Scholarly publishing: what would a do-over look like?
In the January 2009 Atul Gawande wrote Getting There from Here, a piece in the New Yorker about health care reform. In it, he explored how “path-dependence,” in the social science sense, makes reform harder. Despite our most idealized visions of a health care system we could build, had we only a clean slate, what has happened in the past so tethers us down that it becomes hard to see how to get from here (a broken system) to there (that shiny utopian system). It seems so obvious and stupid sounding at first: “the past impacts the present,” but whenever I am frustrated with an old system, it does me good to remember Gawande’s analysis, and path dependence. I find this paradigm shockingly relevant in several areas – old friendships, website redesign, or pondering the craziness that is scholarly communication. There is value in envisioning an idealized new system; but once those ideal plans are drafted, one has to in some ways let go, step back, and try to think about how to get there from here.
In my current issues in collection development class, we were challenged to think about scholarly communication. Let’s pretend we were unencumbered by history, and Universities and research was just starting up today: how would scholarly communication be changed?
Before I jump in to the imaginarium, a brief bit about scholarly communication. I’ve written about it before, but it is a complex system with vagaries of all sorts, especially variable from discipline to discipline. If you happen to be an academic and feel so moved to tell us about how scholarly communication works in your part of the world, please leave a comment. (The comment link is at the top of this post, not the bottom.) I’d also like to acknowledge the 2007 Ithaka report University Publishing in the Digital Age by Laura Brown, Rebecca Griffiths and Matthew Rascoff, a far better written, researched, and more authoritative rendering than I can do here.
If scholarly communication were starting today, it would be able to take into account contemporary information communications technology, like blogs, wikis, open notebook science, social networking, and functionality like rating, commenting, and group editing (such as you might find on a comment page in Wikipedia). Instead of print journals and their concomicant, long timelines from solicitation, through peer review, to publication, scholars could publish independently on blogs. In the prestige economy, however, there would likely still be a desire for editorial control and peer review. Processes could be managed entirely online: authors upoload content, editors review, publishing staff send electronic invitations to reviewers, reviewers remarks are saved and viewed by the original author who makes changes, publication happens online. This builds off today’s model of scholarly communication, only mediated by CMS or other publishing technology.
More interestingly, technology could enable different and transformed kinds of scholarly communication. The process of peer review could be opened up entirely, where “preprints” (which would need to be renamed, obviously) could be published and then articles both ranked and commented upon; author revisions could then be “finalized” and the process archived like a Wikipedia talk page (can you tell I like that example?). And yet this still doesn’t go far enough – what if technology was moved “upstream” in the scholarly process, where scholars were collaborating in wikis and other computer-supported collaborative environments? Would the concept of the journal article even continue to persist?
The practice of scholarly communication, were it to be built over, would have to take into account not only scholarly process but the tenure review processes that reward scholars, and what counts as “work,” and how those committees know that said “work” is valuable. And goodness, that’s enough right there to make anyone’s head spin…
What do you think? What would you change, imagine, or hope for if the world got one big “do over” when it comes to scholarly communication?