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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

How can scholarly communication avoid becoming just a cacophony of noise?

White Noise -CC BY 2.0 Kyknoord (Mental State)
I was asked to write an editorial for the UKSG newsletter. UKSG purpose is to connect the knowledge community and encouraging the exchange of ideas on scholarly communication. So wrote a piece on how can scholarly communication avoid becoming just a cacophony of noise - a tough one to answer.
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In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the author sums up how big space is by writing:  “Space is big. really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.” Well the same applies to the web. In our own personal online universe we see it as something big, but do not realise how truly vast and diverse it is. Take for example the 300 minutes of video that is uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. In 2013 it was estimated that there were over 14 trillion webpages on the Internet; and does that include the non-indexed, dark, intranet content or is it much, much bigger than that? When we think about scholarly content we often think about it in simple terms, journals, papers, presentations, databases and (for more web-focused academics) a collection of tools and social networks. It is likely to be much more than we can imagine, as academic content and comment seeps into the media, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with the latter providing a constant stream of academic Tweets. Then we have tools like iTunes U, JOVE, Piirus, Slideshare and Mendeley to name but a very few.

Even though academia has been slow in embracing what we used to often refer as web 2.0 in 2005, there is still an awful lot of chatter around the web from academics. Lots use Twitter, over 7 million on ResearchGate, 3 million on Mendeley and over 21 million are on It is a very big place with a lot of conversations going on 24 hours a day, globally. Naturally not all of these users are active or engaging with the platforms and communities. Nevertheless that is potentially a lot of sharing and conversations and this is before we really get our teeth into open peer review. Then look at Twitter and how many academics are on there using the micro-blogging site as a regular communication tool. There are no exact figures, but it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands at the very least. Founder of, Richard Price estimated in 2011 that there were about 17 million faculty members and graduate students in the world. This is of course an estimate, as it is hard to track staff in-between contracts and those retired but still working.

We are now at a crossroads within academia when we think about openness, whether that be MOOCs, altmetrics, open peer review, open access or big data - they all have an open element to them. With more websites creating opportunities for open dialogue between academics worldwide, it seems wrong not to grasp them with both hands, provided that this openness comes with responsibility. The problem is that researchers have not adapted to these changes very well, and through no fault of their own. After all, they are busy professionals who are encouraged to build a sustainable and credible career mostly based on publishing and winning grants. As the web has changed, they have too, just not at the same pace. Critiquing, discussing or passing comment on a peer’s output has very little in terms of formal recognition and reward. Added to that there has been a lack of support for academics to reap the rewards afforded to them by being able to share their work via the various freely available technologies. Academics are still very cautious when it comes to publicly discussing and commenting on research in their area. The notion of discussing someone else’s work in the open, away from the safety of the office or blind peer review is somewhat uncomfortable, and with good reason. It is understandable given the legacy that pre-21st Century academia created, that not to rock the boat is the safer career option. Many wonder what there is to gain from talking about their own work on the web, which can be seen as narcissistic or another person’s work which can seen as antagonistic, even when it might not be in both cases.

CC BY 2.0 Nancy<I'm gonna SNAP!
Whilst critics of open peer review might see public commenting, discussing and reviewing research as a luxury or waste of time it does have potential benefits. It can help identify flaws in published and ongoing research, as you may believe that you are the only person conducting research like this, but there is always a chance someone has carried out similar work and can contribute their knowledge. It aids forming potential collaborations and help identify peers who can help build a personal learning network. Communicating, collaborating, problem-solving are all things we teach students at university. Academics have the potential to tap into an organic, intelligent community on the web for similar benefits. Yet it still feels like the exception to the rule. In time I am certain we will see a lot more open peer review, post publication comment and review and the continued growth in useful communication using social media platforms, in particular academic-inclusive ones.

If the digital immigrant - native model is anything to go by we will soon see further changes within academia underpinned by open access and the wealth of research-focused web-tools appearing almost daily. This will happen as more web native students move on from junior to career researchers and utilise the technologies that are so openly available on university campuses, that is of course unless they become institutionalised by existing practices. Change is already happening, but we are still some way away from a critical mass. In time this change will be good as more knowledge is shared, mistakes spotted earlier by peers and collaborations forged from around the world. Naturally with these benefits comes a bitter taste as internet trolls do and will continue to exist, bad and mischievous research will be published, and we could struggle to sort out the useful chatter from the banal. There is also the Kardashian Index to consider, as academics should always be judged on their research output over their social media popularity and an ability to communicate. That said, researchers should hone the core skills of communicating their work to a variety of audiences.

The biggest problem is still one we have struggled to cope with since the beginning of the web: how best to sort out all of the data into easy to access, discoverable, manageable chunks. If academics spend more time traversing the web to discuss and reply to the new forms of scholarly communication, they might well get fatigued by it all. The modern phenomena of social media fatigue is just one of the problems, as for example active and popular Twitter users simply stop using the platform once it becomes unmanageable. Therefore there is a need for training and support to help researchers not only understand why they should embrace their online communities but also be skilled-up to flourish in them. That includes netiquette, dealing with negative feedback, time management and deciding which technology is best. Communities need to be well defined, moderated and where possible open.

The likes of Twitter and blogging are essential tools for academics to communicate beyond their peers to a wider audience, but there is also a strong need for secure, private academic-only communities, that are open but also closed to elements outside of their subject areas. No single solution can push scholarly communication forward, it has to be lead on several fronts. Whilst the benefits for participation in such communities might seem modest right now, so more thought is needed as to how active participation in scholarly communication and open review can be more rewarding. The benefits of creating a hive community of knowledge across the globe could be that it solves huge problems faster than before. We need to have systems that allow us to see these solutions, rather than lose them in a wall of sound.