October 8, 2015
Academic researchers have hugely contributed to the creation of the Internet in order to obtain easier circulation of knowledge. However, 25 years after the launch of WWW, academia is too conservative to foster Internet usage in a really efficient way. The paper was replaced with a digital copy, but most of human knowledge is still hard to access and not much more open for dialogue with the reader. As a result, the shoemaker’s children go barefoot.
Denis Diderot, the initiator of Encyclopédie and one of the great minds of the Enlightenment era reportedly said that ‘discoveries are only valuable and secure when they circulate among the general mass of people. I am impatient to take them there.’ Now, 231 years after his death, this belief is constantly struggling against another that claims ‘discoveries are only valuable when published in high Impact Factor journal.’ This means that in parallel to the older meaning of publishing and research communication, which is based on the notions of knowledge dissemination and circulation, emerged a new meaning – where publishing is a way of distributing prestige, money and career benefits among researchers.
This new meaning did not supersede the old one completely. Researchers still write to be read, and want their work to be widely disseminated, but this is increasingly seen as an ‘idealism’, so a kind of extraordinary attitude, while publishing for career benefits is seen as an ordinary strategy. The tension between these two meanings of publishing has become more visible in the age of open access, that arose as a response to expensive and inaccessible toll access journals. Publishing in some toll access journals offers huge career benefits (there are areas of the academic world in which listing particular journal titles in a publications list in a CV may make or brake a career), but this rarely means reaching diverse audiences.
In fact, publishing (here: searching for dissemination) academic works in places that offer no career benefits is still surprisingly popular nowadays, although it lacks support from academic institutions. Researchers’ needs to be read lie behind the rapid growth of platforms such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate.net, etc. Archiving works on these websites will not help anybody to get promoted, but millions of people around the world spend their time managing their profiles there. To be visible, to find audience for their ideas, to discuss their work with one another.
One may say that academia is a paradox itself. On the one hand, academic researchers have hugely contributed to the creation of the most efficient and revolutionary communication tool in human history, the Internet, in order to obtain easier circulation of knowledge. On the other hand, 25 years after the launch of WWW, academia is too conservative to foster Internet usage in a really efficient way. The current rules of the game in the research world mostly promote publishing that employs almost the same means that were present during the print era. The paper was replaced with a digital copy, but most of human knowledge is still hard to access (maybe even harder than before, due to library budget cuts) and not much more open for dialogue with the reader. As a result, the shoemaker’s children go barefoot.
The bottom-up need for wider knowledge dissemination has created an interesting space of experimentation with new forms of research communication, but not many of these experiments have had real impact on mainstream academic practices. This is of course the result of career making rules, which are even more strict than before because of an increased competitive pressure on early career researchers.
Open access has already found its way to the mainstream, and this way is subordinate to the current logic of publishing as prestige distribution. We already have prestigious open access journals in some fields. Some of them were started from scratch, and have become rapidly well known, while others were flipped from the conventional publishing model. But will this way bring open access to all disciplines of academic research? And will it allow researchers to enjoy both career benefits and all technical opportunities created by the Internet?
Image: Weaver at the loom (from front) by Vincent Van Gogh. The public domain work.