“There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”— Marshall McLuhan
Modern media can best be understood by its ecological foundation. The syntax of ecology plays well into the world of data clouds, streams of content, viruses, bugs, and worms all while tweets ring from the distant underbrush. “Media are civilizational ordering devices,” says John Peters in his book The Marvelous Clouds. And, likewise, our media is orientated by a strong relation to the natural world.
The modern scope of media, and its progression, is best modeled with understanding the long-standing relation to the container. The container model of media began its widespread adoption in 1455 with Gutenberg’s press. The book was no more than sheets of paper sandwiched in a hard cover, containing information. For the last 530 years, users could not possess a tangible container at the same time as another user. If you wanted a resource you needed to possess it for yourself in the tangible world.
Understanding our current digital environment, how human capacity progresses, and how society drastically changes how it disseminates knowledge, all share a large structure of commonality with the physical sciences. Robert Tercek says in his 2015 book Vaporized that physical matter can exist in three distinct states of being.
Solid: like rock, plastic, or a hard cover book where molecules are packed tightly together and they don’t move fast or at all.
Liquid: where molecules are packed loosely. In this state, matter is looser, lighter, faster, and less stable and, therefore, needs direction and/or guidance.
Vapor: whereby molecules are very loose and free floating. They move very quickly and are quite far apart. Vaporized matter is diffused, very light-weight, fast and unstable. Its unstable nature makes it have the possibility to nearly diffuse anywhere.
Physical matter and resources become a good scaffolding to understand media progression in a digital age. Our global conversations toward our planet’s future again shares another common derived metaphor with media: scarcity. Scarcity directly relates to the Gutenberg container model of early media and to individual consumption. With scarcity-driven models of media consumption, individuals need to possess a physical product and this act of possessing a product fueled the consumption and massive profit patterns of media conglomerates through the twentieth century. Scarcity led to Michael Jackson selling 70 million Thiller albums as opposed to the 2015 best-selling album,1989, by Taylor Swift selling fewer than 2 million albums. Scarcity meant profit.
The common media vernacular embedded in environmental traits highlight that the most modern digital-scapes and the physical science-derived, tangible world are not at odds. Instead they share many core virtues, and using both the environmental resources and new media channels appropriately is increasingly vital. James Syvitski (2012) looks at a modern understanding of the Anthropocene as “the cumulative impact of civilization.” Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil and Francois Gemenne sum up Syvitski’s notion in their book The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a new epoch by saying, “In [Syvitski’s] usage the Anthropocene represents a threshold marking a sharp change in the relationship of humans to the natural world. It captures the step — change in the quality of the relationship of the human species to the natural world represented by the ‘impossible’ fact that humans have become a ‘force of nature’ and the reality that human action and Earth dynamics have converged and can no longer be seen as belonging to distinct incommensurable domains.”
Similar to Syvitski’s assumptions of a new Anthropocene, our new understanding of digital and media is in sharp contrast to earlier notions of the medium. We have walked through the solid, liquid, and vapor progression over the last 20 years. Likewise, we live in a world where, according to Tercek, “Any part of a business or product that can be replaced by pure digital information almost certainly will be.” For accessing the human function toward the Anthropocene, this is a strong positive. The digitally connected social media age has the ability to overcome access to scarce resources and allows this collective (human cognition) capacity to find solutions to physically scarce resources and anthropogenic challenges. But before we can harness a collective crowd to undertake pivotal undertakings, we need to right the academic ship.
The music business was killed by Napster; movie theaters were derailed by digital streaming; traditional magazines are in crisis mode. Yet, in this digital information wild west, academic journals and the publishers who own them are posting higher profits than nearly any sector of commerce. Academic publisher Elsevier, which owns a majority of the prestigious academic journals, has higher operating profits than Apple. In 2013, Elsevier posted 39 percent profits, in contrast to the 37 percent profit that Apple displayed.
This lucrative nature of academic publishing comes at a price: it limits the shareability and accessibility of scholar’s voices as they are often hidden behind a paywall on the near term and publishers often own the copyright for the work/studies in perpetuity. In our current digital scholarship environment, the costs charged by lucrative for-profit publishers falls on the shoulders of the entire higher education community, which is already bearing the burden of significantly decreasing academic budgets. “A large research university will pay between $3–3.5 million a year in academic subscription fees — the majority of which goes to for-profit academic publishers,” says Sam Gershman, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT who assumes his post as an assistant professor at Harvard next year. In contrast to the exorbitant prices for access, the majority of academic journals are produced, reviewed, and edited on a volunteer basis by academics who take part in the tasks for tenure and promotion.
“Even the Harvard University Library, which is the richest university library in the world, sent out a letter to the faculty saying that they can no longer afford to pay for all the journal subscriptions,” says Gershman. While this current publishing environment is hard on large research institutions, it is wreaking havoc on small colleges and universities because these institutions cannot afford access to current academic information. This is clearly creating a problematic situation and an unintended educational class system.
Paul Millette, who serves as director of the Griswold Library at Green Mountain College, which is a small 650 student environmental liberal arts college in Vermont, talks of the enormous pressures access to academic journals have placed on his library budgets. “The cost-of-living has increased at 1.5 percent per year yet the journals we subscribe to have consistent increases of 6 to 8 percent every year.” Millette says he cannot afford to keep up with the continual increases and the only way his library can afford access to journal content now is through bulk databases. Millette points out that database subscription seldom includes the most recent, current material and publishers purposefully have an embargo of one or two years to withhold the most current information so that libraries still have a need to subscribe directly with the journals. “At a small college, that is what we just don’t have the money to do. All of our journal content is coming from the aggregated database packages: like a clearing house so to speak of journal titles,” says Millette.
“For Elsevier it is very hard to purchase specific journals, either you buy everything or you buy nothing,” says Vincent Lariviere, a professor at Université de Montréal. Lariviere finds that his university uses 20 percent of the journals they subscribe to and 80 percent are never downloaded. “The pricing scheme is such that if you subscribe to only 20 percent of the journals individually, it will cost you more money than taking everything. So people are stuck.”
Where To Go:
“Money should be taken out of academic publishing as much as possible. The money that is effectively being spent by universities and funding agencies on journal access could otherwise be spent on reducing tuition, supporting research, and all things that are more important than paying corporate publishers,” says Gershman. John Bohannon, a biologist and Science contributing correspondent, is in agreement and says, “Certainly a huge portion of today’s journals could and should be just free. There is no value added in going with the traditional model that was built on paper journals, with having people whose full time job was to deal with the journal, promote the journal and print the journal, and deal with librarians. All that can now be done essentially for free on the internet.”
Although the prior clearly sounds like the path toward the future, Bohannon says that from his vantage point the solution is not always one-size-fits-all: “The most important journals will always look pretty much like they do today because it is actually a really hard job.” Bohannon finds that the more broad journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceeding of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) will always need privatized funding to complete the broad publication tasks.
“A better approach to academic publishing is to cut out the whole notion of publishing. We don’t really need journals as traditionally conceived. The primary role of traditional journals is to provide peer review and for that you don’t need a physical journal — you just need an editorial board and an editorial process,” says Gershman.
Gershman lays out his vision for the future of academic publishing and says that a very different sort of publishing system would be that everybody could post papers to a pre-print server similar to the currently existing arXiv.org. After posting research, then the creator selects to submit it to a journal, which is essentially sending them the links to your paper on the pre-print server. The journal editorial board would complete the same editorial process that exists now: if your paper is accepted to their journal they can put their imprimatur on your paper saying it was accepted to this journal — but there is no actual journal — it is just a stamp of approval.
What Gershman’s concept does is remove most of the costs from the equation. The cost for running this pre-print server would be a shared cost for all universities and funding agencies and could clearly infuse millions upwards of billions back into the broad higher education system should an overarching system be implemented and respected. Bohannon is not convinced that the prior is an easy sell. “We would need a real revolution. By revolution, I mean a cultural revolution among academics. They would have to totally change the way they do business and, despite having the reputation of being revolutionary, academics are pretty conservative. As a culture, academia moves pretty slow.” Nathan Hall, professor at McGill University, follows Bohannon’s reasoning and says, “I think there is a sense of security in maintaining a set of agreements with known publishers with reputations like Wiley or Elsevier. I think universities aren’t quite aware of the benefits and logistics of a new system and they are comfortable maintaining existing relationships despite some questionability for what the publishers are providing.”
Although Hall talks of the security of maintaining a status quo relationship between university and publisher, Hall’s own project on Twitter, “Shit Academics Say”(@AcademicsSay)currently has over 170,000 followers and has quickly become a centralized voice in the academic sphere. Hall talks about his Twitter account and associated responsibility in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education write-up, specifically saying that his account “is gaining 250 to 300 new followers daily and ranking in the top 0.1 percent across social media influence metrics.”  In another context, tweets sent from Hall’s phone are directly reaching about 10 million Twitter streams and generating 200,000 to 300,000 profile visits a month, effectively making @AcademicsSay a bigger amplifier on Twitter than nearly all academic publications.
Identifying the antiquated academic journal business model which many believe keeps its current shape exclusively for profit margins sake, coupled with viewing revolutionary new streams of content creation and diffusion like Hall’s Twitter feed, it is clear that academic journalistic content is lagging remarkably behind in collecting and harnessing the power of the new media age. This is a critical component to engage should questions revolving around the human capacity and the natural world need to be answered by diverse constituents. As things stand, our future progress is being ruled by a small majority, often only given access to the conversation due to their research budget allocation. This isn’t helping anyone. And it isn’t solving problems effectively.
Open Access for the Future?
When we think of the future of academic publishing and diffusing scholarship the concept of open access is often on the top of the agenda items. “The phrase ‘open access’ can mean several things,” says Lariviere. Open access on a broad scale refers to unrestricted online access for peer-reviewed research. Lariviere details how publishers have co-opted this terminology and in doing so, perhaps, increased profit further. “Elsevier says you can publish in open access, but in reality it means paying twice for the papers. They will ask me ‘do you want to publish your paper open access’ which means paying between $500 and $5,000 additional for that specific paper to be freely available to everyone. At the same time, they will not reduce the subscription cost to the overall journal, which means they are making twice the money on that specific paper. If you ask me if this type of open access is the way to go, the answer is no.”
Another thorn in academic sentiment related to current open access is the well understood notion that some predatory publishers have co-opted open access toward a profitable and less rigorous publishing business model. Jeffrey Beall, Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado-Denver, says, “The predatory publishers and journals often have lofty titles that make them seem legitimate in a list of publications on a CV. Scholarly publishing’s traditional role of vetting the best research is disappearing.” Beall finds that in a current context there is almost always a journal willing to accept almost every article, regardless of merit, as long as the author is willing to pay the fee. The typical fee hovers around $1,800 but many predatory publishers spam researchers, asking them to solicit manuscripts neglecting to mention the required author fee. Only after publication do the predatory publishers invoice for the fees.
Bohannon, on assignment for Science, set out to understand the problem of the sort of open access that Beall defines. Bohannon specifically created a computer algorithm to generate 304 versions of a scientific paper all with significant and glaring, easily identifiable methodological errors. Bohannon submitted ten papers per week over a year’s duration to open access journals. In sum, 157 of the 304 bogus papers were accepted. Bohannon’s article says, “From humble and idealistic beginnings a decade ago, open access scientific journals have mushroomed into a global industry, driven by author publication fees rather than traditional subscriptions. Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors as well as the financial workings of their publishers are often purposefully obscured.”
Bohannon finds scholars might expect credible peer review at the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals. The journal describes itself as having the “long term objective to provide high quality, accurate and required information to enhance herbal drug research.” But the editorial team of the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, headed by Editor-in-Chief Ilkay Orhan, a professor of pharmacy at Eastern Mediterranean University in Gazimagosa, Cyprus, asked only for minimal changes to the bogus paper such as different formats and a longer abstract before accepting it 51 days later.
Bohannon uncovers the journal as one of more than 270 published by Medknow, a company based in Mumbai, India, and one of the largest open access publishers in the world. According to Medknow’s website, more than two million of its articles are downloaded by researchers every month. Medknow is owned by Wolters Kluwer, a multinational firm headquartered in the Netherlands and one of the world’s leading purveyors of medical information with annual revenues of nearly $5 billion. Publications which dilute or convolute academic merit in sake of profit are significantly hindering progress on key conversations. The deception is not just problematic on the bogus journal profit sector — but perhaps most hurtful in promoting and disseminating incorrect knowledge to further convolute true progress.
Despite the significant percentage of less-than-credible open access journals, the concept of open access at its core: providing free access for scholarship to broad society, is important. Luckily, large granting bodies have begun using their clout to push toward true, high quality open access. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has been a longstanding champion for creating open access. Since 2008, the NIH has had a mandate for all research funded by that body to be published open access. Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation brought their clout into the open access conversation. Starting in January 2015, all work funded through the Gates Foundation will be open access and the foundation says: “We have adopted an Open Access policy that enables the unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded, in whole or in part, by the foundation, including any underlying data sets.” Heather Joseph, executive director for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coaltion (SPARC), is in agreement with the large granting bodies initiative and says, “The open access environment is one of the more fertile environments for people to be thinking: if we don’t like the old way, what should the new way look like.”
The push toward open access is not only growing in the sheer number of opportunities for credible open access publishing, but also in an increasingly confrontational strategy that some academics leverage against large for-profit publishers. “At the moment, the Netherlands, the whole country, has said to Elsevier that we want all of our researchers to be able to publish open access in your journals at the same rates we would pay for a subscription last year and if you can’t do that we’re going to cancel every one of your journals, for all of our universities nationwide,” says Martin Eve, founder of the Open Library of the Humanities. Two months later, in December 2015 a deal was announced which ended the year long stand-off between the Netherlands and Elsevier. The deal reached has Elsevier, starting in 2016, agreeing to make 30 percent of their publications open access by 2018.
Johan Rooryck, a professor at Universiteit Leiden, found his recent very public decision to step down and move his Elsevier journal Linga to open access met with complete support from the other six editors and 31 editorial board members. “The process went very easily. We were all aware of the pricing and Elsevier’s practices and within a week everyone agreed to resign,” says Rooryck. Eve’s platform, the Open Library of Humanities, will now house the new open access iteration of Lingua, which will be called Glossa. Eve says, “Right away it is 50 percent cheaper to run it through us then when it was with Elsevier. So anybody subscribing to it already sees 50% more revenue.”
Rooryck finds the move toward broad open access a natural progression and says, “The knowledge we produce as academics and scientists should be publicly available in the same way we have a company that delivers water to our faucets and electricity to our home. These are things we have a right to. Public knowledge and education is a human right and it should not come with a profit tag of 35 percent.”
Although it appears open access has the ability to simultaneously diffuse academic knowledge to a larger body of readers and cut costs significantly, many feel that the for profit academic publishers are still situated to continue into the near future. Joseph says, “I think the play for most smart commercial publishers is to try to preserve the current environment for as long as they can: delay the policy changes, delay the culture changes and to be working on things like tools and services applying to aggregation of data, where they are then embedding themselves more deeply in the workflow of researchers and becoming essential to researchers in a different way.”
“If you are no longer essential to researchers in the, ‘you have to publish in my journal in order to get tenure and promotion’ what do they replace that with?I think the smart publishing companies like Elsevier, like Springer, who are very smart in that regard, have been thinking about where they can go to be playing a role of continuing to be seen as essential by the research community once they are no longer playing the role of providing assessment,” says Joseph.
Onward and Upward
“In the US Congress we have been finally making progress with the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) bill. It moved through the committee it was referred to in the Senate and is poised to move out of the Senate and potentially be considered by the House and hopefully pass. Ten years ago, I would have said we didn’t have a chance to do a stand-alone bill,” says Joseph.
Perhaps the recent congressional support Joseph refers to is one more verifying measure that the majority of articles will be moving toward an open and accessible framework. Many in the academic community hope that this government support signals the reprioritization of a research framework and the switching of the guard. And while the prior is extremely important, others in the academic community are hoping to grow basement markets from the ground up.
The Center for Open Science, which provides seed funds to startups in the academic scientific research space, is led by Brian Nosek, a professor at the University of Virginia, and focuses on aligning scientific values to scientific practices. “The open science framework is just a means at connecting all the research services that researchers use across the entire research life cycle,” says Nosek.
Nosek is optimistic about the evolution of technology in open science and says, “There are a lot of startups going at different parts of the research life cycle. Whether it is publication, and what a publication means, or looking at full articles and whether you can make articles convey information in smaller bite size pieces.” Nosek finds that there are so many solutions happening in research right now and mentions it is hard to judge what the true solutions will look like. “I sometimes think some of the ideas haven’t a chance, but what do I know? I could be completely wrong about it. And that is the whole point — do some experimentation and try out ideas. And the fact is there are a lot of people who see what the problems are and have a unique sense of a potential solution — it is a very lively time to try out different answers.”
From the prior ratcheting up of open access validity and moving to a more engaged way for scholarship to pilot new models of information dissemination, it is clear that higher education is redefining slowly to meet the needs and affordability required of the 21st century. This is a strong positive, except that one of the most basic functions of sharing academic research needs to also find significant evolution.
Format and fit: Academic literature isn’t naturally social
Paul Edwards, a professor at the University of Michigan, writes “never read a non-fiction book or article from beginning to end.” He instead finds it conducive to “always jump ahead, skip around, and use every available strategy to discover, then to understand, and finally to remember what the writer has to say.” Beyond the creative non-linear reading Edwards is also a champion of taking notes and finds one to three pages of notes is optimal for 100 pages of text. And although getting messy with a document is optimal for learning sake, it is still hard to execute this philosophy and more importantly share the work when online within current standard scholarly file formats.
A venue ripe to spur true academic literature evolution is the longstanding academic journal article format housed in the nearly synonymous Portable Document Format (PDF). Created in 1991, the same year as the general, widely understood internet went live to the world, the PDF file format has played a crucial role in disseminating millions of scholarly articles over the past 24 years. From its widespread academic use, the PDF has gained nearly Kleenex brand recognition for information display. Its accolades are for good reason: the PDF served our scholarly purposes very well.
While the PDF truly has had an amazing run, one quick assessment of the format from society’s evolving social media context shows that the PDF is less than ideal for the evolving state of scholarship or for meeting Edwards’ view of how to truly digest written material. Our modern scroll down culture coupled with current PDF citations and associated graphs often at the bottom of the documents makes returning to the point of contention complex and time consuming. In other words, it is hard to move in a non-linear fashion to overview the article. Further, the PDF creates an unmalleable structure of research and does not allow shareable comments and critiques to be associated within the main document. The PDF is a one-way street and lacks the ability to truly engage the collective academic conversation in our evolving social climate.
The importance of Format Evolution
As early as 2010, TED creator Chris Anderson told the world that crowd-accelerated innovation, on the heels of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook’s rise, was drastically changing and strengthening how individuals learned complex activities. Anderson said this new media environment was creating connections between users that had never existed before and that these virtual connections spurred the cumulative audience to evolve more quickly, completely and accurately. Drawing from Anderson’s view: the format we choose to display scholarly and scientific research can have real reverberations on readership, evaluation, and researcher synergy — all of which can impact some of the most important research topics on our planet.
Paul Edwards follows the notion of scholars needing to build on earlier work and says,“every generation of climate scientists revisit the same data, the same events — digging though the archives to ferret out new evidence, correct some previous interpretation,” As it stands currently, a large quantity of time is spent revalidating or proving false work that has already been proven as such by others. If scholarship evolves correctly, those findings should be in-line with the research that is assessed by others.
A social networking site for researchers, ResearchGate, is making the biggest splash in linking research and our evolving social context. Utilized by over six million researchers, ResearchGate just released their new RG Format in 2015 which creates real-time social dialogue within the research document. By using two columns of information display, comments, concerns, or related citations and graphs are always in sync with the information retrieved. This makes for a more streamlined information transfer, and one that elaborates on the author’s views by harnessing knowledge by the collective crowd. This all equates to a possible paradigm shift in scholarship display and assessment as ResearchGate is currently rolling out this new format to their backlog of 19 million existing scholarly publications as well as a steady stream of two million incoming research articles that are added to their users’ profiles every month.
Ijad Madisch, CEO of ResearchGate, speaks highly of his company embracing the new RG Format and says, “We wanted to create something that turns publications into a conversation starter. If researchers get talking about research right at the source, on the same page, other researchers can see at a glance how others feel about the work at hand — and authors get immediate feedback. We wanted to have this conversation happen in one place so no one loses time looking around for information or it becomes diluted and not of much use to the researcher.”
“As a first take I found it to be interesting to have a more social way of presenting research and discussing it in a way that is more interactive. I thought it was pretty innovative,” says Alexander Reisenbichler, a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at George Washington University and currently on fellowship at Freie Universitat Berlin. Reisenbichler is an early adopter to the new RG Format on ResearchGate. He links the RG Format to his academic orientation specifically and says, “In political science, we often write journal articles and books to land a job or get tenure and so on; then some go on and write a short spin-off article in a blog or newspaper to discuss their work more publicly. The RG format may be able to connect these two worlds — the public intellectual world and the academic world — which I find interesting.”
Although praising the technology, Reisenbichler makes a point to stress that our collective academic pursuits are somewhat set in their ways and the transition might not be as seamless as some may hope. He says, “I think it is hard to overcome the path dependence in academic publishing. All these institutions are super sticky: the PDF, the publishing business, and so on.” Regardless of the rigidness that Reisenbichler references, PubPeer has moved to anonymous online comments, PubMed recently opened its significant resources to comments by online users, and mainstream outlets such as Amazon’s Kindle, The Washington Post, and Medium.com all facilitate the highlighting of passages, commenting and posting onto various social media streams.
We need scholars to come together and embrace new systems which embody true dissemination of academic work not guided by profitability concern. We need this system to remove the paywall and, instead, promote broad readership. And we equally need scholars to come together and create a new format for information portrayal that is not rooted in an antiquated view of citations and graphs attached later in the document as bibliographies and appendices. Let’s have scholarship going forward require the data be where our eye can focus on it while consuming academic text. Finally, we need the ability to showcase our comments in real time to other readers around the world. It is from these vantage points that synergy begins to happen and our collective problem solving abilities begin to ramp up. It is from here that we will witness the full potential of the digital word solving key global concerns.
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