Monday, March 30, 2009

"If we invented the scholarly journal today, what would it look like?"

"Disorientation," says the University of Washington's Joe Janes. "And Dairy Milk."

(I love Joe for loving Dairy Milk. Having given it up for Lent, I'm also a bit growly at having had Dairy Milk brought into my frame of reference so early in the day.)

He talks about his strolls around Torquay in the last couple of days, and the "busman's holiday" treat of checking out the library ... which was closed (it was Sunday) - unlike the Tesco opposite with its poor excuse for a BLT.

"How much more disorienting things are," says Joe, "when things seem familiar, but are just a little off." He describes his first trip to Britain where everything looked normal but - wasn't. In scholarly communication, we're currently in the process of leaving a country that we know really well (because we built it) and entering one that seems familiar, but isn't. This is harder than just starting all over again - and the transitions we see before us will be fast, profound, radical and forever. "Your future," he notes to the students in the room, "will be nothing like this. Except the parts that are."

When we're disoriented, we look for guideposts and parallels to work out where to go from here. Scholarly communications matters in guiding future research activity - and all our pieces must fit together well for it to work (cites a story about a woman researching asthma who died because she did not find crucial information in PubMed - need Joe to write a comment expanding on this story!)

Editing, peer review, tenure, pricing and all these other functions around scholarly communications are currently up for grabs - access, e-science and a million other developments. The way in which scholarly artefacts are created, the form and structure they take on, the way they're searched, used, distributed and preserved - these are all changing as we speak - some will even change as a result of this conference. How much longer will an article be called an article? As we live in an increasingly digital, networked world, so the outputs of our research will be increasingly digital and networked. What about an article that includes a live satellite feed, or live peer-review? The containers of scholarly communications are cracking apart, and the object itself can begin to crack in and new aspects (video, audio, social networking) can become a part of it.

The scholarly journal looks like it does based on what was the common medium of communication in the 18th century. If we were to invent it today, what would it look like? Scholarship itself will take a dramatic leap in terms of authenticity and genuineness now that researchers can express more effectively what their results are - leading to different kinds of research endeavours and questions. Our new and forthcoming capabilities will change the face of knowledge itself - "a boon for all of us".

A lot of what we build into what we do is based on an assumption of permanence and endurance - giant buildings of bound journal runs. If we didn't have these, or put them somewhere else, it would change how we build our services and even our professional ethics. "I'm the token American here so I have to say change, hope and 'yes we can'!"

Some of us will make it happen and some of us will be cleaning up after it has happened. One approach to figure out where we'll go from here is to look for our signposts. We mustn't shoehorn new developments into old pigeonholes - a blog is not a scholarly journal, Wikipedia is not Encylopedia Britannica. The further down the road we get, the more we'll see what our current harbingers of change mean. We all have to be mindful of the long-haul - careful not to put our eggs in a basket that's not going to be around (remember Gopher?). It probably works to base our strategies on incremental change, but it might work better to think about starting over: what is the right way for us, together, to design the right system to engender, distribute, collect, scan and use the results of scholarly work?

"Maybe the question isn't 'where do we go from here', but 'how do we get there?'"

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