16 Feb 2017

Michael Taster, University of Sheffield, UK
At a time when the Regional Studies Association and its members are coming to terms with the fallout from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Events, which have challenged the legitimacy of 'expert' academic knowledge and ushered in a supposed era of post-truth (raising the obvious question, was there ever an era of truth?). One might be forgiven for having overlooked a report innocuously entitled, 101 Innovations in Scholarly Communication. However, what this research project describes, are a number of trends that are beginning to influence not only how academic research is communicated, but the ways in which academics create, share and value knowledge. In short, it provides a glimpse of how academics might reposition themselves and their knowledge in a changing world.

Before considering these innovations, it is important to clarify what is actually meant by the term scholarly communication. Broadly speaking, since the publication of the first scholarly journals in the 17th century, the term has often been bound up with the idea of scholarly publication, or the physical manufacture of books and journal articles and the transfer of knowledge via the medium of print. The act of scholarly communication has therefore often been associated with technical intermediaries, such as the publishers who make these products. However, an alternate definition sees scholarly communication as a much broader arc of written and non-written practices, ranging from informal conversations between academics, to the post-publication assessment and integration of research into an established corpus of knowledge. The ongoing development and application of digital communication technologies for scholarly research, especially those associated with the user generated content of web 2.0 platforms, such as YouTube and Wordpress, have made this range of processes increasingly visible and has drawn new actors into what was previously a closed relationship between academics and scholarly publishers.[1] For this reason, whereas, for previous generations, scholarly communication could simply mean delegated print publication, it now means scholars can engage personally with a host of new communication channels.

This shift is outlined by this report, which documents the results of a large scale international survey of over 20,000 academics focused on their use of digital tools for scholarly communication. The report not only highlights the sheer variety of tools that are now available to academics,[2] but also shows that these tools are being created by different service providers; from traditional academic publishers, scholar and government led initiatives, to new commercial entrants. A significant feature of the report, is its ongoing analysis of how these digital tools are used in relation to each other. To achieve this, the authors consider how tools are designed to meet the needs of different aspects of an academic workflow. This workflow is constituted of six stages: discovery, analysis, writing, publication, outreach and assessment. Thus, tools contribute to different elements of the academic workflow and can be combined, in ways the authors suggest could make scholarly communication more efficient, open and good.

These developments can be seen as an extension and augmentation of existing scholarly practices, merely doing the same things, but in a streamlined digital environment. However, they also raise fundamental questions about how academic research is undertaken and communicated. As Nietzsche remarked after adopting an early version of the typewriter, "our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts." In this instance, the implications of a wide ranging change in communication media and formats on academic thought is only beginning to be understood.

The need to examine the concepts of efficiency, openness and goodness and the tools that hope to achieve these ends is therefore imperative. Taking the first of these benefits, efficiency. Digital tools that speed up and improve the ability to cycle through the academic workflow of discovery, analysis, writing, publication and outreach are to be welcomed. However, it immediately raises the question of value. For, if the value of research outputs was unknown, it would be impossible to improve the efficiency of their production. The valuation of academic research is commonly achieved through the use of metrics, historically, through the use of measures based on academic citations, but increasingly through the use of altmetrics, which measure the uptake and usage of different research outputs as well as journal articles and their use by non academic audiences. Significantly, these metrics are often generated by the selfsame tools that offer greater efficiencies. Thus, ResearchGate, an academic social network that can be used to share and discover the research of likeminded scholars, provides users with an RG score, which measures your "leverage and standing within the scientific community".[3] Metrics are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but their application by scholars and their institutions can have profound effects. In particular, the potential for new tools to shape incentives has led to a critique of metrics that highlights their role in the acceleration of academic life and the creation of a research culture focused on producing short term instrumental outputs that are easily quantifiable. Furthermore, in cases where the calculations underlying these metrics remain hidden for commercial reasons, as in the case of Academia.edu, it raises ethical questions regarding the undue influence of corporate interests on academic behaviours.

The second point of openness poses further important questions. In a time of alternate facts and contested truths, openness is presented as a potential cure. This point derives from two conceptions of openness, openness of research processes and openness of research findings. Thus platforms such as, F1000 and Publons make peer review processes public, SocArXiv allows researchers to publically share preprints of papers and FigShare and GitHub make supplementary datasets and code available. These tools serve to reveal research processes that were effectively concealed by traditional print publishing. On the other side of the equation, open access publishing is making research outputs increasingly available to audiences previously excluded by journal subscriptions. It is proposed, that the kinds of continuous dialogical exchanges enabled by these tools, will bring research closer to practice and flatten the intellectual hierarchies that have resulted in academics being painted as aloof and out of touch with wider society. However, by opening up the black box of academic research practices, it is unclear whether academic authority in the social sciences will be enhanced, or simply absorbed into public debate. What this entails for a society such as the RSA, which seeks to be a leading and impactful community that contributes to the body of expert knowledge available to regional policy makers is unclear. Although, it does suggest that current paradigms focused on the role of regional scholars in evidenced based policy making may need to updated and expanded in the face of new forms of communication.

This leads to the final point of goodness, or quality. The authors of the paper define good research, as research that is transparent and reproducible. These kinds of definitions are more suited to research in the natural sciences than to social science and regional studies. Regional knowledge in some instances can be judged by the effectiveness of its application to policy problems, although the ability to measure these impacts is limited and the potential for reproducing their results are next to impossible. More often, regional knowledge is judged as a social relation, or on its ability persuade and influence others. As we have seen, metrics can serve as proxy indicators for these kinds of relationships, but quality judgements in reality emerge from a richer variety of reciprocal relationships that occur throughout the academic workflow. Thus, conference presentations, peer review processes and editorial lines, all produce circuits of feedback that serve to establish judgements of quality and what constitutes good research. Whereas, traditionally, these lines of feedback have been largely contained within journal based academic communities, innovations in scholarly communications suggest the potential for creating much larger disaggregated and digitally networked communities for determining the overall quality of scholarly knowledge. This poses the question, are the two systems mutually exclusive?

The short answer seems to be not yet. Predictions for a revolution in scholarly communications have been in existence since at least the 1990s and change has proved to be incremental. However, the current trends demonstrated in this report suggest that the hybridization of different forms of scholarly communication is becoming more common. On an individual level, some scholars have adopted elements of digital communication to great effect, for instance Alasdair Rae's use of social media to demonstrate data visualization techniques @undertheraedar. Scholarly societies are also beginning to incorporate such platforms, as with the RSA's collaboration with Kudos. As the authors of the paper suggest, it is important for scholars to at least sensitize themselves to these innovations, partly to reap the potential benefits offered by new forms of communication, but also to ensure that the development of these tools is determined by the needs of scholars, rather than the needs of scholars being determined by the technology and the business models of their tools.

[1] A good example of this being the report itself, which collates outputs from across a range of platforms onto a Wordpress account.
[2] For the full list of over 400 such tools see here
[3] ResearchGate, RG score FAQ: https://www.researchgate.net/RGScore/FAQ