Academics have been conditioned to believe that they are responsible scholars if their work appears in reputable peer-reviewed journals or comes out through academic presses. Ever since the 17th century, the "advancement of learning" as Francis Bacon called it, has depended upon the way print publications have organized the evaluation and dissemination of academic work. The print medium has been the default scholarly medium.
Well, it's been a good 300 years. But print is no longer the primary intellectual medium, and it is time for scholars to move forward.
In the digital age, scholarship cannot succeed by working upon the assumptions (nor within the formats and procedures) of a communications system based on print publishing. Today's scholarly communications system must transform, setting aside print paradigm restrictions and fully integrating with the networked knowledge environment of the digital age.
This post introduces criteria for a digitally transformed scholarly communications system. But first, let's go back in time for a little thought experiment.
In the mid 1700s -- when learned journals really came into their own -- imagine there is some bright scholar who wishes to share some of his best thinking with the world. He is most comfortable with communicating via handwritten letters. After all, scholars used to share information about their work in just this way all the time before scholarly periodicals began appearing in the 1660s. How would our scholar do?
Well, the quality of this scholar's ideas wouldn't matter a great deal in the 1700s if he insisted on sending them around by letter. Why? Because at this time, in the Enlightenment, information circulated principally by way of print. What people discussed in the coffee houses or in universities was what was getting published in print. In fact, the medium became so important to the message that the authority of knowledge has become associated with its appearance in print. If something was worthwhile, it was worth circulating; if it wasn't, then it wasn't worth spreading through the most prominent medium of the day. And if you refused for some reason to package your thinking within the typeset bounds of the new dominant medium, well, you just plain took yourself out of the game.
I'm sure there was a lot of whining about this as letters and hand-copied manuscripts receded from prominence among scholars. That whole infrastructure that depended upon the manuscript tradition melted away. Gone were the professional scribes, gone were the beauties of calligraphy, gone were the illuminations that decorated medieval manuscripts. And that personal touch of something handwritten -- could it ever be replaced?
Yes it could.
And those foolish enough to cling to the outgoing medium simply exiled themselves from the new republic of letters -- the exciting new domain of printed literature that reached more people and engaged more minds than the manuscript-based communications system ever could.
Now, let's further pretend that Leonardo da Vinci, that brilliant Renaissance man active in the late 1400s, was somehow transported forward into the 18th century. His notebooks were amazing, full of novel ideas and fascinating sketches. But he simply wouldn't have been taken seriously in the Enlightenment if his ideas went unprinted. Or, to press the analogy, if our time traveling da Vinci agreed to have his work printed, but insisted that it appear exactly as he wrote it down in his notebooks (in a coded script that took a mirror to read), then his work also would have failed because it would have defied the conventions of the new medium -- which included expanded accessibility and greater standardization of the presentation of information. Sorry Leonardo, you can't go halfway into the new medium and expect to be taken seriously.
I claim that today's academic publishers and the institutions that uphold them are like my fictional da Vinci, going into the digital age just far enough not to appear utterly out of touch, but essentially clinging to the print paradigm and all the customs and institutions that have grown up around it. Print was a recipe for success from the Enlightenment through the 20th century; today, it is a recipe for the failure of academia as a knowledge system.
And print is persisting online, as ironic as that sounds. The scholarly genres, the methods for evaluating publications, the conventions and expectations surrounding how knowledge is supposed to circulate, be recognized, responded to, and built upon -- these remain largely unchanged. Knowledge has new habits, new identities, and a new social life within the radically transformed ways in which communication takes place today. But you wouldn't know this by examining today's scholarly communications system -- no matter how many journals now offer electronic versions. It's business as usual as far as how publications operate in the academic knowledge and reputation culture. Scholars in 2009 are still publishing as though knowledge works they way that print taught us that it works back in 1709 when print was achieving its monopoly on learned communication.
The print monopoly over knowledge is over. We must have a scholarly communications system configured to the predominant communications medium of the new millennium. This is a frightening prospect, since the new medium threatens the authority of the old, and academics have gotten very used to protecting their authority by controlling learned communication. That control is beginning to slip from their hands, just as it already has from professional journalists, the scholars' cousins. That group has also been very self-assured about their status and authority as information gate keepers. Some of them still write witty invectives against that vast sea of citizen journalists and their silly blogging -- certainly the unwashed many are not capable of conducting bonafide investigative journalism! But the crowds are typing louder than the professional journalists can shout about it. The bloggers are even Dan Rathering the Dan Rathers of the world, exposing the errors of those used to doing the exposing.
Is academia really that much more protected from the masses and their extremely powerful communication tools? Academics who refuse to transform the way they communicate and value information will find, like the professional journalists, that they simply won't play much of a role in the knowledge commons.
Scholars fancy themselves as stewards of knowledge. I claim they are incompetent stewards if they persist in following conventional academic publishing practices. Why? Because those practices now substantially devalue and cheapen all that hard-won knowledge by slowing its release and restricting its circulation. Scholarship today cannot be considered a responsible and responsive knowledge system by continuing to operate upon the assumptions or within the formats and procedures that have characterized print communications. The scholarly monograph may not quite seem as silly as someone hand writing letters to people in the 1700s, but it is going to.
Scholars are about to lose the knowledge franchise by not applying for full digital citizenship. Their tourist visas to cyberspace are going to expire, and no amount of email or electronically-conducted research will be adequate if the academics of tomorrow don't buy into the communications culture of today, fully. The new medium -- young as it is -- has principles and conventions that must be known and obeyed, just as the writers of manuscripts long ago had to learn to abide by the conventions of the print medium if they wanted their knowledge to have the impact that the new medium offered.
For scholarship to gain full citizenship in the digital age, it must become a fully optimized information system. And today, that means scholarly communications must meet at least the following criteria:
- Scholarly communications must be open
- Scholarly communications must be standards-compliant
- Scholarly communications must be syndicated
- Scholarly communications must be Integrated Into the Cyberinfrastructure
- Scholarly communications will transform via Cybermetrics
- Scholarly communications must be mobile, and
- Scholarly communications must be scalable
- Scholarly communications in the Long Tail of knowledge
- Scholarly communications must not wait for peer review
These criteria can make for a robust scholarly information system calibrated to the networked online environment and the communications culture of today. Abiding by them will enable academic publishing to survive and thrive within the emerging knowledge environment; ignoring them will effectively decommission scholarship and disenfranchise its adherents.
I hasten to add that these requisite attributes are not automatic features of electronic communication, online periodicals, or digitized scholarly content. They are also not just the concern of information technologists. They involve technical protocols, but they are based upon philosophies about information that academics must understand, accept, implement, and expect of one another.
These standards are in many ways at odds with the processes and quality control protocols of traditional academic scholarship. Why these criteria matter so much and how they challenge status quo publishing is the subject of this series of posts.
In tomorrow's post, I address the first of these criteria: openness.