Category Archives: Ronin Institute

On Schekman’s Call to Boycott the “Luxury” Science Journals

So, over at the Ronin Blog, I have posted my thoughts on the column written by new Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman where he urges all of us to boycott the journals Science, Nature, and Cell.

The basic argument is that the core problem is not these journals, but the use of publication in these journals (and other, equally superficial metrics) as proxies for quality.

Read it. Read It! READ IT!

Aaron Bady on MOOCs

So, since starting the Ronin Institute, I’ve been giving some thought to how one, as an independent scholar, can participate in teaching. After all, while some independent scholars are happy to be relieved of onerous teaching duties that keep them from their research, most actually like students, and would prefer to be involved in teaching to some extent.

One way to do this is through adjunct teaching at a local college or university. This is not necessarily appealing, though, since it typically pays terribly (for the number of hours you have to put in to do a good job), and it requires you to participate, at least passively, in undermining the traditional employment structure of the university. That is, as an adjunct, you’re basically a scab. (This may or may not be a negative, depending on your position on various things, but it’s not something that really appeals to me personally.)

The other way is through online courses. These are appealing to me in some ways. They are potentially more open, accessible, and democratic. They also feel as if they are more in keeping with the underlying mission of the Ronin Institute. After all, a part of the mission is to build a model of scholarship that is consistent with, well, life. We believe that it should be possible to function as a scholar while at the same time having family or other priorities that control where you live and when you work. Doesn’t that mean that we should be working to extend education to people for whom the constraints of the traditional college system does not work? At least part of me feels like maybe it does.

That leads us to the Next Big Thing™: the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). This seems like an obvious path for the independent scholar. However, I’ve been hesitant about that path because I’m not yet convinced that anyone has yet figured out how to really make this work. I mean sure, you can record lectures, and you can assign problem sets, and you can even organize online video-chat discussions. But based on my personal experiences with online communications of various sorts, I have this suspicion that these courses, as they currently exist, are missing some critical element. Something that is hard to articulate, but is actually central to a genuine educational experience.

Anyway, that’s the context in which I read Aaron Bady’s new piece in The New Inquiry, where he articulates a number of things that I think are absolutely true, but which had previously existed in my own consciousness in a nebulous, impressionistic form. Go read the whole piece, but among the points he argues are:

  1. MOOCs are being offered as a solution to high student-teacher ratios. This is ironic, since they lead to massive increases in the student-teacher ratio (and a decrease in teacher accessibility).
  2. In California, at least, MOOCs are being used to privatize education, under the veneer of making education “more accessible.” He points out that for-pay MOOCs are not really “Open” in the way that implied by the appropriation of the term.
  3. Good teaching involves attention and response to various paralinguistic cues from the students. It is not inconceivable that there could be online tools to facilitate this, but they certainly do not exist today. And certainly not when the primary product is a pre-recorded lecture.
  4. MOOCs will work best (perhaps only) for self-directed learners, who do not require the pressure and feedback provided by the in-person classroom setting. However, for those people, it is not clear that your typical MOOC provides added value over, say, access to Wikipedia.
  5. Even for the self-directed, a part of the college experience is learning how to interact and exchange ideas with others — debating and disagreeing in a respectful way: “If we take a process of socialization and make it a process of anti-socialization—if to be “at” college, you must be alone in front of a computer—we take the dynamic that creates the legendary poisonous atmosphere of “the comment thread” and use it to create adults.”
Anyway, I’d love to know what others think, especially if you’ve ever taught online classes.

Risk it ALL!

So, I posted this over on the Ronin Blog. Reposted here for your enjoyment.

Hey, here’s a cool video. It’s a sort of advice column from designer James Victore. The advice is obviously framed in a way that is specific to design (and probably art /achitecture as well), but it’s amazing how much of it carries over to, well, everything. It’s something that all you scholars out there should listen to.

Also, this guy’s face is like a crossbow, because just look at his facial hair, and then listen to those truth bolts shooting out of his mouth!

Now get out there!


Newspaper goes Ronin! (Sort of)

So, here’s an interesting development, as reported yesterday by Jim Romenesko. A “real estate entrepreneur and newspaper junkie” named Alan Smolinisky recently bought a weekly newspaper called the Palisadian-Post (of Pacific Palisades, California).

Now, we all know that newspapers have been struggling financially, and that many of them have had to cut back on reporting and editing. This, of course, creates a positive feedback loop. You lose circulation, which means you lose revenues, so you cut back on reporting, which makes you lose even more circulation, and so forth.

Smolinisky is trying a different approach, according to Romenesko, he

dismissed his circulation manager, business manager/controller, graphic designer and publisher so he could beef up editorial.

According to an e-mail from LA Times reporter Marsha Groves, quoted by Romenesko, thereby making this, like, triple hearsay and totally inadmissible,

As a result of the cost savings, the Palisadian-Post was able to restore writers and editors to full-time hours after several years of reduced hours and pay. The editorial staff was also given more color pages and a bigger budget for several new features that they have wanted to do for years. Alan also said every employee was given a raise for the first time in at least seven years. They don’t make much. I know of a seasoned journalist who worked there briefly for a salary in the $20Ks. Kind of shocking.

From a certain perspective, what he is doing is sort of obvious. He recognizes that the core mission of a newspaper is reporting, and he is putting his resources into that. But it seems like everywhere you turn, you hear stories about companies that are cutting the core of what they do, while maintaining or even expanding the “business” side of the business.

At universities, we hear about departments replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, while administrations (and administrative salaries) expand. What if instead, you had a university that responded to financial troubles by diverting more resources to its faculty? This is, of course, purely a thought experiment, as it seems almost inconceivable that any university administrator would make this sort of a move.

The reason I’m writing about this is that it struck me as resonant with one of the things we are trying to do with the Ronin Institute. We are starting from ground zero with researchers, and trying to develop a lean, minimal support system, one that will allow us to focus as many resources as possible directly on the core business of researchers — doing research.

Anyway, I’ll be eager to see how Smolinisky’s experiment with the Palisadian-Post works out.

In defense of the independent academic lifestyle

So, as I noted previously, there was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about independent scholarship. The article profiled nine scholars, four of whom are affiliated with the Ronin Institute. (Scientiam consecemus!) Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall. Given that the article’s primary audience is probably unemployed academics, this is kind of ironic, predatory, or clever, depending on your perspective.

Most of the comments on the article were supportive and hopeful — some perhaps posted by people who are anxious about the job market in academia and are pleased to see that there are paths outside of the standard one.

In fact, that is consistent with the most of the responses I have gotten in person, as well. Most people I speak to, including tenured academics, agree that there are certain systemic problems with the way that academia is structured and funded. While they may or may not believe that the Ronin Institute is the (or even a) solution for these systemic problems, they are often enthusiastic and supportive — glad, at least, that someone is trying something like this.

To be honest, this came as a pleasant surprise, as I had expected to find more people who responded out of defensiveness, with a knee-jerk impulse to defend the status quo. I expected this particularly from successful faculty who have tenure, or are on their way to getting it, who benefit most from maintaining the current system. Maybe it’s just that the academics whom know personally are extra awesome (true), or that the skeptical ones have the courtesy to keep their skepticism to themselves.

There are a few of the comments in the Chronicle thread that do seem to reflect the conservative impulse that I had expected to see more of. Normally, I would say it is not worthwhile to address negative comments (especially negative comments that are hidden behind a paywall). On the other hand, I suspect that these comments may reflect attitudes that are fairly widespread in the academic community. One of the challenges that independent and non-traditional scholars face is the attitude that they do not have the authority to participate in the community. So, these comments represent criticisms that need to be addressed.

Let’s start with this comment from “Shanna123”:

Always interested to hear about folks who did not receive tenure. My experience has been that most departments/institutions (I’ve been at 4, either achieved tenure or was granted it coming in at all) strive VERY hard to support and ensure that folks hired in TT positions achieve tenure. So I always wonder about folks who did not achieve this. How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/”off the grid” contributions are worthwhile?

First, many independent scholars did not “not receive tenure.” Some have never wanted a tenure-track position. Some have received tenure and walked away from it. Some would, ideally, like tenure, but are geographically constrained. (The fact that the commenter makes a point of pointing out her history of tenure is typical of the self aggrandizing and posturing that pervade so much of academia and make it unattractive to people who got over playing the “who’s cooler” game in high school.)

Second, yes, most universities work hard to support their tenure-track faculty and get them to tenure. However, many universities are also reducing the number of tenure-track positions in favor of adjunct positions, which pay less and provide basically no job security.

Third, and most gallingly, “How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/’off the grid’ contributions are worthwhile?” This is pretty simple: YOU READ THE WORK! If you are evaluating someone in the context of reviewing a manuscript, or a grant proposal, or on a hiring committee, you read their work and decide if it is good. If you don’t have the skills or knowledge or time to do this, you have no business evaluating them. If you are simply going to say, “Well, this person got tenure at such-and-such University, I guess they must be good,” you’re not doing your job.

Next, here’s part of a comment from “Docbot”:

Those identified in the story have obviously come to the crossroad of reality and hubris. As an academic myself, I understand the desire to contribute to a field and the joy of having my own views adopted.  However, I also accept that if my impact stalls, or my respect diminishes, so too will my hopes for tenure and future positions. This is our commodity, much like the craftsmanship of a carpenter or the execution of a chef. I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible. Not only is it an unrealistic career path, (ie how do you support a family without health insurance?) it also drives down the wages of full time professors, by providing administrators a pool of mediocre stop-gap replacements.  

This is just a bunch of nonsense. Yes, impact in the field, in the form of scholarly papers, books, seminars, etc. is our chief currency. Docbot somehow assumes that independent scholars are incapable of generating such work. Yes, if you stall, it makes it hard to have impact in the future. This is just as true within the university system as it is outside it (although there are ways to jump start a stalled career).

Re: “I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible”: This is classic  concern trolling. “How do you support a family without health insurance?” Well, I don’t know, YOU BUY HEALTH INSURANCE, DUMBASS!! Yes, the financial instability that accompanies the independent scholar lifestyle means that it is not a path that everyone can pursue. However, maybe you have a spouse with a regular job with insurance. Or maybe you live in any one of the non-US countries with universal health care. A number of the Research Scholars at Ronin have full-time non-academic jobs, and engage in their research in their “spare” time. And before you object that no one could do legitimate research and hold down a forty-hour-a-week job, keep in mind that many academics have forty hours a week of teaching and administration, and they basically do their research in their own spare time.

Finally, about driving down wages of full-time professors, I think Docbot fails to understand the difference between adjunct faculty and independent scholars. I don’t think that there are a lot of administrators are out there hiring cheap “stop-gap” researchers. Also, to the extent to which this point is true, it is, for better or worse, how our economic system works. Docbot seems to feel that everyone else should get out of the way so that he or she can have a good salary without competition. As for the implication that independent scholars are inherently mediocre when compared with traditional faculty, well, I reject that as irrelevant/ridiculous on its face. Or rather, while it may or may not be true that tenure-track faculty do better work on average than independent researchers, it is certainly true that the judgements about pay, funding, publication, etc. should be based on an individual’s skills and qualifications.

Docbot goes on to say:

In closing I would like to add, that in my experience I have always found the anything requiring me to attend a ‘support group’ is something I should change.

First of all, meeting with and communicating with people who share common interests and problems is what non-psychopathic humans do. In academia we hold journal clubs and discussion groups. We go to conferences and symposia. We also meet to discuss specific challenges, to share solutions to shared problems. Would you say that anyone who has ever joined a “Women in Science” group should leave science? That seems to be an implication of your statement here. To denigrate people who do these things in a way that is slightly different from the way that you do it does not make you clever. It makes you a dick.

The last comment I want to respond to is from “wassall”:

Ms. Ginsberg found that “(h)andling a full-time academic job” while raising two preschool-age children “wasn’t feasible.” I work with several colleagues who apparently find it quite feasible. With its generous vacations and summers off from teaching, a tenure-track position seems hard to beat in terms of flexibility while raising a family. Yes there is pressure to publish, but how is this different than the pressure of making partner in your law firm, running your own restaurant, or being responsible for annual sales targets?

This one looks to me almost like astroturf spawning out of that “academics are lazy” / “university professor is the least-stressful job” meme that the Wall Street Journal has been pushing. Enough so that if this comment were posted on my blog, I would probably just delete it. But let’s take it seriously for a moment.

When I read that Ms. Ginsberg (not a Ronin . . . yet!) found that raising two preschool-age children was not feasible, I don’t take that to mean “logistically impossible,” nor would anyone else who was not actively trying to misrepresent her position. I suspect that what she meant was that a traditional academic job is very time consuming, and it requires making certain sacrifices. In her case, she concluded that the sacrifices she would have to make with respect to her two small children were not worth the benefits of a full-time academic job.

Many independent scholars have consciously made the choice to have a smaller paycheck, and less job security, because the greater independence and flexibility is worth it to them. These people are perfectly aware of the consequences of their choices, and are willing to take responsibility for them.

Let’s follow wassall’s analogy with the law firm. Honestly, I suspect that making partner in a high-power law firm makes for a harder lifestyle than getting tenure at a university. Perhaps partly because of this, many lawyers don’t go work for high-power law firms. Some of them take poor-paying jobs as public defenders, or working for nonprofits, because they care about something in the world other than money and prestige. Some of them might go to work for a smaller law firm, maybe even work part time, because they want to be home when their kids come home from school. Some of them start their own law firms, because they have an entrepreneurial spirit and value their own independence.

The idea that you can’t do scholarship if you’re not at a University is like saying you can’t practice law if you’re not in a skyscraper in Manhattan. Now, the path for how to pursue a career in independent scholarship is not as clearly laid out as the paths that lead to becoming a public defender, or starting your own law firm. This is why I believe that “support groups” are valuable, so that people who are interested in developing new models for scholarship can discover and share what works.

Oh, and sorry for yelling. I wasn’t yelling at you. (Unless you are Shanna123 or Docbot.)

International Ronin

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog (original here)

In the wake of that article that recently came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (covered here), I’ve received a few e-mails suggesting that there may be some confusion out there regarding the geographical scope of the Ronin Institute. So, I thought I would just take a moment to try to clear that up.

In concept, the Ronin Institute is a global institution. After all, the future of scholarship is international (just as the future of most everything is). As far as we are concerned, location and national citizenship do not matter. What matters is your work and your citizenship in the community of scholars.

That being said, from a legal perspective, we are incorporated in the United States, and our tax-exempt status was granted here. So, the US is the only place where we have a formal, legal, corporate presence. Similarly, my knowledge of the way that systems of scholarship and funding work is primarily limited to the US system. I basically understand other systems to the extent that they are similar to the US system. This means that, in practice, we might be able to provide the best support to scholars who are US citizens and/or who are in the US. However, as our network (both the Research Scholars affiliated with Ronin and other, like-minded institutions) grows, it will encompass a broader range of circumstances and systems.

We are envisioning two main types of activities. One is to help independent scholars to apply for research funding, including permitting them to apply through the Ronin Institute. For certain types of funding agencies (like government agencies), the fact that we are a US non-profit probably matters, and we may be in a position only to support applications from people in the US. Similarly, if you are in the EU, we might not be in a good position to help you to apply for EU funds at the present time.

Most private foundations are much less constrained on this dimension. Likewise, we expect that most donations from individuals could be disbursed to scholars (e.g., in the form of scholarships for conference travel) without too much concern over nationality and residency.

So, what’s the take-home message here? Well, I’m imagining that you are an independent scholar living outside the US. You’re saying to yourself, “Hey, this Ronin Institute thing is pretty cool. I wonder if I could join? Or should I start my own institute where I am?”

The answer is “Yes” and “Yes.” If you are committed to pursuing scholarship at the highest level, are actively engaged in research, and would like to join our community, get in touch with us at, and we can discuss the process. And, if you’re feeling ambitious and energetic, build something local as well!

Ronin in the Chronicle of Higher Education

So, this is reposted from over at the Ronin Blog . . .

The most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article on independent scholarship. It profiles nine independent scholars, four of whom are Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute (Patricia Appelbaum, Kristina Killgrove, Jay Ulfelder, and me).

If you have a subscription to the Chronicle, you can read the article here. Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall, which especially sucks since this will be of greatest interest to people who are maybe not in a position to pay for the subscription. For you, here are a few of the highlights:

First, here’s the succinct description of one of the main challenges faced by independent scholars:

Like traditional professors, [independent scholars] perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.

But independent scholars say their contributions are frequently discounted by tenured professors, who, as gatekeepers of scholarly conversations and the distribution of intellectual ideas, tend to exclude those who lack university credentials.


The work life of an independent scholar—with its freedom from the performance requirements of the tenure track—can be attractive to those with young children and those who can’t or don’t want to relocate for a faculty job. Yet theirs can be a spartan existence, lacking intellectual colleagues or recognition, a calling that most can afford to pursue only by working extra part-time jobs or relying on a partner’s income. The financial needs of independent scholars can also get in the way of academic freedom by limiting the kinds of questions they are able to ask and the projects they are willing to pursue.

The bulk of the article then focuses on the nine examples of independent scholars, who represent some of the diversity of motivations for people working outside of academia, as well as the diversity of models that people are pursuing to make independent scholarship work.

Near the end is a quote from our website, which sums up one of the primary goals of the Ronin Institute:

“The Ronin Institute is creating a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship,” its Web site says. “There are tens of thousands of people in the United States alone who have advanced degrees yet do not have jobs that are making use of their knowledge and passion. We are creating structures that will leverage this vast, underutilized resource.”

Of course, the goal is not only to leverage this resource, but to allow would-be scholars (and would-be part-time scholars) to live more well rounded, fulfilling lives.

So grab your swords, all you Ronin!

Scientiam Consecemus!

Scientiam Consecemus!!

So, this is reposted from over at the Ronin Blog:

Here’s an update for those of you who are following the development of the Ronin Institute. We now have an official motto, in Latin and everything:

Scientiam Consecemus

That’s “Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge” to you.

Thanks go to Research Scholar Kristina Killgrove, who not only came up with the translation, but also indulged my complete lack of Latin by answering a long series of naive yet nitpicky questions.

Now maybe you’re asking yourself, “What the hell sort of motto is that??” Here’s the idea. Traditionally, if a Samurai lost his master, he was expected to commit suicide. Those who did not commit suicide became Ronin, masterless Samurai who made their living in a variety of ways. They had earned the right to carry their swords, only now they were carrying them for themselves.

Similarly, the traditional view in academia is that a scholar is defined by his or her position at a University (or similar research institution). People who don’t have a traditional academic position are expected to commit a sort of career suicide, abandoning their scholarly research. Our perspective is that you’ve earned your skills, and you still have your tools. You don’t need a master in the form of a University in order to put those skills to use.

So grab your intellectual swords, all you masterless scholars! Let’s chop up some knowledge!

Achievement Unlocked: 501c3 Status!

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog:

Greetings to all from the Ronin Institute. We’ve got some good news here. The IRS has officially approved our application for tax-exempt status as a publicly funded 501c3 nonprofit organization!

What does that mean? Well, most importantly, it means that you can now donate to the Ronin Institute to support independent scholarship, and your donation should be tax deductible. Or, as they say on nonprofit websites, “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law,” which is sort of a funny thing to say. I mean, if you gave a donation to me, personally, it would be “tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law.” It’s just that, in the case of giving money to me, the full extent allowed by law would be zero.

Here, though, your donation is tax deductible in the same way that that donations to the United Way or the Red Cross are. That is, donations to the Ronin Institute should be unambiguously tax deductible, but if there is any question in your mind about your particular circumstances, you should consult with a tax attorney.

So, if you (or your foundation, or your employer) are looking for some things to donate to before the end of the year, here we are! If you believe in reinventing academia, here we are! If you want to help to support some really high quality independent scholarship, here we are! Now hop on over to the Donation page!

If you have questions about the Institute, or would like to direct your donation towards a specific program or project, contact us at

To the future!

The Case for Independent Scholarship #3: On Workaholic Scientists

So, Sam Arbesman has a post up at Wired where he discusses a recent study on the work habits of  scientists in around the world. As a proxy for “working,” the authors look at the pattern of downloads of papers or book chapters from Springer. The work makes use of a cool real-time mapping of IP addresses accessing those papers. If you want to see what it looks like, check it out here:

They do a more detailed analysis of the top three countries (in terms of total number of downloads in about a week’s worth of data), the US, Germany, and China. Correcting for time zone differences, they find these patterns:

On the left side, each line corresponds to a different day, with the more solid lines being weekends, and the thinner ones being weekdays. On the right, the weekends and weekdays are averaged.
A couple of things that will probably come as no surprise to most of the academics out there. 
(1) the daily hump starts picking up around 9 or 10 in the morning, and carries on until nine or ten at night.
(2) the weekday hump is bigger during traditional “working hours”, but evening work hours are pretty consistent throughout the week.
Interesting cultural differences pop out that might not be as predictable. It looks like China has longer and/or more simultaneous breaks for lunch and dinner. (Although, given the common practice, at least in the US, of eating lunch at your computer, maybe the lack of those dips in the top panel are somewhat predictable.) Americans seem to be working a lot more in the middle of the night compared with their German and Chinese counterparts, while the Chinese seem to show less of a difference between weekday and weekend work habits.
The authors’ conclusion, and one that is echoed in Sam Arbesman’s commentary, is that this work pattern is consistent with what most academic scientists would probably tell you. Academia is a full-time job. And not a full-time job in the sense of a forty-hour work week, but a full time job as in, you sleep, eat, and work.
So is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, on the one hand, you’ve got all of these highly trained, highly educated people working really hard and getting paid not a whole awful lot on a per-hour basis. Good deal, right?
On the other hand, it leads to a really crappy lifestyle, where the long hours come at the expense of time spent with family, hobbies, or even taking an interest in subjects outside of the very narrow range defined by your research. If you care about a broader definition of human happiness,  one that treats people as an end rather than a means, this is not a great way to structure your industry. 
Beyond that, it is important to remember that science, like all academic fields, is a fundamentally creative enterprise, and working longer hours does not necessarily translate into better results. Creativity has to be fueled by experience, and a broader range of experience can lead to asking more interesting questions and coming up with more original answers to those questions. The pressures that lead people to download papers from Springer from morning till night don’t necessarily lead to the best science.
I should note that Sam’s coverage also includes a plug for the Ronin Institute, because Sam is a freakin’ rock star!

Wang, X. W., Xu, S. M., Peng, L., Wang, Z., Wang, C. L., Zhang, C. B., & Wang, X. B. (2102). Exploring Scientists’ Working Timetable: Do Scientists Often Work Overtime? Journal of Informetrics, 6 (4), 655-660 DOI: 10.1016/j.joi.2012.07.003