Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Internet

The Internet as we know it, i.e., the World Wide Web, is the brain child of Tim Berners-Lee (1989). He invented it specifically to make communication between scientists easier. Indeed, it is my view that, in the early 1990s, technology had made academic publishers largely obsolete. The scientists themselves, supported by their librarians, now had the means to communicate their results to each other, and to discuss their validity, without the need of a for-profit press. No doubt there would still be a market for books of exceptionally high quality. But there was no longer any need to maintain an expensive publishing and indexing infrastructure to support the work-a-day communication of ideas and observations.

Consider what the World Wide Web is. It is a collection of "pages" that is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. "Publishing" something is no more complicated than saving a file of a particular type in a particular directory on a particular server. The skills needed to make the file (the "web page") are not hard to learn. Coding a document in html is no more difficult than using Word to set up a document to conform to a journal's formatting guidelines or constructing a proper APA-style reference. Most importantly, any page on the Web can be linked easily to any other page. That is, any result that is being communicated can be linked to any previously published result. Everything is available at the click of the proverbial mouse.

That this technology has not brought about a revolution in scientific communication—like I say, effectively the end of academic publishing—is a scandal and one that scientists—or should I say academics?—are complicit in. Berners-Lee invented a way to expose every idea currently held by scientists and scholars to the criticism of every other scholar, plainly and directly. It allowed academic communities to sort the wheat from the chaff of their research in their own way and at their own pace, while making both their knowledge and the basis of that knowledge available to anyone with the requisite interest and expertise, whether inside or outside the academy.

Instead we have a system that is better suited to extracting rent from scientific research than contributing its results, as knowledge, to the culture. While the economic rents of course accrue to the publishers and their owners, the academics themselves are, like I say, complicit in the business. By tying their careers to their success in the for-profit "publish or perish" system, they ensure that the work of others becomes robustly path-dependent on their own work, and they allow each other to free-ride on a network of gratuitous citations that have very little to do with actually understanding how the particular corner of the world they are interested in works.

It is claimed that we can't imagine anything better. But this is simply not true. I talk to academics all the time, especially early career academics, whose complaints about the problem of getting published most certainly imply a better way of doing things. It is simply this: PhD students should publish all their results on a webpage (hosted by their university, of course). Their committee should evaluate this page and grant or withhold their degree on this basis. The committee should then link, as they see fit, their own pages to the pages of the new doctor. The new doctor would immediately create a page that links back to these engagements with their work, which may of course be very critical, and which offers insight into how useful the contribution is.

One of the pages that an academic will publish online will, of course, be their CV. It will include links to places on the Web where their ideas have been discussed. A hiring or tenure committee should have no difficulty evaluating these engagements, both in terms of the content and the context in which they go on. It will matter both what is being said, and who is engaging with those statements. Whether someone should be promoted or not, whether they should perish or persist, will be as clear as it could possibly be from their online presence. The correspondence between scholars and the coherence of their ideas would be made entirely transparent.

To implement this system would require the cooperation of university administrators and librarians. I'll write about this in my next two posts.


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