Threat of Digital Safety to Open Work in Academia

Researchers and academics are increasingly being called to work and publish “open”--in other words, to share their work freely with the public. In part due to the high cost of academic research publications, scholarly research is often only available to those with a university resource subscription in the form of databases or journals. This model privileges those with academic affiliations and more resources, but presents a barrier for the everyday individual. When research is open, rather than locked behind a paywall in an academic journal, the public is better able to access, utilize, understand, and share the work being done by scholars. As a result, the public can more easily benefit and participate in scholarly research and discourse.

One of the drivers to open research is a 2013 memorandum from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a department of the U.S. government), requiring federal agencies involved in research to create plans for increasing public access to research data. If researchers are utilizing public funds, government agencies expect the fruits of that research to benefit and be shared with the public. Federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), require that researchers provide a data sharing and management plan in order to receive federal funding.

This trend in open and public scholarship can also be seen at the university and college level. Many academic institutions and libraries are adopting open access policies to make scholarly research more accessible to the public. Open scholarship goes beyond publishing in open access journals, and means different things in different fields. In the sciences, this may mean sharing datasets openly. Whereas in the humanities this may mean sharing research openly online through digital scholarship.

The excitement and support surrounding open and public scholarship encourage researchers to share their work openly, to do public outreach, and to engage communities. Communication happens through social media, community engagement, television appearances, or op-eds as researchers work to connect their research to communities outside of academia. While the societal benefits of open scholarship are clear, researchers can become vulnerable to negative attention both personally and online through sharing their work. Researchers from underrepresented or marginalized communities who do open work that is deemed controversial can come under vicious personal and professional online attack when their work is sensationalized or taken out of context. Though government and academic institutions encourage open and public scholarship, few take this into account. Even fewer offer institutional support or training to prevent or address threats to a researcher’s digital safety and privacy.

If a researcher is concerned that their research might make them a target for online harassment, can this create a chilling effect on academic or intellectual freedom? If a researcher has been doxxed or cyberbullied, will they think twice about what they research next? We believe that raising awareness about researchers’ digital safety and privacy is one way help to safeguard intellectual freedom in the digital age. This book is a collection of case studies that present tools and practices researchers can learn from as they consider their own digital safety. It brings together researchers who share their stories and suggest tools and practices based on their experiences.