The Future of Online Scholarship

Media Commons is soliciting feedback about the site, and a number of participants have said that it should avoid being just an online version of a journal. I am not sure what Media Commons wants to be or should be, but it could do worse than to be just an online version of a journal. While online versions of journals do exist, I don't think they are exploiting the possibilities of the web and I would like to see them try. Media Commons might have the opportunity to be an online version of a journal that is more than just traditional articles (paragraphs and footnotes) posted to the web with embedded YouTube clips. In what follows I sketch out what a good online journal might look like in the age of web 2.0. (I doubt that any of these ideas are really original, but I haven't seen anyone aggregate them as I have here.)

The production of knowledge in academia is still dominated by the traditional institutions of conferences, print journals, and books. The knowledge being produced within the traditional institutions is not really online. You may be able to access the full text of journal articles from your library's website, but the virtual fence protecting private property keeps this knowledge from circulating on the network. I don't consider this online scholarship; online means networked. To be online, you need more than the internet--you need to make use of the internet's affordance of connecting you freely among the network of users. Proprietary content fails to afford this.

An online journal that makes better use of the internet's affordances might look something like this:

-Everything has a comment function for input from readers. Web scholarship without comments is a conversation with a missing partner. The Onion bills itself as a "one-way conduit of information." That's a joke. Online scholarship should exploit the web's architecture of participation.

-Liberal use of illustration. A limitation of traditional scholarship is that it sometimes cannot be sufficiently illustrated. The web allows for framegrabs, charts and graphs, embedded video and audio, etc., to our heart's content. Most online journals use these tools insufficiently. New media scholarship online needs to do more.

-Liberal use of the hyperlink. The link is the essence of the web. All scholarship cites other scholarship, but hyperlinks transform a citation into a portal and invite the reader to join the writer in a trip over there to the other scholar's page. The impossibility of linking is an unacceptable limitation of traditional full-text journals, and most online journals that could have links (e.g., Scope) have few if any within their articles. We need to be writing in hypertext, not traditional text. The web is a network and online scholarship needs to be more networked.

-Potential for publishing scholarly audio and video podcasts to supplement writing or perhaps even sometimes to take its place. I haven't done this myself so I can only indicate that I think it might be a good idea.

-Full syndication to allow for third-party apps. This is one of the key principles of Web 2.0: RSS separates the form of media from its content and allows us to shape the experience of media as we wish. Down with partial feeds! (Media Commons has partial feeds in its In Media Res feature; Flow has no feeds at all. [edited 3/27/07: these sites have both added or expanded their feeds since I wrote this.])

-Modularity of design and content for ease of online consumption. I don't want to read a twenty-five-page article online. But just as important, modularity makes for easy remixability. The web allows us to recycle, to poach bits and pieces, to mash together ideas and sources in a way that isn't possible in traditional discourse. To enable this functionality, scholarship should be crafted out of small, connected parts. Related: anything that takes longer than a couple of minutes to read should offer a printer-friendly display option. (For more on the connection of short, modular, and open form, see Tim O'Reilly.)

-No peer review. It takes too long and the internet is all about speed. Editing is good when it helps people write better. Perhaps an online journal needs an editor to maintain a standard of quality (here I really mean things like punctuation and style) and to keep out work that is obviously inappropriate. But peer review slows things down and deprives us of the opportunity to respond to events as they happen and, just as important, to share our ideas as we formulate them and get feedback that will help them to develop. Ideally, the participatory, networked aspects of the web will function as a kind of dispersed peer review. Really bad ideas will be met with criticism. Many ideas will be ignored. Really good ideas will win the favor of the community. Scholars will reward good ideas by paying attention to them. (This is sort of how things work already, no?)

-Free availability to everyone. No walled gardens. CC for everyone.

Maybe it's not necessary to have an online journal; maybe people can self-publish according to the suggestions I have made. But many people have no idea how to publish on the web (I'm pretty fuzzy on how to do anything more sophisticated than a Blogger blog) and a journal would help to bring scholars less adept with digital technologies into the conversation.

The really big problem, of course, is that online scholarship does not satisfy the institutionalized credentialing system of academia. A search or tenure committee might not look favorably on your work online and would prefer that you publish in established journals. There are two solutions:

1. Don't do all your work online (yet?). Write a book and publish it the usual way. Submit your work to traditional journals. Self-publish online, then submit a plain-text version to a journal.

2. Evangelize for online scholarship. The more people participate the less chancy it will seem. If everyone is doing it, traditional institutions will have no choice but to change. If enough of us defy the inefficient old system, then academic credentialing will change to match the system that takes its place.

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