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On “New Forms of Scholarly Communication”

Presented below are remarks prepared for a meeting of Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) Department Chairs and Academic Associate Deans hosted by the IUB Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs. The focus of the larger gathering was a campus-wide discussion of tenure and promotion issues, with a special emphasis on current draft revisions to campus-level tenure and promotion guidelines. The task assigned to me was to reflect on the place of new forms of scholarly communication in the tenure and promotion mix. Other speakers were recruited to address diversity, interdisciplinarity, and public scholarly engagement. Speakers were grouped into two person panels and allotted five (and only five) minutes for a statement. Ten minutes of discussion was scheduled on each theme following the two presentations.

Because it was a campus-wide event and because it was anticipated by the vice provost that my co-presenter Ruth Stone would speak about issues in the digital humanities, I endeavored to draw my examples from further afield. The brevity of the assignment precluded discussion of many of my favorite examples and many relevant issues (ex: the role of scholarly societies or issues of open access) were not raised at all. To help my listeners find their way to the conversations that I evoked, I offer my text here with the links that oral presentation could not facilitate.

There are countless resources available for the purpose of gaining an introduction to the subject of change in scholarly communication. One very reasonable and appropriate overview–inclusive of a call for wider discussion among researchers–is available in Karla L. Hahn’s (2008) “Talk About Talking About New Models of Scholarly Communication.”

My thanks go to Vice Provost Tom Gieryn for the opportunity to make this presentation.

. . .

While I will use a few examples, my task is to reinforce four general themes that you are probably already are carrying into discussions with your departmental and disciplinary colleagues—change, genres, processes, and metrics.

Change. As reflected in the draft guidelines, junior faculty are pursuing careers that bear less and less resemblance to those of their mentors. As with most forms of cultural change, there will be losses and gains attendant to these shifts. Regardless of our own hopes and fears, we have an obligation to engage with the shifts happening to us. A fringe benefit of moments of discontinuity is that they help us focus more intensively on our persistent core values. How we do peer-assessment and how impactfulness is achieved and assessed are very much in flux, but their centrality as values is not.

Genres. With countless examples to choose from, change is particularly noticeable here. I could, for instance, evoke the revolutionary arXiv e-print server that drives scholarly communication in physics and several neighboring fields, but consider instead the work of Kansas State anthropologist Michael Wesch. In 2007, while still an assistant professor Wesch was struggling to write an article explaining the changes being wrought by the new database-backed web. His topic resisted textual explication but he channeled his frustration into the making of a YouTube video that has gone on to be viewed over a million and half times. This video is part of an innovative portfolio that secured not only tenure and a distinguished professorial appointment at KSU, but also the title of 2008 Outstanding U.S. Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year in the annual competition sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. Such accolades for innovative teaching and research have a way of focusing the attention of even the most conservative senior faculty, but they also remind us of the risks attendant to our moment. At IU and elsewhere, how many innovative and productive young colleagues have fallen through the cracks during the present period of change, with its attendant pushback in the name of established norms? What opportunity costs have already been paid across the generation gap? Not every excellent assistant professor can be named professor of the year. I read the new guidelines to be calling us to rethink our views on the forms that scholarly production can take, but also to find ways of encouraging and rewarding fruitful risk-taking by pre-tenure faculty.

Processes. New forms of scholarly communication are being built upon new technological resources, but I am purposefully not dwelling upon that aspect. I have argued elsewhere that changing social (including economic) arrangements are more crucial to understanding the current situation. Collaboration might serve as the watchword here. Even in the most traditionally lone wolf fields, collaboration is ascendant and our older customs of parsing first, second, third, etc. author on a journal article will hardly do. I could talk about the way that 3000 names appear on articles published by CERN physics researchers (see examples here and an analysis of the problems by Jeremy Birnholtz) but, instead, consider the case of Galaxy Zoo.*

More than 250,000 people are now participating in this crowdsourcing project analyzing robotic telescope data. A global community of participants are accelerating basic science in astronomy at a rate of 50 million galaxy classification per year. Galaxy Zoo has generated a raft of fundamental discoveries, publications, and (most interestingly to me) new ethical protocols for respecting the contributions made by all project participants (for details on citizen science ethics, see the Galaxy Zoo Case Study). For my fellow humanists I’ll note the spinoff project, Ancient Lives, in which thousands of papyrus fragments are being transcribed with the help of thousands of citizen humanists. In the world that we live in now, increasing the number of participants in a project does not automatically and consequently diminish the labor or contribution attributable to any one participant.

Metrics. I want to be extra careful here. Even for the inherited scholarly article genre, we know the flaws in existing metrics such as impact factor, even as we feel pressure to invest in them more intensively. Consider in this connection the altmetrics movement. If this conversation is not yet on your radar, I recommend beginning with the Altmetrics Manifesto. Beyond the old ideal of engaging our colleagues work closely, I am not endorsing any one approach, just noting that altmetrics efforts are part of a larger set of conversations concerning peer-review, new media, new scholarly genres, and new ways of thinking about the scholarly and social impact of research and creative activity.

In my view, all of us who mentor and assess junior faculty need to have some grounding in these discussions and the changes that they track and provoke. I hope the connections linking these themes are clear enough. If we are producing new and diverse kinds of scholarly productions via new and diverse kinds of scholarly collaborations, then we will need new and more diverse kinds of rubrics for assessing the relative excellence and impact of this work. We certainly aren’t going to retreat from a standard of excellence but the work of measuring and recognizing it is surely getting harder and more important. While much of the responsibility lies with them, our junior colleagues need to know that we are on the case and are participating in the changed world in which they, and we, work.


* For my knowledge of Galaxy Zoo, I am indebted to Lucy Fortson of the University of Minnesota, who presented (in remarkable fashion) on the project during a symposium on collaboration and open scholarship hosted by the University of Minnesota Libraries. A video of the symposium presentations (including hers) is available here. Details on the event are available here.

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