Academic Freedom in the Digital Age: AAUP Report Addresses a Changing Landscape
Seth Denbo, February 2014
In 2004 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published the report Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications. This document covered a range of scholarly activities and looked at how they were changing as a result of digital technology. The central argument of the report was that academic freedom should not be limited any further in electronic communication than in print media.
This basic principle still stands, but the world of electronic communication (both within and outside the academy) is very different now from what it was a decade ago. The AAUP has recently published a draft of a substantially revised and greatly expanded version that addresses these changes. Topics covered include: engagement with social media by scholars, the use of the web for teaching and research, the impact of cloud-based services, the potential problems involved in the use of external research databases, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the growth of cyber-security concerns.
The 2004 report was written at the onset of the Web 2.0 revolution; Facebook was only just taking off on a few campuses around the country, and Twitter was still two years away. The term social media, which does not appear in the 2004 report, is used more than 20 times in the current version. Engagement with students, scholars, and the wider world using social media has led to a growing diversity of venues for scholarly communication that are often more public. When, for example, audience members use Twitter during presentations, papers that have a small listenership in the room reach a much wider audience. This makes research in progress much more accessible, but also less easily managed. The report also looks carefully at how social media sites blur the boundaries between public and private communication. It recommends that institutions have policies that recognize that extramural utterances on social media need to be protected under the principles of academic freedom.
Another important addition in this revision is a section on the Freedom of Information Act and electronic communications. An example used in the report that will resonate with historians was the Wisconsin Republican Party’s FOIA request in 2011 for the e-mails of then AHA president-elect William Cronon. The report makes the recommendation that any scholar confronted with such a request seek legal counsel.
If, as a historian, you’re concerned about the ways in which electronic scholarly communication is being collected and used, and about the potential for misuse that would interfere with academic freedom, this report makes sobering reading. But it is not alarmist and does not seek to prevent or even limit the use of electronic communication. The authors acknowledge that the widespread use of digital technologies has “greatly enhanced the ability to teach, to learn, and to inquire,” but it also creates new challenges for academic freedom and freedom of expression—challenges about which scholars must be aware.
—Seth Denbo is the AHA’s director of scholarly communications and digital initiatives.
A version of this article appeared on the AHA Today blog.
The AAUP report can be found at: www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-electronic-communications-2013
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