The Academy and Digital Publishing

November 28, 2007 at 7:29 pm (Computers, Economics, Education)

I’ve talked before about the resistance in academia, or at least in the Humanities, to digital publications. After a fascinating talk yesterday by Simon Tanner, of King’s College, London, a number of us got into a conversation about the subject. One of Simon’s key points is that we don’t live in an information economy, per se. There is valuable information, but there is also worthless information, and there’s more of it than anyone could ever hope to assimilate. What is limited, and therefore valuable, in our modern world is attention. That’s why we have news services, television, magazines, RSS, etc., to weed through the glut of information and find the tidbits that we consider worthwhile.

One of the participants, Joseph Vaughan, of UCLA’s own Center for Digital Humanities (where I used to work) pointed out that the academic publishers have actually been providing us with a service for a long time by “artificially” limiting the amount of information available within our various fields. Through their peer-review process, they essentially vet scholarship as being valuable or worthless, so that we, the scholars, don’t have to dig through it all. However, it struck me that, even if that were the primary goal of the academic publishers, there would still be room for growth via digital publication. More advanced indexing tools and more specifically focused periodicals could make it much easier than even now to wade through the data. So what, then, is the limiting factor?

I wonder if it might not be jobs. In the Humanities, there are far more PhDs than there is work. Since there are few jobs, and since the best jobs are allocated based upon your publication record, the expansion of the number of publishers would create even more competition for the available jobs. By keeping the number of journals limited, you also keep down the number of qualified applicants; conversely, if you allowed digital publications, and therefore anyone could get a job, how would you control the process any more? Of course, I know that the sciences have picked up digital publication like a fish to swimming, but my response is that there are a lot more private sector jobs available for people with degrees in the hard sciences than us fluffy sorts. Any thoughts?

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