Culture trumps technology. This is main message of a five-year study into the values, motivations, and communication behaviors of scholars and their associates at research institutions across the United States.
“Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: An Exploration of Faculty Values and Needs in Seven Disciplines,” is the result of 160 in-depth interviews across 45 U.S. research institutions, focusing on seven academic fields: archaeology, astrophysics, biology, economics, history, music, and political science.
The 728-page report was released last month and is freely available from the project website. Supported by a grant by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, the report was authored by Diane Harley, Sophia Krzys Acord, Sarah Earl-Novell, Shannon Lawrence, and C. Judson King, all from the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley.
The reoccurring theme in the report is that academia is a highly conservative system, largely determined by disciplinary norms and organized around external peer-review and assessment. Starting from this premise, the resultant lack of scholarly engagement in radically new forms of publishing should not be that surprising.
The advice given to pre-tenure scholars was consistent across all fields: focus on publishing in the right venues and avoid spending too much time on public engagement, committee work, writing op-ed pieces, developing websites, blogging, and other non-traditional forms of electronic dissemination (including online course activities). (p.ii)
What is surprising is why so many publishers and new commercial venues have jumped into the Web 2.0 space hoping they could do for scholars what Facebook did to teenagers and relying on a Zeitgeist of “build it and they will come.” Yes, teenagers become adults, but they often drop their teenage habits through the socialization of the classroom and the enculturation of academic culture. Harley writes:
There is ample evidence that, once initiated into the profession, newer scholars—be they graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, or assistant professors—adopt the behaviors, norms, and recommendations of their mentors in order to advance their careers. Of course, teenagers eventually develop into adults. (p.iii)
Yet, the report stops short of suggesting that scholarly communication is fixed and immutable. Academic culture changes — albeit slowly — and scholarship evolves with it. New technologies come to market. Most fail or are largely ignored. A few survive because they address a disciplinary need, manage to attract enough early adopters, and through a combination of persistence, marketing, and sheer luck, end up becoming a standard practice.
It’s not an easy road to success. What’s more, new tools that ignore the core values of disciplines and the reward systems embedded within can start rethinking their product before they burn through all their venture capital.
Experiments in new genres of scholarship and dissemination are occurring in every field, but they are taking place within the context of relatively conservative value and reward systems that have the practice of peer review at their core. (p. iv – v)
Harley and her co-authors employ a grounded theory approach to their work, listening to academics, administrators, and librarians until common patterns emerge and general statements can be made. It’s the approach of an anthropologist, which is not that surprising, given that this is Harley’s background.
Few readers will take the time to plow through the entire 728 pages of this report. Luckily, it’s prefaced with a full Executive Summary. Chapter 1 contains a good description of the methodology, main findings, and conclusions, followed by seven detailed case studies, one for each discipline. The last chapter is reserved for a bibliography of relevant literature.
While the authors demonstrate a clear understanding of the relevant literature, reaching beyond journal articles to include reports, position papers, conferences, newspapers, and blogs, the report conspicuously lacks the core literature from the sociology of science — a field dedicated to understand science as a social system.
And yet this report deserves to sit on the shelf alongside similar important works of academic sociology such as Warren Hagstrom’s The scientific community (1965), Robert Merton’s Sociology of Science (1973), Diana Crane’s Invisible colleges (1972), Jonathan and Stephen Cole’s Social stratification in science (1973), Bruno Latour’s Laboratory life (1986), and Science in action (1987).
Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication is a landmark work deserving of scholarly as well as professional recognition. The fact that it was self-published online rather than by, say, the University of Chicago Press, is somewhat telling.
Perhaps scholarly communication is changing . . . at least a bit.