The Future of IT and Science (2): Accreditation and Validation Issues
The impact of Information Technology (IT), and in particular the Internet, on scholarly communication has been revolutionary. Digital communication allowed for digital collaboration, digital research papers and digital scholarly journals. However, the rate at which the Internet is utilized for academic purposes is seemingly much lower than for nonacademic (e.g. commercial and “social”) purposes. Attempts to get that same kind of degree of digital communication & collaboration going on between scholars are often hampered by the same pair of bottlenecks: a lack of (personal) incentives and a lack of time for scholars to exploit the benefits of IT.
As a response, this blog post provides some thoughts on new tools and practical incentives to encourage scholars to be a bigger part of this digital revolution in science…is what I would like to say. Sadly, while conceptualizing those ideas, I ran into some more issues that I need to share first. They are rather important issues pertaining to the actual development of new tools and incentives for scholarly communication: certification and efficiency.
“Great, another blog post dedicated to negativity.”
The Top-Down Strategy Issue: Conformity
To pick up where I left off, my last post referred to the top-down and bottom-up strategies to establish incentives that is to stimulate scholars to completely share their data/work openly. A concept that Michael Nielsen calls “extreme openness in science”. To me, these two approaches sound solid. I think the top-down strategy, getting the established scholarly people and institutions behind it (i.e. cultural change/acceptance to accept the tools), will likely give the best results. After all, getting established scholarly institutions to acknowledge your significance generally translates to better career options, more funding and more prestige. Powerful incentives for scholars indeed.
“Then let’s do that and get this over with! Problem solved! Pizza anyone?”
Well, the problem is that getting various established scholarly institutions to support and conceptualize new concepts are difficult (not to mention time consuming) objectives to achieve. It requires serious communication, significant coordination and the inevitable mutual agreement on standards between said scholarly people and institutions. Allow me to provide an example of the complications of mutual acceptance of standards. And take note that these are concepts that already exist and have already been shown to work. As an example of the success of the top-down strategy Michael Nielsen’s blog post mentions arXiv.
arXiv is an openly accessible repository that stores (and shares) digital versions of working papers. Important definitions (for this topic anyway): a digital version of a paper is also called an eprint (or e-print, referring to the electronic print). Now eprints can refer to both (1) a preprint, which is any version prior to peer review and publication, and (2) a postprint, which is any version approved by peer review. In short: arXiv a preprint repository.
I agree that arXiv is a success story: (pr)eprint repositories are widely considered a valuable asset to scholarly communication nowadays and their significance will only increase with Open Access getting more and more significant. However, considering one of the earliest preprint repositories started in 1974 and that we now still have different types of repositories that are (technically) very different, illustrates the nonconformity of a seemingly obvious concept. I mean, storing and sharing scientific papers online as they are put in is not rocket science with our technology ever since the World Wide Web was created in 1990. Something seemingly so simple, and seemingly requiring so little effort from the scholars themselves (compared to contributing to blogs, chats, forums and the newer “Science 2.0” things) still has key people disagreeing and working towards different ways of getting it done.
So yes, conformity is a difficult thing to achieve when you attempt something big, and this top-down strategy is all about big cultural changes. In the case of eprints, before this eprint phenomenon all happened, there were already scholars recording their research in a specific format, i.e. the scientific paper format, and third parties to scrutinize and publish it, i.e. the journal publisher. So there were already standards and policies, making the “leap” to eprint repositories easier both technically and functionally once we had digital communication. However, no such standards nor policies exist for the so far unaccredited activities like blogging and sharing data and what not.
In addition, this concerns concepts (e.g. blogs, wikis and other newer IT products) that scholarly institutions have so far never really cared much for at all. So before getting them to agree on some standards, they first need to be convinced to care for it at all. By the way, I also include their influence in the “conceptualization” of these initiatives. It is also worth considering because widely established scholarly institutions are not going to acknowledge the scholars’ added value without them being part of establishing how that accreditation is achieved. After all, they are lending their good names to it, so it had better conform to their quality standards as well.
“As they say: there ain’t no I in TEAM!”
There is a ME though, so one other possible approach is to convince one high profile scholarly institutions to support this. That may also cause some noticeable ripples to get the others to fight for the greater good, so to speak. Harvard supporting the Open Access mandate is a decent example of that, not to mention the effect of NIH’s support for Open Access. When it comes to “Science 2.0” stuff though, I think the journal Nature is doing a pretty decent job throwing new stuff out there and observing what sticks. Although I am not entirely sure about a commercial high profile journal becoming the flagship for “Science 2.0”. Ironic? Yes. Dangerous? Perhaps. What about the Open Access publisher the Public Library of Science (PLoS)? They are high profile, Open Access and always up for an innovative party it seems. More food for thought.