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Creating safe scholarly spaces

Sharing the experiences of displaced researchers and fostering an academic community despite authoritarian oppression.
Published onMar 02, 2023
Creating safe scholarly spaces
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There are a lot of things that we found interesting about Off University’s mission and process. In this follow-up interview, we ask them a little bit more about how they’re maintaining the privacy of the academics they work with in addition to fostering their academic community when things are so tense.

How are you combating authoritarian governments with your organization?

Julia: Combating authoritarian governments is probably a bit too ambitious.

Our main focus is to offer online courses to keep scholars in our network connected to theirs students and to keep their topics in circulation. This is a very political act because these scholars do not obey to the imperative to be silent since they’re coming from and evading harsh governmental powers.

Scholars in our network are often actively excluded from publishing and their articles are taken out from collections or never accepted in their home countries. There are also the “silent” mechanisms of exclusion: To publish without an academic institution as an employer is very costly to begin with because these researchers cannot access the university’s credibility. Likewise, they are unable to access the publications of others. This is were PubPub came in for us in the beginning as a very quick and accessible way to draft, connect with others and publish.

To be able to continue to teach, do research, publish, and be an academic is a remedy for individuals. It also gives hope to many and is an investment into a future after authoritarianism. Rather than being “just” another method to distribute marginalized knowledge, to publish means to be part of an academic discourse and the academic community.

How do you think about privacy? How are you maintaining the privacy of the academics you’re working with?

Julia: Scholars who do research and teach at Off-University are politically persecuted and where purged from academic institutions. The topics they work on were oftentimes similarly marginalized or inconvenient. Their work poses a risk to the scholar but also to colleagues, readers, and students.

For example, to attend an online course by a scholar from Russia who speaks about the Russian peace movement in Russian is currently very risky for everybody involved. This is why not only privacy, but digital security was a very important topic for us since the outset. We train ourselves and the scholars we work with in what we call “digital self-defence.” It informs the tools we use to do research, to publish outcomes, to do online teaching or to communicate with each other.

Picture of Julia Strutz

Julia Strutz

PubPub offers interesting opportunities for our community to publish as it allows to use pseudonyms, anonymous e-mail addresses, or collective authorship.

Yet, for the adversaries we are dealing with as an organization, the data collected routinely by PubPub like IP-adresses and other forms of meta data are also accessible. In the research collaboration RePLITO — a project partner project with Off University — we have therefore explored the issue of anonymity further. We have integrated PubPub in the project’s digital archive via iFrame and offer in addition to the annotations in PubPub also the opportunity to leave an anonymous comment that does not require registration/login. We experimented more with the idea to create a safe digital space for scholars from different geographies, in and outside of academic institutions and on different stages of their academic career. This reflected the topic of the research project, which explores global repertoires of living together.

Nadja-Christina Schneider (Humboldt University Berlin), co-speaker of the research team RePLITO, organized several workshops with advanced graduate students and doctoral candidates from different universities in Delhi and from Humboldt Universität’s Institute for Asian and African Studies (IAAW). The digital platform and space for collaboration they used was PubPub. Would you share your experience?

Nadja: Yes, and I can also link this right back to Sarah’s question about engaging at-risk scholars in collaborative research and writing projects too.

We organized several workshops with the students and young scholars in Berlin and Delhi in 2021 to accompany the collaborative writing and research project we were doing with Doing Sociology in Delhi through PubPub. The idea came up during the initial waves of Covid-19 lockdowns. We were looking for an idea to motivate the students and Ph.D. candidates in both locations, who were doing research largely in isolation and, in the case of Delhi, also in a politically charged situation, particularly at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and bring them into a fruitful exchange with each other. They formed smaller teams that were in continuous exchange about their projects and emerging articles via PubPub. This worked brilliantly and in the end resulted in a very nice collection of twelve articles that was published under the title “Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. An Experimental Exercise in Collaborative Publishing Between Delhi and Berlin.” The response was very good and the participants were proud of their first publication — with their own DOI number! All of them also reported back to us that the collaborative thinking, communicating, and writing via PubPub is really helpful for their research process.

In the future, I would like to develop this wonderful opportunity to create more opportunities for collaborations. Multi-local digital writing labs for students and young researchers can, in my view, be excellently hosted at my university and integrated into existing study modules at my institute (Asian and African Studies at HU, IAAW). I expect this to provide very valuable impulses for both research-based learning, academic writing and publishing, and more generally for an academic self-confidence of young researchers.

I also see these spaces as an opportunity to involve even more colleagues in collaborative digital research and writing groups who have been or continue to be exposed to political persecution. So far, their contributions to RePLITO’s digital knowledge archive have been mostly individual, which are then annotated by different members from both groups. However, Concepts and Repertoires of Living Together from a global perspective is open enough as a thematic framework to develop corresponding writing research projects and reliable teams that can lead to long-term collaborations.

How else are you facilitating collaborations towards making impactful changes?

Eren: As Julia and Nadja have stated above, the emerging precarity and vulnerability of the scholars in the face of authoritarian regimes, market-oriented publication mechanisms and social/historical phenomena also open a path to the new ways of thinking about the nature of the scholarly research and work. RePLITO is a clear example of this in demonstrating how similar socio-political conditions can lead to comparative and intersectional ways of conducting research which, in return, create their own forms for making these scholarly works visible to the public eye. I think one of the important opportunities provided by PubPub is helping scholars to invent these new forms.

On the side of our Critical Peace Studies in Turkey project, which included a wide array of activities from Online-Labs to podcasts, we have also benefitted from another aspect of the alternative ways of knowledge production and dissemination: Insisting on carrying out research on certain politically sensitive topics has a political value and meaning in itself. Handling a topic like “peace” and making it subject to critical analysis by stripping it off from its official and mainstream meanings and making it subject to an interdisciplinary analysis through gender, anthropology, human rights, literature etc. demonstrate how carrying out a scholarly work from a critical perspective can constitute a political/social intervention not only through its content or perspective, but also just through its mere presence. In our case, peace is such kind of a topic and in order to enable this topic to perform its function within this hybrid scheme of meanings, we have noticed that we need a new form/platform that is suitable for this task. And that was the point that the opportunities provided by PubPub, as described in detail by Julia, came into scene.

In 2022 we have published 16 items of scholarly work on our Critical Peace Studies in Turkey page on PubPub. These include 10 blog articles on the “Gendered Aspects of War&Peace”, a working paper on “Critical Peace Studies in Turkey”, two articles on “Non-Human Aspects of Peace and Conflict” and a three episodes of podcasts focusing on the different stages of agency in the conflict resolution. The nature and forms of our publications were quite varied and we have published many of them in three different languages, namely Turkish, Kurdish and English. Especially contributing to the literature with texts in Kurdish had both a scholarly and politically symbolic meanings in themselves and PubPub allowed us to present this material within a context, where different versions of the same texts and different forms of content were interlinked to each other. Apart from that, for our future activities, we are planning to expand the variety of the forms of works we want to publish, including interactive maps or broadcasts. And we have seen that new socio-political conditions, combined with new digital opportunities, require and enable more hybrid forms that are publicly accessible and relatively immune to the established structures of the publication industry. In that regard, we hope that these needs and opportunities will shape and re-shape each other in a dialogical form.


We would be happy to exchange further on these topics and meet communities with similar aims. Please get in touch!

www.off-university.de ([email protected])

www.replito.de ([email protected])

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