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Nicolibrarian explores the secret life of information

Scholarly publishing: what would a do-over look like?

with 8 comments

There to here


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?


Written by nicolibrarian

May 6, 2010 at 7:42 am

8 Responses

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  1. I don’t think we are ever going to be faced with having to do a massive do-over, which I don’t think could be co-ordinated realistically. But I do see change happening by new systems working in harmony with existing systems. For example our Open Notebooks are not indexed on Google Scholar because they don’t index wikis (although Google does index them well). But by periodically distilling our data into PDF books and hosting them on institutional repositories and Nature Precedings – they now are indexed by Google Scholar. Another example – nothing stops us from maintaining Open Notebooks and publishing traditional articles – we just have to pick the right publishers. Over time researchers will use the tools that make the most sense for their purposes without taking undue risk.

    Jean-Claude Bradley

    May 6, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    • Great points, Jean-Claude. The “do-over” was more of a thought exercise for class, but I’m glad to hear that you feel Open Notebooks are working in harmony…I hope so!


      May 6, 2010 at 6:58 pm

  2. Cannot remember right now who said or wrote it but I have come across a statement along the lines of “Don’t waste your time fighting an encrusted system; build a better one instead, and the problem will be solved with time.” I think this advice would apply to the transition “from books to bytes” (as Jonathan Gray put it today at LSWT), and Jean-Claude’s team are pushing things forward in this direction. As to your broader question, I have discussed my ideas about that imaginarium under What would knowledge structuring look like if it were invented today?

    Wikis (and some sort of stable versions, more stable than talk page archives) play an important role in there, and their integration with scientific workflows was the subject of my talk at LSWT.

    Daniel Mietchen

    May 6, 2010 at 7:42 pm

  3. I think being asked to “guest blog” on a site which has a great audience already does serve as a sort of editorial selection, as you seem to allude to in your middle paragraph. There’s already a prestige economy, if you look at a cross-section of the readership of blogs, even if you limit it to the ones written by academics.

    Mr. Gunn

    May 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    • Oh, definitely! The prestige economy is alive and well. I do like how being asked to guest blog is a sort of pre-filtering; being asked to submit to a journal or conference may have the same sort of pre-selection. Heck…even being published now is pre-selection. I suspect that the Internet will result in a a publish-then-filter model (as opposed to the current print model of filter-than-publish). It will be interesting to watch at any rate…


      May 13, 2010 at 1:23 am

  4. I think a do-over would be based around blogs and wikis, like you suggested. A university or publishing company would have professor-bloggers, similar to blogging journalists and newspapers. These professor-bloggers would write about their research topics to get people interested in their work. When they get enough support from fellow professors and the editors from the publishing company, they would submit their paper. Peer-review would be on a university/company wiki, where reviewers would comment of the paper on the discussion page. The professor-blogger would revise his paper on the wiki, the reviewers would give their stamp of approval, and the publishing company would publish the article online.

    Of course, how would anyone make money? There can be two options for subscribing: 1, subscribe to the professor’s blog for a minimal fee; or 2, subscribe to the journal for full price. Say, for example, a small college library wants to subscribe to the journal but they don’t have enough money for a subscription. They could choose the first option and get at least receive snippets of a professor’s research, thought process, bibliography, etc.

    This is, of course, probably not going to happen for the reason you stated early in your post: “path-dependence.” Scholarly communication is stuck in a rut, but nobody can think of a better solution.


    May 11, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    • Thanks for the comment, Kalyna. I hope that as emerging librarians we will indeed be able to think up better solutions!


      May 13, 2010 at 1:23 am

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