The future of academic publishing

As a professor at a large research institution, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of academic publishing. While this topic may not seem to be of interest to many of you who are K-12 educators, in the end I think the implications around this issue are worth considering by all of us.

As we know, the Internet is revolutionizing publication. No longer need you be a large publishing company or a mainstream media corporation to reach a significant audience with your text, images, photographs, audio, and/or video. Search engines, blogs, social networking sites, RSS aggregators, and other tools already are connecting the content of millions to audiences of billions. These tools have only been around for a few years; imagine what it’s going to be like a decade or two from now. This story has been told before, by others with more expertise and experience than me, but it’s worth noting that this revolution has been slow to permeate academia.

The traditional publication paradigm of higher education is still alive; the “publish or perish” mantra still holds true. Professors publish articles, preferably in peer-reviewed journals, and others (arguably? hopefully?) read them. Articles are typically accessed by strolling down to the local university library and making a photocopy, accessing a PDF version of a print article via an online institutional subscription-only service, or by requesting a copy of an unavailable article via interlibrary loan. All three of these mechanisms inhibit access to cutting-edge (as well as ordinary or irrelevant) scholarship by the general public, practitioner audiences, individuals at resource-poor institutions, etc. After all, who wants to get out of bed, go to the university library, find parking (always difficult), search through the stacks, and make paper copies? No one. Not even undergraduates who live on campus want to do this. Even if you know what you’re looking for, it’s too cumbersome compared to the Internet.

In addition to time, effort, and access drawbacks, this system has other disadvantages. For example, because the joint processes of peer review and print publication take months or years to occur, scholarly research in cutting-edge, fast-changing subject areas (think technology, biomedicine, genetics, etc.) often is out of date by the time it’s printed. This is especially true of research that investigates the utility or capabilities of technology solutions. By the time research into the effectiveness of some technology is conducted, written up, submitted for peer review, revised, submitted again for peer and/or editorial review, revised again, submitted once more, formatted for printing, actually printed, and then mailed out to individual and library subscribers, the technology solution may have undergone several version changes, been bought out by a larger competitor, disappeared altogether, and so on. The fast pace of change in the world of technology and a few other fields is ill-served by the traditional publishing paradigm.

So what do I think the new academic publishing paradigm might look like?

  • Scholarship will be more open. Rather than being locked down by academic publishers, future scholarship will be available to all who are interested. The proposed Federal Public Research Act (S.2695) is a first step in that direction. The Act basically requires all federally-funded research to be made freely and publicly available online within six months of publication. Academics love this idea – information wants to be free – but, as you can imagine, it is facing stiff opposition from publishing companies.
  • Scholarship will be more available. Not only will more articles be publicly accessible, they also will be easier to find. Inclusion of the world’s research base in Internet search engines opens up scholarly knowledge to everyone on the planet, not just those with specialized training or skills. Similarly, hyperlinking has great promise. Imagine being able to get a source cited in an article by simply clicking on the link.
  • Academia will require a different conceptualization of what constitutes scholarship. Right now most printed journals require that authors follow certain writing, structural, formatting, and citation conventions. The world of the Internet allows for limitless possibilities, particularly in terms of style (multimedia versus print) and length (there are few size restrictions online). Can a digital video, or an interactive web site, or some other kind of online resource be as scholarly and rigorous as an article that’s printed text? Absolutely. University experiments with multimedia “digital dissertations” give us some idea of what this might look like.
  • Academia will require a different conceptualization of peer review. When an article literally can be made available to everyone worldwide, what constitutes appropriate review? When scholarship can be conducted and posted by anyone without going through traditional gatekeeping mechanisms, who is considered the peer review group? Is there still a place for high-level scholars to weigh in regarding the quality of the work? Should any and all visitors be allowed to comment and let the chips fall where they may? Nature already is experimenting with some alternative peer review paradigms. Others will follow.
  • Academia will require a different conceptualization of quality. Rather than an article’s worthiness being judged by the opinions of a few “experts,” it may be judged by the number of page visits, or number of comments, or number of trackback hyperlinks, or its usage by and impact upon practitioners…

There’s more I could probably write here, but these notions come to mind immediately. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages to all of this – we will gain some things but lose others. Ultimately, however, making researchers’ work more accessible, and more accountable, to the public should have positive effects for schools and the people who work in them.

This post is also available at the TechLearning blog.

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