Lessons for Academics: What Journalists Know About Gatekeeping (Part 2)

Journalists today know how to use the internet for research so well that they don’t even know they know it. That is, digital tools now come so naturally to hand, and have been tailored so expertly to the needs of the specific individuals and projects, that the journalists don’t even think about them—they just use them. In this, most academics are a decade or so behind.
“Traditional” news aggregators (“newspapers” and the like), sources, and depositories of information no longer suffice, in journalism. At least, not in the forms they once exhibited. Nobody trying to keep up with international affairs will rely on The New York Times, for example. They will read it, yes, but differently than they read it twenty years ago. Then, it was often the only available source; now, it is one of a tight weave of information possibilities. This fact has changed The Times as much as it has changed how the newspaper is read.
Today’s news stories aren’t over once they see “print.” They are changed, updated as new information is found, as errors are pointed out, as events unfold. The writer constantly looks to comments and to related stories, among other things, to make to make the story stronger. Unlike the way it was when I was trained as a reporter in the 1970s, stories aren’t over once they are in the paper.
In most areas of news gathering and news utilization, everything has changed (to use the cliché) over the past decade. In fact, in most areas of media, everything has changed. Book publishing is moving beyond reliance on a single (paper) platform. Magazines no longer center on print and the demands of print timetables. Television shows aren’t schedule bound. Movies exist everywhere.
Academic publishing is one of the only areas where digitally sparked changes aren’t yet universally manifest. There are at least two reasons for this: First, academic structures are inherently conservative, loathe to change, and academic publishing is tied directly to those structures. Second, academic communities are walled off, to some degree, from the forces at work in the broader culture. As a result, they don’t feel the pressure towards change that entities in journalism, for example, have had to respond to. In addition, and (rather ironically) partly as a result of digital possibilities, the amount of money being made through academic publishing has grown substantially over the past decades, making the publishers (many of them outside of academia itself) protective of the way things are and unlikely to tolerate experiment.
At the same time, some of the most interesting experiments in publishing are occurring within academia. There are new types of journals with flexible and inclusive editorial structures and openness to multimedia presentation, book creation that begins online and that embraces contribution from various quarters, and much beyond. Change is happening. It is just slow in comparison with much of the rest of the publishing, media, and information worlds.
When an assistant professor hears that re-appointment, tenure, and promotion are greatly influenced by publication in ‘significant’ peer-reviewed journals, she or he almost instinctively pulls back from work that tends toward the experimental or new—for self-preservation. And even their supporters on the various committees find themselves retreating to defense of the candidate’s work in traditional venues, recognizing that as the safest ways of getting the candidates through the process successfully. This ends up providing push-back against any pressure towards change, keeping the new and wonderful work being done on the sidelines.
So, it is not sufficient that the journals and publishers change, though that is part of the equation. Until those responsible for hiring, promotion, and tenure processes willingly back away from emphasis on peer review as a requirement, academic publishing will continue to lag far behind. Already, the continued focus on peer review seems anachronistic; soon, it will seem bizarre.
Why?
The means for replacing peer review are already present, and are in use in many other areas of the media world. These allow academics to engage more actively in a world of scholarship, to experiment with avenues of research, and to demonstrate the contribution of their work.
Social networking can become academic networking, for one thing, as is happening at academia.edu, on ‘faculty commons’ sites across the country, on area-specific websites, and even through the communities that online academic journals are building. Academic organizations are doing much the same, even setting up digital versions of their conferences, allowing the papers presented to be housed in places where they can become parts of on-going conversations.
Each scholar becomes something of an aggregator, much in the way each journalist does, utilizing certain pieces and ignoring others. When each scholar has a vigorous online presence (something that is coming), those who react to them positively can look at their connections, at the papers and books they ‘follow,’ and at the work they are cited in to then make their own decisions without having to look at each paper or other item purporting to deal with a particular area of interest. Communities of scholars are most certainly becoming the center of much of our activity—and these communities are increasingly anchored online.
As younger scholars become more and more involved in public research and writing, it also becomes easier to evaluate what they are doing. Who has cited them? Even now, that is easy to find. And how often? Who links to their work? It is becoming easier and easier to discover the impact of the scholarship even of someone outside of our own particular specialties.
Soon, as has already happened with journalists, we academics will have each developed online methodologies for our own work, ways of skipping over that which we can safely ignore, ways of pointing ourselves to work we really should be examining. Soon, we will be able to use these skills in evaluating the contributions of each other in our institutional capacities.
Soon, and probably (for many of us) without even knowing it, we will find that we have by-passed blind peer review altogether, replacing it with open (to the writer, at least) systems of editorial evaluation and improvement and public means of viewing just how much, or how little, each of us has accomplished.
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