Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Scholarly Communications and the Social Media Genie

Scholarly Communications and the Social Media Genie

By Dennis D. McDonald

Marketing, customer communications, and inside-the-firewall collaboration are not the only processes subject to "disruption" by social media and social networking. The worlds of research, scholarly communication, librarianship, and publishing are also being impacted, and not just by Google.

I was reminded of this when I discovered David Rosenthal's blog and his recent post Mass-market scholarly communication. He discussesa recent "Workshop on Repositories" sponsored by the United States' National Science Foundation (NSF) and the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

One focus of the workshop was a position paper by Don Waters of the Mellon Foundation called Doing much more than we have so far attempted which I recommend if you are interested in how technology is impacting scholarly research and communication.

One of the concepts emphasized by Watersis "data driven science." Researchers now have available not only the means to easily generate, review, and distribute publications electronically, they also have the ability to distribute access to the original data on which they base their research. Not only does access to more complete data make it easier for other researchers to replicate research (a necessary part of the formal research process), but also the availability of complete data can come under the professional oversight of the peer review process.

While the idea of research data repositories is not new, Waters suggests that no longer will scientists only be evaluated on published papers; they may also be evaluated on the quality and organization of the data they provide to support their published findings.

This leads Waters to discuss standards, repositories, and indexing in support of search technologies. What I found interesting, also, is Waters' discussion of the opportunities that more accessible data provide for potentially new research paradigms whereby published data are subjected to sophisticated aggregation, analysis, modeling, and interpretation. Here's a quote from the Waters paper:

The promise of these new automated capabilities is that new knowledge can be created in ways that were not previously possible. To achieve this promise a dependable, deeply scaled, and flexible repository infrastructure is needed for managing the data, serving them up for various analytical and synthetic tasks, and capturing the outputs of such scholarly work.

Waters also discusses the economics of scholarly publishing and the so called "open access" movement. (For a description of "open access" in the context of scholarly communication, go here).

Waters has some reasonable questions about open access that reflect his understanding of the complexity of the social dynamics and economics of scholarly communication. He also comments on how innovation is occurring on the boundaries between formal and informal communications.

Rosenthal goes into more detail on this point in his own analysis where he discusses the role of blogging as an important communication vehicle for younger researchers. To quote Rosenthal, who emphasizes what he sees as major generational changes occurring within the research communities as students with experience using MySpace emerge into academia:

Blogs are bringing the tools of scholarly communication to the mass market, and with the leverage the mass market gives the technology, may well overwhelm the traditional forms.

Rosenthal then continues with a list describing the attractiveness of blogs for scholarly communication in comparison with formal techniques such as peer reviewed journals(I've shortened this somewhat and suggest you read the original):

  • The process is much faster.
  • The process is much more transparent.
  • Priority is obvious.
  • The process is meritocratic.
  • Equally, the process is error-tolerant.
  • The process is both cooperative and competitive.
  • Review can be both broad and deep.
  • Good reviewing is visibly rewarded.

I'm not sure I would be this positive, even though this list does reflect some of the same concepts I pointed out last year in A Comparison of Blogging and Journal Peer Review and More Comparisons of Journal Peer Review and Blogging. The point is that blogging and social media in general are ways to apply technology to support social and intellectual processes in new and innovative ways.

One thing that "blog-science" does that is different from days gone by is that it can significantly expand the visibility of early research findingsfar beyond the confines of a few well-connec ted, well-funded, or Internet-literate colleagues who know each other well during the early stage of a project. As Rosenthal suggests, this "mass market" impact of blogging and simplified web publishing can bypass many of the technical, logistic, and editorial barriers that existed for previous generations.

I would respectfully suggest, however, that this democratization of the scholarly publishing process has both good and bad impacts.  On the flip side, the potential for proliferation of incorrect, insignificant, or premature work is also there. Once you click that "publish" button, after all, your mistakes are there for all the world to see -- forever.

Probably there is noputting the "social media genie " back in the bottle when it comes to scholarly communications.  Younger researchers will see to that, and as Waters points out in his paper cited above, existing publishers are also experimenting with ways to adapt, adopt, and co-opt social media techniques.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald

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