Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Faculty Rewards Systems Discourage Alternative Scholarly Communications

"As a young scholar, with a family to support and without a secured position, my main selection criteria is in practice how the chosen journal would look in my CV."
The above is a comment by Jan Kunnas in reaction to an article by Zoë Corbyn entitled A Threat to Scientific Communication that appeared in the British Times Higher Education Supplement. In fact, Kunnas' reaction is typical in most academic disciplines. One reason why junior faculty continue to focus on using traditional print publications for their scholarly communication can be summed up in Corbyn's quote of Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal:
"We have an industry in which most journals exist to perpetuate an inward-looking academic-reward system, and there is no clear purpose that has anything to do with science."
As Michael Nielsen observes in Doing Science in the Open, the continued reliance upon tradition journals is not only slowing the flow of information but inhibits the move towards the use of alternative scholarly communication methods:
"The adoption of the journal system was achieved by subsidizing scientists who published their discoveries in journals. This same subsidy now inhibits the adoption of more effective technologies, because it continues to incentivize scientists to share their work in conventional journals and not in more modern media."
A University of California, Berkeley report The Influence of Academic Values on Scholarly Publication and Communication Practices indicates that faculty realize the value of experimenting and using alternative methods of scholarly communication:
"There are clear advantages to newer forms of publication that are recognized by a wider circle of scholars than those who have actually used them for publishing their own work. These include the ability to reach a larger audience, ease of access by readers, more rapid publication even when peer reviewed, the ability to search within and across texts, and the opportunity to make use of hyperlinks."
The report then concludes:
"There is presently a somewhat dichotomous situation in which electronic forms of print publications are used heavily, even nearly exclusively, by performers of research in many fields, but perceptions and realities of the reward system keep a strong adherence to conventional, high-stature print publications as the means of record for reporting research and having it evaluated institutionally."
Why do scholars continue to have a strong adherence to conventional print publications and avoid experimenting with modern methods? It comes back around to the academic-rewards system, as highlighted in Digital Scholarship in the University Tenure and Promotion Process: A Report on the Sixth Scholarly Communication Symposium at Georgetown University Library. The report quotes Stephen Nichols, professor of medieval French literature at Johns Hopkins University:
"the operative concepts here are fear and snobbery, and the disincentives are so powerful as to discourage experimentation. Young scholars are counselled that they need solid print dossiers before they attempt digital scholarship and that, even then, they are still at some risk."
Yet, there can be a significant fallout from perpetuating an inward-looking academic-reward system that continues to rely upon the journal while discouraging the use of alternative scholarly communication methods.

An article in the New York Times discusses the possibility that it may inhibit the world’s ability to respond to the sudden emergence of a widespread illness, including H1N1. The reason? Researchers are waiting to report their findings until it is published in traditional journals:

"Officials and experts say they have learned a lot about human swine influenza. But relatively little of that information, including periodic summaries of what has been learned since the beginning of the pandemic, has been reported and published. Some experts said researchers were waiting to publish in journals, which can take months or longer."

However, the Internet has afforded great opportunity for experimentation in alternative forms of scholarly communications, as Joseph Heller observes:
"The integration of digital technology into nearly every aspect of the daily workflow of scholars and researchers has begun to produce new channels of communication that do not fit neatly into the category of ‘journal’ or ‘pre-print’ or even ‘email communication’. These new mechanisms include blogs and wikis that spring up organically around a topic or an experiment and collaborative annotations on a web page. These advances are the natural result of scholars using digital technology in ways that they independently determine best serve their immediate needs and the needs of their community."
When compared to other disciplines, academic librarianship has more liberty to be experimental with our scholarly communication. Advancing the nature of scholarship in academic librarianship is less dependent on adhering to traditional norms. Yet, the major hurtle remains faculty rewards systems that contend that only those communications that go through a pre-publication anonymous peer-review have any value.

Instead, academic libraries need to retool their faculty rewards systems so they more closely resemble the vision of Michael Jensen:
"For universities, the challenge will be ensuring that scholars who are making more and more of their material available online will be fairly judged in hiring and promotion decisions. It will mean being open to the widening context in which scholarship is published, and it will mean that faculty members will have to take the time to learn about — and give credit for — the new authority metrics, instead of relying on scholarly publishers to establish the importance of material for them.

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Jan Kunnas said...

Dear Eric,

I am flattered that you opened your blog citing me. I had also some suggestions in my comment to Zoë´s article. I tossed though the ball to the IVY League and other prestigious universities. "They could take the first step by favoring open access journals when evaluating academic merits." Another solution is an increased us of self-archiving: "...where researchers deposits free copies of their articles on the web. The burden is here again dropped on individual researchers, who should on their own find out whether the policy of the peer-reviewed journal of choice allows self-archiving or not, and whether it holds for preprint or postprint versions of articles. This should be a service provided automatically by all research libraries."

Eric Schnell said...


Your quote was perfect because it is the mindset of many (most ?) Jr. faculty.

I appreciate your point that "the burden is again dropped on individual researchers who should on their own find out whether the policy of the peer-reviewed journal of choice allows self-archiving or not, and whether it holds for preprint or postprint versions of articles."

One could make an argument that authors should review the copyright permissions form before signing it and make adjustments to assure that a self-archived copy is permitted. (Yes, untenured faculty may not want to risk possible rejection by asking)

Keeping track of all the policies of all the journals, and processing the scholarly output of an entire faculty, would require a significant resource investment by a research library. So much so that other valuable services, even journal subscriptions, may have to be discontinued.