Is Publishing What We Do, or How We Do It?

Is scholarly communication our goal, and scholarly publishing just the technology we use to accomplish this goal?

Industries should avoid being so identified with a technology that they can’t weather a transition.   It is a wonder that scholarly publishing – a tradition-based or even –bound industry, many would say – made the transition from print to online. Some other industries had trouble enough with the “digital transition” that those industries were restructured: retailing, music, news, etc.

But it is important for scholarly publishing’s future that – just as it avoided being defined by a technology like “print” – it doesn’t get defined by a technique, or a business model, either. “Business model” is obvious: there’s no requirement that scholarly publishing be defined by a single business model. Subscription publishers are rolling out open access journals, and open access publishers are adding various types of subscription services for individuals and institutions (sometimes called “memberships”).

But what about being defined by “technique”? By “technique” I mean an approach, a process, or a workflow. Perhaps the most obvious example of a workflow technique: content is released and distributed only after a peer review has been performed. This technique is also a choice, albeit a traditional one. Clearly – at least from the conferences I’ve attended in the last year – the evaluate-then-disseminate workflow is now open to debate and to change.

Another technique is the “broadcast” model used in publishing: the dominant model is one in which information flows from one to many, and flows in one direction. This is the model assumed for all broadcast media – television, movies, newspapers, etc.  It appears to be based on industrial (scale) and consumer (popularity) models: one-to-many is efficient, and if you assume the “many” are homogenous then you scale very nicely distributing one message repeatedly.   The broadcast model was hugely reinforced by the dominant technology of the day (printing, radio and TV broadcasting).

In scholarly publishing, the broadcast model runs into some problems, because there is an assumption that scholarship is iterative and thus needs a feedback loop. (Scholarship is also highly specialized, so one-to-many may not be so useful an assumption either.)   If a reader wants to flow information back, the way to do this in scholarly publishing is to write a paper, giving evidence. But this feedback loop has a very long temporal wavelength: it doesn’t move very fast.  Several innovations have speeded up the wave, such as online manuscript management systems, and publish ahead of print.  But as important as these have been, they were incremental.

The ‘long wavelength’ leads to a lot of the important feedback moving “out of band” – i.e., outside of the scholarly-publishing “technique” and via “grey literature” and private communication — because it simply doesn’t allow for two-way flow/communication.   Compare letter-writing — even emailed letter-writing — to making a phone call.  Publishing as an information flow is still largely Web 1.0, when much of the web has been 2.0 for a decade, and is moving past that now to “micro moments”.

The gap between scholarly publishing technology and the way “real people” (including young scholars) use the web is creating an environment in which alternatives blossom.

Surely we have all heard the idealistic description of scholarly publishing as “conversation”, not only “communication”. But the technique of ‘long wavelength’ iteration that defines our approach doesn’t support this ideal well.

Scholarly communication has been dominated by the techniques of scholarly publishing in the last few decades. And it may have begun 350 years ago with the invention of the journal. The journal – a design pattern of scholarly publishing – has been so successful at what it does that we have assumed it to be the solution then and now and going forward. As science (among the scholarly disciplines) and publishing became more industrialized in the second half of the 20th century, professional scholarly publishing via the journal technology may have become the tail wagging the dog of scholarly communication.   Now with so much change in technology, the scholarly-communication goal should re-engage and drive the choice of technologies – note the plural – with journal technology certainly part of the mix.

Scholarly Communication in Societies

Many scholarly societies are publishers, but also have other technologies than publishing to support scholarly communication, most notably the annual meeting.   Some societies’ meetings are huge – the Society For Neuroscience’s annual meeting has over 30,000 attendees. This suggests there is a lot more going on in scholarly communication than is in the formal “published” journal literature.

Why do people go to society meetings, in addition to reading the journal literature? I don’t know of any formal study of this – a study which would, ironically, be published in a journal. (A Google Scholar search of “why do people go to scholarly meetings?” shows “[BOOK] Why people go to psychiatrists” as its first result.) If you know of any study or survey, please let me know.

Perhaps the results of a survey would tell us if any of these choices dominate:

  • an advance look at upcoming results to be published
  • a look at preliminary work, before it has been reviewed
  • informal networking with colleagues
  • see where one’s competitors are and are going
  • formal interaction with speakers
  • expanding one’s network of peers in a discipline
  • presentation of a session, or a poster
  • job searches
  • etc.

Some of these might be about timeliness – i.e., things that will be in the journal literature eventually – but some might suggest the kind of interaction that can’t happen within our broadcast, Web 1.0 techniques of journal and book publishing.

Rock Concerts & Annual Meetings: Performance Value

In the same vein, consider the way a recorded rock concert is not the same as attending – really, participating in — a live performance. In music, we have heard that so much of a musician’s income is now from performances and related merchandise. (Superbowl 50 is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area in less than a week, so I am acutely aware of the value some people place on being at a live event.)

This suggests that at least in the consumer culture there is a premium placed on breathing the same air as a performer, despite all the advantages a digital replica may offer.

Performance value is not a trend limited to music, according to The New York Times:

Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.

A department store is a type of retailing technology, and perhaps its time is passing.   With the rise of “the gig economy” we could even say that a job is a type of employment technology that is (sadly) passing.   Is scholarly publishing going to tie itself to its broadcast technology or seek additional ways to meet its communication goals?

Scholarly societies and scholarly publishers have largely successfully ridden the wave from print to online technology.   But this was done without a lot of transformation of technique, despite a lot of added technology; it was mostly transplantation or transference of broadcast techniques from one medium to another.

Many technologies – some as old as the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 – are able now to support high-bandwidth communication, and even conversation and collaboration. With researchers’ obvious desire for this type of experience –evidenced by substantial attendance at scholarly meetings — publishers should find ways to connect these technologies to the traditional publishing technology.




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