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A mission statement is essentially a statement about why an organization exists.

Look at non-profit mission statements, and the word “dissemination” is often found. It’s an aspiration to get information out, propagate information beyond a limited scope, broadcast information widely, and serve the field and influence society by doing so.

But is “dissemination” today mission-worthy? Or is it a leftover from an era of scarcity, when publishing faced geographical, mechanical, and physical barriers that required sizable centralized resources to overcome?

In those days, the power to disseminate information was to be envied. It was hard to create, hard to sustain, and a true differentiator. Boasting of “dissemination” as a mission aspiration and duty was a somber obligation to something non-trivial. It set you apart.

Granted, there are still barriers to overcome in getting information into the right hands at the right time, but is dissemination still representative of the barriers we face? Most scientists and physicians can have the same access to scientific information nearly anywhere in the world, with no delay and the same barriers they’d face at work or home. The information is all sitting right there, instantly accessible. Its dissemination is a given.

Users are often very effective at disseminating information. They forward emails, link via Twitter or Facebook, and share offline. Google itself is a major disseminator of our information. Dissemination is no longer a distinctive trait for an organization, but a fact of life for not only any organization but also for any of its constituents. It has become a completely diluted term with little power to define an organization uniquely.

In fact, the challenges we’re now facing in communication and curation of information are not about dissemination itself, but about selection, targeting, filtering, and notification. Imagine a mission-drive publisher with a mission not based on dissemination but, instead, on filtering (this is a playful modification of an actual mission statement):

The Institute’s mission is to improve and internationally promote the health and productivity of sock wearers through its mandate to generate scientific research in socks, sock sorting, sock varieties, sock habitats and sock products; educational programs in sock management practices and sock-related enterprises; and disseminatingfiltering, critically assessing, and selecting information to improve scientific and educational endeavors related to socks.

To me, that seems a more compelling mission than “disseminating,” which was in the original. After all, in the age of abundance, it’s not getting to information that’s a problem, it’s knowing which information is worth spending time with that is the problem.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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Discussion

11 Thoughts on "Is "Dissemination" Mission-Worthy Anymore?"

The problem with picking on words is that they have friends. In this case the friend is the word “about.” The dissemination you are picking on has always been information about something, whether socks, semantic analysis or stomach surgery. Thus filtering, critical assessment and selection has always been the core function. It is certainly the core function of scholarly journals. (However I despise the word filtering because it suggests keeping information from people.)

On the other hand you are right. The greater the glut the greater the need to help people find what they are looking for, especially when they do not know what that is. Simply sticking your stuff up on the Web does not do it, or not well anyway. What I call “findability” is the great communication challenge of our day. It is what made Google the monster it is today, but Google is just the model T of finding. (Commercial disclosure: findability is my field.)

There are two sides to findability. One is finding of course, which is what Google does. But the other is being findable, which is what disseminators need to think about. The finders and the findables need to work together.

Yes, this was a quick post to get an idea out. There are many stories about dissemination being done poorly by organizations that haven’t internalized the realities of the modern era. As you note quite rightly, discoverability is a huge concern. Just disseminating and considering the job done is insufficient. You have to do a lot more now to make sure your information competes well, continues to be seen when appropriate, remains linked and findable, etc.

To continue the semantic discussion, the word “dissemination” implies a willful activity intended on spreading something–information in this case–as widely as possible. When scientific societies wrote the word “dissemination” into their mission, they were thinking about printing and mailing copies of journals to scientists and libraries, which is an accurate description of information dissemination prior to digital networked publishing.

Diffusion is perhaps a better term when talking about the flow of information in the digital world, although “diffusion” is more of a passive process, much like the way a concentration of atoms diffuse through a vacuum.

If we think of dissemination as a willful and purposeful act to spread information then it still works with digital publishing, only we need to think beyond simply mounting a PDF and waiting for it to be discovered. Editors actively help to disseminate new findings by promoting selective articles, highlighting them in editorials, sending out news releases, working with the press, pushing them through social networks, etc.

By thinking of dissemination as an activity, rather than a state of access, dissemination is still a core mission of organizations and in a market of overabundance, dissemination can even trump filtering!

Publishers are also doing a great deal to improve digital findability (sorry but I dislike the term discovery in this context, as it gets confused with true scientific discovery, perhaps deliberately. Discovering an article is not the same as discovering an element or a cure.)

For example, and just to hype my client, OSTI, they have developed or added things like more-like-this search, query translation, clustering, and grade level stratification, not to mention local search federation, their flagship technology. I just developed an algorithm to find all and (more importantly) only those articles related to a given specialized topic. Publishers have made great strides in findability, with greater strides to come. We really are driving model T’s (which were revolutionary).

I remember when Google Scholar did not work. But then I remember the first Xerox machine, and not that long ago. Let’s not forget how far we have come, even while we look ahead.

Interesting topic and discoverability is certainly an issue now with the glut of information on the web. I couldn’t help but think there are still parts of the world where information is still blocked or filtered–ongoing or selectively. We take it for granted that it is always available and it may not be for everyone, even with access to the web.

Certainly dissemination is very broad and the question today is more about how to provide useful ways for people to navigate the sea of information. In a conversation about the value of the editorial process that I had today with Ginny Barbour, editor of PLoS Medicine, she described it as more funneling than filtering.

But let’s not forget that, as Barbara says, the whole world certainly does not have access to all the information for a variety of reasons.

Mission statements are about goals, or, as you said, “aspirations” — what the organization is aiming for and hopefully achieving. I see the problem with the word “dissemination” (or diffusion or findability or discoverability, etc) is that it is too passive. The actual goal desired is RECEPTION: that the information being disseminated, diffused, made findable or discoverable was actually received, found, discovered, and eventually used and acted upon. No one in the chain of information supply, from author to publisher to librarian, would want the end result of their work being merely available. Appropriate use is the ultimate goal.

“Granted, there are still barriers to overcome in getting information into the right hands at the right time” – to me, that means the answer to the question in your title is “Yes”.

I also suggest that “selection, targeting, filtering, and notification” are complements to dissemination, not alternatives. There is no either/or here.

Interesting piece … and also a reminder of the dangers of making assumptions about global parity on this issue. The Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme is a four-country initiative working at trying to raise the visibility of research output from four Southern African universities. For us, the current push is to try to get dissemination ONTO the agenda. There is still a great deal of ‘free-rider’ syndrome among African universities making the assumption that dissemination can be left to publishers. It is not a given in our context.

Availability of information is not ubiquitous. While I agree with the post that the sheer amount of information available online means that filtering (or whatever word you want to use for it) is a valuable goal for researchers. But from a scientific journal’s perspective, dissemination is still a goal. Bergstrom & Bergstrom (2006 – citation below) showed that dissemination differed between for-profit and non-profit ecology journals. For-profit journals’ goals are generally to maximize profits, which often involves a strategy of raising subscription fees substantially. This results in more money coming from a smaller number of (wealthy) subscribers. Non-profit journals (such as The Canadian Field-Naturalist, of which I am Journal Manager) want our research read by as many people, including not-very-wealthy conservation organizations, as possible. This requires subscription fees to be as cheap as possible while still allowing us to break even. We don’t make as much money as the for-profit journals, but we disseminate our research to more people, which achieves a major goal of ours. Dissemination (at least to the appropriate audience) is, in my opinion, a worthy goal.

Reference cited:
Bergstrom, C. T. and T. C. Bergstrom. 2006. The economics of ecology journals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4: 488-495.

My initial reaction to this comment is to note how dramatically things have changed since 2006 (or whenever your research was actually done — likely 2005). Dissemination is much easier now with Twitter, Facebook, RSS, and sharing services galore. What are you doing beyond business model solutions to enable this? Are you allowing your audience to filter information for their trust networks? One of the points of the post I hope is that traditional push dissemination is being overtaken by sharing and social dissemination, which can be assumed so no longer needs to be part of a mission per se. It’s the mission of other superordinate players now.

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