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Monday, April 23, 2007

Scholarly communication moving toward mass-market blog-like tools

David Rosenthal has blogged some notes and reflections on the NSF/JISC Repositories Workshop (Phoenix, April 17-19, 2007).  Excerpt:

In his perceptive position paper for the workshop, Don Waters cites a fascinating paper by Harley et al. entitled "The Influence of Academic Values on Scholarly Publication and Communication Practices". I'd like to focus on two aspects of the Harley et al paper:

  • They describe a split between "in-process" communication which is rapid, flexible, innovative and informal, and "archival" communication. The former is more important in establishing standing in a field, where the latter is more important in establishing standing in an institution....[PS:  Omitting the second aspect here.]

In retrospect, I believe Malcolm Read made the most important observation of the workshop when he warned about the coming generational change in the scholarly community, to a generation which has never known a world without Web-based research and collaboration tools....

I'd like to try to connect these aspects to Malcolm's warnings....In my presentation I used as an example of "Web 2.0 scholarship" a post by Stuart Staniford, a computer scientist, to The Oil Drum blog, a forum for discussion of "peak oil" among a diverse group of industry professionals and interested outsiders, like Stuart. See comments and a follow-on post for involvement of industry insiders.

[M]y own basic

Blogs are bringing the tools of scholarly communication to the mass market, and with the leverage the mass market gives the technology, may well overwhelm the traditional forms.

Why is it that Stuart feels 2-3 times as productive doing "blog-science"? Based on my blog experience of reading (a lot) and writing (a little) I conjecture as follows:

  • The process is much faster. A few hours to a few days to create a post, then a few hours of intensive review, then a day or two in which the importance of the reviewed work becomes evident as other blogs link to it. Stuart's comment came 9 hours into a process that accumulated 217 comments in 30 hours. Contrast this with the ponderous pace of traditional academic communication.
  • The process is much more transparent. The entire history of the review is visible to everyone, in a citable and searchable form. Contrast this with the confidentiality-laden process of traditional scholarship.
  • Priority is obvious. All contributions are time-stamped, so disputes can be resolved objectively and quickly....
  • The process is meritocratic. Participation is open to all, not restricted to those chosen by mysterious processes that hide agendas. Participants may or may not be pseudonymous but their credibility is based on the visible record. Participants put their reputation on the line every time they post. The credibility of the whole blog depends on the credibility and frequency of other blogs linking to it - in other words the same measures applied to traditional journals, but in real time with transparency.
  • Equally, the process is error-tolerant....Because the penalty for error is lower, participants can afford to take more creative risk.
  • The process is both cooperative and competitive....
  • Review can be both broad and deep. Staniford says "The ability for anyone in the world, with who knows what skill set and knowledge base, to suddenly show up ... is just an amazing thing". And the review is about the written text, not about the formal credentials of the reviewers.
  • Good reviewing is visibly rewarded. Participants make their reputations not just by posting, but by commenting on posts. Its as easy to assess the quality of a participant reviews as to assess their authorship; both are visible in the public record.

Returning to the Harley et al. paper's observations, it is a commonplace that loyalty to employers is decreasing, with people expecting to move jobs frequently and often involuntarily. Investing in your own skills and success makes more sense than investing in the success of your (temporary) employer. Why would we be surprised that junior faculty and researchers are reluctant to put effort into institutional repositories for no visible benefit except to the institution?

More generally, it is likely that as the mechanisms for establishing standing in the field diverge from those for establishing standing in the institution, investment will focus on standing in the field as being more portable, and more likely to be convertible into standing in their next host institution.

It is also very striking how many of the problems of scholarly communication are addressed by Staniford's blog-science....

Why did arXiv arise? It was a reaction to a process so slow as to make work inefficient. Successive young generations lack patience with slow processes; they will work around processes they see as too slow just as the arXiv pioneers did. Note that once arXiv became institutionalized, it ceased to evolve and is now in danger of losing relevance as newer technologies with the leverage of the mass market overtake it....Almost nothing in the workshop was about speeding up the scholarly process, so almost everything we propose will probably get worked around and become irrelevant....

[H]ere's my prediction for the way future scholars will communicate. The entire process, from lab notebook to final publication, will use the same mass-market blog-like tools that everyone uses for everyday cooperation. Everything will be public, citable, searchable, accessible by automated scholarly tools, time-stamped and immutable. The big problem will not be preservation, because the mass-market blog-like platforms will treat the scholarly information as among the most valuable of their business assets. It will be more credible, and thus more used, and thus generate more income, than less refined content. The big problem will be a more advanced version of the problems currently plaguing blogs, such as spam, abusive behavior, and deliberate subversion. But, again, since the mass-market systems have these problems too, scholars will simply use the mass-market solutions.