This post is by GO-GN member Gabi Witthaus.

The Innovating Higher Education 2022 (I-HE2022) conference took place in Athens from 19-21 October. I was privileged to be able to attend, thanks to the conference funding provided by GO-GN and my PhD institution, Lancaster University. Apart from being a wonderful chance to meet up with old and new friends in person, the conference also gave me an opportunity to present my preliminary findings from my open thesis. Sharing my paper at the conference was an important milestone in my open thesis journey. I found this both exciting and anxiety-provoking, and so in this blog post, I offer some reflections that I hope will be of interest to other PhD students who are working in the open, or considering doing so.

Gabi presenting at I-HE2022
(Photo by Olaf Zawacki-Richter, CC-BY)

First, a little background to the concept of the “open thesis”. If you haven’t come across this term before, you might find this Wikipedia page a good place to start. (Shout-out to fellow GO-GNer, Helen de Waard here, who worked with me to seed this page last year!) The idea of an open thesis is that you conduct your PhD research as open science, as far as is practically and ethically possible. The purpose of doing so is explained in the UCL/ French government’s practical guide for PhD students: “Open Science & Scholarship focuses on making research accessible for all by removing as many technical or financial barriers which may hinder access to research as possible. It involves opening up the academic process itself, not just the outputs” (Wallis 2022). Catherine Cronin’s (2017, p. 26) four levels of openness are helpful in thinking through what this means in practice, and so I will discuss my experience of my open thesis in terms of each of these levels.

Macro level: Will I share openly?

The initial, macro-level decision to conduct my research in the open was the easy one. After this things became a bit more complicated! This is because being open requires an ongoing stream of decisions to be made throughout the life cycle of the thesis; in my case, these decisions were located mainly at the meso level and the nano levels, as discussed below.

Meso level: Who will I share with?

The meso level of who to share with seemed straightforward at first: I thought I would simply put my work “out there” in my blog and alert the world to it via other social media feeds (I use Twitter, LinkedIn, and more recently, Mastodon), using relevant hashtags to alert everyone who might be interested. In practice, however, this process is hugely serendipitous, as it depends upon a statistically unlikely alignment of my social media activity with that of my imagined audience for anyone to make the joyous discovery of stumbling across my work! On the other hand, a more targeted (but by definition, less open) approach has yielded some extremely fruitful exchanges with some wonderful people, such as my fellow GO-GNers, and my Lancaster University PhD peers who meet up every other Saturday on Zoom. I have also built new networks with fellow researchers whom I first met at conferences or collaborative project meetings, and with other authors whose work I am citing, such as the South African Higher Education and Human Development Research Group (HEHD) whose work builds on Walker’s (2006) study into capabilities in higher education, and two co-authors of the Online Engagement Framework (Redmond et al., 2018) that I am using. (This paradox of the way open practices seem to be furthered through more “bounded” conversations is the research topic of a fellow Lancaster PhD student and GO-GNer, Deb Baff, whose work is helping to fill an important gap in our understanding of how openness works in practice.) Returning to the I-HE2022 conference, the EADTU community was an audience that I was very eager to share my work-in-progress with, especially as one of the themes in the research strand was “diversity and inclusion in open and online education”, and so I was confident I would find other colleagues there who shared this research interest. 

Micro level: Who will I share as?

This question has been relatively easy for me to answer in the context of my PhD research: I am always sharing in my personal capacity. While I have been supported in my efforts by several institutions and organisations, I am not speaking for any of them, and therefore there is no ambiguity about whether I am representing, for example, my employer or myself, as is sometimes the case with Open Educational Resources produced in a work context. 

Nano level: Will I share this?

Of all the questions from Cronin’s model, this one has been the most difficult for me to answer, and has come up more frequently than any other, perhaps because it is so closely linked to the question: “When will I share?” In a blog post I wrote before sharing the first draft of my first chapter, I offered this simple model to illustrate the conundrum of when to share:

As I explained in the post: 

The usual way [of sharing an open thesis] is somewhere towards the right hand end of this spectrum. The ‘extreme’ version of #OpenDissertation would be to open up the live Google Docs that I’m currently working on, for anyone to see. Depending on when visitors pop in, they might be treated to the spectacle of my words appearing on the page in real time while they watched. … I have to ask myself how much value that would be to anyone, and the answer is none at all… which is something of a relief as I think it would be a bit creepy to be writing while unknown others watch on! 

I eventually settled on sharing each full draft chapter after I had received feedback from my supervisor. This has resulted in five out of my intended eight draft chapters being shared so far, augmented by my blog which both reflects on the process of writing an open thesis and shares some of my pre-chapter drafts. (For example, my most recent series of blog posts focused on online engagement, parts of which will go into my literature review chapter.) I have collated and published some of my earlier posts as an OER (“Exploring the Capability Approach as a Social Justice Framework for Researching Higher Education”). While writing the blog has been time consuming, it has consistently helped me to stretch and shape my thinking for the thesis. 

Sharing at the I-HE2022 conference

For the I-HE2022 conference, I departed a bit from my usual pattern and decided to share my preliminary findings from my study, along with my embryonic capabilitarian online engagement model, before having the relevant chapters drafted. I also took the opportunity to submit a full paper to the conference. The pressure to explain my findings within an 8,000-word limit and an impending deadline forced me into clarifying my thinking substantially. While I am pleased to say that my paper has been short-listed for publication in an open-access journal next year (provided it gets through the next phases in the journal’s peer review process), sharing this content now felt risky, firstly because I had not yet worked on this part of my study to the satisfaction of the perfectionist within me. This is a feeling I have repeatedly experienced throughout the open thesis journey, and I am glad I have managed to talk myself out of it every time. My argument to myself is that sharing small amounts at regular intervals is far more helpful than writing the whole thesis in splendid isolation… and then having to face public scrutiny. Each time I have shared something openly, I have learnt something valuable in the process, even if only by being forced to consider what the potential value of some small aspect of my study might be to other researchers and practitioners. I have found this to be a good way of staying grounded while doing my PhD.

So far so good… but what if…?

By now I had persuaded myself that there was never going to be a better time to share this part of my research with this audience – and by implication openly as well, through blog posts such as this one, and hopefully through publication of my paper in 2023. However, I had also been spooked by some colleagues (not from the open education community) who had warned me against disseminating this part of my work, which forms a large part of my “contribution to knowledge” (which, as every PhD student knows, will eventually be the deal-breaker or -maker when the thesis is examined), now. One argument from these colleagues was that the content in my thesis would not be “new” when the examiners came to review it; however, my supervisor thankfully dismissed this objection with the counterargument that most sane examiners would be happy to know that the core aspects of a thesis had already had a preliminary peer review. Another cautionary note from colleagues was that someone might “steal” my model and publish it before me, leaving me unable to prove the originality of my contribution. (True story – this happened to a colleague of mine. Happily, they did eventually complete their PhD, but only after overcoming immense distress and a significant delay.) My belief is that openness should actually protect me from such a scenario, because by sharing my work openly, it is verifiably attributed to me and time-stamped. Although I do subscribe to this rather instrumental motivation for sharing openly, I am more deeply motivated by the spirit of collaboration which is at the heart of open science: I would honestly be delighted if someone were to build on my work and improve on it, or develop it in a new way for a different context. And so, in that spirit, I invite you to view my conference presentation on YouTube, and to read a summary of my talk. If you build on any of the ideas I have shared here, or if you just want to chat about open theses, I would love to hear from you!

Gabi Witthaus (Blog: ArtofElearning.org; Twitter: @twitthaus; Mastodon: @witthaus; Senior Digital Education Developer, University of Birmingham)


References

Cronin, C. (2017). Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i5.3096

Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

Walker, M. (2006). Higher Education Pedagogies: A Capabilities Approach. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill Education.

Wallis, K. (Ed.). (2022). Open Science: A practical guide for PhD students. University College London. https://doi.org/10.5522/04/20585898.v2