The Future of Scholarship

The LSE Impact Blog co-hosted a conference about Open Access last week which I’m now wishing I’d gone to. I really liked the talk given by Jonathan Gray, director of policy at the Open Knowledge Foundation, which offered an adept diagnosis of the present crisis in scholarly publishing and its implications for the future of scholarship:

If sheer quantity is a measure of success then things aren’t going too badly. The amount of research being published is growing at an astonishing rate. Recent studies estimate that around 50 million journal articles have been published since their first appearance in the mid 17th century (Jinha). This colossus is estimated to be expanding at around 1.5 to 2 million articles per year, which is roughly 3 to 4% annually. (Scopus lists about 1.6 million in 2012. The UK Publishers Association suggested global output is around 2 million per year, quoting 120,000 articles as around 6% in evidence to UK parliament. This is up from an estimated 1.3 million in 2006.)

But more people publishing more words does not necessarily mean that our system of scholarly communication is serving us well. Scholarship is not just about publication, but about interaction, interpretation, exchange, deliberation, discourse, debate, and controversy. Plato writes of understanding as being a kind of flash that occurs between two people trying to come to terms with something from different viewpoints, a flash that arises from the friction of discussion and momentarily floods everything with light.

Scholarship is, of course, not just about the production of text – text which has been processed, reviewed, and packaged up in the right way, in accordance with the dictates of style manuals and in keeping with the appropriate theoretical or methodological genre. Scholarship is about the way in which constellations of people and objects produce meaning, understanding and insight, through interaction, acts of interpretation. The value of a journal article is not the stated impact factor of the journal, any more than the value of a scholar is the aggregate of his or her publishing record. The value of a piece of scholarly text is in the interaction it has with its readers, in the sparks it generates, the friction and light that it produces – whether tomorrow, or in a hundred years time.

Unfortunately our current system of scholarly communication has often developed with other priorities in mind. For a start it echoes our broader cultural and social attitudes towards sharing the fruits of our creative and intellectual labour more generally: our disproportionate focus on protection and compensation, commodification and control. The default is still that our creations cannot be shared without payment or explicit permission. Even though they are unlikely to receive a penny for it, scholars are often inclined to be more guarded than generous about sharing their published work. This social and cultural hostility to sharing in turn reflects the state of the law, which is profoundly imbalanced towards protecting and rewarding rights-holders rather than recognising that copyright is an instrument which should strike a balance between protecting private interests and providing the public with access to the fruits of our collective intellectual labour.

Furthermore, the academic career structures in many disciplines are heavily focused around and driven by publication. Not even on scholarly output, but very specific forms and genres of publication, with a strong focus on certain journals and publishers. Journal articles and monographs have become the de facto currency of scholarship, and certain venues are worth more than others. Other forms of engagement – from collaborative projects to conferences – are often not recognised, or only recognised insofar as they result in publication.

If publishing operations such as journal titles and monograph series are the stars which structure the orbits of scholarly communication, then we may forget that what gives them their gravitational force is ultimately the scholars and scholarly communities associated with them. Hence we may conflate the trust, reputation and authority that derives from the scrutiny, energy and attention of a particular group of scholars, with the avenue through which this is manifested: namely the title of a particular publication or series. So entangled are the reputations of scholars and publishing operations that sometimes we may find it hard to wrench them apart and to recall that ultimately it is publications which are dependent on scholars, and not the other way around.

The result of all of these things is the lamentable situation we find ourselves in today, whereby a huge amount of the intellectual energy and attention of researchers is funnelled into the creation of products for the publishing industry which are then locked up and sold back to the institutions which employ them: the very same institutions which effectively subsidise the creation, editorial and peer review of said products. In 1999 a scholar and a librarian wrote a report unpacking the implications of this situation, which they called the ‘crisis in scholarly publishing’, which they described as: “a vicious cycle of increasing prices and decreasing distribution, straining (or breaking) library budgets, and leading to cancellations of journals and cuts in other acquisitions, as well as dangerous erosion in confidence in the integrity of peer review”. “Ultimately”, they concluded, “the flow of scholarly communication is at stake, eroding the academic mission.”

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