A Response to “The Future of Scholarly Communications”

The transitional state of scholarly communication has been an oft-discussed topic over the past 20 years. To provide a handful of examples: Nancy Fjällbrant detailed the history of the scientific journal and ruminated on the possibilities of electronic publishing in 1997; in 2002, Ray Siemens, Michael Best, Elizabeth Grove-White, Alan Burk, James Kerr, Andy Pope, Jean-Claude Guédon, Geoffrey Rockwell, and Lynne Siemens released a report on electronic scholarly communication in Canada; in 2004, John Erickson, Carl Lagoze, Sandy Payette, Herbert Van de Sompel, and Simeon Warner targeted academic journals and argued for an improved digital-based system; and in 2007, Christine Borgman analyzed scholarly communication infrastructure and the role of technology in its ongoing development. Advances in digital technology ensured that the discussion continued to evolve over the 10 years since the publication of Borgman’s touchstone encyclopedic accounting of scholarly communication, Scholarship in the Digital Age. In “The Future of Scholarly Communications” (2014), David De Roure presents his own unique angle on the subject. As is custom, De Roure makes the standard gestures toward the Philosophical Transactions as the genesis of contemporary scholarly communication (although most other authors on the subject also cite the contemporaneous Journal des sçavans in this sort of historicizing); the early development of the Internet at CERN as an attempt at more efficient knowledge transfer; and the rise of citizen science and social media as indicators of our increased global connectedness through information exchange. De Roure also reiterates a common question: “is [the traditional] model of scholarly communication still fit for purpose?” (233). He deviates from the standard narrative of scholarly communication in transition when he argues that we should think of academic articles as “social machines.”

De Roure’s method is interesting: he attempts to contextualize his claim that articles are social machines from a sociotechnological perspective. To my knowledge, “social machines,” as a term, is not used elsewhere in scholarly communication literature. De Roure traces this wording back to a Tim Berners-Lee quote from 1999: “‘Computers can help if we use them to create abstract social machines on the Web: processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration’” (237). Regardless of this background, De Roure does not provide a sufficient explanation of why academic articles should be considered as social machines beyond the rather straightforward concept that if an article is online, it fits Berners-Lee’s concept — something that is human-designed but computer-facilitated. Earlier, De Roure presents a graph of the “scaled-up information society” that depicts social machines as the eventual outcome of simultaneous increases in global population and computational technology, and suggests that the machines will outlast humanity: “we can anticipate an increasingly automated future — we will run out of humans and yet the technology axis goes on” (234). This unsupported statement is a curious technoutopic soundbyte that is not often found in other, more cautious scholarly communication literature. De Roure also implies that scholarly communication artifacts were not social machines prior to the rise of the World Wide Web: “Where traditional scholarship might be described as a sense-making network of humans exchanging scholarly writing, today it is a sense-making network of humans and machines, with the communications produced and consumed by both” (235). This statement suggests that pre-digital scholarly communication was not facilitated by technology, or at the least, by machines. In fact, the creation and circulation of knowledge since the transition from oral to print cultures has always been entwined with technologies, from quill and ink to printing press to mass book production.

De Roure’s article is relevant to my own research question as I explore the relationship of digital publishing practices to open scholarship — especially when he deviates from the social machines argument to raise questions regarding the ethics and consequences of automating research. De Roure also closes by suggesting we “defamiliarize the article, the monograph and the book” (238), as he attempts to do throughout the article. Although I question the theoretical validity of calling articles “social machines,” the consideration of a transition into open scholarship as a defamiliarization of conventional artifacts and practices opens the door to creative thinking about the practicalities and possibilities of digital scholarly communication. De Roure’s piece would be even more relevant to my own inquiry if he focused on the possible manifestations of Berners-Lee’s “abstract social machines” and “creative work” (emphasis mine); what could this look like, in our shared scholarly communication future?

Works cited

Borgman, Christine. 2007. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge: MIT Press.

DeRoure, David. 2014. “The Future of Scholarly Communications.” Insights 27 (3): n.p. http://insights.uksg.org/articles/10.1629/2048-7754.171/

Erickson, John, Carl Lagoze, Sandy Payette, Herbert Van de Sompel, and Simeon Warner. 2004. “Rethinking Scholarly Communication: Building the System that Scholars Deserve.” D-Lib Magazine 10(9): n.p. http://www.dlib.org/dlib/september04/vandesompel/09vandesompel.html

Fjällbrant, Nancy. 1997. “Scholarly Communication — Historical Development and New Possibilities.” Proceedings of the IATUL Conference. Lafayette, IN: Purdue U Library.

Siemens, Raymond G., Michael Best, Elizabeth Grove-White, Alan Burk, James Kerr, Andy Pope, Jean-Claude Guédon, Geoffrey Rockwell, and Lynne Siemens, comps. 2002. “The Credibility of Electronic Publishing: A Report to the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada.” Text Technology 11(1): 1–128.