Monthly Archives: April 2008

Strategies for Promoting Social Scholarship

As I noted in my last post, the development of collaborative, online, open access scholarship (which I’ll call “social scholarship”) faces some significant obstacles, including cultural barriers, concerns about intellectual property, and the need for sound economic models for open access publications. But I think social scholarship can and will grow. Here are some strategies to promote it:

1) Develop tools that enable researchers to what they already do, but better.

Why have some disciplines, such as physics, embraced online delivery of research? As Stephen Pinfield notes in “How Do Physicists Use an E-Print Archive?,” the physics e-print archive arxiv succeeded in part because it “automated” physicists’ existing practices of exchanging pre-prints. Rather than having to go through the hassles of mailing or emailing preprints to multiple colleagues, physicists could easily post them online and, as a side benefit, make them more visible. Once researchers are convinced that a tool can help them do what they already do, only better, then they can also begin to see how it may help them to do new stuff, too. For instance, when I talk to researchers about Zotero, they first recognize its value in downloading bibliographic citations and creating bibliographies, but then begin to get excited about the possibilities of tagging and searching their collections.

2) Make social scholarship cool.
A primary lesson I learned in high school: if the cool people are doing it, pretty much everyone else will want to as well. I typically try something new (whether food, books, music, or technology) because someone I respect has recommended it. In a more scholarly context, I often evaluate the quality of a journal by checking out its editorial board. As researchers see how their colleagues are having a significant impact on research by making their work available as open access, they may be more willing to release their own research as open access. Likewise, as leading scholars come to be associated with open access journals (witness, for example, the Open Humanities Press, which has a top-notch editorial board), these publications will likely gain more legitimacy.

3) Assuage concerns about intellectual property.
Certainly not every researcher will want to blog or post pre-prints about ongoing work—someone pursuing a patent wouldn’t want to give away the goods prematurely, and if a researcher hopes to publish in a journal that doesn’t allow self-archiving, then he or she may not want to test that policy (although plenty of folks do). But researchers’ fears of being scooped or plagiarized if they post material online seem exaggerated. Indeed, posting a pre-print or a blog entry about a research breakthrough may enable a researcher to register that idea without having to wait through the long publication cycle. Sure, the Web enables plagiarizers to easily find information and copy and paste it into a document, but it also makes it easy to search for a unique phrase and catch the plagiarizers. (Witness today’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on journals experimenting with plagiarism detection tools similar to TurnItIn.) By using a Creative Commons license, researchers can make clear the terms under which their work can be used.

4) Experiment with new models for open access publication.
Even as the web makes the distribution of content easier, most academics aren’t ready to dispense with the peer review, copy editing, and in some cases the marketing functions provided by publishers, all of which cost money. So how will we pay for open access publishing? Various economic models are emerging—author fees, university or library support for publishing, etc. SCOAP3 pursues an intriguing collaborative model that has emerged from the high energy physics community, whereby a consortium supported by libraries, research societies and other groups would contract with publishers to provide their services and publish high energy physics journals as open access. To cover the approximately the United States’ approximately $4.5 million share of the total costs of publishing these journals, libraries, research societies, government agencies, etc. would re-direct funds to the SCOAP3 consortium. Rather than shifting the costs of open access publication to authors (through publication charges) or individual institutions (by moving the publication function to libraries, for instance), SCOAP3 hopes to control costs by pooling funds and to give authors and libraries (the producers, purchasers and consumers of journal content) a stronger voice in the publication process. The SCOAP3 consortium would contract with publishers to provide peer review and editorial quality control, but the publications would be open access. The publishing industry wouldn’t be closed out of this process; indeed, several publishers and scholarly societies are participating the conversations about SCOAP3. Final publications would be deposited in open access repositories, enabling data mining and scholarly re-use.

5) Make the case that social scholarship is good and good for you.
Making research openly accessible can appeal to researchers’ altruistic impulses to share their work with independent scholars and researchers whose libraries cannot afford expensive journal subscriptions, as well as to make work paid for by the public available as a public good. Yet open access also makes sense purely for self-interest. As universities increasingly measure the “impact factor” of publications, articles that other researchers can easily find, comment upon, and link to will likely carry more weight. As Michael Jensen points out, the more accessible a work is, the more visible it is and more likely it is that it will be cited. (Of course, if tenure committees don’t view electronic publications as being as scholarly as more traditional publications, then self-interest may be undermined–but scholarly organizations such as the MLA and universities such as the members of the University of California system are beginning to recognize the importance of giving proper credit to electronic publications.)

Obstacles to social scholarship

As I noted in an earlier post, humanities scholars are beginning to experiment with social scholarship, embracing open access, creating and using social networking sites and collaborative tools, and undertaking joint research projects. But I must acknowledge that social scholarship (which I’m using as a catch-all term to include open access, web 2.0, and a culture of collaboration) is in its early stages and faces significant obstacles—economic, cultural, and technological. These challenges include:

  1. Lack of awareness of social scholarship: According a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Researchers Develop Online Tools for Science Collaborations“), few scientists are aware of collaborative resources such as blogs and social networking sites. I’ve noticed this lack of awareness among faculty members from pretty much every discipline at my university. As the article points out, many people don’t use new technologies or communication methods unless they have specific needs to meet—why invest the effort in changing how you do work unless there are concrete payoffs?
  2. Intellectual property concerns: Some researchers worry that if they make their work available online before publishing it with a traditional publisher they will lose control of it. For instance, a competitor may read their blog entry about ongoing research and scoop them—or even plagiarize their work. They also fear that publishers will refuse to publish a work that has already been made available online. From another perspective, copyright law also limits what material you can incorporate into your own work and share—for instance, museums and other cultural institutions seem to be levying higher fees for publication of digital images to which they hold the copyright.
  3. Skepticism about the quality of electronic-only publications: According to research by UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, faculty in five disciplines—English, biostatistics, law and economics, anthropology, and chemical engineering–associate electronic-only publication with the lack of peer review and thus the lack of quality. If researchers don’t believe that tenure committees will give them credit for publishing in open access journals, then they will stick with more traditional means of publication.
  4. Lack of recognition for social scholarship: In many disciplines, there is currently little incentive for researchers to embrace social scholarship; the incentives are with the traditional system. When I talk to faculty about social scholarship, many appreciate the vision of sharing but worry about the implementation, particularly whether tenure committees will give them credit for collaborative scholarship. What kind of rewards and recognition do you get for commenting on a colleague’s blog, publishing your articles through an institutional repository, sharing your bibliographies, or keeping an open notebook documenting your research? The UC Berkeley’s new report “Publishing Needs and Opportunities at the University of California” finds that “a significant minority” of faculty are experimenting with alternative publishing models, but that they “are increasingly frustrated by a tenure and review system that fails to recognize these new publishing models and hence constrains experimentation both in the technologies of dissemination and in the audiences addressed.”
  5. Lack of time to make work available online: Contributing content to user-generated sites, reading and commenting on blogs, sharing bookmarks and doing all of the other work of social scholarship take a lot of time—time that many busy academics don’t have. In a blog post on why Web 2.0 hasn’t been adopted in the biosciences, David Crotty, executive editor of the online publication Cold Spring Harbor Protocols, details how traditional methods of doing research can often be more efficient than Web 2.0 approaches, at least initially, since you can just email a file rather than finding a collaborative site, setting up an account, uploading the file, inviting participants to view it, waiting for them to establish accounts, etc.
  6. Cultural obstacles: Engaging in online discussions and making public thoughts that are in process are not yet part of mainstream academic culture. As David Crotty notes, many academics are unlikely to make critical comments in a public forum, since they don’t want to piss off potential reviewers, employers, or collaborators.
  7. Need for sound economic models for open access publication: Producing academic journals isn’t free, as I learned when I served as the managing editor of Postmodern Culture—even if editors donate their time, funds are needed for copyediting, coordinating editorial review, covering travel costs for editorial meetings, paying for web hosts, etc. How will open access journals be paid for—through author fees? University, society or foundation support? What will guarantee the sustainability of these journals and provide long-term access to their content? If scholars worry about the viability and reputation of open access journals, what will entice them to publish in these journals rather than traditional publications? In Open Access Publishing and the Emerging Infrastructure for 21st-Century Scholarship, Don Waters, Program Officer for Scholarly Communications at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, expresses skepticism about the open access model: “One worry about mandates for open access publishing is that they will deprive smaller publishers of much needed subscription income, pushing them into further decline, and making it difficult for them to invest in ways to help scholars select, edit, market, evaluate, and sustain the new products of scholarship represented in digital resources and databases. The bigger worry, which is hardly recognized and much less discussed in open access circles, is that sophisticated publishers are increasingly seeing that the availability of material in open access form gives them important new business opportunities that may ultimately provide a competitive advantage by which they can restrict access, limit competition, and raise prices.”

I believe that these challenges can be overcome and will sketch some strategies for promoting social scholarship in my final posting on this thread.