Last week, on the Friday we usually set aside for posts that are lighter and more fun, I gently mocked an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a new intiative, PressForward. The article had presented the reward system of PressForward as placing print at its pinnacle, and that struck me as a sign that a lingering print bias was in play at PressForward, at the Chronicle, or both. It certainly persists in academia in general, even though it’s slowly eroding.
The founder of PressForward commented that he’d wished we’d taken a more serious look at his initiative. He’s right to ask for this. The initiative deserves more than a passing jibe based on how it was covered in the Chronicle.
PressForward is impressive in a number of ways – it comes from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which also brought us Zotero; it has attracted a significant amount of seed funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; it has an impressive list of advisors and advocates; and it’s a good idea. After all, online publication is the de facto standard now, and with more context, discussion, analysis, and synthesis occurring by voices that are sometimes operating in the shadows, an initiative that judiciously sheds light on these and elevates them to academics is perhaps a little overdue.
Most interesting to me is this statement about their goal:
The web beyond academia has had to develop mechanisms for filtering for quantity, on sites such as Techmeme and The Browser; the academy has honed a set of methods of filtering for quality, through peer review. PressForward aims to marry these old and new methods to expose and disseminate the very best in online scholarship.
The problem of filter failure is looming within scholarly communication, now more than ever. While it certainly will help to have something like PressForward recommending material from outside the standard canon, I wish they also expanded their remit to include filtering the current body of scholarship to select the best of that increasingly hairy mess. In many ways, what we need isn’t more information; we need less. A service that does a good job of separating wheat from chaff certainly will find an audience. PressForward does this to some extent, but its efforts will only add information for scholars to consider. They are already overwhelmed.
For this reason and others, I think PressForward faces an uphill battle. The culture of academic writing still incentivizes publication in established, indexed sources with known impact factors and recognized names that jump off a CV. While there may be a few places with worthwhile academic thought occurring regularly outside standard publications, they’re probably going to need all that funding and all that influence to change the trajectory we’re currently on.
PressForward also promises to create “an open-source platform for scholarly communities and organizations to create their own trusted, high-value streams of relevant content.” I’m not sure this isn’t redundant effort, as I type into WordPress — a free platform perfectly capable of conveying scholarly content. But if that platform helps them make advances with entities like CrossRef and PubMed and other scholarly registration and validation sources, then it would not be purely duplicative, and it would be far more than additive — it would be transformative.
Academic culture is intrinsically conservative, but various layers are peeling off to explore new terrain. How rapidly and how much academic culture is willing to change — and whether initiatives like PressForward can endure long enough to reap the seeds they’re trying to sow — are the questions fundamentally in play.