This year’s plenary Oxford-style debate at the Profession and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) Annual Conference had as its proposition, “The journal and the contributing reference book are no longer valuable as the unit of professional content distribution, and will die.”
Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners and I debated Brian Crawford of the American Chemical Society and Michael Fisher of the Harvard University Press in front of a large crowd in Washington, DC, yesterday. Thane Kerner of Silverchair moderated the debate.
The format provided each debating team with two seven-minute segments to make their arguments (one per speaker), an interrogative section with questions from Kerner and the audience, then a matching set of two-minute closing statements.
Prior to the debate, a text-message polling system was used to take the temperature of the room. At the start, 56% felt that reference books and journals would endure, 35% felt they would perish, and 9% were unsure.
Crawford and Fisher defended the role of expertise, stressed the relative immutability of the functions of the reference book and journal in both academic life and intellectual output, spoke to the power of the tenure and promotion system in a publish-or-perish culture, and underscored the importance of trusted brands in an information realm that is exploding with choice.
O’Leary and I observed that while research reporting and reference works are still important, their containers are changing, evolving from time-limited and space-limited entities into updated, boundless, and interactive forms we’re still exploring. These changes will change editorial and authorship functions, and are already changing how readers access and evaluate content.
Many familiar themes were sounded during the debate, including:
- Expertise vs. elitism
- Trust networks vs. brand power
- Linking vs. referencing
- Crowd-sourcing vs. editorial control
- Motivations vs. inducements
- Timeliness vs. thoroughness
- Relevance vs. trust
It was a lively debate, and I especially appreciated the good spirit in which Fisher especially took some ribbing from yours truly when his tongue-in-cheek comments invited the occasional attempt at a zinger. The entire debate ultimately seemed to revolve around defining terms and framing the issues, like most things. We found ourselves conflating ideas, arguing while agreeing, and doing all those normal, messy things that emerge during an active dialog. It was pretty fun and enlightening.
Ultimately, the status quo prevailed, with the final vote reflecting little movement in attitudes — 59% that reference books and journals would endure, 36% that they would perish, and 5% remaining unsure.
One of the most interesting aspects was after the debate, when the audience, liberated from the constraints of public disclosure, made some private points. One that stuck in my mind was a comment about flaws in the journal form, especially the requirement of the structured abstract to include an element labeled “Conclusion.” This person observed that a group he’s working with feels this is an artifice that leads to statements that may be too strong, definite, and absolute given the data, and we discussed perhaps a new label might be “Inferences.” Another audience member was a little exasperated by the inertia of the voting, exclaiming something I’ll paraphrase as, “If what’s going on now isn’t enough to make you think these things will change, you are not paying attention.”
O’Leary had a most memorable closing to a debate for a topic like this, quoting from Salman Rushdie‘s “Haroun & the Sea of Stories” to underscore his point that a better future for information is eminently possible:
. . . about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure, the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity. . . . these were the Streams of Story, and that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.