Image by kevinzhengli via Flickr
This is my eighth post in a series on how scholarly communications must transform. In this post, I explain that scholarship in the digital age must be scalable. As in my earlier post urging the integration of scholarship into the cyberinfrastructure, I am again pressing for scholars to recognize that the way their work is digitally mediated makes all the difference to its significance.
Scalability has become an absolutely necessary attribute for technological information systems today. I'm claiming that this trait is of equal importance for the information system that is scholarship. Here is the bottom line: As digital modes of communicating knowledge edge out the print-based publishing, any learned communication that is not made to scale will shrink in its audiences and relevance, whereas scholarship that embraces scalability will be far more dynamic, flexible, and responsive -- a manifestly superior mode of knowledge.
So, what is scalability? In computer systems, scalability refers to whether a system can throttle data according to the dynamics of online demand. For example, Twitter, the microblogging system, stumbled early on because its infrastructure was not scaling. New users flooded Twitter faster than servers could be set up to handle them, and for a time Twitter was in danger of dying precisely because it was catching on. If it had not corrected for scaling, it would not be rising in use and importance. Businesses like Amazon and online services like those offered by Google have had to learn to scale to accommodate rapid growth. Must scholarship learn to scale, too?
Resistance to Scaling Up
Curiously, even though scholarly publishing is very much a business, and business most often thrives on increasing and meeting demand, accommodating demand is not what scholarly publishing is about. In fact, academic quality is in part measured by scholarly publishing NOT scaling up to any significant degree of demand.
For example, linguist Deborah Tannen faced the curious problem of losing face with her peers in the field of discourse analysis when her academic study (You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation) became a popular hit in the trade market. As soon as a scholar's work moves from those $100 copies of cloth bound library monographs to $10 trade paperbacks, it isn't seen as actually being serious scholarship anymore. Selling 200 to 2,000 copies of a scholarly monograph (mostly to libraries) is a scholarly success; selling 20,000 to 200,000 copies of a book removes it from the category of scholarship altogether. A popular title is something vulgar, tied more to commerce or the fleeting plaudits of celebrity than to intellectual rigor.
Sure, there are a few scholars like Oliver Sacks who manage to keep their mortar board and gain a broad following, but by and large, as academics see it, serious intellectual work is no longer serious if it scales up to significantly larger audiences. Of course, every academic press would love to see sales of their scholarly books double. But if those sales went up by a power of 10 (much less 100), it would be as devastating to the press as losing its university underwriting. The authority of traditional scholarship is tied to its not scaling. Ironically, traditional scholarly publishing is a knowledge system that succeeds only if it fails -- with the masses, that is.
Traditional scholarly publishing is just as resistant to scaling for production as it is for distribution. There is an ever increasing demand for scholars to publish, but academic journals must not scale up to meet that demand even if they had the manpower to do so. This is because not meeting demand for publication has become one of the main badges of scholarly quality.
Here's how it works. If a journal turns away 99% of submissions, then the 1% that do get published must be all the more superior in quality. All of those rejected submissions -- whose quantity or quality are never open for any public verification -- somehow elevate the journal's scholarly reputation by implying editorial rigor. In order for a journal's or a press's reputation to remain intact, it must be able to advertise an ongoing unmet demand for publication. Otherwise, what does end up getting published will lack the varnish coming from selectivity. Among academics evaluating one another's publications, rejection rates for journals and presses are quoted with as much authority as journal Impact Factors. Like Impact Factor, and quite contrary to scientific principles, rejection rates are not verifiable. Similar to the black-box algorithm of Impact Factor, rejection rates only work in the dark.
The bottom line here is that traditional scholarly publishing is inherently opposed to scaling because the authority of scholarly products correlates to their scarcity -- both how scarcely they are distributed to their special audiences, and how scarcely scholarly works are approved for publication. Traditional scholarship is scarcity knowledge -- its authority is based on lots of knowledge NOT being published, lots of copies NOT being made, lots of audiences NOT being addressed, or money NOT being made. If any of those scarcity factors is displaced, the scholar's or the journal's reputation is threatened.
Universities whine at the high cost of subsidizing the publication of academic books, but if university presses were profitable, their editorial motives would be suspect. Scholars whine at the lack of publishing outlets for scholarship, but they turn around and use the very difficulty of getting published as hard currency in proving their own or others' scholarly reputations. It makes one wonder at all the hand wringing that comes with the closing of another academic press; after all, press closures only increase the scarcity -- and thus the value -- of the surviving publications within this elite enterprise. No wonder the system is cracking; it not only can't scale, but it won't. To reach a broader public or to scale up the number of publications would undermine the exclusivity that only scarcity provides. The scarcity-as-quality model is a terrible one for spreading or improving ideas (and terribly unnecessary today), but traditionalists can conceive of no other way. The ship may be listing hard to port, but most everyone stays on board since it has become the only acceptable passage to the safe harbor of authoritative academic knowledge.
Being married to the scarcity model of knowledge has resulted in many academics responding unfavorably to Open Access publishing and trembling at the very prospect of unchaperoned information. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article uses fear mongering to question Open Access: "By making the products of research freely available to anyone," worries Peter Schmidt, "it increases the risk that knowledge will fall into the hands of unintended audiences that could misuse it." Opposition to Open Access sometimes takes this ethical approach, as though somehow if scholars have the self control not to turn loose shoddy ideas on the public, then the public will somehow follow suit.
But the information vacuum academics leave in the public sphere does not remain unfilled. When the public is teased by turning up search results to scholarly sources they cannot directly and fully access, they simply turn to those unvetted sources that are a click away. Scholars are learning the hard way that knowledge that is available for use becomes superior to the knowledge that is kept from use, regardless of any validating procedures that more restricted knowledge may have undergone. Fenced behind an access wall, such scholarship has a DO NOT USE ME sign on it, regardless of having passed rigorous peer review. This is a very strong reason why scholarship must be able to scale. Without intellectual liquidity, intellectual quality is a moot issue. If scholarship does not retool itself to scale up to the attention and active use of the masses, it is essentially making itself invisible and irrelevant. Closed knowledge systems are doomed in an online world whose most valued assets play to openness. Closed doesn't scale.
Knowledge Improves with Circulation!
Scarcity and exclusiveness have bought a lot of prestige for scholars, but perhaps at the expense of that very knowledge that learned publishing was established to preserve and promote.
There is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of Philosophical Matters, than the communicating — [of] such things as are discovered or put in practice by others; it is therefore thought fit to employ the Press. -- Henry Oldenburg, 1665
So said the secretary of London's Royal Society within the first English academic journal, Philosophical Transactions. A new medium had presented itself to that fledgling group of scientists. Print publication would leap past the limits of handwritten reports, speeding discovery, and broadening the number of interested parties who could extend, refute, and refine others' work. Remnants of those original purposes remain in today's system, but if Oldenburg were alive today he would wonder at our reluctance to embrace another medium promising a similar leap forward. The exponentially faster speeds of digital communication have put into high relief the fact that print publishing methods of knowledge production -- even when used to produce electronic publications -- impede that rapid flow and interchange of thought always accepted as a primary condition for the better evolution of ideas.
So ossified and sluggish is the reigning communications methods for scholars that they have ironically violated the primary article of faith for learned communication: the improvement and utility of knowledge correlates directly with how broadly, quickly, and interactively it circulates. People have been arguing for the free marketplace of ideas since the Enlightenment or earlier (Milton's Areopagitica comes to mind). That marketplace is being reinvigorated through the Internet, and it's poised for adding exponentially more value to ideas because of the new digital tools for intelligently finding, sifting, and gathering information. These tools include metadata, recommendation systems, social bookmarking, ranking algorithms, data harvesters, data mining, data visualization, simulations, virtualizations, telepresence, and hosts of others to come that have no real counterpart in the print world.
Knowledge online is smarter today, and getting smarter by the day. And that's great news! Scholarship is able to scale today as never before because it can benefit from the robust searching, distributing, and sharing methods available to all digital content. Because of the vitally social nature of online communication, the digital realm can suddenly propagate mass attention to something through word of mouth. Of course this mass attention can go to a video clip of a cat swinging from a ceiling fan, but academic work CAN go viral. Anthropologist Michael Wesch can attest to this, with nearly 10 million views of his Web 2.0 video. Did this sudden, massive attention hurt Kansas State or Wesch's own reputation? No, it put digital anthropology on the map in a major way and led to Wesch being recognized nationally for his teaching. His video was not scholarly publishing of any traditional variety, but he succeeded in moving the conversation forward in ways that a hundred peer reviewed articles about digitial anthropology never could. It also had a halo effect for Wesch's more traditional publishing, his students, and his university.
But scholarship need not go viral for it to scale up meaningfully. Part of this simply means being prepared for bigger, more diverse audiences. Once scholars realize that their work is actually being read, commented upon, and actively integrated into current discussions, they may find it both profitable and enjoyable to ready their thinking for more than fellow specialists. Scaling up means scaling out to those audiences. This should change the way scholarship is conceived of, conducted, packaged, and valued.
The likelihood of a broadened audience for one's intellectual work will naturally align scholarship more with civic involvement (see my post on scholars as public intellectuals), with real-world applications, and of course, with teaching. Many academic purists are above tainting their research with pedagogical or civic concerns, but universities fighting for the relevance of their intellectual products and purporting to promote teaching or life-long learning shouldn't be turning a blind eye to ways that scholarship can be mediated to the masses. Scaling up scholarship means anticipating both the work and benefits attending a more diverse readership.
Obviously I'm talking about scalability in broader terms than simply a broadened distribution for scholarly work. Scalable scholarship will be that sort of communication readied to do and be more things in more places with more people than the dignified but static output of traditional publishing. Embracing scalability means rethinking rhetorical approaches, rethinking when and how one's research circulates online, rethinking how we measure progress and contributions. It means being willing to scale outward to new forms of communication and collaboration. It means not keeping one's scholarship scaled back to the tight borders of print-based communication or print-based ways of authoring or evaluating intellectual work.
Thus far I've only spoken abut scalability in terms of it scaling upward or outward, broadening its audiences, its scope, and its appeal. But it is important to note that scalability also refers to a system's ability to down-throttle, to accommodate low loads. Serving low demand is just as vital to having a robust information system as gearing up for higher demand. This may seem paradoxical, but it's all part of integrating scholarship -- of the past, present, and future -- into the Long Tail dynamics of online attention. This I will explain in my next post, Scholarly Communications must serve the Long Tail of Knowledge.