The Long Tail is a vital concept for understanding attention dynamics in the digital age; it will be as vital for scholarship as it is already becoming for online business. The specialty knowledge of scholarship is ideally suited to the power curve distribution of the Long Tail, as I will explain, but unfortunately, academia's entrenched communication system isolates and slows the ready circulation of information so fundamental to Long Tail dynamics. This must change; scholarship must be retooled for the Long Tail of knowledge.
This is my ninth post in a series on how scholarly communications must transform. In my prior post, on why scholarly communications must be scalable, I stated that scholarship, like all information systems today, should be dynamically scalable, ready to answer both high and low demand. The Long Tail provides a context for understanding why playing to this dynamic is so critical.
Scaling the Long Tail of Knowledge
The concept of the Long Tail is based on the Economy of Abundance that is so manifest on the Internet. Like anything else digital, online knowledge can and should follow Long Tail dynamics, or a power curve distribution. If scholarly communication isn't made to scale (downwards as well as upwards), then academia effectively opts out of the attention dynamics of the Internet that increasingly brings low-demand items out of obscurity and into renewed relevance.
As Chris Anderson has articulated, the power curve distribution for cultural products has traditionally favored the very small percentage of "hits" that make big money for corporations. However, the Internet is rapidly bringing attention and value to the other part of that power curve -- the Long Tail of less popular items trailing far off to the right on the graph. Nowadays, there is almost unlimited life to those many minor products that don't get the big hype and big bucks. Amazon can afford to keep for sale the most obscure books, and profitably so, since each year more and more consumers are making their way down the Long Tail, finding niche and specialty products that would never have had sales volumes high enough to justify staying in print before the digital age.
The Long Tail phenomenon is great news for scholars, or could be, anyway. It could overcome constraining limits of current scholarly publishing, which does not throttle up very well in response to demand. In my last post I explained that in the knowledge economy of academia, demand for consumption does not drive things so much as the drive for production -- to the point that a high demand for scholarly work is not desirable because this would undercut perceived quality. There is a certain sense to this, though I argued that scholarship only stands to win by enlarging its audience.
But what about throttling down to accommodate low demand? How does the established publishing system do there? Being ready for low demand is just as important as for high -- and arguably more so, since there will still be very limited numbers within any field that capture a majority of available interest. This is why I said earlier that academia could be very ideally suited to the Long Tail, since scholarship is all about specialties and sub-specialties, the few addressing the few.
Well, it turns out that scholarly publishing can only do so much in the way of speciality publishing, and the trend is very much away from niche items to more general works (at least at academic presses, pressed by tough economic times). Because academic publishing truly is a business, editors have had to get more and more realistic about the bottom line. Even at specialty journals which never expect large circulation numbers, not every worthy manuscript finds an outlet. The closure of academic presses and reduced numbers of venues for scholarship has meant that many studies go unpublished that could have been if the economics of publishing were better.
A case in point is the work of Paul F. Gehl, a respected scholar stationed at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I relied on Professor Gehl's study of the Renaissance when writing my dissertation, and was aghast when he reported to me that his recent book manuscript, about school books in Renaissance Italy, was among those manuscripts that a publisher applauded yet turned down because the anticipated sales volume made publishing Gehl's work too much of an economic risk. Happily, he has put his book online, effectively skirting the inadequate academic publishing system. It is easy to see that when one is dependent upon dead-tree economics, there are definitely lower limits to what can be published.
(I hasten to insert here that this problem of not meeting legitimate low demand for quality scholarship highlights a fundamental weakness in traditional scholarly publishing. Purportedly, the limited number of things that can be published correlates with those works chosen for their quality to be published. Academia has sworn by these Darwinian knowledge dynamics for a long time. But as Gehl's case underscores, the fittest aren't always able to survive. Academic organizations increasingly acknowledge the problem of there being more demand for the production of scholarship and more scholarship submitted than can be realistically vetted in traditional ways. In other words, the gap between what could profitably circulate in publication and what actually does circulate widens by the day. This creates a credibility gap in the extant system, since scholars are justly frustrated at good work not getting "out there" or published in a timely way. More on this on my next post.)
Of course, digital formats won't solve every problem, but as online journals discover they are not bound by many of the limits of print, they will better service the Long Tail of knowledge by giving unlimited life to works of limited interest. That is one of the great features of the Long Tail. In academic terms, publishing and archiving become increasingly the same enterprise. Ideally, all that is published becomes widely and permanently available, ready to be found by readers well outside the minor set of fellow specialists who are contemporary with the author. What's more, the Long Tail is a kind of faith in the inherent interest of knowledge. It turns out that if there is broad and easy access to scholarship, most works end up attracting more interested readers than first supposed. This fact is born out by the success of institutional repositories now adding legacy scholarship to their archives. To their surprise, these old but newly exposed studies are being consulted and downloaded far more often than ever anticipated. If you publish it right (through standards compliance), the readers will come. They are already there.
There truly is a market for all the hyper-specialization of academia, and Long Tail dynamics promise available attention not only for minor subjects, but for older works, works in other languages, and works in more diverse formats. The abundance economy favors variety, and this suggests that another key aspect of scholarly scalability is scaling outward into more diverse ways of representing information. So long as content is marked up for semantic recognition and social interactivity, then serious knowledge can be of radically different lengths, rhetorical approaches, and media -- well beyond what has been possible within traditional academic publishing. The Long Tail extends not only down the permutations of content, but outward along the permutations of form. Intellectuals ought to be thrilled at the prospect of infinitely expanding the possibilities for both the content and the forms of knowledge with an intellectual economy of abundance.
As an added bonus, we will see that Long Tail Knowledge brings the worlds of scholarship and education closer together. As learned communication takes its place alongside teaching media, electronic textbooks, online laboratories, simulations, etc., a productive relationship can be developed between trained specialists and those less mature in inquiry. That might be seen as a problem to professors accustomed to hiding from students so they can conduct their research in peace, but this is but one of several important ways in which learned communication must learn that it should not hide from its many publics, including the republic of students.
Right now, however, the old school reigns, even when many journals are online. Scholarly publications may be online, but the knowledge they believe profits so much from being published will not be seriously public, not subject to all the benefits of Long Tail dynamics, if its agents choose to retain those many restrictions and controls that isolate and slow the flow of knowledge (see my prior posts on open access and on the lack of liquidity in academic knowledge).
In my next post I will return to my discussion of scalability -- not on the distribution or consumption end of academic publishing, but on the production end. There I will argue that Scholarly Communications must not wait for Peer Review. I hope you return for it. Of course, I've put peer review in the crosshairs previously, but after presenting at the recent International Symposium on Peer Reviewing, I had a huge epiphany about this central component to scholarship that I'm very eager to share.