Remodeling Academic Journals

As David Gosser’s comment on my post yesterday indicates, there are already a number of possibilities online that can be used by and for new types of academic journals–and people are taking advantage of them. The problem lies in finding an audience, in getting the necessary eyes and necessary responses, the two things that make an academic journal viable.

This is why I would like to see large research universities and university systems become their own aggregators, so to speak, taking control of dissemination of the scholarship generated within their walls, making it so that all of it is easily available and easily transferable. The universities are paying for this work, after all (supplemented by grants, in many cases, but it is in the universities where primary responsibility lies), and should want to see it made use of in the best possible manner.

Many schools already provide web pages for faculty, but these are generally rudimentary and are rarely seen as an integral part of research projects or of university activity. Taken more seriously as “housing” for promotion and tenure documentation, however, these could become key parts of a broader university structure and could serve functions far beyond what they do now. Professors could keep (at least partial) public listings of the books and articles (and more) that they are using in their current work–surveys of the literature, as it were–listings that could then be assessed as a whole, showing what, in a particular field, is proving most useful to ongoing research. Blogs, even like mine, could also be housed under the university umbrella, as could wikis, interactive journals, and online versions of print works, both journals and books. People could even “publish” scholarly work through their pages–it happens now, but generally only when the scholar has already reached a level of institutional security. The site’s statistics could tell whose work is generating the most interest outside of the particular university or system and could lead people to look at things they might otherwise have missed.

All of this, and much more, could be done right now. Some of it is, in tepid ways, but it will need much more high-profile leadership and top-level university support for it to really have an impact. It will require universities to recognize that they are control of resources that they are not adequately handling but will also require trust in the faculty that is, quite frankly, not often seen, these days. For, if the university decides to act as gatekeeper for such a site, the purpose will be defeated, and scholars will find themselves migrating away–just as is happening now with the commercial academic journals and with blind peer review.

There is a unique opportunity available right now for universities to re-situate themselves in terms of scholarship and the public–in terms of scholarly publishing. They can take their university presses, their journals, their “faculty commons,” their department websites and make them into something cohesive and useful, something that facilitates scholarship in ways never before seen.

Will they? I don’t know. The opportunity has been around for a number of years, now, but nothing has been done at an institutional level by any research university or university system that I know of.

I hope that will change.

Update: At City Tech, we are now encouraged to update evidence of scholarship in our files with digital documents. That’s all well and good, but those documents often cannot be made public on our websites due to copyright considerations. Publishers are quite jealous of their rights, and don’t even care much for authors presenting their own work, if that work falls under publisher rights. One of the changes that could occur, were a system such as what I describe above instituted, is that copyright could be viewed a bit more leniently. The ownership of the Intellectual Property would rest with the scholar or, possibly, with the institution. It could be offered, then, depending on the circumstances, under Creative Commons licensing, something much more useful to future scholarship than ownership rights as presented under current copyright law (Creative Commons, in general, provides a way for giving blanket approvals for many different types of copying and usage of IP).

Instead of hiding what we are doing behind IP walls, putting all of our work together on a public web page would allow us to participate more readily in the broader conversations going on both within and beyond our disciplines. It would also make it easier for promotion and tenure committees to evaluate scholarship, for it would be easily compared to what others are doing.

Secrecy and protection of IP may have their place (or may not), but these should not be our main concerns as scholars. All of us, as professionals, should be working to enhance knowledge and its dissemination. We did not go into academia to make money, after all, but to learn, to teach, and to explore.

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