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Michael Clarke over at The Scholarly Kitchen writes an interesting post on the reasons why the institution of scientific publication has not been disrupted yet by new technologies and processes:

When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991, it was with the aim of better facilitating scientific communication and the dissemination of scientific research. Put another way, the Web was designed to disrupt scientific publishing. It was not designed to disrupt bookstores, telecommunications, matchmaking services, newspapers, pornography, stock trading, music distribution, or a great many other industries.

And yet it has.

The one thing that one could have reasonably predicted in 1991, however, was that scientific communication—and the publishing industry that supports the dissemination of scientific research—would radically change over the next couple decades.

And yet it has not.

Clarke admits that there have been a number of changes and advancements in the dissemination of and collaboration around scientific data and literature.  However, he rightly points out that these changes have been largely incremental, not disruptive.  For Clarke, the question is ‘why hasn’t scientific publishing been disrupted already?’  Clarke’s bottom line: the incentives held by the scientific community that developed as a result of journal publication do not lend themselves to being disrupted by technological change.

Over time, scientific journals developed three additional functions that became critical for the scientific community: validation (basically, the peer-review process that validates the work of an author), filtration (journals and the peer-review/editorial process work to make information consumption more manageable and to create signals that confer value upon the articles appearing in the highest regarded publications), and designation (scientists professional development and advancement has become tied in a significant fashion to their publication record–specifically, the degree to which their work has been published in the most prestigious journals–basically, institutions rely on the signals provided by the filtration process mentioned above).

Clarke laments:

Peer review is not going to be substantively disrupted by new technology (indeed, nearly every STM publisher employs an online submission and peer-review system already). Filtration may be improved by technology, but such improvements are likely to take the form of augmentative, not disruptive, developments. Designation is firmly rooted in the culture of science and is also not prone to technology-driven disruption. Article-level metrics would first have to become widely adopted, standardized, and accepted, before any such transition could be contemplated—and even then, given the amount of time that would be required to transition to a new system, any change would likely be incremental rather than disruptive.

Given these 3 deeply entrenched cultural functions, I do not think that scientific publishing will be disrupted anytime in the foreseeable future.

It struck me that this is a great lesson for any business that is looking to disrupt an established market through the introduction of a new technology.  We live in an era where disruption through technological advancement seems particularly easy (cost of development is low, barriers to entry have been lowered due to previous technological and cultural shifts, etc).  However, we must take into account the various incentives that have been built up over time that influence how people behave and whether simply introducing a new (likely, superior) technology will be enough to alter the dominant practices in a given industry or sector.  Any research done into the market prior to entry should include a series of interviews with likely adopters and must go far beyond questions that simply relate to the product (e.g. “Would this be a more efficient way of disseminating your scholarly work?”  “Why, yes, it would be.”).  How are individuals in this area goaled?  How do they advance internally and in the wider market professionally?  What factors influence someone’s professional reputation?  Often times these questions are overlooked in favor of a strictly technological and functional perspective.  Even the best technology in the world can be underutilized or even ignored if they ignore the powerful incentives beyond efficiency that can influence adopters.

(Via Nate Torkington at O’Reilly Radar)

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