A gentleman by the name of Ted Striphas has put forth an intelligent article on scholarly communication, regarding the implications of what he terms “distributed collaboration” within the scholarly community.
The crux of it posits that the scholarly journal is a vital form which serves an essential function for scholarly communication, and that the present mode has become more interactive (peer-review) than in the days of yore (writer takes sole responsibility). The idea that more eyes, more minds contributing, can improve or cull a scholarly concept is, in fact, relatively new in the great scheme of things. He alludes to the notion that more malleable, living documents could hold promise as an alternative to the stiff permanence of how scholarly articles have been conceived and perceived in the past.
However, newer doesn’t necessarily mean better, and more doesn’t necessarily mean more correct. The ability to craft serious critique doesn’t occur naturally to the majority; a brief examination of discussions of any topic on the internet will reveal that unfounded personal attacks and oversimplification outnumber careful dissection and analysis by a wide margin. Bringing the unfiltered ideas of the masses into a specialized field is akin to bringing a kindergartener into a college classroom and expecting useful contribution. There is an assumed knowledge base within scholarly literature of any field, and it is nearly impossible to discuss the intricacies of dancing with those still crawling. In this sense, a general all-inclusive collaborative effort will not serve a meaningful purpose; the majority of effort will be in sifting through massive amounts of useless feedback to find that which serves to enlighten.
Outside of academia, public forums, discussion boards, and directories exist on every topic imaginable, from politics to astrophysics, to epistemology and metaphysics to spelunking to how to make lobster bisque. Similarly, news websites nearly all have a space for commentary and input from readers as well as options for direct feedback to writers. In any event, most have some expert input coupled with a great many novice attempts at understanding new concepts. Few differentiate between unfounded opinion and reasoned conclusions.
The question, I think, is what is considered valid information—what is deemed scholarly by the scholarly community. Some would argue that demarcation can only occur from within the scholarly community itself, and through the process of peer-review. This is debatable.
Striphas shows favor to the concept of innovation (“plastic” discussion) rather than systematic regurgitation (his example, Newton’s memorable quote: “standing on the shoulders of giants”). Thus, I was expecting him to proffer something novel: a method, a system, an example of a new technique showing promise. His own wiki effort to maintain a public collaborative document, he fully admits, isn’t working; he “cannot honestly say the experiment has been a resounding success.” Further, educational wiki has been done hundreds of thousands of ways already, never fully accepted by scholars as valid. Why discuss it at all, then? What does that serve to exemplify? Collaboration doesn’t work? I suspect it is primarily to highlight the subject and raise awareness.
Striphas’ article doesn’t make a concrete point so much as raise a series of questions, and smart questions often give rise to unforeseen solutions:
Could the concept of peer review be expanded to encompass distributed forms of collaboration? Should colleges and universities reward this type of participation, and if so, how? What if people other than our “peers” could easily and routinely add input to our work?23 How might editors and scholarly socieities better curate academic research so as to encourage more broad-ranging engagement with it? Must published research only include monuments to the past, or can it include work of a more plastic nature?24
I’d like to take these head on.
Question one: “Could peer-review be expanded to encompass distributed forms of collaboration?” Depending on his definition of “distributed,” the answer could vary. In a sense, yes. Take a non-scholarly model like Reddit, for example, and apply that to the scholarly community. An idea is posed, thousands upon thousands of others offer their take on it, provide links to further information, interject with personal anecdotes, and offer new information that may not be widely available on the topic from people inhabiting countries around the world. Answers range from the most base to the profound, and somewhere in that continuum, readers can compile enough range to reach individual conclusions on the topic—whatever it may be.
Continuing the example of Reddit (with which I have no affiliation, other than regularly reading it as I do everything) for the second question regarding “reward,” they offer a voting system, where commentary can be voted either up or down. (Here’s another example.) In this case being amusing seems to hold as much value as being relevant, but applied to scholarly works could be honed into something useful. While it doesn’t equate with money, which seems overwhelmingly to be humanity’s concept of “reward,” it could be applied to a scoring system that applies to students’ grades. As far as professors or the general public contributing, the rank of one’s opinion could offer further validation, could move it higher on the list of commentary to where it would be viewed first. There are algorithms for this, or they could be written easily enough.
The third question asks, “What if people other than our ‘peers’ could easily and routinely add input to our work?” This depends on how the input is added, and of course by whom. Direct input, that is, into an article itself, would be considered infringement by most writers. It’s also likely that within the scholarly community, people other than “peers” would have little interest or expertise in the topic—that the narrowness of scope in any scholarly field would help to lessen some of the mass mentality concerns I mentioned earlier.
We tend to base what someone knows on what someone has done, but these two don’t always coincide. Not everyone plays by the rules. Depending on the subject matter, there is no reason that scholarly writing need only use previously proven experts for feedback. While in science, precision is necessary—there’s little to no tolerance for unsubstantiated speculation, half-baked experiments or faulty formulas—in the humanities, speculation is encouraged so long as it offers a reasonable foundation, logical inferences, and a valid conclusion. Regardless, broadening the world view and the realm of possibility are noble goals for all research and all publications.
As far as the fourth question, collaboration could be encouraged in one of three ways, being compulsory, hip, or lucrative: 1) as a requirement for completion of coursework, or 2) with heavy promotion through mainstream media, or 3) as a profitable, paying enterprise funded by grants.
And finally, for the fifth: “Must published research only include monuments to the past, or can it include work of a more plastic nature?” This is a question of whether an argument is proven valid. In order to have a leg to stand on, so to speak, it must show the premises of its main argument to be proven true, and the premises must be illustrated through “monuments to the past.” Conversely, in order to be of interest to the future, a concept must be plastic enough to adapt to the overwhelming speed of technological change and spread of information. Simply reciting the past is only telling people where to look for consensus; envisioning the future is where we all must focus to better prepare for it. In short, it must consider both.
But I’ll leave it to the experts to sort that out.