On the interstitial scholar

Part of the concern  in the humanities about author-pays open access concerns the impact on the ‘independent scholar’ – those individuals who produce academic writing of the highest standard whilst independent of the universities. It is a baggy classification, defined only by a negative; and it encompasses all sorts, from recently minted post-doctoral people looking for a job, to established figures who earn a living by their writing as journalists, critics or novelists, but who happen also to produce work that is recognisably ‘within the fold’. It also includes a host of retired academics, who may yet  have in them the crowning summation of a lifetime’s work. And the objection is raised that, if publication costs are to be covered by the author or their employer, then few of these figures will be able to publish at all.

Whilst there is collateral damage that needs to be avoided here, I see it as a problem to be overcome, rather than just another reason why the current system cannot change. But my concern here is wider, and is with the notion of the ‘interstitial scholar’ and the intrinsic value there might be in the fact that not all scholarship is produced from within a research-and-teaching institution. What of any importance would actually be lost from our scholarly ecology if the interstitial scholar was allowed to die out ?

I need to be clear about whom I am not talking. I am not concerned with the author of historical works who is purely a synthesist; my interstitial scholar is one whose work is clearly primary research. Neither do I mean the lone scholar who is disconnected from the ecosystem of academic publication, conference-going, peer reviewing that surrounds ‘professional’ scholarship (although I dislike the professional/amateur distinction.)

No: my concern is with the scholar who is engaged in some other profession but has maintained a lively contact both with the individuals and the published work in their field. Figures are hard to come by, but my impression is that there are many in this position; and I include myself among them.

Where are they ? They are to be found in every corner of the universities but the academic departments: in administration, or policy, or communications, or alumni relations. Universities have long mopped up some of the excess supply of able doctoral graduates, and universities provide in many ways a congenial berth. You also don’t need to dig very deep to find research-active people in the library and archives sector, as five minutes with the British Library’s Research Register will show.

But why bother ? What makes people continue with the slow and painstaking task of academic research if they can and do put bread on the table in other ways ? I should love to know what others think; but can only speak for myself. It is partly because I still feel that there are  more important matters than the few the state can support scholars to study. I also continue to write history because I find it hard to imagine not doing so. Before starting my doctorate, my soon-to-be supervisor laid out just how difficult it can be to sustain three years of relatively solitary work without ‘an itch that you can’t scratch’ – a burning desire to know the answer to some question or other; and fifteen years on, I’m still scratching that itch.

But isn’t it an indulgence, to hold back the development of a new kind of scholarly communication for a handful of hobbyists doing obscure work in dark corners ? In a time of austerity, perhaps it is. But I would argue that these scholars represent something that is not spontaneously generated in the normal course of university-based research.Their very location in-between the functions of universities, libraries and archives  allows them to bring important alternative perspectives. My own research has been influenced in many subtle ways by having worked in and around digital provision for research; and I’m sure that archivists and curators bring a distinctive and important perspective to the interpretation of the material in their care. I would want particularly to read a history of universities written by a university administrator; or a history of scholarly publishing by a historian working in publishing; or legal history by a barrister. They would have of course have their blind spots; but they would be different blind spots.

Interstitial scholars are also able to pursue different topics as a result of their situation. When I go to conferences, I sometimes detect just a hint of envy if I mention that I am in no hurry to write this or that article because I have no REF deadline to meet. In the interstices, one has a freedom from any kind of external direction in one’s research; and so I have had over the years the freedom to follow my nose. And I suspect that, had I been ‘REF-able’ these last few years, some of my work wouldn’t have been written, or at least not in the same way; and other things would have got written instead. And so the interstitial scholar can pursue the unfashionable topic, without any regard to ‘impact’. These scholars can act as important connecting strands in the web of knowledge, and we brush them away at our cost.