Revolutions in the media economy (4): disturbing the university

October 1, 2009 · by David Campbell · education, media economy

Revolutions in the media economy 4 e1323705065564 Revolutions in the media economy (4): disturbing the university

The social media revolution I have been exploring in this series of posts has disrupted journalism and challenged photojournalism. That is because – as Clay Shirkey makes clear in Here Comes Everybody – the web has not simply introduced a new competitor into the old media ecosystem; it has created a fundamentally different ecosystem.

At the heart of these changes is the fact (which I will continue to repeat endlessly) that the link between information and its distribution has now been broken. The web has collapsed the cost of publishing, removed obstacles to creating new social groups and eliminated barriers to the formation of distributed networks. This means, as Shirkey argues, while social tools don’t create collective action, they have overcome the majority of obstacles to such action. We therefore live in a remarkable time where our ability to communicate, share, collaborate and act has expanded beyond the limits of traditional institutions.

No sector of society will escape these revolutions. The question is how they will react to them and develop with them. Now it is time to turn the focus to the institution I am formally associated with – the university, and the associated issue of academic publishing.

As sites central to the production and dissemination of knowledge, the modern university finds itself in the new media economy occupying a position with many parallels to the established newspaper or photo agency. This post will explore how these institutions are largely failing to grasp the opportunities arising from these revolutions. This is because university managers are wedded to some very traditional modes of distributing information – with ‘distribution’ incorporating both aspects of teaching and the bulk of academic publishing – that need to be challenged.

Of course, given the diversity in higher education, such generalisations always have exceptions. But drawing on my experience in Australia and the US, but coloured most obviously by the last decade working in the UK, I will argue that if we are to progress as these revolutions shake down, universities are going to have to grasp what flows from breaking the link between information and distribution.

What happens when we move from mass production to the link economy?

The forces of mass production have shaped universities. Knowledge is divided into disciplines, experts variously distribute content to audiences (often in lectures that resemble monks delivering sermons), and auditors judge their enterprise through measurements of supposed utility.

It is hardly surprising, then, having detailed how the new ecosystem of the link economy transforms the creation of value, Jeff Jarvis asked: “Who needs a university when we have Google?” (What Would Google Do, 210).

That is designed to take a professor’s breath away. In claiming that course work involves memorizing facts available through search, Jarvis ignores the many educators who have always been concerned with process rather than product in learning. But his question is a great one if we want to address how our institutions are going to adapt. For Jarvis the link economy makes five demands:

  • Produce unique content with clear value
  • Open up so you can be found; if you aren’t searchable you won’t be located;
  • When you get links and audience, find ways to benefit from them;
  • Use links to find new efficiencies; do what you do best and link to the rest;
  • Find opportunities to create value atop this link layer

If you asked your average university administrator what this meant for them they would probably suggest nothing more than a web site redesign. Now, while I am one of the last people who would suggest universities should swallow whole the lessons from business studies (because wrong-headed attempts to do so are the cause of much anti-intellectualism in UK higher education at the moment), many of Jarvis’s principles should prompt us to think hard about what it means for universities in the 21st century.

There have been some practical reflections on the implications of Jarvis’s arguments for universities, and we are starting to see assessments of how the internet will disturb education and make a virtual college possible, and even radical demands for the end of the university as we know it.

I think Jarvis’s challenges demand more than even that. Thinking of research and scholarship in terms of ‘producing unique content with clear value’ makes sense so long as value includes cultural and social value and is not simply economic, and the idea of ‘creating value atop this link layer’ opens up creative possibilities for developing the idea of ‘curation’ (discussed in the second post of this series) in relation to how educators will use their expertise to enhance the process through which students engage with information.

What does it mean to go from broadcasting to engagement?

Opening up in the link economy also means altering the ethos of teaching, moving it away from the broadcast structure of the lecture to new modes of student engagement. Professors will cease to be people who ‘profess’ and become people who curate flows of information, establishing the conditions of possibility for critical collaboration.

Earlier this year Don Tapscott argued this move away from distributing knowledge through the broadcast lecture would lead to the demise of the university because there was an inevitable clash between such lectures and “the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.” The claim that ‘growing up digital’ leads to a ‘net generation’ with some new, naturalised approach to learning is dubious, not least because schools and families share much in common with the traditional approach of universities.

Tapscott’s claims drew some hostile responses from academics, students and parents who were invested in various elements of the broadcast model. A provost from Georgetown typified the complacency of some by responding to the desire for universities to be “places to learn, not to teach” with the claim; “Always have been. Still are. Hanging in there.” The ‘death of newspapers’ would suggest such confidence in things continuing as before can be fatally misplaced in the new media economy.

Of course not all university teaching proceeds by broadcast, and of course there are many who strive for engagement now. Nonetheless MIT’s recent move to small group teaching for its physics courses shows how persistent and popular the lecture as a mode of distribution has been.

The important work of Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropology professor, demonstrates how the new structures of digital information can address common student complaints about the broadcast model (See further debate on this here). Wesch agrees that there are many educators who hope to subvert the system, but a combination of the physical learning spaces and the social structures of evaluation, promotion and tenure mean that too many efforts at engagement are constrained by the limits of the traditional institutions. Some proof of this is evident at my university, where the new “learning centre” is dominated by two huge “fixed tiered seat lecture theatres” holding hundreds at a time.

The new ecology of the web and its impact on the structure of information requires a fundamental rethink of pedagogy. However, this rethink does not mean that education inevitably migrates on-line. Students are often initially against change because they feel it is a step towards a virtual process with no personal contact.  What is needed, as Wesch argues, are ways to leverage the social media environment for a pedagogical process that is open, collaborative, linked, distributed, and above all else, engaging.

Why does academic publishing subscribe to pay walls?

If lectures are teaching’s mode of distribution, then journal articles and books are the primary way academic research is circulated. But if the link between information and distribution is being broken, we have to ask whether the article and the book are the best means to achieve the desired end.

As the author of many articles and a number of books, I am far from being opposed to them as delivery vehicles. The book, however, has long been under pressure (see the 2002 report by the Modern Language Association on “The Future of Scholarly Publishing”). Universities that once subsidised their own presses have cut back, libraries who are the principal purchasers have slashed budgets, meaning that the vast majority of research monographs containing original work will sell a few hundred copies at best. (I once heard a photographer bemoan the fact his expensive book had sold “only” 7,000 copies – if only the bulk of academics could complain about such numbers!). The result is that getting research published via the book route has become more difficult.

Digital publishing might be one way to address this dilemma, but the question of reputations and how they are judged then looms large. The monograph remains important for how academics are judged by their peers for promotion. Having a book released by a university press is regarded as prestigious and a path to success, so opting to go with blurb or Lulu is thought of as a form of vanity publishing and not (yet) professionally possible. The social structures would need to change, but there is no reason why digital publication cannot also be edited and peer reviewed just like traditional presses.

While books are favoured in some fields, in the social sciences journal articles are increasingly the preferred mode of delivery. (In geography in the UK, more than 85% of assessed research outputs were journal articles). But with these articles a perverse business model is at work. Academics do the research and write the article. They then submit it to a journal that is edited by other academics, which sends the paper to fellow academics for review. Neither of those roles is paid directly; the tasks are regarded as part of one’s professional commitments. If the reviews are good and the article is published, it appears in a volume that is then purchased by an academic who is an individual subscriber or a university library that is an institutional subscriber, or it might come as part of membership to a professional association that has subsidised its publication. If a company owns the journal title published in this way, the profits are predominantly theirs.

If newspapers had operated this way there would be no crisis in journalism – if media companies could get content for free and then sell it back to the people who produced it in the first place the return to investment ratio would have been phenomenal. With individual subscriptions of £25-50/year, and institutional subscriptions often ten times that, journals have become lucrative enterprises for many commercial publishers, hence the proliferation of more and more specialised titles.

In the terms of the current debate about the ‘death of the newspaper’ – where this series of posts began – this means that academic publishing operates a system of comprehensive and very high pay walls, behind which nearly all original research is corralled.

If the desire is for that research to have an impact on the wider community, these pay walls are an intrusive barrier. If someone outside academia wanted an individual article that was found via search, the payment demanded would be anything but ‘micro’ – I’ve just Googled one of my articles on war photography, and I see the university press publisher of the journal would charge £20/$30 for this single item! (It’s good, but there are limits…and I wouldn’t see any of that money anyway.)

The doubly perverse nature of this stems from the fact that university managers are requiring academics to publish in these pay wall-protected journals in the name of ‘impact’, at the same time as demanding that the research in those articles has a wider reach beyond the bounds of the academic community.

The particular understanding of impact here is the ‘impact factor’, which measures the number of citations to articles published by a given journal over two years. Taking the total number of references to articles in one journal made by articles in other journals, divided by the number of articles published in the first journal, gives a number that is ‘the factor’. For example, the highest impact factor in a human geography journal in 2008 was 3.967. That journal published 60 articles in 2006-07, and those articles were cited elsewhere 238 times.

What is immediately obvious are the very small numbers we are dealing with – 60 articles being referenced 238 times over two years. Citation is a subset of readership, so this does not report the total number of people who read an article without citing it. But even if the readership is substantially higher, that comes from a limited community – those who have access to the journals behind the pay wall. Numbers detailing online usage of academic journals are hard to come by, but the one statistic I have seen (from another major human geography journal) revealed that in a year this publication had 80,000 global users – which in terms of web traffic is pretty small, but hardly surprising given the way this content is blocked-off from a wider audience.

The emphasis placed on journal impact factor as a measure of a journal’s importance has been regularly criticized, even by research scientists who are sometimes seen as favouring quantitative measures (see here and here). These objections note how the statistics can be manipulated, but most importantly they reveal that although the impact factor has become an indirect scale of quality, playing a big part in career evaluations, it does not square with the judgements of quality that peer review panels make.

Journal impact factor is not the only quantitative measure of how academic research circulates. The delightfully named “Publish or Perish,” which is free software from Harzing.com, uses Google Scholar to provide data. But whatever measure or package is used none can get around the fact they are only measuring some form of significance within a tightly restricted community.

How can we really have an impact?

To drive academic research into journals behind pay walls contradicts the growing emphasis, especially in the UK, on such research having significance beyond the university. There is much that is disturbing about this government-inspired effort (which, as one newspaper headline put it recently, is designed to weed out “pointless” studies). It depends either on a remarkably narrow understanding of “impact” that makes economic value primary, or it depends on a extremely vague sense of impact (e.g. contributions to “quality of life”) that will be impossible to specify in the quantitative terms so badly desired by the auditors.

The problem with this bean-counting approach is also that it relies on a ‘broadcast model’ not dissimilar to the relationship between the student and the lecture. Researchers are supposed to, prior to their work, complete an “Impact Summary and Impact Plan” detailing who will benefit and how. This implies the one-way transmission of known findings to a passive audience, something that is underpinned by an extensive university bureaucracy tasked with enabling “knowledge transfer” and “public engagement” (usually understood as involving the mainstream media). This bureaucracy is designed to extract academic research from the subscription silo to which the demand for journal publication has condemned it. When you factor in the enormous amount of time it takes to satisfy such bureaucratic demands, combined with the long-lead times of academic publication (1-2 years), then everything is stacked against the stated goal of impact in the broadest sense being achieved.

So what should be done?

The first thing to say is that thinking through the issue of impact in its broadest sense must not involve questioning the legitimacy of research or scholarship on what at first glance might appear to be an obscure topic. It’s common for non-academics to have a swipe at people in “ivory towers” pursuing things not popularly understood. But who is to say, prior to its circulation, development and reception, what will become significant, how it will become significant and when it will be significant?

That said, we can guarantee obscurity for academic research by cutting it off from the collaborations and engagements taking place in the distributed, global conversation that the new information ecology of the web makes possible. It’s counter-productive for university managers to insist, especially in the name of impact as assumed quality, on research being published by restricted outlets.

None of this leads to the conclusion that we abolish book publishing or end academic journals. It is not an either/or choice. What it means, though, is we have to modify those modes of distribution so they can take advantage of what the web had done for publishing, and then connect them with other networks of communication, dissemination and engagement.

Some of this is already happening, as detailed by Michael Nielsen’s interesting account of the disruptions in scientific publication. Specialist blogs, video channels, web journals of visualised research, and new ways of managing and searching papers are all emerging as researchers explore the new distribution possibilities enabled by the web.

Some time ago academics moved against the restrictions of commercial journals by promoting “open access” alternatives. While successful in some areas, these initiatives failed to defeat the traditional system because they could not offer, as new start-ups, the same reputational economy of the established outlets. But a journal is just a means of distribution, with its research value coming from its editors and the peer review system. When those individuals and their practices are prepared to jump the pay wall and publish content free on the internet, then we will have the makings of true open access and the widest possible impact, without the need for any bureaucracy to make it so. And making research available in this way will feedback into changing the practice of teaching away from the broadcast model and towards an ethos of engagement.

Featured photo: treuster/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

10 Responses to “Revolutions in the media economy (4): disturbing the university”

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  2. […] Leitura longa, mas interessante, Revolutions in the media economy (parte 1) – the context of crisis, (parte 2) – the changing structure of information, (parte 3) – photojournalism’s futures, (parte 4) – disturbing the university […]

  3. […] a top flight journal in the social sciences respond to these challenges? As previously posted–here and here–our initial conclusions have been that current models of academic journal publishing […]

  4. […] top flight journal in the social sciences respond to these challenges? As previously posted – here and here – our initial conclusions have been that current models of academic journal […]

  5. […] the discoveries and knowledge from their daily work. (David Campbell summarises well how the reluctance of universities to adopt social networking is to their detriment.) It’s a shame how good would a Sandra Phillips blog […]

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  7. […] of journalism; the third post will ask what these transformation mean for photojournalism; and the fourth post will consider some of the implications for academic publishing. [Update: in December 2009 I added a […]

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