Independent Scholarship Survey

Research Scholars Arika Virapongse and Alex Lancaster have put together a survey designed to help us better understand how independent scholars “make it work.” We’ve already begun collecting responses from current Research Scholars, and the preliminary results look really interesting. We’re looking forward to sharing them once the results are in. We also want to open up the survey to anyone who has been doing independent scholarship and anyone pursuing a non-traditional academic career path. If that sounds like you, we would love to get your input on this. Or if you know someone who fits this description, please feel free to bring this to their attention. The survey can be accessed here.

The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. We know that your time is valuable, but we ask that you try to contribute as much detail as possible in your responses. Unfortunately, there is not a way to save your responses and complete the survey at a later date. For the option to work at your own pace, you can preview the questions here.

We are hoping that the information we collect will help us to develop new and better ways to support diverse models of scholarship and academic careers. And we would love for you to be a part of that.

Ranalli on Thoreau Tonight (October 11) in Acton, Mass

This evening (Wednesday, October 11, 2017), Research Scholar Brent Ranalli will be giving a talk at the Acton Memorial Library in Acton, Massachusetts on Henry David Thoreau’s “Indian Stride.” The talk starts at 7pm and is free. More information found here:

THOREAU’S “INDIAN STRIDE”   Local historian Brent Ranalli discusses Henry David Thoreau’s fascination with all things Native American and the odd fact that at least three contemporaries said the Concord philosopher walked like an Indian. Ranalli presents the results of research into the actual biomechanics of traditional Native American and Euro-American walking styles and their cultural significance, as well as a reconstruction of Thoreau’s own gait based on literary sources. Acton Memorial Library; free.

Monosson Speaking at Arnold Arboretum in Boston 10/4

If you’re in the Boston area, Research Scholar Emily Monosson will be speaking tomorrow (Wednesday, October 4) at 7:00 pm in the Hunnewell Building at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum’ in Boston. Details below:

Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health

Emily Monosson, PhD, Environmental Toxicologist, Writer, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

1 Session: Wednesday, October 4, 7:00–8:15pm

Location: Hunnewell Building

For more than a century, we have relied on chemical cures to keep our bodies free from disease and our farms free from bugs and weeds. We rarely consider human and agricultural health together, but both are based on the same ecology, and both are being threatened by organisms that have evolved to resist our antibiotics and pesticides. Fortunately, scientists are finding new solutions that work with, rather than against, nature. Emily Monosson will speak about some of science’s most innovative strategies and the growing understanding of how to employ ecology for our own protection. Natural Defense, Monosson’s newest book, will be available for purchase and signing.

Fee Free member and student, $5 nonmember

Register at or call 617-384-5277.

Call for Papers: “Transnational mobilities in nationalist times: living beyond the nation in the 21st century”

Research Scholar Jaime Moreno Tejada is looking for submissions for a special issue of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies. From the call:

This issue will explore the transnational movement of people, things, capital and ideas, at a time of rising nationalism. The prefix trans means both “across” and “beyond”. Thus “transnational” is here understood as a broad category, including international mobilities across national borderlines, and local rhythms dependent on global networks that supersede the limits of the nation-state. E.g. drug dealing in Manila.

Potential contributors should send a 300-word proposal, along with an academic CV, to Jaime at The deadline for proposal submissions is 1 December, 2017.

The full call is attached here: Call for papers_Special Issue_Mobilities

Lancaster at CESTEMER

Good news Chicago!

This weekend, from September 15-17, is ImprovScience’s CESTEMER conference, at the Goodman Theater ( From their description:

What happens at CESTEMER? This innovative conference brings together faculty, graduate students, K-12 educators and professionals in STEM and art fields who are exploring, practicing, and researching performance in science. CESTEMER advances, among these diverse attendees, the practices of community-building, collaborative creativity, diversity and inclusion and their relationship to ensembles.

And, this CESTEMER will feature a talk by Alex Lancaster, who will be giving an overview of the Ronin Institute. His abstract:

The Ronin Institute, formed in 2012, is a self-organized community of scholars from both the sciences and humanities formed with the core assumption that researchers should create their own measures of success and that affiliation with a conventional brick-and-mortar research institution should not be the sole metric of “success”. As a 501(c)3 non-profit organization the Ronin Institute provides an affiliation for scholars, as well as a financial structure whereby researchers can apply for federal and state grants. In this talk I will share our own steps in cultivating virtual science communities, such as the creation of face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference held in November 2016, as well as virtual meetings: a weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. I look forward to learning more from other CESTEMER participants about how we can continue and extend our journey towards creating living, joyful communities of scholarship.


Use Unpaywall to Find Papers

While a lot of the academic literature is still paywalled, meaning that it can be hard (and expensive) for independent and non-traditional scholars to access, much of that literature is actually publicly available. Many authors post their articles on or researchgate, or even on their own websites. Often, this self-archiving is even permitted under the terms of publication.

If you’re just a little bit ambitious with your web searches, you can typically find these, but it does require an extra step or two, which can fell like a bit of a drag.

Enter unpaywall, a new browser extension currently available for chrome and firefox that will tell you if there is a free version of the article you’re looking for somewhere out there, even if it is formatted differently (like an arXiv preprint). Check it out!

Ronin Featured in Nature Article on Independent Scholarship

Out today is a nice article in the Careers section of Nature called “Flexible Working: Solo Scientist.” It features the Ronin Institute prominently, and includes quotes from an interview with me, as well as Research Scholars Jeff Rose, Gene Bunin, and Vicenta Salvador. Also prominently featured is one of Gordon Webster’s excellent photographs from November’s unconference. Enjoy!

College Affordability Study Finds Dismal Results

There’s a new study out by the Institute for Higher Education Policy that looks at the affordability of 2000 colleges for a number of hypothetical students representing different family and economic situations. There’s a nice summary of the study at the Atlantic. Here’s the take-home message:

Of the more than 2,000 colleges analyzed, IHEP found that almost half were affordable only for students from families making more than $160,000. That means that in addition to being able to afford 90 percent of colleges, half of those colleges are also essentially exclusively reserved for them. For-profit colleges were the least affordable schools, and public colleges were the most affordable. But even then, four-year public colleges that didn’t meet the students’ affordability thresholds were off by an average of $9,000.

For low to moderate income students, with incomes < $69,000 per year, only one to five percent of the colleges studied were affordable. Note that, according to the Census Bureau, median household income in the US in 2015 was less than $56,000.

Op-ed piece on the Alignment of Science and Other Truth-Tellers

Out yesterday in The Scientist is an op-ed piece by yours truly. The basic thrust is that, in an era when facts and expertise and the very nature of reality are under attack, scientists need to recognize that they are part of a larger community of truth-seekers and truth-tellers that includes social scientists, artists, journalists, and others.

You can find the full piece by following the link above, but here’s the core of the argument:

As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.


It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.

We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.

Research Universities’ Excellence Adventure

Academics in traditional university environments tend to be keenly aware of where their university ranks, whether they like to admit this or not. Most familiar are the college-level rankings like those from the US News & World Report, which weigh the undergraduate experience heavily. However in the research world, the notion of “excellence” has become the coin of the realm as evidenced by a proliferation of “excellence frameworks” such as the Research Excellence Framework  (UK), the German Universities Excellence Initiative, the Excellence in Research for Australia and the Performance Based Research Fund (New Zealand).  Given that many resources from capital funds, grants and permanent positions are doled out in accordance with rankings, where one’s institution stands goes beyond mere bragging rights. Most academics understand the arbitrary nature of such rankings and despite regular kvetching that they are either “unfair” (usually from those at an institution “lower” in the rankings) or that they have “finally” recognized the true worth of their institution (usually from those rising in the rankings), the existence of the ranking system itself, is normally taken as given.  After all, how are we to sort the worthy from the unworthy?

Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson have published an (ahem), excellent research paper “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence that comprehensively examines both the notion and practices of “excellence” in research.  Excellence, as most of the research frameworks define it, essentially boils down to some combination of ranking institutions by their scholars ability to publish in established prestige journals, ability to gain external grants and other easily-measured metric of scholarly output.

Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “excellence” is totally bogus:

…a focus on “excellence” impedes rather than promotes scientific and scholarly activity: it at the same time discourages both the intellectual risk-taking required to make the most significant advances in paradigm-shifting research and the careful “Normal Science” (Kuhn [1962] 2012) that allows us to consolidate our knowledge in the wake of such advances. It encourages researchers to engage in counterproductive conscious and unconscious gamesmanship. And it impoverishes science and scholarship by encouraging concentration rather than distribution of effort.

In other words in the context of scientific scholarship: focusing on excellence prevents the two things that we say we want from from science: careful reproducible science and the big breakthroughs. The article covers familiar ground to those who have been following the state of academia including discussions of the lack of reproducibility in science, the pernicious use of journal prestige to evaluate academics, and the general environment of hypercompetition in research. Many, if not most, academics are aware these issues, having been covered extensively in the trade press in recent years, but continue to view them through the lens of their effect on traditional tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty with established research programs. So it is refreshing that the article tackles how the rhetoric of ”excellence” can restrict the range of types and styles of scholarship, issues that are close to the heart of the Ronin Institute:

There is, however, another effect of the drive for “excellence”: a restriction in the range of scholars, of the research and scholarship performed by such scholars, and the impact such research and scholarship has on the larger population. Although “excellence” is commonly presented as the most fair or efficient way to distribute scarce resources (Sewitz, 2014), it in fact can have an impoverishing effect on the very practices that it seeks to encourage. A funding programme that looks to improve a nation’s research capacity by differentially rewarding “excellence” can have the paradoxical effect of reducing this capacity by underfunding the very forms of “normal” work that make science function (Kuhn [1962] 2012) or distract attention from national priorities and well-conducted research towards a focus on performance measures of North America and Europe (Vessuri et al., 2014)

The article continues by pointing out that “excellence” is often used as a proxy for  academic work that fit certain “standard” modes, which can result in a more bland and conformist world of scholarship:

Given the strong evidence that there is systemic bias within the institutions of research against women, under-represented ethnic groups, non-traditional centres of scholarship, and other disadvantaged groups (for a forthright admission of this bias with regard to non-traditional centres of scholarship, see Goodrich, 1945), it follows that an emphasis on the performance of “excellence”—or, in other words, being able to convince colleagues that one is even more deserving of reward than others in the same field—will create even stronger pressure to conform to unexamined biases and norms within the disciplinary culture: challenging expectations as to what it means to be a scientist is a very difficult way of demonstrating that you are the “best” at science; it is much easier if your appearance, work patterns, and research goals conform to those of which your adjudicators have previous experience. In a culture of “excellence” the quality of work from those who do not work in the expected “normative” fashion run a serious risk of being under-estimated and unrecognised.

As the authors point out it is common in such pieces to identify external factors such as:

institutional administrators captured by neo-liberal ideologies, funders over-focussed on delivering measurable returns rather than positive change, governments obsessed with economic growth at the cost of social or community value

as the primary cultural driver of metric-driven “excellence”. And this is definitely a huge part of the issue (see Ronin blog posts “Graeber on the Transformation of Universities” and “Henry Heller on IP-Based Capitalism at Universities”), but it’s not the only driver. Attributing these issues purely to external forces lets the academy somewhat off the hook since, as the authors continue:

the roots of the problem in fact lie in the internal narratives of the academy and the nature of “excellence” and “quality” as supposedly shared concepts that researchers have developed into shields of their autonomy. The solution to such problems lies not in arguing for more resources for distribution via existing channels as this will simply lead to further concentration and hypercompetition. Instead, we have argued, these internal narratives of the academy must be reformulated.

In other words: academia probably needs to take a look in the mirror once in a while and should question whether current norms really still serve their twin stated goals of encouraging sound “normal” scholarship as well as risky breakthroughs. I would also add: it should be enabling all scholars to participate in whatever way fits their individual talents, rather than promote a “one-size-fits-all” notion of alpha-academic success. There is much more to the article than space allows here, it’s a good piece for anybody interested in the future of scholarship, and it includes a highly detailed bibliography.

Citation: Moore, Neylon, Eve, O’Donnell, Pattinson. Palgrave Communications 3, Article number: 16105 (2017)

Coda: In a nice example of walking the walk, the authors have this note about “subverting traditional scarce markers of prestige” by adopting:

a redistributive approach to the order of their names in the byline. As an international collaboration of uniformly nice people (cf. Moran et al., 2016; Hoover et al., 1987; see Tartamelia, 2014 for an explanation), lacking access to a croquet field (cf. Hassell and May, 1974), writing as individuals rather than an academic version of the Borg (see Guedj, 2009), and not identifying any excellent pun (cf. Alpher et al., 1948; Lord et al., 1986) or “disarmingly quaint nom de guerre” (cf. Mrs Kinpaisby, 2008, 298 [thanks to Oli Duke-Williams for this reference]) to be made from the ordering of our names, we elected to assign index numbers to our surnames and randomize these using an online tool.