Thursday, 1 April 2010

Academia and New Technology (II)

As mentioned in the previous posting David Campbell has prompted me to think through some questions about the impact on the university and academic practice of the rise of new information technologies. In the last posting I concentrated on the challenges thrown up in terms of teaching and learning and in this one I am going to look at questions concerning research.

Campbell rightly points out that the main feature of academic publishing that is peculiar is the way in which we publish in journals that require paid firewalls. Publication in such journals ensures restriction of circulation of academic writing as does publishing books with presses that only circulate copies of a few hundred. The general effect of these practices is to ensure that academic writing has its potential audience artificially restrained.  Only those who are either wealthy enough to subscribe to journals and pay for books whose prices are very high relative to the general book market or, alternatively, are part of institutions that subscribe to and purchase such material, are able to consume the contents of them. This is a bizarre situation, not least since the content of such works is donated free to the publishers who then sell it back to the same public from which it emerged at a hefty price.

Given this situation the circulation of academic writing is not only artificially restricted but the high cost of this restriction is something that works as a public tax since institutions that are financed by the tax-payer are the source of the income the publishers receive. This situation is slightly different in the US given the high number of private universities there but elsewhere the restriction of academic content is effectively purchased by the taxpayer who is thereby excluded from such content. In recent years there has begun to emerge some resistance to this situation from within universities since it is correctly understood that such restriction of content militates against the idea that the "impact" of academic research should be measured. In response some universities (including my own) have begun requesting that some form of indication of research be set up in various versions of e-space. However, this requirement can often only mean that notification of the existence of the publication is made available to those who know that such depositories exist.

Campbell also points out that the rise of impact assessment is, in its own way, a further indication of the failure of universities to meet the challenge of making research accessible to a wider public in an age of general information transfers. Prior to undertaking research, or at least prior to being able to apply for a grant to undertake it, it is first necessary that some form of "Impact Summary and Impact Plan" is filled out which is meant to show who will benefit from the research in question and how. As is widely recognised such an approach has a number of bizarre consequences. For a start, in many subject areas, it is almost impossible to do this. How would one start to indicate what public would be impacted and in what way by a new work on Kantian views of causality for example? Even in areas of philosophy where there are more clear ways in which research could be set out in response to this demand, for example, in applied ethics, the nature of the way in which research could be effected by such an approach has not itself been opened for discussion. Campbell also points out that the model implied in such an approach is still one that views the consumers of the research in a passive way and not as interactive with the research. Impact on further academic research is itself ruled out as part of "impact assessment" thereby ensuring that interaction with the research at the level of the material itself is ruled out of consideration.

What the implication of the rise of new technologies for the accessibility of research involves is surely a model of publication that moves away from firewalls. Publication in on-line journals is often now free and if such journals proliferate then there could soon come a time when there could be greater access to and interaction with such research. The impact of work in philosophy on debates concerning various aspects of public policy and concerns with matters evidently of general public interest should be relayed through such maximally transparent methods of publication. The time of the old journals and the old restrictive methods of publication is coming to an end but for this to be taken further it requires that academic writers turn more and more to publication formats that allow such engagement. The main problem with doing so is that such formats have yet to attain the prestige required for use of them to have value in academic career structures. To facilitate broader public engagement that does not need to be through the old style of media it is necessary that universities come to recognise publication in open access media as part of the duty of active researchers and to reward it commensurately.

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