Hunches on the evolution of scholarly publishing

As part of ChangeMedium I’ve been exploring ways to surface and accelerate research related to this emerging system of social technologies. The idea of creating a journal on the medium of change came up in our October event. What follows are some hunches about the evolution of academic publishing arising from that work. If you are involved or interested in this field, I’d love to get your reactions and perspectives

Background on research and academic publication.

Research is a disciplined process. It is the search for knowledge or any systematic investigation to establish facts. In support of that, academic publishing exists to enable the peer-review (meant to validate and improve the quality of research) and make the findings more broadly available. It began in earnest in the 17th century and served to help establish priority for researcher’s discoveries. Since then it continues to evolve, albeit slowly. Like many systems it is considered by many to be facing crisis and looking for a future empowered through the emerging system of social technologies.

Limitations on research resulting from the academic publication system.

Academic publication began in service of researchers and scholarly pursuit and gave birth to today’s scholarly journals. Those journals serve as a primary validation vehicle for research findings and so have come to hold substantial influence in the research community. In spite of original intentions however, that influence now appears to be creating some counterproductive limitations.

Restricted distribution.
Journals rely primarily on publishing fees and content revenues for their financial viability. This creates incentive to restrict researchers from publishing in other places and to limit availability of published content to those willing to pay. While financial viability is essential to any initiative this revenue model is counterproductive to the original aim of making the findings broadly available. While new revenue models have yet to establish themselves it is a necessity if that aim is to be fulfilled. Examples from other publishing sectors may provide clues as to potential models but will not necessarily meet the particular aims and needs of the research community.

Retardation of research.
Peer-review, a central aspect of many academic publications, requires the participation of several researchers actively engaged in the field of research. Where research is novel or part of an emergent domain, this may be particularly difficult. As pioneering researcher’s search for alternative pathways to establish their priority in the field such as personal blog and book publishing place even greater demands on their time making them less available or interested in participating. While it is an important component in the research process it also appears to retard the pursuit of novel research and emergent domains.

Discouragement of participation.
Because the process of scholarly pursuit is well documented, it could arguably be engaged in by any competent person willing to do so. The social and procedural dynamics of publication however appear unwelcoming to all but those dependent on publication for their careers. This would appear to limit the participation in scholarly publication to a small subset of those actually able to contribute.

Opportunities for evolution.

The emerging system of social technologies have an inherent capacity to facilitate participation and distribution. Their digital nature also affords extraordinary measurability. These attributes create several opportunities for the evolution of academic publishing in ways that could improve the quality of research, distribution of findings, scope and pace of scholarly pursuit, and breadth and experience of participation.

Measurement of influence and value.
Central to academic publishing is the validation of the research through peer-review and measures of influence such as citation tracking. Social technologies provide an opportunity to improve and expand on the measurement of both the influence and the value of published research to different communities. For example an article might be validated according to a scholarly grade generated by an editorial board, number of scholarly references, number of comments and average rating received on the publication site, and number of article references made across the whole of the web. These measurements could be further segmented according to specific categories such as peers and public providing additional relevance. Through these techniques researchers, publishers, and the public would gain a more robust and accurate reflection of a published work’s influence and value in the context that matters to them.

The capacity of social technologies to facilitate peer-participation could be leveraged throughout different phases and forms of research in many ways. For example, a system such as Uservoice could be used to identify potential research problems with the greatest interest. Multiple people could be engaged in fleshing out the most popular research problems, creating a resource of relevant existing research and information in wiki format. While experiments with peer-participation are already underway in the research, editing, and even peer-review phases these are but early experiments. As evidenced through the unpredictable rise of Wikipedia there is undoubtedly opportunity to go much further particularly in exploring individual phases and tasks of the research and publication process.

Parallel pursuit.
The digital publishing infrastructure coupled with the social and collaborative dynamics of the web could further encourage parallel private and public pursuit of specific research problems or topics. While researchers may choose to maintain a private and closed research approach their research problem could be made publicly available for parallel pursuit. Public findings and contributions could provide valuable material for the primary researcher’s activity. Enabling researcher’s to self-select their mode of research alongside parallel public participation could break the tension between approaches and accelerate innovation in the research publication process.

Invitation to experiment.

While the above are merely a set of hunches, from an entrepreneurial perspective they point to some interesting opportunities to experiment. While I welcome any interest in experiment regards to the journal on the medium of change, I would also love to hear of any other experiments planned or underway. Some particular areas of interest to me are:

Research influence and valuation tracking system.
Starting points for this investigation could include exploring opportunities to extend current peer-evaluation methods, identifying opportunities to expand and improve upon citation tracking, and finally opening a new category of public influence and valuation metrics.

Peer-participation opportunity map.
Starting points for this investigation could include exploring opportunities to employ existing tools and techniques in each of the primary tasks and phases of research and publication.

Publishing system specification.
Starting points for this investigation could include scoping a minimum viable system to support this evolution, followed by assessing applicability of existing tools such as Open Journal Systems from the Public Knowledge Project, and then proceding with agile development of the necessary features.

As our society quickens its pace of evolution, we would only benefit from a corresponding quickening in the evolution of research and its publication. While research isn’t my bag in life, I have come to recognize the powerful role it can play in society.

Other references:

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