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Participation Value and Shelf-Life for Journal Articles

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In this age of declining viewership, television ratings for sporting events are showing surprising resiliency and are on a major upswing. Entrepreneur and gadfly Mark Cuban has an explanation for this. According to Cuban, the internet has trained us to assign two values to all content: participation value and shelf-life.

Participation value is a measure of how much engagement with others the content inspires. Are you going to get a group of friends together to see that new movie? Will you have people over to watch the big game? Are you going to blog or tweet from the audience of the event? Will you go to a discussion forum and talk about how your team is doing?

Shelf-life measures how long the content is available, and perhaps more importantly, how long the participation value is likely to last:

The higher the participation value, the shorter the shelf-life. . . . While some may think that combining the presentation of events/shows/etc and the participation into a single webpage makes sense. It doesn’t. The internet has also trained us that if it can be shown on the internet, its probably not going to have a high participation value. Why? Because the expectation is that if its on the internet, you can get to it any time you want it. Its out there waiting for you to stream or download at your pleasure. There is a long perceived shelf-life. So there is no rush.

While sporting events and scholarly publications are obviously different, there are some clear points here that explain why so many attempts at discussion forums revolving around scholarly papers have failed. Papers should have great participation value — every field of study revolves around the presentation of results, and there’s a near constant level of interpretation and reinterpretation of those results. So why aren’t there online forums overflowing with discussion as each new issue of a journal is released?

Much participation is hampered by cultural issues within research communities, discussed here, particularly a hesitancy to speak openly and critically. But there are other factors involved that limit participation value. First, there’s a huge amount of diverse material continuously published. With few exceptions, each paper published is relevant to only a small subset of the overall academic community. If there were a thousand professional football leagues, each with hundreds of teams, it would be a lot more difficult to drive participation around an individual game than it is to unite the country around the current one national Monday night game.

Beyond that, shelf-life is playing a role here, particularly considering the asynchronous way that papers are accessed (there’s that word “asynchronous” again — there’s probably a reason it’s popping up in so many posts recently). If there’s a Mets game on television tonight, that’s the one Mets game that most Mets fans will be watching and using as the basis of their participation tonight (assuming they’re masochists). But if an interesting paper on signal transduction comes out in this month’s issue of Cell, some cell biologists will read it the day it comes out, others later in the week, later in the month, or even years and years from now.

I have a hard time staying involved in a blog comment thread for more than a few days, so the idea of following an intermittent conversation over months or years is hard to imagine.

There are certainly revolutionary papers that have instantaneous impact, overturning dogma in an entire field, but these are rare events. For run of the mill papers, there’s an immediacy for only a small number of researchers. Their needs are often better met with directed communication, rather than relying on serendipity. If I read a paper and need details on how an assay is performed, it’s not very efficient for me to leave a comment on the paper asking for help and then sit idly until a Good Samaritan stumbles upon my comment and provides an answer. This could take months or years, and by then my grant funding will have dried up. Instead, I can have my answer in minutes with an e-mail or phone call to the author.

For others, there’s relevance, but not immediacy, which lengthens the schedule for getting around to reading them and lowers the likelihood of having important comments or questions to ask. Research is a long, slow process, an evolutionary one where your directions and needs for background knowledge change over time. I may work on a worm gene for years, and then knock out its function and see a particular effect. That effect may open a whole new avenue of research, and I may discover that there’s a paper from ten years ago where someone saw a similar effect in a fruit fly experiment. I may be excited and ready to discuss that decade-old paper, but it’s unlikely that there’s still an ongoing internet discussion still revolving around it.

So in scholarly publishing, it’s an odd combination of extreme immediacy for very few and lengthy shelf-life for the majority that’s hampering participation value. Combine those factors with the rampant fear of getting scooped or committing career suicide by revealing too much in public, and perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect scholarly papers to engender the sort of frenzied participation we see around current events on Twitter or blog comments.

If you’re interested in building robust discussion forums for academics, you may be better suited focusing on more fleeting things with broad appeal, like meetings.

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About David Crotty

I am a Senior Editor with Oxford University Press' journal publishing program. Prior to that I served as an Executive Editor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and was also the commissioning editor for their book publishing program. Many years ago, I was a research scientist, receiving my Ph.D. in Genetics & Development from Columbia University, and doing postdoctoral research in neural development at Caltech.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Participation Value and Shelf-Life for Journal Articles

  1. There’s an additional factor at play here: by the time many important papers are published, the key players in the field have known about the data for a while.

    The work will have already been discussed privately among the authors’ close friends. It will then have been presented at conferences, where the real public discussion occurs.

    Thus, in a sense, such papers are old news by the time they’re published, and participating in discussion at that stage probably only serves to reveal that one is ‘out of the loop’.

    Posted by Richard Sever | Nov 5, 2009, 10:21 am
    • Maybe that should factor in to “shelf life” in the equation–perhaps “freshness” should be a component.

      Posted by David Crotty | Nov 5, 2009, 10:50 am
    • Right, but in many cases, the introduction of papers into the “real world” sheds light on aspects that weren’t as clear in the academic halls. The discussion around these implications, as well as awareness that a paper has become public, could/should drive discussion. We’re still discussing some papers from 100+ years ago, after all. Awareness is not the same as meaning.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Nov 5, 2009, 11:43 am
  2. The most participatory social interaction many researchers partake in real life are the discussions that occur around a table at a pub, particularly if a stellar scientist is participating.

    They do not generally sit around and discuss a particular paper when they do this. More like a wide-ranging series of topics. Even journal clubs are often much more wide-ranging than a single topic from a single paper.

    The best online manifestation of this can easily be seen at the various science blogs, especially those run by prominent scientists.

    The discussions at RealClimate, ResearchBlogging or even Pharyngula often have much more in common with all sorts of normal scientific discourse than those seen for journal articles.

    It seems to me that if a journal wants to have many researchers participate in scientific discussions at its website, it would do better to follow this model than to simply allow comments on papers.

    In particular, journals from professional associations, which already have a built-in audience, might want to do this instead of paper-by-paper discussions.

    Posted by Richard | Nov 9, 2009, 3:34 pm

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