The future of academic literature

Critics suggest that the trend towards replacing academic peer reviewed papers with blogs and wikis that bypass that process is a dangerous trend, leading to shallow, unreliable and unsupportable beliefs supplanting rigorous research. Similarly, the relative reliability and accountability of traditional journalism is being replaced by unaccountable, inaccurate and biased reporting by amateurs. On the face of it, there may be some truth in these criticisms: at least, it is harder to distinguish the chaff than it used to be, though there are gains in diversity and timeliness. However, at least in many cases, this perspective is a result of a skeuomorphic failure to recognise that such posts only superficially resemble the publications that they replace. A blog post is not a paper, a wiki page is not a publication, despite their intentional resemblance to those archetypal forms.

Social media such as blog posts and wiki pages do not exist in isolation: that’s what ‘social’ means.  They are surrounded by a web of commentary, dialogue, ripostes and critiques that are as much a part of the ‘publication’ as the post itself. So, if we have cause to criticise an original post or page, so will plenty of others. In fact, we can add our critique as part of that process, and engage and learn more deeply as a result. The outcome is a co-created medium of which a single post is only a part, a dynamic system in which peer review is not the input to improve the original but a part of the content itself. When it works well, with sufficient input from sufficient people, it can be a far more enlightening, rigorous, multi-faceted medium than any traditional forms. Of course, the process can fail: too much input, too little input, too little filtering, too much filtering can make it far less wonderful. And it can fail if we treat it like the forms it replaces: you can easily miss 90% of the value of Wikipedia, for instance, if you don’t read the discussion page that leads to the entry itself. But, when it works, it works brilliantly.

My favourite example of what happens when you rethink the process and move beyond skeuomorphs is the now venerable Slashdot site. It is built for and by passionate geeks so it is not a form that is readily replicable: you have to delve into the complex mechanics of the ingenious use of collaborative filtering, the distributed bottom-up reputation management system, the ingenious checks and balances on bias and mob stupidity, and the management of explciit filters to get the full benefit of the system. Only a geek or a very determined non-geek is going to do that. The reward for those willing to put in the effort (and, despite the barriers, there are many tens or even hundreds of thousands that do) is an emergent literary form co-created by its inhabitants that evolves into an extremely high quality and reliable knowledge source with a richness, depth, creativity and diversity that no single author could hope to match. Or, if you prefer, a shallow humorous take on technology. Or a place to support rabid and improbable beliefs or biases. It’s up to you. Once you start to customise it, it is an  extremely dynamic, extremely personalised, extremely diverse system fuelled by the crowd that can be many different things to many different people. Slashdot is not the defining academic literature or journalism of the 21st century, but it points the way towards something that is potentially far more powerful than the result of the tree-based technological constraints of yesteryear.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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