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Changing Models of Scholarly Discourse

Towards the end of March, I'll be attending the ICE 3 conference (Ideas, Cyberspace, Education) at Ross Priory on the shores of Loch Lomond, Scotland (hopefully the conference acronym won't reflect the weather there). My own paper deals with issues around teaching produsage, but in the lead-up to this small but apparently high-powered conference (Gunther Kress is a keynote speaker), one of the presenter teams has set up a blog to discuss the challenges of social software and other online publishing models for the traditional academic publishing environment. Reading one of the position statements, by Bruce Ingraham, led me to post a somewhat un-bloggy, lengthy response, which I'm also reposting here:

The key question in this piece is probably the following:

"How can we, as scholars, exploit the power of the new media without sacrificing that 'reasonableness' that has been the hallmark of academic publishing for the last 400 years?"

My answer to this is two-fold:

  1. Let's not accept the good old peer review system for academic publishing as inherently unproblematic - especially in the increasingly commercialised form it exhibits today. Peer review - especially when performed only by a small group of peers, as it may exist in highly specialised disciplines - can lead to a self-reinforcement of what are seen to be academic theories or approaches; there are (possibly, many) cases where work has been rejected by peer referees not because it was inherently flawed, but because it supported theories or employed methodologies which had traditionally been widely rejected by the academic establishment. In other words, peer review almost by design tends to lean towards the conservative side; with good reason, mostly, but especially at times of a rapid increase in knowledge it can significantly slow the emergence of new thought.

    I say this not to argue for the abolishment of peer review altogether, but in order to highlight the fact that under certain circumstances it will be very valuable to strive for a broader base of critique and comment than the traditional (closed, blind) peer review model can provide. (This could be achieved for example simply by opening out the process to a wider group of participants - e.g. by immediately and openly publishing proposed papers and inviting comment from the wider scholarly community rather than two or three hand-picked peer referees. But my aim here is not to devise such models.)

  2. Inasmuch as it carries negative connotations, I'd like to see the term 'exploit' in 'how can we exploit new media' replaced by 'engage with' or 'enhance'. There's an ongoing debate within and around Wikipedia, for example, on how to both respect the contributions which scholarly or other experts make to Wikipedia entries in their field of expertise, and to maintain the open, 'anyone can edit' ethos of the project. The arguments of both sides of that debate are entirely reasonable - experts are experts, and are likely to be frustrated away from participating if they must constantly argue basic facts with less knowledgeable contributors; on the other hand, the mere fact that somebody is an expert in a field cannot mean that they should go entirely unchallenged, or in fact that their style and approach to writing is appropriate to the project of collaborative developing an open source encyclopedia.

    Unfortunately, the response of academia to the Wikipedia challenge (and Wikipedia here stands only as representative of the wider range of collaborative, social software, Web2.0, etc. efforts) continues to be to far too great an extent simply to bury its head in the sand, hoping that Wikipedia will fail and go away again (which isn't likely). The majority of academics and other experts seems to be mainly miffed that some uncredentialled entity would appear and encroach on their hard-fought terrain (ex-Britannica editor Robert McHenry's silly and self-defeating diatribe against Wikipedia is a particularly notorious example; see the rebuttal by Aaron Krowne, for example).

Instead of playing the jilted lover, academia would be better served to imagine ways to either engage with the major social software resources already available, or to use such tools to build its own alternatives. This could take either of the following forms:

  1. A concerted effort to work with the emerging knowledge repositories - become involved in Wikipedia as a content contributor and reviewer, for example. Scholars could institute a peer review system for Wikipedia entries by attaching a 'seal of approval' tag to articles which have been found to be of acceptable quality; as Wikipedia articles continue to develop, this seal would have to be re-certified at regular intervals, of course. I would imagine the Wikipedia community and developers would be interested in accommodating such a system through technology changes if it's done right. Similarly, scholars, could filter through the links on or digg which relate to their home discipline, and re-publish a subset of the links which have been reviewed for the quality of their contents. (Again, Wikipedia and are only examples of a range of social software services which academics could 'adopt' in this way.)

  2. Use similar technology to develop our own services. Wikis, for example, are beginning to be used in this way, though often still behind closed doors; Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger's Citizendium project (a peer-reviewed encyclopedia building on and extending Wikipedia content) is one example of a more open, distributed collaboration (though not without its problems - it would be more effective had this project been integrated into the Wikipedia proper, along the lines I've suggested in a. above). Groups of scholars could also use services like to tag high-quality work in their fields, creating a combined feed of quality articles from a variety of sources (including ePrints and other self-publishing mechanisms) - ultimately, this would enable a bypassing of traditional journal publishing models altogether. Lessons can also be learnt from sites such as Slashdot, which enables readers to submit annotated links to relevant sites and invites commentary on the content of such linked resources (a practice I call gatewatching, rather than gatekeeping - this works exceedingly well in information technology / technology research circles, and might be possible just as well in other areas).

Overall, I think that as scholars we must continue to utilise and operationalise the expertise we do have (and which marks us as scholars as opposed to enthusiasts), with the aim of continuing to pursue a better understanding of our respective fields; however, we cannot continue to do so on the basis of erecting or maintaining high barriers to entry into scholarly debate. Those barriers no longer exist in their traditional forms in the case of academic pursuits, in much the same way as they've been eroded in the fields of journalism, knowledge management, media publishing and distribution, and many other information-based professions.

Lamenting this won't fix it - it's time for academics to deal with it.

Hmm, this has become rather longer than the standard blog comment, sorry. I think I'll repost this on my own blog at as well, with the appropriate links of course. Thanks for the opportunity to think out loud...

Axel Bruns
Queensland University of Technology
Brisbane, Australia

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