New directions for academic publishing?

When I was a child, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, my father worked at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. My first engagement with the world of academic publishing and scholarship was the piles of printed cards my father would bring home – requests for copies of articles, sent from around the world, to the researchers at JCSMR (this being in the days before photocopiers, when authors received a certain number of printed copies of their article for distribution). As my sisters and I carefully cut around and soaked off the stamps for our stamp collections, the avid reader that I was read most of the cards, trying to decipher the handwritten names, addresses, article titles, journal names, and marvelling at the connections that paper made between professors and doctors in such far away places as Canada, Poland, and India.
Many things have changed since then, and as I sit in my office now, I have access within seconds to millions of journal articles. In fact, just yesterday I experienced a sense of frustration that a particular article I want is not available online, and I shall actually have to walk the 60 meters or so across to the library building, find the hard-copy journal, and photocopy it myself. (Yes, aren’t we spoilt these days!)

But apart from the relative ease of access to published material, has academic publishing really fundamentally changed in the last 3 or 4 decades? Is our model of scholarly dissemination still relevant to the 21st century?

Over at if:book, the blog of The Institute for the Future of the Book, they’re exploring this very issue, and developing an alternative approach. A recent article introduces the MediaCommons project-in-progress:

Our shift from thinking about an “electronic press” to thinking about a “scholarly network” came about gradually; the more we thought about the purposes behind electronic scholarly publishing, the more we became focused on the need not simply to provide better access to discrete scholarly texts but rather to reinvigorate intellectual discourse, and thus connections, amongst peers (and, not incidentally, discourse between the academy and the wider intellectual public). This need has grown for any number of systemic reasons, including the substantive and often debilitating time-lags between the completion of a piece of scholarly writing and its publication, as well as the subsequent delays between publication of the primary text and publication of any reviews or responses to that text. These time-lags have been worsened by the increasing economic difficulties threatening many university presses and libraries, which each year face new administrative and financial obstacles to producing, distributing, and making available the full range of publishable texts and ideas in development in any given field. The combination of such structural problems in academic publishing has resulted in an increasing disconnection among scholars, whose work requires a give-and-take with peers, and yet is produced in greater and greater isolation.

The whole post is worth a read, and has generated some interesting coments and views, some of which are outlined in yesterday’s follow-up post at if:book: initial responses to MediaCommons


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