Category Archives: Scholarly Communication

Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values

[A contribution to the Hacking the Academy book project. Tom Scheinfeldt and I are crowdsourcing the content of that book in one week.]

In my post The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, I noted that there is a supply side and a demand side to scholarly communication:

The supply side is the creation of scholarly works, including writing, peer review, editing, and the form of publication. The demand side is much more elusive—the mental state of the audience that leads them to “buy” what the supply side has produced. In order for the social contract to work, for engaged reading to happen and for credit to be given to the author (or editor of a scholarly collection), both sides need to be aligned properly.

I would now like to analyze and influence that critical mental state of the scholar by appealing to four emotions and values, to try both to increase the supply of open access scholarship and to prod scholars to be more receptive to scholarship that takes place outside of the traditional publishing system.

1. Impartiality

In my second year in college I had one of those late-night discussions where half-baked thoughts are exchanged and everyone tries to impress each other with how smart and hip they are. A sophomoric gabfest, literally and figuratively. The conversation inevitably turned to music. I reeled off the names of bands I thought would get me the most respect. Another, far more mature student then said something that caught everyone off guard: “Well, to be honest, I just like good music.” We all laughed—and then realized how true that statement was. And secretly, we all did like a wide variety of music, from rock to bluegrass to big band jazz.

Upon reflection, many of the best things we discover in scholarship—and life—are found in this way: by disregarding popularity and packaging and approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies or art schools. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”

Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals, blogs or articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or non-narrative digital projects.

2. Passion

Do you get up in the morning wondering what journal you’re going to publish in next or how you’re going to spend your $10 royalty check? Neither do I, nor do most scholars. We wake up with ideas swirling around inside our head about the topic we’re currently thinking about, and the act of writing is a way to satisfy our obsession and communicate our ideas to others. Being a scholar is an affliction of which scholarship is a symptom. If you’re publishing primarily for careerist reasons and don’t deeply care about your subject matter, let me recommend you find another career.

The entire commercial apparatus of the existing publishing system merely leeches on our scholarly passion and the writing that passion inevitably creates. The system is far from perfect for maximizing the spread of our ideas, not to mention the economic bind it has put our institutions in. If you were designing a system of scholarly communication today, in the age of the web, would it look like the one we have today? Disparage bloggers all you like, but they control their communication platform, the outlet for their passion, and most scholars and academic institutions don’t.

3. Shame

This spring Ithaka, the nonprofit that runs JSTOR and that has a research wing to study the transition of academia into the digital age, put out a report based on their survey of faculty in 2009. The report has two major conclusions. First, scholars are increasingly using online resources like Google Books as a starting point for their research rather than the physical library. That is, they have become comfortable in certain respects with “going digital.”

But at the same time the Ithaka report notes that they remain stubbornly wedded to their old ways when it comes to using the digital realm for the composition and communication of their research. In other words, somehow it is finally seeming acceptable to use digital media and technology for parts of our work but to resist it in others.

This divide is striking. The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when it comes to scholarly communication. Look carefully at this damning chart from the Ithaka report:

Any faculty member who looks at this chart should feel ashamed. We professors care less about sharing our work—even with underprivileged nations that cannot afford access to gated resources—than with making sure we impress our colleagues. Indeed, there was actually a sharp drop in professors who cared about open access between 2003 and the present.

This would be acceptable, I suppose, if we understood ourselves to be ruthless, bottom-line driven careerists. But that’s not the caring educators we often pretend to be. Humanities scholars in particular have taken pride in the last few decades in uncovering and championing the voices of those who are less privileged and powerful, but here we are in the ivory tower, still preferring to publish in ways that separate our words from those of the unwashed online masses.

We can’t even be bothered to share our old finished articles, already published and our reputation suitably burnished, by putting them in an open institutional repository:

I honestly can’t think of any other way to read these charts than as shameful hypocrisy.

4. Narcissism

The irony of this situation is that in the long run it very well may be better for the narcissistic professor in search of reputation to publish in open access venues. When scholars do the cost-benefit analysis about where to publish, they frequently think about the reputation of the journal or press. That’s the reason many scholars consider open access venues to be inferior, because they do not (yet) have the same reputation as the traditional closed-access publications.

But in their cost-benefit calculus they often forget to factor in the hidden costs of publishing in a closed way. The largest hidden cost is the invisibility of what you publish. When you publish somewhere that is behind gates, or in paper only, you are resigning all of that hard work to invisibility in the age of the open web. You may reach a few peers in your field, but you miss out on the broader dissemination of your work, including to potential other fans.

The dirty little secret about open access publishing is that despite the fact that although you may give up a line in your CV (although not necessarily), your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars (and the general public), can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be easily linked to from other websites and social media (rather than producing the dreaded “Sorry, this is behind a paywall”).

Let me be utterly narcissistic for a moment. As of this writing this blog has 2,300 subscribers. That’s 2,300 people who have actively decided that they would like to know when I have something new to say. Thousands more read this blog on my website every month, and some of my posts, such as “Is Google Good for History?“, garner tens of thousands of readers. That’s more readers than most academic journals.

I suppose I could have spent a couple of years finding traditional homes for longer pieces such as “Is Google Good for History?” and gotten some supposedly coveted lines on my CV. But I would have lost out on the accumulated reputation from a much larger mass of readers, including many within the academy in a variety of disciplines beyond history.

* * *

When the mathematician Grigori Perelman solved one of the greatest mathematical problems in history, the Poincaré conjecture, he didn’t submit his solution to a traditional journal. He simply posted it to an open access website and let others know about it. For him, just getting the knowledge out there was enough, and the mathematical community responded in kind by recognizing and applauding his work for what it was. Supply and demand intersected; scholarship was disseminated and credited without fuss over venue, and the results could be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

Is it so hard to imagine this as a more simple—and virtuous—model for the future of scholarly communication?

One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy

[Reblogged from the THATCamp website. Please note that you don’t need to be a THATCamper to participate. We are soliciting submissions from everyone, worldwide. Join us by writing something in the next week, or if you’ve already written something you think deserves to be included, let us know!]

Tom Scheinfeldt and I have been brewing a proposal for an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy. Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp this weekend. And let’s do it in one week.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As recently as the mid-2000s, questions like these would have been unthinkable. But today serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being <em>hacked</em>. Sympathetic scholars of traditionally disparate disciplines are cancelling their association memberships and building their own networks on Facebook and Twitter. Journals are being compiled automatically from self-published blog posts. Newly-minted Ph.D.’s are foregoing the tenure track for alternative academic careers that blur the lines between research, teaching, and service. Graduate students are looking beyond the categories of the traditional C.V. and building expansive professional identities and popular followings through social media. Educational technologists are “punking” established technology vendors by rolling their own open source infrastructure.

“Hacking the Academy” will both explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millenium. Contributors can write on these topics, which will form chapters:

  • Lectures and classrooms
  • Scholarly societies
  • Conferences and meetings
  • Journals
  • Books and monographs
  • Tenure and academic employment
  • Scholarly Identity and the CV
  • Departments and disciplines
  • Educational technology
  • Libraries

In keeping with the spirit of hacking, the book will itself be an exercise in reimagining the edited volume. Any blog post, video response, or other media created for the volume and tweeted (or tagged) with the hashtag #hackacad will be aggregated at hackingtheacademy.org. The best pieces will go into the published volume (we are currently in talks with a publisher to do an open access version of this final volume). The volume will also include responses such as blog comments and tweets to individual pieces. If you’ve already written something that you would like included, that’s fine too, just be sure to tweet or tag it (or email us the link to where it’s posted).

You have until midnight on May 28, 2010. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: [5/23/10] 48 hours in, we have 65 contributions to the book. There’s a running list of contributions.

The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing

When Roy Rosenzweig and I finished writing a full draft of our book Digital History, we sat down at a table and looked at the stack of printouts.

“So, what now?” I said to Roy naively. “Couldn’t we just publish what we have on the web with the click of a button? What value does the gap between this stack and the finished product have? Isn’t it 95% done? What’s the last five percent for?”

We stared at the stack some more.

Roy finally broke the silence, explaining the magic of the last stage of scholarly production between the final draft and the published book: “What happens now is the creation of the social contract between the authors and the readers. We agree to spend considerable time ridding the manuscript of minor errors, and the press spends additional time on other corrections and layout, and readers respond to these signals—a lack of typos, nicely formatted footnotes, a bibliography, specialized fonts, and a high-quality physical presentation—by agreeing to give the book a serious read.”

I have frequently replayed that conversation in my mind, wondering about the constitution of this social contract in scholarly publishing, which is deeply related to questions of academic value and reward.

For the ease of conversation, let’s call the two sides of the social contract of scholarly publishing the supply side and the demand side. The supply side is the creation of scholarly works, including writing, peer review, editing, and the form of publication. The demand side is much more elusive—the mental state of the audience that leads them to “buy” what the supply side has produced. In order for the social contract to work, for engaged reading to happen and for credit to be given to the author (or editor of a scholarly collection), both sides need to be aligned properly.

The social contract of the book is profoundly entrenched and powerful—almost mythological—especially in the humanities. As John Updike put it in his diatribe against the digital (and most humanities scholars and tenure committees would still agree), “The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.”

As academic projects have experimented with the web over the past two decades we have seen intense thinking about the supply side. Robust academic work has been reenvisioned in many ways: as topical portals, interactive maps, deep textual databases, new kinds of presses, primary source collections, and even software. Most of these projects strive to reproduce the magic of the traditional social contract of the book, even as they experiment with form.

The demand side, however, has languished. Far fewer efforts have been made to influence the mental state of the scholarly audience. The unspoken assumption is that the reader is more or less unchangeable in this respect, only able to respond to, and validate, works that have the traditional marks of the social contract: having survived a strong filtering process, near-perfect copyediting, the imprimatur of a press.

We need to work much more on the demand side if we want to move the social contract forward into the digital age. Despite Updike’s ode to the book, there are social conventions surrounding print that are worth challenging. Much of the reputational analysis that occurs in the professional humanities relies on cues beyond the scholarly content itself. The act of scanning a CV is an act fraught with these conventions.

Can we change the views of humanities scholars so that they may accept, as some legal scholars already do, the great blog post as being as influential as the great law review article? Can we get humanities faculty, as many tenured economists already do, to publish more in open access journals? Can we accomplish the humanities equivalent of FiveThirtyEight.com, which provides as good, if not better, in-depth political analysis than most newspapers, earning the grudging respect of journalists and political theorists? Can we get our colleagues to recognize outstanding academic work wherever and however it is published?

I believe that to do so, we may have to think less like humanities scholars and more like social scientists. Behavioral economists know that although the perception of value can come from the intrinsic worth of the good itself (e.g., the quality of a wine, already rather subjective), it is often influenced by many other factors, such as price and packaging (the wine bottle, how the wine is presented for tasting). These elements trigger a reaction based on stereotypes—if it’s expensive and looks well-wrapped, it must be valuable. The book and article have an abundance of these value triggers from generations of use, but we are just beginning to understand equivalent value triggers online—thus the critical importance of web design, and why the logo of a trusted institution or a university press can still matter greatly, even if it appears on a website rather than a book.

Social psychologists have also thought deeply about the potent grip of these idols of our tribe. They are aware of how cultural norms establish and propagate themselves, and tell us how the imposition of limits creates hierarchies of recognition. Thinking in their way, along with the way the web works, one potential solution on the demand side might come not from the scarcity of production, as it did in a print world, but from the scarcity of attention. That is, value will be perceived in any community-accepted process that narrows the seemingly limitless texts to read or websites to view. Curation becomes more important than publication once publication ceases to be limited.

[image credit: Priki]

Introducing Digital Humanities Now

Do the digital humanities need journals? Although I’m very supportive of the new journals that have launched in the last year, and although I plan to write for them from time to time, there’s something discordant about a nascent field—one so steeped in new technology and new methods of scholarly communication—adopting a format that is struggling in the face of digital media.

I often say to non-digital humanists that every Friday at 5 I know all of the most important books, articles, projects, and news of the week—without the benefit of a journal, a newsletter, or indeed any kind of formal publication by a scholarly society. I pick up this knowledge by osmosis from the people I follow online.

I subscribe to the blogs of everyone working centrally or tangentially to digital humanities. As I have argued from the start, and against the skeptics and traditionalists who thinks blogs can only be narcissistic, half-baked diaries, these outlets are just publishing platforms by another name, and in my area there are an incredible number of substantive ones.

More recently, social media such as Twitter has provided a surprisingly good set of pointers toward worthy materials I should be reading or exploring. (And as happened with blogs five years ago, the critics are now dismissing Twitter as unscholarly, missing the filtering function it somehow generates among so many unfiltered tweets.) I follow as many digital humanists as I can on Twitter, and created a comprehensive list of people in digital humanities. (You can follow me @dancohen.)

For a while I’ve been trying to figure out a way to show this distilled “Friday at 5” view of digital humanities to those new to the field, or those who don’t have time to read many blogs or tweets. This week I saw a tweet from Tom Scheinfeldt (blog|Twitter) (who in turn saw a tweet from James Neal) about a new service called Twittertim.es, which creates a real-time publication consisting of articles highlighted by people you follow on Twitter. I had a thought: what if I combined the activities of several hundred digital humanities scholars with Twittertim.es?

Digital Humanities Now is a new web publication that is the experimental result of this thought. It aggregates thousands of tweets and the hundreds of articles and projects those tweets point to, and boils everything down to the most-discussed items, with commentary from Twitter. A slightly longer discussion of how the publication was created can be found on the DHN “About” page.

Digital Humanities Now home page

Does the process behind DHN work? From the early returns, the algorithms have done fairly well, putting on the front page articles on grading in a digital age, bringing high-speed networking to liberal arts colleges, Google’s law archive search, and (appropriately enough) a talk on how to deal with streams of content given limited attention. Perhaps Digital Humanities Now will show a need for the light touch of a discerning editor. This could certainly be added on top of the raw feed of all interest items (about 50 a day, out of which only 2 or 3 make it into DHN), but I like the automated simplicity of DHN 1.0.

Despite what I’m sure will be some early hiccups, my gut is that some version of this idea could serve as a rather decent new form of publication that focuses the attention of those in a particular field on important new developments and scholarly products. I’m not holding my breath that someday scholars will put an appearance in DHN on their CVs. But as I recently told an audience of executive directors of scholarly societies at an American Council of Learned Societies meeting, if you don’t do something like this, someone else will.

I suppose DHN is a prod to them and others to think about new forms of scholarly validation and attention, beyond the journal. Ultimately, journals will need the digital humanities more than we need them.

Leave the Blogging to Us

The history of genres is filled with curious transformations, such as the novel’s unlikely evolution from wasteland of second-string prose to locus of Great Literature. One of the founding notions of this blog was that despite its inauspicious beginnings and high-profile overcaffeinated incarnations the genre of the blog has always been well suited to the considered pace and output of the scholar.

Original functions of the blog (and the stereotypical blogger), like the transcription of the day’s minutiae or logging of interesting websites (thus the inharmonious neologism, weblog), have, in the last two years, swiftly emigrated to other platforms and genres, such as “microblogging” services like what-I’m-doing-right-now Twitter (with its one-sentence “tweets”) and gee-look-at-me social networks like Facebook. If you’re a trend-seeker, this makes it seem like blogging is passé, abandoned by both the masses and the digerati.

But to me, it’s simply confirmation that the genre has found its most appropriate writers and readers. It reinforces my initial view of the genre, which is that personal content management systems (what blogging platforms really are) are, despite the genre’s early, unpromising forms, perfectly suited for serious thought and scholarship. With blogging, there is no requirement for frequent posting, and I subscribe to many scholarly blogs that have infrequent, but substantive, posts. Put us in the slow blogging camp. As Barbara Ganley puts it: “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.”

And while we’re reflecting, it should be rather obvious at this point that thoughtful, well-written blogs can rival other forms of publication. For instance, a baseball statistician and political junkie armed with little more than a free Blogger account and considerable intelligence and energy was able this year to rival the election analysis of most professional newspaper reporters. What are the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blogs than op-ed columns by another name? As I said in the Journal of American History earlier this fall, good writing and analysis rises and makes an impact, no matter the medium or editorial or peer-review system—or lack thereof.

Digital Humanities and the Disciplines, Day 1

Aside from a talk from yours truly on new directions in digital history, the first day of the “Digital Humanities and the Disciplines” conference at Rutgers featured a talk by Hilary Ballon entitled “Rethinking the Journal in Multimedia.” Ballon is the Associate Vice Chancellor at New York University and the editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.

She spoke about the complexities of prototyping a new media version of the JSAH. If any field in the humanities could benefit from moving from paper to the web, it is architectural history. The SAH has always been restrained by paper: color images were too expensive for the journal, not to mention the possibilities of dynamic media like video or 3D models. So for the JSAH, the move online will be liberating and possibly even transformative.

The prototype Ballon showed us has an embedded media viewer and a sidebar with all images and architectural plans referenced in the article, so you can jump back and forth from the narrative to the visual evidence. Unlike images in the paper journal, you can also pan and zoom to closely examine the evidence. The prototype also permits linking to external software such as Google Earth (for situating buildings in space).

Beyond the prototype, Ballon made several interesting points about the way in which new media might change the practice of architectural history. She noted that the rise of the slide projector in the early twentieth century not only changed pedagogy in her field, but also led to the centrality of certain formats—specifically, the side-by-side comparison. The 3D models she showed in the JSAH prototype suggest that architectural historians can now do more with the visitor’s experience of a building versus the prior overriding interest in the architect’s vision for the building. (Note here the parallel with the discussion in literary studies about the balance of power between the author and reader.)

Moreover, new media might allow the JSAH to cover and review forms of scholarship beyond the monograph and article. For example, exhibitions by architectural historians are often overlooked even though they are serious scholarly work. JSAH does currently review exhibitions, but not that many and these reviews are often published after the exhibition has closed because of the long time lag in paper publication. The JSAH hopes that web publication will narrow this gap while also allowing new media recreations of the exhibitions so others can witness them.