Technologically conservative young scholars – you’re surprised, really?

At the PSP Pre-Conference (see my notes), Dr. Harley of the Higher Education in the Digital Age program reported being surprised by their finding that young scholars were unwilling or unlikely to experiment with new scholarly communication (tools/practices/channels). There was a question from the audience that showed the person's disbelief of this finding. No matter how many times this myth is debunked, it remains firmly entrenched. Here are some variations on it:

  • when generation {x,y, millennial, etc} gets in {university, grad school, the workplace}, {collaboration, communication, search technologies} will all be different because they'll already know how to use all of that stuff and they'll be expert at it
  • all we need for {open access, open science, electronic journals, online communities, social computing technologies} to catch on, is for the next generation to grow up and join the workforce
  • no need to teach how to search to young folks today, they already know how to work google
  • no need to teach younger workers how to collaborate effectively or use workplace collaboration technologies, they use facebook.

As you can probably tell, this is very frustrating to me. There are lots of articles reinforcing that it's not just a matter of time, technologies are incorporated into scholarly communication depending on the needs of the particular research area [1 is an example]. Articles on the adoption of electronic journals in science basically showed that even though these platforms have the potential to be much more, they were only accepted in some fields when they were an electronic reproduction of the print.

Likewise, as Bohlin [2] and Walsh and Bayma [3] point out, the adoption of the pre-print server only happened in fields where there already existed a culture of sharing pre-prints (Harley's study also discovered this - and I think it surprised them, but note the dates on the articles). Even though researchers in less developed countries have greater access to open access journals (presuming that bandwidth is not limiting, only money for subscriptions and also presuming that they are not taking advantage of programs to provide subsidized or free access to the least developed countries), they don't seem to publish more there nor do they seem to cite these journals more [4]. (also, universities in some countries require PhD students to publish in one of a set of journals on a list - so this may not include newer OA journals)

There are many, many, many articles describing both the diffusion of innovations in general, and the diffusion of communication technologies in particular (see my comps readings). One of the things that shows up in all of the successful theories is some version of compatibility (relative advantage is also pertinent here). The new innovation has to be compatible with the old way of doing business, or have such a great advantage that it's worth doing everything differently.

The most relevant analysis of this issue comes from Covi [5] as she debunks the myth of the Nintendo generation. Incidentally, I'm of that generation and I think people making the statements above have already written us off.  She says the myth goes like this:

...electronic communication technologies will transform university research practices chiefly by the mechanism of doctoral students (presumably people of the younger generation) entering the profession who are more comfortable and skilled with technology than their advisors. This argument is based on several subclaims:

1 Doctoral students are more comfortable and have greater skills with electronic communication due to early exposure.

2 Doctoral students have a greater incentive to introduce transformative work practices because their training requires them to find and make unique contributions to their research disciplines.

3 Doctoral students have more time to experiment with electronic communication technologies and new work practices.

4 Doctoral students are less conditioned by years of working in established ways and are thus more apt to try new work practices.

5 As doctoral students graduate and move into faculty positions, their use of electronic communication will transform university research disciplines.

She interviewed doctoral students and their advisors (in 1995). A lot depends on how much the discipline is open to doctoral students trying new things. She uses the classification high/low paradigm and high/low resource. In high paradigm fields there's more of a consensus on theory and the appropriate methods for problems. Students in low paradigm, high resource fields were most free to experiment. In high resource and high paradigm fields like microbiology, students basically did what their advisors did - no stepping outside of the box. Advisors in molecular bio assumed that their students would have "greater exposure, and thus ease in using electronic communication technologies" - but they didn't. Also they tried to curb the enthusiasm of students who did want to explore new technologies. In low paradigm disciplines, some students used new technologies to differentiate their research from their advisor's.

She found that "early exposure to technology was not a sufficient condition to utilize electronic communication technologies in research work" and

"doctoral students were still beholden to the existing values of what constituted a disciplinary contribution that did not change as quickly as new technologies became available. Skilled doctoral students might develop new electronic communication resources and services for their disciplines, but they were not rewarded unless the paradigm for work in their field would recognize the activity as a unique contribution."

I recommend reading the whole article - there are lots more findings that are interesting, useful, and very much still relevant.

So, it's not just a matter of time, and it's not just a matter of those kids today. New researchers have to be conservative at least until they get tenure. Even with tenure, playing by the rules is rewarded. Old dogs do learn new tricks, and they are often the ones who bring in some of these technologies.


[1] Kling, R., & McKim, G. (2000). Not just a matter of time: Field differences and the shaping of electronic media in supporting scientific communication. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(14), 1306-1320. doi:10.1002/1097-4571(2000)9999:9999<::AID-ASI1047>3.0.CO;2-T

[2] Bohlin, I. (2004). Communication Regimes in Competition: The Current Transition in Scholarly Communication Seen through the Lens of the Sociology of Technology. Social Studies of Science, 34(3), 365-391. DOI: 10.1177/0306312704041522

[3] Walsh, J. P., & Bayma, T. (1996). The virtual college: computer-mediated communication and scientific work. Information Society, 12(4), 343-363.

[4] Frandsen, T. F. (2009). Attracted to open access journals: A bibliometric author analysis in the field of biology. Journal of Documentation, 65(1), 58-82. doi:10.1108/00220410910926121

[5] Covi, L. M. (2000). Debunking the myth of the Nintendo generation: How doctoral students introduce new electronic communication practices into university research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(14), 1284-1294. doi:10.1002/1097-4571(2000)9999:9999<::AID-ASI1045>3.0.CO;2-Z


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Great post. To me this isn't even against "common sense".

If anything, widespread internet use shows we need to teach better librarian skills along with critical thinking to assess search results at younger ages. At most you'll get people comfortable with digital tools but the really innovative ones are going to go into animation/gaming work - not hard science.

I'm not far into the academic system, but as a young person (22-year old undergrad) who has used computers in one way or another since he was three years old, I can tell you from experience that generation is not always a great proxy for technical competence. I am fairly technically savvy, though I'm definitely not coding, but I know people my own age who are luddites about technology. Some of my college friends absolutely refuse to use Facebook (even more think Twitter is silly and totally worthless). I also have friends who ask me to do things for them, and I often have other more geeky friends that i ask for help (main one is my brother-in-law who is practically another generation from me).

The developing country angle is also interesting. While I was studying in China I had an interesting experience: A Nigerian not much older than me knocked on my door to ask me to "check his email". I later found that he did not have an email account. While helping him set up a Gmail account, he was uncomfortable even touching a computer. Granted, I understand that he may not have been the demographic being talked about, and it is in any case, an anecdote. But to the extent that "growing up with technology" helps at all, I suspect many young people in developing countries don't have even that opportunity.

So, yes, pushing new tools for any field where communication technology could be a benefit is going to require training of workers, whatever age they are. The more tech-savvy will probably groan about it, but there will be some young people who have no idea how the new system works nor the wherewithal to figure it out on their own.

I think people seem to be mixing up technological competence with the time to use and optimize new technologies.
Being of the "younger" generation, I can learn any new technology fairly quickly. Quickly does not mean zero time cost. Time is a cost.

Using an example above, why read an article on a poorly formated webpage vs. a pdf where the layout was designed by an experienced professional?

Even if I can write a wiki, why spend the time to learn the tricks and write, if it takes away from other things I need to do?

Email is a huge time-saver (in balance). Knowing the tricks of online search is priceless. Track-changes in documents also saves time. I've yet to see situations where online collaborative document writing (i.e. goggle docs) saves me time. I use them for non-work things, but rarely for work.

For the things where the time learning cost is higher, I really need to see the point before I invest even a little bit of time. It's nothing to do with being conservative. I view being conservative as not wanting change for the sake of change. I gladly take new technologies that help me or save time, but this just isn't true for much of the latest & greatest.