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Monday, June 11, 2007

Scholarly authority in a world of scholarly abundance and OA

Michael Jensen, The New Metrics of Scholarly Authority, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2007 (accessible only to subscribers).  Michael Jensen is the director of strategic Web communications for the US National Academies.  Excerpt:

When the system of scholarly communications was dependent on the physical movement of information goods, we did business in an era of information scarcity. As we become dependent on the digital movement of information goods, we find ourselves entering an era of information abundance. In the process, we are witnessing a radical shift in how we establish authority, significance, and even scholarly validity. That has major implications for, in particular, the humanities and social sciences....

In Web 1.0, roughly 1992 to 2002, authoritative, quality information was still cherished: Content was king. Presumed scarce, it was intrinsically valuable....

Web 2.0, roughly 2002 through today, takes more for granted: It presumes the majority of users will have broadband, with unlimited, always-on access, and few barriers to participation. Indeed, it encourages participation, what O'Reilly calls "harnessing collective intelligence." Its fundamental presumption is one of endless information abundance....

Imagine you're a member of a prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribe on the Serengeti. It's a dry, flat ecosystem with small pockets of richness distributed here and there. Food is available, but it requires active pursuit  the running down of game, and long periodic hikes to where the various roots and vegetables grow. The shaman knows the medicinal plants, and where they grow. That is part of how shamanic authority is retained: specialized knowledge of available resources, and the skill to pursue those resources and use them. Hunting and gathering are expensive in terms of the energy they take, and require both skill and knowledge. The members of the tribe who are admired, and have authority, are those who are best at gathering, returning, and providing for the benefit of the tribe. That is an authority model based on scarcity.

Contrast that with the world now: For most of us, acquiring food is hardly the issue. We use food as fuel, mostly finding whatever is least objectionable to have for lunch, and coming home and making a quick dinner. Some of us take the time to creatively combine flavors, textures, and colors to make food more than just raw materials. They are the cooks, and...among cooks, the best are chefs, the most admired authorities on food around. Chefs simply couldn't exist in a world of universal scarcity.

I think we're speeding  yes, speeding  toward a time when scholarship, and how we make it available, will be affected by information abundance just as powerfully as food preparation has been....

But right now we're still living with the habits of information scarcity because that's what we have had for hundreds of years. Scholarly communication before the Internet required the intermediation of publishers. The costliness of publishing became an invisible constraint that drove nearly all of our decisions. It became the scholar's job to be a selector and interpreter of difficult-to-find primary and secondary sources; it was the scholarly publisher's job to identify the best scholars with the best perspective and the best access to scarce resources....Fundamentally, scholarly authority was about exclusivity in a world of scarce resources....

[PS:  Here omitting much fascinating detail.]

What are the implications for the future of scholarly communications and scholarly authority? First, consider the preconditions for scholarly success in Authority 3.0. They include the digital availability of a text for indexing (but not necessarily individual access  see Google for examples of journals that are indexed, but not otherwise available); the digital availability of the full text for referencing, quoting, linking, tagging; and the existence of metadata of some kind that identifies the document, categorizes it, contextualizes it, summarizes it, and perhaps provides key phrases from it, while also allowing others to enrich it with their own comments, tags, and contextualizing elements.

In the very near future, if we're talking about a universe of hundreds of billions of documents, there will routinely be thousands, if not tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of documents that are very similar to any new document published on the Web. If you are writing a scholarly article about the trope of smallpox in Shakespearean drama, how do you ensure you'll be read? By competing in computability.

Encourage your friends and colleagues to link to your online document. Encourage online back-and-forth with interested readers. Encourage free access to much or all of your scholarly work. Record and digitally archive all your scholarly activities. Recognize others' works via links, quotes, and other online tips of the hat. Take advantage of institutional repositories, as well as open-access publishers. The list could go on....

The thornier question is what Web 3.0 bodes for those scholarly publishers. It's entirely possible that, in the not-so-distant future, academic publishing as we know it will disappear. It's also possible that, to survive, publishers will discover new business models we haven't thought of yet. But it's past time that scholarly publishers started talking seriously about new models, whatever they turn out to be  instead of putting their heads in the sand and fighting copyright-infringement battles of yesteryear.

I also don't know whether many, or most, scholarly publishers will be able to adapt to the challenge. But I think that those who completely lock their material behind subscription walls risk marginalizing themselves over the long term. They simply won't be counted in the new authority measures. They need to cooperate with some of the new search sites and online repositories, share their data with outside computing systems....

I hope it's clear that I'm not saying we're just around the corner from a revolutionary Web in which universities, scholarship, scholarly publishing, and even expertise are merely a function of swarm intelligences....

But make no mistake: The new metrics of authority will be on the rise. And 10 to 15 years isn't so very long in a scholarly career. Perhaps most important, if scholarly output is locked away behind fire walls, or on hard drives, or in print only, it risks becoming invisible to the automated Web crawlers, indexers, and authority-interpreters that are being developed. Scholarly invisibility is rarely the path to scholarly authority.