Saturday, August 27, 2005

Embracing the medium: 1

The whole publishing industry as it exists today emerged and evolved from the exciting potential of the printing press. Much of what we are still doing reflects this medium.

The printing press was a marvelous invention indeed. It made literacy for the population as a whole, not just the privileged few, a possibility.

The electronic medium, in combination with the world wide web, expands our potential to communicate in a manner every bit as dramatic as the printing press. One of our challenges is learning to let go of our fears - to quit worrying about print-based practices, and rather, embrace the medium and the potential that it offers. This is the first in a series of articles on why and how we should embrace the electronic medium.

Consider, for example, the scholarly journal article as a static, one-time event, as compared with the potential for a constantly updated work. Today, a scholarly article is written, peer-reviewed, and edited, and a final version is considered certified - the version most will consider authoritative, and one the author may use in applying for promotion and tenure, etc.

Sometimes, this makes perfect sense. For example, a report of an experimental study. At other times, this is not ideal. For example, a report on what is happening in a rapidly evolving field.

Today's academic may face a dilemma: whether to prioritize advancing our scholarly knowledge, or whether to focus on certification.

As one example, consider the Open Access News blog, written by Peter Suber with other contributors. This blog is considered by a great many people, including academics specializing in the area of open access, as the world's most authoritative resource on open access. It is updated frequently, with new postings generally several times a day. OA News is considered an extremely valuable resource, which is helping people throughout the world to advance their knowledge in this very important and rapidly evolving area.

Let's consider what might happen if we try to apply the traditional approach to academic certification to such a resource. Part of the traditional approach is to certify a particular version. Let's say we decide to certify the 4:00 p.m. Saturday, August 27, 2005 version of OA News. We would need to either copy this version - or ask Peter Suber to stop updating until after the certification process. Normally, an editor will ask one or two people to conduct a review. There is a very great deal of information in OA News, however, so perhaps a large team of reviewers and editors would be needed. Since this is an imaginary scenario, let's pretend that this team accomplishes the review in an absolutely incredible time frame - say 15 minutes. A note can go on the 4:00 p.m. Saturday, August 27, 2005 version of OA News to the effect: this blog has been certified by: (name editors, team members and credentials on this date).

This is all well and good, if a lot of work.

Trouble is - if Peter Suber gets right back to work and updates OA News again at 4:30 - the certified version is no longer the most authoritative work, but rather the 4:30 version. As time goes on, the more Peter updates, the less valuable the certified version is.

Would anyone want Peter Suber to switch from keeping OA News the wonderful resource that it is, to writing a series of discrete articles on open access, each one peer-reviewed, certified and published the traditional way? Open access opponents - maybe. For most of us, however, it is clear that the constant updating is precisely what makes this resource so valuable. While OA News is not traditionally peer-reviewed, it is certainly read, reviewed, and appreciated by Peter Suber's peers.

It is possible that someone with Peter Suber's reputation can afford to concentrate on this type of resource, rather than the traditional processes that a junior faculty member might need to go through to obtain tenure. We need to figure out how to certify this type of resource, which is so much more valuable than the single-fixed-article approach, in so many areas.

Embracing the medium:2
Last revised August 28, 2005.

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