Increased communication and exchange at the pre-publication stage could, perhaps, serve to exacerbate this problem. However while this is undoubtedly a risk, it is far from an inevitability and, furthermore, the costs are outweighed by the benefits. Part of the problem stems from the strikingly monological and unidimensional way in which publication tends to be conceived. Academic publishing, as currently practiced and conceived, focuses on too narrow a range of outputs and these outputs are, for a range of reasons, only narrowly dialogical. For instance, given the fundamental characteristics of a journal article, as well as what these entail about its production and consumption as a cultural commodity, it can only give rise to a relatively limited (though nonetheless important) form of exchange. The investment of time and energy necessary to produce such articles, as well as, to a lesser extent, reading and engaging with them, place limits on the dialogical activity which can emerge as a response to them.
These time pressures entrench the role that ‘prestige’ plays in scholarly publishing as a cypher for quality. If our academic reading is unavoidably bound by unceasing constraints of finite time and energy, particularly in a wider institutional context within which people are expected to do more with less, the fact that prestigious journals can be assumed to contain high quality papers plays an obvious role in helping us navigate the knowledge system. Even if we don’t rely on this function ourselves, with this potentially being a route into a fascinating range of empirical questions conducive to future research, it is nonetheless reassuring: it gives prestige as a cognitive category a day to day grounding on the practical activity of academic life.
Our common sense taxonomy of academic publication, though ossified by the reward structure of careers within contemporary academia, is predominately an artifact of pre-digital publishing technologies. While there is increasing recognition of the (many) new possibilities for publication that digital media afford, they have yet to entrench themselves in the popular consciousness or win institutional recognition as legitimate forms of academic output. This presents a catch 22 situation: given the plethora of often competing pressures academics are subject to, it is trational to wait for digital publication to win widespread acceptance before devoting scarce time and energy to it. Yet if too many of us wait in this way, it’s unlikely that acceptance will ever be achieved.
The appeal of this to me lies not in some expectation that the digital will replace the traditional (the new will replace the old, the good will replace the bad etc) but rather that the legitimation of a more diverse array of outputs will partially correct systematic, though entirely contingent imbalances in academic life. In a hypothetical future where a diverse range of pre-publication outputs, disseminated via social media, are rife, ‘traditional’ forms of publication are supplemented rather than replaced. The much smaller degree of commitment involved in engaging with someones work when it takes the form of popular digital outputs (blog post, podcast, prezi etc) facilitates an engagement with a much broader array of work. Furthermore, the greater degree of dialogue these outputs give rise to, as a consequence both of their own characteristics and social media as a platform for dissemination, leave us less reliant on prestige as a form of quality control: the more dialogue which occurs, particularly within organically emerging communities of practice, the easier it is to navigate the knowledge system. Crucially this would also act as a driver towards publicising ‘traditional’ outputs: it would lessen the general cognitive load of contemporary academia and help raise awareness of publications amongst people who, given their trajectory of academic engagement online, would be most likely to appreciate the work in question.