rate after 5 years = 30%
  • Under 5% of black youth succeeding in HE (unsustainable)
  • Makes little sense to continue on our current path, given the above stats

Who should extended programmes serve:

  • Mainstream students who are now failing or are dropping out for learning-related reasons
  • The majority of students who are not graduating in regulation time
  • But EP’s are reaching less than 15% of the intake, even though it’s a majority need (how can we justify the status quo?)

What can be done?

  • Extend the reach of EP’s in their present form, with a focus on improvement?
  • Move to a flexible curriculum framework with a 4 year degree as the core?
  • Can foundational provision be successful with limited student number, and if so, what are the limits?
  • How does this sit with the need for expanding the programmes?

If success is dependent on small numbers, we have a big problem

Institutional differentiation: Looked at stratifying HEI’s, but who would end up in the “bottom” levels. Moved towards “reconfiguring the institutional landscape” through mergers. But there is a danger of institutions losing their way, and not sticking to their mission. Is this a distraction from the central goal of producing more, good graduates?

Implications

Will differentiation lead to further polarisation of the student intake in terms of educational achievement? Because educational achievement is not potential, and is still polarised along racial, socio-economic lines.

Will there be pressure to remove EP’s from “research” universities? → which will result in less funding and educationally disadvantaged institutions becoming the “new mainstream”

Are these bad things?

To what extent can structural change, in itself, make a difference? Are there any alternatives?

Building student confidence through a class conference in an extended curriculum programme (Maryke Meerkotter)

Some students are resistant to the concept of evolution (in biology)!

Initially, 45 students split into groups and given topics for poster presentation. But it was too open.

Next year had more specific guidelines, with more focused topic (53 students), and individual talks about their own poster

This year, conference was very specific. 87 students, so much more structure was needed i.e. specific mammals were assigned to individual students. Questions had to be answered to prevent cut and paste.

Initial intent:

  • Relieve lecture stress
  • Students to engage with “irrelevant” content
  • Raise awareness of importance of course content
  • Allowed students to take ownership of the content, especially when assigned individual animals
  • Practice oral presentation
  • Exposed to poster making skills
  • To have fun trying something new

Initial scepticism and advice:

  • Doubt that it would succeed
  • Too much unnecessary work
  • Needs a good relationship with class, as lecturer should be confident that students can perform
  • Some envisioned chaos, so needed clear guidelines
  • Some advised no rewards, but students appreciated being acknowledged

Setting guidelines:

  • Holiday assignment
  • Written and verbal communication of assignment tasks
  • Guidelines about poster and oral presentations
  • “Computer literacy” = Powerpoint
  • Specific questions needed to answer in poster and presentation
  • Lecturer created a poster as an example, in subsequent years take the best examples of previous years
  • Provided rubrics for evaluation
  • Minimum requirements for posters, and not part of evaluation, so students who could afford more weren’t advantaged

Evaluation:

  • Oral presentations marked by lecturer and teaching assistant (reliability)
  • Audience tested at the end of each session (to ensure attendance of non-presenting students)
  • Posters were peer marked, using similar content as the marking group (each student marked 3 other posters anonymously)

Administration:

  • Assignment of topics
  • Find space for posters to be displayed
  • Due dates for posters to be mounted
  • Loading of oral presentations prior to talks (use email, caution with flash drives, time constraints)
  • Lecturer needs to listen and mark at the same time
  • Students were assigned posters to mark to avoid students marking their friends work

Empowers students to take ownership of course content, especially the “boring” courses. Recommended for small classes

Introducing concept mapping as a learning tool in Life Sciences (Suzanne Short and Judith Jurgens)

A lot of diversity in the course, in terms of student population

Some of the problems:

  • The gap between school and university
  • Testing of concepts reveals confusion
  • Basic concept knowledge is inadequate, lecturers want to make assumptions about what students come into the course with
  • Poor literacy levels for required university levels
  • Low levels of student success
  • Low pass rates
  • Unable to manage the large volume of content
  • Textbook content is “unfriendly”, not contextually relevant, language is inaccessible
  • Poor integration of knowledge
  • Don’t see how biology fits into scientific study
  • Don’t apply knowledge and strategies from other subjects, concepts are compartmentalised

Hay, Kinchin and Lygo-Baker (2008). Making learning happen: the role of concept mapping in higher education.

Concept map: an organising tool using labels to explain the relationship between concepts, the links making propositional statements of understanding. Can be interesting to see how different “experts” in the course see it differently. We need to first negotiate our shared understanding of the course before we can expect students to understand it.

Rationale:

  • To “deconstruct” faulty knowledge acquired at school and reconfigure it
  • Better grasp the relationship between all areas of study
  • Empower students with a learning and knowledge construction tool
  • Facilitate better use of the textbook

Don’t rely on one source

Facilitates textbook use:

  • overview of concepts and relationships
  • awareness of learning strategies
  • active use of resources
  • Assists with knowledge construction:
  • identified major concepts and links
  • identified gaps in school learning
  • useful as studying tool
  • knowledge construction can be individualised
  • Enables evaluation of student learning:
  • view of student understanding “at a glance”
  • encourage discussion of concepts and categorisation

Difficulties:

  • time consuming
  • high levels of collaboration between staff
  • not all student work visually / spatially
  • takes practice to do well

A genre based approach to teaching literacy in a university bridging course (Taryn Bernard)

How do structure a writing course to develop academic literacy, including other cognitive skills in the first year, among diverse student groups?

Students compartmentalise knowledge and find it hard to integrate into other courses. How can this be addressed?

Students want to feel as if they’re dealing with university-level content, and not high school content

Genre:

  • Text-type e.g. journal articles, books, essays
  • Abstract, goal orientated and socially recognised way of using language, limited by communicative purpose and formal properties
  • Social code of behaviour established between author and reader
  • “A term used for grouping texts together and representing how writers typically use language to respond to and construct texts for recurring situations”

Students need to be introduced to the “culture” of academic discourse

Genre-based pedagogy:

Student learning is affected not only by prior subject knowledge and by approaches to learning but also by the ability to deal with text genre (Francis & Hallam, 2000). An understanding of generic conventions increases success at university (Hewings & Hewings, 2001).

It’s important to validate prior knowledge, and many don’t see the purpose in academic discourse. Students sometimes feel it’s “too complex”

Quantitative literacy courses for humanities and law (Vera Frith)

UCT recognise information literacy as being an important graduate attribute

Quantitative information must be addressed in the disciplinary context

The more that content is embedded within a real-world context, the better

Students can be confused between focusing on the context, as opposed to the content e.g. placing emphasis on what they should be learning, with the contextual framework being used

The impact of horizontal integration of 2 foundation modules on first years knowledge, attitudes and skills (Martjie van Heusden and Dr. Alwyn Louw)

Earlier introduction to clinical placements have a significant influence on students professional development, especially in communication

Research assignments for first year med. students at SU:

  • Identify conditions
  • describe disorder
  • use correct referencing
  • submit to Turnitin with only 10% similarity allowed

Did knowledge improve? What about attitudes and motivation? Did it transfer to the 2nd year?

Research assignments contributed to improved student attitudes

Saw an improvement in writing and research skills

Assignments promoted self-esteem, increased background knowledge and allowed students to ask informed questions

Foundation matters: issues in a mathematics extended course

Important to be aware that students come into the course with mixed abilities, which affects how they perceive the course

Language support for communication skills of foundation Engineering students at CPUT (Marie-Anne Ogle)

Students ability to study is crippled by their lack of confidence in their ability to speak well

Problems:

  • Students don’t speak or hear English often
  • School teachers don’t give presentation training
  • Student lack self-esteem / confidence
  • Students don’t have an understanding of their own problems
  • Only 1 language lesson/week in a very crowded timetable

Rules:

  • Transparent goals
  • Everybody must talk
  • Students choose the subjects they want
  • Intensive reading programmes to support this
  • Students manage their own library
  • Students take over the class towards the end
  • Fun for self-motivation

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Use of clickers in Engineering teaching (Daniela Gachago and Dr. Mbiya Baudouin)

Useful because:

  • Results are anonymous, instant, recorded for later
  • helps to increase attention span, keeps students focused
  • Every opinion counts, not just the correct one
  • Works well with interactive learning and teaching style
  • Direct feedback about students conceptual understanding

Good feedback tool for students, identifies misconceptions instantly that can be addressed immediately, students also become aware that others have similar problems i.e. they’re not alone

Important to use equipment to stimulate discussion

Mazur sequence (see also this transcript of Mazur presenting on using technology to engage students, as well as this video presentation).

You can forget facts but you cannot forget understanding

Use of clickers must be must be accompanied by discussion

“The more a lecturer talks, the less a student understands”

Students enjoy the experience of using new tools in class, very positive response, but they do need a short introduction

Challenges:

  • System takes time to set up, and technical troubleshooting not always easy
  • Can waste time
  • Questions need to be changed often
  • Type of question asked needs to change
  • Can have “clicker fatigue”

Using clickers as a tool in classroom instruction to facilitate student learning (Mark Herbert)

Focus not on what student don’t know, but what they require to develop into successful practitioners of the discourse

Students exposed to how knowledge is constructed, structured and communicated

Lecturers facilitate student learning

Students must prepare for lectures (but do they?)

Constructive feedback given regularly and as soon as possible

Class attendance improved

Student interaction can stimulate learning. Students will often find the correct answer when discussing among themselves, without lecturer involvement

Student confidence increased as a result of using clickers

Innovative pedagogical practices using technology: my personal journey (Ingrid Mostert)

Blended learning model for ACE in mathematics

Bulk SMS (e.g. Frontline)

Off-campus access can be hampered with slow loading times, different to intranet

Someone else has already solved the problems that I have. The more people who know about my problem, the quicker it’ll get solved.

Moodle has a module for mobile access, which allows students to participate in forum discussions through a mobile interface

Can use mobile tech to conduct surveys. Is there a cost for students? Yes, but it’s minimal relative to SMS

Sharing experiences make the load lighter

Exploring the extent to which clickers enable effective student engagement (Somikazi Deyi, Edwine Simon and Amanda Morris)

Use real world events / contexts to make coursework relevant. What is important to students? Use that as a scaffolding for the course content

Planning is important

Students engage more deeply with complex questions. We should challenge them and raise our expectations of what they’re capable of

Difficult to draw conclusions after one session. Need to follow trends over time

Realise that other people have different perspectives and world views

Try group voting as opposed to individual voting

Systematic review workshop

I just spent the last 3 days at a writing workshop in Hermanus, organised so that the PhD students in our department could spend some focused time working on our systematic reviews. I prepared the proposal in the days leading up to the workshop, and had the opportunity to refine it following a presentation to the group on the first day. Here are a few things that I learned during the process:

  • The proposal, if well designed, is the blueprint for everything you do. If you take shortcuts with it, it will only take longer in the end
  • Just because an author uses the same words you do, they may not be meant in the same context i.e. keywords alone are not good indicators of eligibility
  • I usually take the conclusions of published papers at face value, but on critical review the conclusions are sometimes not based on the actual study results
  • Critical appraisal tools really expose the weaknesses of published research (and all papers have weaknesses)
  • The process takes longer than anticipated, and at some point you have to call off the search for eligible papers
I now have an article outline and am busy with the data extraction process. If I can keep to my timetable, I’ll have a complete draft by the end of August. Submission of a systematic review is one of my first objectives and will give me a baseline for for how I will plan my own implementation of blended learning in clinical education.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-06-21

Sharing my article for open peer review

I’m interested in how changes in the internet are forcing changes onto institutions that haven’t traditionally responded well to change. One group that’s finding the transition especially hard are the publishers, especially the academic publishers. A little while ago I wrote an open letter to the South African Society of Physiotherapy, asking them to move towards an open access format. My proposal wasn’t exactly welcomed 🙂

There are clearly some problems with the current peer review model and I’m interested in exploring some of the alternatives. With that in mind I’ve taken an article I’m currently working on and that I’m planning to submit for publication, and instead of only sending it to my usual critical readers, I thought I’d try something different. So I’ve uploaded it onto Google Docs and made it publicly available for anyone to comment on.

This isn’t open peer review in the sense that it’s a transparent review of a paper by the journal reviewers, but is more like “open feedback” prior to publication. I have had a few colleagues raise their eyebrows when I suggested this, and I’ve had to try and convince them that I’m not crazy and that the vast majority of people are not going to “steal” my paper (please don’t steal my paper). In terms of any issues that might arise from this debate, I’ve tried to cover my bases with the following:

  • If you make comments that cause me to significantly change the direction, scope or focus of the paper, you will be acknowledged
  • If you add a significant portion of the content of the paper in lieu of the above point, and it’s included in the final publication, you will be added as an author (at this point, don’t ask me what “significant” means…I’ll probably take it to another open forum to decide the matter should it arise)
  • If you add ideas that originated from your own research and they are included, you will be cited
  • If you feel that there should be other criteria in this list, please add them to the Google Doc

So, if you think this is something you might find interesting to participate in please consider giving me some feedback, preferably in the form of comments. In the words of WBY:

“I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…”

Here’s the public article on Google Docs: The Use of Wikis to Facilitate Collaborative Learning in a South African Physiotherapy Department

Note: if you go to the document and see that it’s been trashed with spam, etc. please consider letting me know via this blog post

UWC writing for publication retreat

I’m just finishing up the first day of a 3 day “writing for publication” retreat, hosted at the Mont Fleur conference centre just outside of Stellenbosch. We spent the first half of today covering some of the underlying ideas and concepts around the first sections of an article, which was useful for me because I write what I think sounds good, rather than having a more nuanced understanding of what exactly it is that I’m writing.

After this we spent a few hours getting everyone signed up to Google Docs and sharing the articles we’re currently busy with among our respective group members. We’ll be using Docs over the next few days to provide feedback to the other participants. Even though I’ve done this at a few workshops now, I’m still amazed at how there are always a few more complex cases that take up the bulk of the total time spent.

I’ll be writing an article based on a presentation given at the HELTASA conference in December last year, which was based on a survey I conducted of my fourth year students following a wiki based assignment I’d given to them earlier on in the year.

Here are my notes from the day’s session.

Identify a journal

Identify your journal early on in the process of writing, rather than trying to force an article into a journal

Publication = joining the conversation

  • Who is already participating in the journal (reviewers, editors)?
  • Who decides who can join in?
  • Do you know anyone who is participating?
  • Who has been excluded and on what grounds?
  • What is under discussion?
  • Who do you need to know in order to join

Know the aims and scope of the journal. Does your material suit the journal’s agenda

Email the editor to ask what the interests of the journal are

Finding an argument could involve responding to another publication by another author

Genre = type of expression which has features that all examples of this type share, they shape the thoughts we form and the communications by which we interact

Browsing articles in different publications may give you an idea that’s more creative than you might be used to

Argument = trying to convince your readers of a particular point that you’re trying to make

Abstracts

This was a short exercise where we were asked to “Write your abstract as a bedtime story”. Here’s mine (the underlined sections were provided as cues):

Once upon a time researchers believed that the use of emerging technologies in clinical education would magically create better teaching and learning practices.

But I began to wonder what this magical process was, and if it was as simple as everyone made it out to be.

So what I did was to conduct a small experiment in one of the classes I teach, where students used a wiki to collaboratively construct articles on paediatric conditions.

I discovered that there was little difference in student behaviour as a result of using the wiki, and that the technology wasn’t the problem.

This changed the way I think about integrating technology into my teaching practice.

It was just an idea to begin thinking about the abstract in a different, slightly more creative way.

Make your abstract, concrete. It’s an advertisement for the rest of the work. Is it going to make your reader follow through?

Your work isn’t only about the content and form, it’s also about establishing your identity as an academic. What does this work say about who I am?

Questions to ask about the abstract:

  • What conversation is the researcher in?
  • What is the researcher’s stance?
  • Does the voice sound “expert” enough?
  • Is the research clear?
  • What is the argument? Can it be made stronger?
  • Is the “so what/now what?” question answered?
  • Will the reader want to read the rest of the article?

Begin by establishing a context and / or a conventional idea, and then challenging it.

Identify areas where you should be tentative, and areas where you can be definite.

Some characteristics of an abstract:

  • Locate – what is the relation of this paper to the bigger picture
  • Focus – what questions or problems that will be explored
  • Report – summarise the major findings
  • Argue – open out the argument and indicate a point of view, returning to the angle e.g. the theoretical framework → closing the circle

Introduction

Introductions tend to follow a set pattern, regardless of the discipline. But, be careful of sticking too closely to any one formula or pattern

Create-a-research-space (CARS) model:

  • Establish a territory → highlight work already done in the field
    • Claim centrality
    • Make topic generalisations
    • Review previous research
  • Establish a niche → what are my questions / comments on the topic?
    • Counter claim
    • Indicating a gap
    • Identifying a gap
    • Continuing a tradition
  • Occupy the niche →
    • Announcing present research
    • Outlining the purpose of the present research
    • Announcing principal findings
    • Stating the value of the present research
    • Indicating research article structure

Peer review

A critical friends asks provocative questions and takes time to fully understand the context

Giving feedback:

  • Provides an audience
  • Direct and explicit questions and comments
  • Constructive, rather than destructive
  • Look for meanings, but don’t take over

TEDx Johanessburg (session 1) – Iain Thomas

The first session at TEDx Johannesburg began with Iain Thomas, the author of ambiguous micro stories at I wrote this for you. Here’s the site tagline, which is great:
“I need you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you. Everyone else who reads it, doesn’t get it. They may think they get it, but they don’t. This is the sign you’ve been looking for. You were meant to read these words.” Apparently there is a whole ecosystem of micro-story writers, this is the first I’ve heard of it.  I love the idea.

“We are a generation that consumes media in smaller and smaller chunks.”  I think of Twitter and the effect it has on my own concentration / focus / reflection?  It’s difficult to identify relevant data from an endless stream, focus on it, extract meaningful information and make use of that.  Should I slow down?  How?  Why?  Can I afford to?

Iain creates very short stories by leaving out the small details (e.g. age, gender, etc.) and having the reader fill in the gaps.  “There’s no story I can tell you that’s more powerful than the one you tell yourself”.

“We are not the unique snowflakes we are told we are, we are all of us the same.”  I love this sentence.  It makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger, but at the same time I think that each of us is unique.  But the aggregation of the whole “flattens” us out and makes the sum of the parts seem more uniform.  I like the idea of simplicity (the group) through complexity (the individual).

“This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time” (from Fight club).  Inspiring quote to motivate one to get on with it.

“I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea, I don’t want fish, I want you.”  I came across a variation of this a few years ago (I forget where)…I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea, if I’m a mackerel and you’re a herring, it won’t help either of us.

Iain Thomas at TEDx Johannesburg

Iain got me thinking about stories and the important role of stories in our lives.  We all learned through stories when we were younger, and then for some reason, most of us stop telling them.  Maybe it has something to do with the creativity that’s “educated” out of us (Sir Ken Robinson).  I remember growing up fascinated with fables, myths and science fiction, yet most of what I read now is either academic or non-fiction.   I just finished reading Randy Pausch’sThe last lecture“, based on his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, where he also talks about the importance of stories in our lives.

I like the idea of using stories as vehicles that we can use to carry concepts and principles.  Kind of like sneaking the idea in there, or learning without realising that you’re learning.  I often tell my students that their patient documentation can be thought of as a story…the story of this patient and their condition/injury.  Just like a story has a logical sequence and structure (beginning, middle and end), so too should an assessment have structure.  What are the logical patterns we can use to best convey the story of this patient and our role as physiotherapists in that story?

For the past few months I’ve been trying to get my head around the idea of complexity through simplicity, and this concept of ambiguous micro-stories seems to resonate with that idea.  It’s something that I worked hard on for my doctoral proposal, although I based it on a variation of one of Einstein’s quotes that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  For me, Iain’s stories fall into this category of creating stories that can be incredibly complex, but only through incredible simplification.

An open letter to the SASP: Opening up access to the journal

Dear SASP

I’m a young(-ish) and relatively inexperienced author who lately has had a few concerns about the direction of the South African Journal of Physiotherapy (SAJP). I’m proud of the high quality research that is being conducted in the field of rehabilitation and health sciences in South Africa, and like every other academic, researcher and author, I’m trying to make a useful contribution to the field. My concern however, is that most (if not all) of the wonderful research that’s done in this country will never be seen by anyone who is not a member of the South African Society of Physiotherapy.

After thinking about some of these issues, I thought I’d take this opportunity to write to you, in the hope that you might consider some of the benefits of moving the SAJP towards an open access model of publication. I’m sure you’re aware of the disruption taking place in the publishing industry at the moment, with content creators using what are effectively free services to bypass the traditional publication process entirely. Consider the following statement:

“Scientific publishers should be terrified that some of the world’s best scientists, people at or near their research peak, people whose time is at a premium, are spending hundreds of hours each year creating original research content for their blogs, content that in many cases would be difficult or impossible to publish in a conventional journal. What we’re seeing here is a spectacular expansion in the range of the blog medium. By comparison, the journals are standing still.” Nielson, M. (2004)

The warning signs of disruption in an industry can be seen when there is a sudden proliferation of entities offering similar services that fulfill a customer’s need. With that in mind, consider that in the last few years there has been a significant increase in the number of new journals that are open access (BioMed Central, PLoS Medicine), or established journals that are moving towards an open model of publication (Pubmed Central, British Medical Journal, Physiotherapy Canada). These and many other high profile academic journals have recognised the importance of making peer-reviewed research available for everyone in the world, and taken the step towards making it a reality. They recognise that knowledge is essentially useless unless it can be accessed by anyone who wants it, and they accept their social and educational responsibility to advance new and important ideas in a world that is desperately in need of answers to desperate problems.

Opening access to scientific research is in everyone’s best interest, as the journal increases it’s readership, authors increase their citations, and anyone interested in that particular paper gets to read it. If the role of the academic journal is to register, certify, disseminate and preserve ideas, open access seems to be the most efficient way to achieve these goals. Indeed, providing the results of research to anyone with an internet connection must be the best way to make sure that the ideas published in scientific papers are original, disseminated widely and preserved. If publishers don’t seize the opportunity to benefit from a move towards openness, they may find authors increasingly self-archiving their works, leaving traditional publishers out of the loop entirely. These tools are available, free to use and provide researchers with an alternative that would see their work being spread far more widely than if it were stuck behind a paywall.

Researchers have the most to gain by the open access movement, and may soon question the usefulness of a gated system that severely limits the reach of their scientific contributions. Any author will tell you that what they want most of all is for more people to read and cite their work. With most papers essentially invisible to most researchers, how is the status quo benefiting authors? If publishers don’t begin moving towards opening up access, they may find themselves without any relevant content, as scholars establish open repositories in which to deposit the final, peer-reviewed drafts of their work. The University of the Western Cape has recently created a Research Repository, and other institutions will surely follow, perhaps making use of the Open Archive Initiative to ensure cross-institution / international compatibility. The time is approaching when authors will ask why they should pay for access to knowledge when the cost of self-publication is essentially zero (and the cost of purchasing articles is enormous)?

On the periphery of the publication problem, there are also calls for copyright law as it relates to academic publication be revised, and that this “rebellion” should be led by academics in higher education. In addition, some have argued that the entire system of scientific publication is broken, with powerful academic journals and publishers actually hindering the progress of science. In the end though, innovation will happen, with or without the participation of academic journal publishers, and opening up access to peer-reviewed research could be the first step. Creative Commons licensing provides authors and publishers with less restrictive options with which to release content, and is increasingly being embraced by the academic community.

I see this disruption of the publication industry as an opportunity for the SASP to lead the way forward as an example for other academic journals, both locally and internationally. You have the chance to be among the first to offer the collective knowledge of South African physiotherapists to the world, and play an important part in the development and upliftment of our shared communities of practice.

I hope that the ideas outlined in this letter provide enough background for you to consider opening up access to the SAJP. I look forward to your response.

Kind regards,
Michael Rowe

PS. See the following links for additional information on the topic:

Results of a reflective blogging assignment in physiotherapy ethics

Earlier this year I gave my 4th year Ethics class an assignment in which they were required engage in a reflective exercise that not only encouraged interaction with others, but allowed them to see that their own perceptions of the world were different to others’.

Reflection has been shown to be a significant factor in developing clinical and ethical reasoning skills, so the initial requirement was to read two articles and then post a short reflection on each. Other students would then comment on your reflections and you would have to respond to that comment, hopefully having considered your colleagues comment. The learning objectives of the assignment were to:

  • Understand some of the ethical problems inherent in the South African healthcare system
  • Be able to discuss some types of ethical dilemmas in healthcare, even if they are not directly related to physiotherapy
  • Understand the role of reflection in your professional development, especially in the clinical and ethical reasoning process
  • Have participated in an online, networked conversation with your peers
  • Acknowledge the differing perspectives of others who may experience the world in different ways
  • Understand some of the advantages and disadvantages of using new technologies in healthcare education

I set up a WordPress blog on my own server because I wanted the students to have full control over their data (and it was surprisingly difficult to get access to a university server), created an author account for each student and then gave a tutorial on blogging and the blogging environment. The 47 students then had about a month to complete the assignment before the blog was closed to everyone.

Here are some quick stats:

  • 94 posts (2 each)
  • 222 comments (some students made more than the 3 that were required)
  • 109 tags (the main ones being MDR-TB, Apartheid and Torture)
  • 3983 pageviews (pretty impressive for 47 students)

While the initial results seem to be favorable, I have to say that anyone who assumes that all students in higher education are tech-savvy, needs to rethink that idea. One of the biggest challenges I had was trying to get students to understand what a blog is. And I don’t mean the deeper meaning of what blogging is, I mean the concept of a website that they could edit. Forget about RSS feeds and blogging software clients. The notion of digital natives does not apply here, and if the use of technology in education is going to move forward (in this country, at least), this is one major challenge that’ll have to be overcome.

You can download the content of the blogging tutorial here (2.4 MB ppt). I’ll be opening up the blog to the public once I’ve graded them, and will be presenting the results of an evaluation at the SAAHE conference in July.