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Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
What is in a word?
When my generation gets a new appliance, we tend to read the instruction manual before assembling or turning on the device. Today’s youth are more than likely to open the box, throw the software in the CD drive and hit return, preferring to trust to experience and sensibility to venture into the “unknown”. In fact, many chip driven devices come only with a very limited manual and have an under utilized help file sitting in the system’s memory, somewhere. While we, the digital immigrants, look on with astonishment, we tend to forget that much of what we do automatically is based on experience. Thus, many of us can wire a house without a manual or make a pizza from scratch rather than taking it from the freezer straight to the microwave.
For many professionals, “reading the literature”, does not mean starting at the title and reading to the final period at the end of the conclusion. Yet today, in professional, publish or perish journals, format and academic protocol dictate a form which was developed centuries ago, a standard based on models of scientific writing suited to the days of quill and ink and not the high speed, ubiquitous, Internet. In the 1960s someone once said that if a physicist would stop doing research and just pursued articles in his field, at the end of two years he would be two years behind. Today, the word processor can facilitate the creation of many words that can be submitted, at the click of a mouse, to a journal, a Web page or an e-mail distribution list. The need to publish or perish in refereed journals has driven, in part, the proliferation articles and both brick and click space journals to officially sanction and distribute these materials.
To seek clever ways to wade through this ever multiplying, e-generated, materials, researchers are building trusted circles or communities of practice where there seems to be a tacit distribution of the responsibility of maintaining some cognition of what is happening in specialized arenas of research. Some “trusted” associates, today, are virtual creatures that scavenge the Internet as a researcher’s intelligent alter ego. Thus, in addition to carrying out experiments, analyzing results and evaluating new experiments which are then carried out, the computer can now search the literature and weigh the results into the final options regarding subsequent sampling and analysis. Of course, the results can be reported in a more efficient format than the literature that scientists have been using since the founding of the British Royal Society.
In essence, the world of the digital native, the individual who can extract information efficiently or operate in an information abridged environment, is merging with the electronic intellectual scavengers who are able to also quickly weigh elements and sense where the value proposition lies. Yet, the professional research article remains and prospers almost as an art form, serving form and function much as the traditional academic robes and other accoutrements that embellish the world of the academy.
While reviewing articles for several academic journals, I remarked that much of what was offered could be extracted in a simple table with footnotes. The materials might serve well as the equivalent of a single data point for research which would take years to see sufficient points to yield substantive results. The editor’s response was that he was seeing more of these articles today from academics who appeared to be under pressure to get material into print. In other words, the form of the article met a function which had more to do with the use of the article for purposes other than dissemination of mission critical information to collegial associates working on similar research which could have been noted by a short note or e-delivery on a common Web site. Digital natives seem to understand these exigencies and are able to transcend these, while AI driven engines have the speed and sensitivity to peel the onion and extract the essence.
Today, there is concern over the rising cost to academic libraries to both acquire and sustain large collections of academic journals. The focus has been on what appears to be the egregious drive for profits by those who publish the academic journals. Professional societies indicate that these profits sustain the organization’s activities, the private sector sees their returns as profits. Thus academics are caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Should cost be reduced their professional societies would need to find other revenues. Thus the model that is emerging is to revise the old idea of a page charge for those publishing and make the access free. Now the burden is shifted to the large university’s research budget and away from the administrative loading on the libraries. Of course, this starts to pinch the institutions, globally who have small research budgets or those whose academics contribute in areas that are under funded, such as the humanities and social sciences or small science research institutions.
In this period of change is it time to approach this by questioning that which remains unspoken, the purpose of academic publishing as a vehicle, not for collegial communication, but as a primary measure of an academic for the proper robes marking the progress through the path of promotion and tenure? In other words, in an Internet driven world where essential information can be extracted with the efficiency of a vampire, the drained intellectual carcass serves little value. One does not deny that certain domains where qualitative analysis is critical, articles serve a purpose. But then one must ask whether the oeuvre might serve the academic community rather than fragmented pieces delivered more for purposes other than to make a statement which will stand the sands of time with greater resilience than Shelly’s Ozymandias.
In other words, has the Internet and the coming of age of the digital native played the role of the innocent child in the fairy tale of the king’s new clothes. Has not The Time exposed the fallacy of the misdirection, the cost of academic journals, which appears much like the knife stuck in the stair well of the fairy tale of “The Three Sillies”? In other words, should scholars reassess the entire domain of academic publishing in a wired world where just-in-time communication in its essence can provide the most efficient means of collegial exchanges.
On asking such a question, immediately many other issues shift in importance besides the fiscal burden and tangled mass of materials created by the ancient ritual of publication. Ownership of the ideas, now caught in the issues of copyrights, can follow the paths being worked out by the music industry as they solve the problems created by Napster and similar file sharing software. More than symbolic nods can be given to the traditional academic relationship between the scholar and the larger community, the Socratic Agora, or the scholar and the pupil as in the ancient lyceums, and centers for study.
This also starts to make more sense as we see academic campuses look more like complete communities by imbedding regular housing, shopping centers and other urban amenities along with office parks and business incubators. The idea of an academy isolated behind ivy covered walls becomes the exception rather than the norm. The rise of virtual universities, private-for-profit institutions focusing on education rather than research and the merging of k-12 systems with grades 13-16 also point to changing demands on academics and offers new incentives to reassess the entire scholarly publication model.
Tom P. Abeles
While most readers will remember the story of the king’s new clothes where the king and the subjects have been fooled by clever criminals posing as weavers, many may not know the story of the three sillies. Essentially a gentleman was to be engaged to one of three sisters. While at their home for dinner, one daughter was sent to the basement to fetch milk and did not return. The other daughters and the father then subsequently went one-by-one to find out what had happened. The prospective groom then found all of them sitting on the steps weeping because there was an axe stuck in the ceiling of the stairwell. They were crying because they each worried that, should the couple marry and their child went down to fetch milk, the axe might come loose and fall on the child’s head. The man took the axe out and vowed only to marry the woman if, in his journey, he could find three persons sillier than the members of the family. Of course, he eventually did.