Friday, February 10, 2006

Toward a vision for scholarship...and communications

The combination of the electronic medium and the world wide opens up a world of possibilities - open access to the scholarly literature being only one.

Scholars around the world and across disciplines can work together on their research using electronic means. It is now possible to publish, not only an article summarizing the results of a research project, but a very great deal more.

A research project may arise from electronic discussions on listservs, blogs, wikis, or other collaborative communications tools. Robots could be employed in the research process. Drafts of a research proposal can be posted to the web, as well as proposals submitted to funding agencies.

A research team could maintain a web site or wiki to keep people up to speed on what is happening with their research; this might be the most effective way for team members to communicate with each other, too. This web site could include links to key background information, cvs or pictures of the research team.

Data can be posted to a repository as soon as it becomes available. Other researchers, perhaps students too, might be able to make use of the data for a totally different research project.

Depending on the nature of the research, it might make sense to supplement data with pictures or movies.

A means for people to comment on research in progress could be supplied, if desired. This could be open to anyone, or on invitation only.

It is not unusual anymore for preprints to be posted to repositories. Experiments with open peer review (comments posted publicly) are underway; this will make it possible to conduct research on the peer review process per se.

Students around the world can have ready access to the research literature, making it easier to teach research methodology. Students at many levels could be doing original research - and publishing it!

It is important to distinguish the works of professional researchers from that of students, of course. It is also important to distinguish work that is peer-reviewed from that which is not. These are not the same, however!

Peer review need not be limited to the professional academic. One of the more interesting projects, to me, emerging from John Willinsky's Public Knowledge Project at UBC is a group of grade 8/9 girls who are publishing their own open access, peer reviewed journal, with the assistance of Sarah Twomey, a PhD student working with John Willinsky. What a fine idea! What could be better than high school grads with the skills and maturity to seek and accept help expressing their ideas?

An open access item can be a peer-reviewed postprint - a static item developed for the print world. Or, it could be a periodically updated article, like the articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Open access to the scholarly literature is not the same as open accessibility of textbooks, news sources, digital collections, or government information. But, there are parallels, and plenty of overlap.

As many an open access advocate has - correctly - pointed out, it is important not to confuse the wide variety of challenges and issues that come from the shift from paper to electronic, from postal distribution to the world wide web, with the issues and challenges that arise from open access to the scholarly literature per se.

However, in my opinion, it is also very important not to be so focused on open access to the peer-reviewed postprint so as to miss out on the tremendous potential of these media.

It is through open sharing of information and working collaboratively rather than competitively that the human genome was mapped in an amazingly short time.

We could take this approach to other important research questions - like how to find economical, renewable, environmentally friendly sources of energy; or, a renewed focus on the humanities and social sciences research that could lead to the answers to the question of how we can live together in peace in this global village of a modern world.

Until we grasp this full potential, open access to the peer-reviewed postprint might look to some like a little piece of a puzzle. The moment you shift to this bigger picture, the puzzle piece falls into place. The beauty and necessity of open access - and the sheer folly of pursuing any other model - is immediately obvious.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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