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A response to "Scholarly Social Machines"

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This article looks at the scholarly communication ecosystem through the lens of social machines; something I have thought about a lot but only partially articulated through my contributions to Linked Research. In particular, the hypothesis that we are struggling to improve the state of scholarly communication despite advancements in technology because we are trapped in a machine we have ceased to see is interesting. I've had many conversations with people over the last couple of years who balk at any suggestion of a radical upheaval of scholarly communication, hiding behind notions of futility of incentivising researchers to do anything other than pubish or persih, the immovability of the for-profit publishing industry. They complain about the state of things, yet are transfixed by the status quo. I think that framing this problem as a 'trap' will perhaps nudge folks into looking for a way out, and social machines is a useful concept to work with, something very demonstrably real in other domains, and this might help with finding a perspective on scholarly communication.

The article mentions the 'ecosystem' and lists some of the stages. I think it's worth noting that in Linked Research: An Approach for Scholarly Communication we characterised the different stages, roles and actors in scholarly communication in detail (there's even a diagram!). It's important because this is a hard problem, too big a space, to talk about all at once, and breaking it down into smaller chunks that nonetheless interlink (and the interlinking is critical) can help.

Dave writes that we see the same articles about how to improve being published over and over again, and this is true. I assembled a collection of some of them here. People lament that it's too hard to change, and us Linked Research-y types release software and publish our work in a Webby decentralised way (just like Dave has done, for the version of his article that I'm reading) and shove it under peoples' noses and cry that here is the proof that it's not too hard, and if only a few more people would bother we could iron out the wrinkles and make it easier and easier for everyone to participate. It's catching on, but agonisingly slowly. Most people still smile sadly, with a look of concern about the non-future of our academic careers. Dave writes of the "Catch-22" of using traditional publishing to try to solve some of the problems; and it's true. Even csarven is pushing 'papers' to academic conferences about Linked Research and related tooling in the hopes that academics will pay attention (and so he can get his PhD within this broken system). We console ourselves that at least the PDFs were generated from HTML and CSS, and a link to an open access Web version remains in the abstract even from behind Springer's paywall. Yet somehow the dual effort of publishing 'properly' and demonstrating alternatives is still not ticking the right boxes! What's up with that? So we need a new tactic, and the questions raised in this article are pragmatic and challenging, and a step in the right direction.

Question 8 is important because I often find that when we provocatively push "extreme decentralisation" via Linked Research, people push back against that as too difficult, too flakey, underdeveloped. We're arguing from this end of the spectrum because we're fighting against the very other end right now. But it is a spectrum, and better - more robust, more powerful - would be something in between. One example: the response that an individual can't possibly be counted on to keep their research online for eternity ignores the roles libraries and institutions (and indeed traditional publishers) can play in archiving and indexing work over time.

Another note to reinforce the importance of stepping outside to look in at scholarly communication: people, mostly software engineers, with whom I work on decentralised Social Web technologies look on at academia with confoundment. People claiming to be Web Scientists are putting PDFs behind paywalls? Life-saving medical research is accessible to what percentage of human beings? It seems obvious to the outside that we're really screwing things up here. Dave implies that we need to push people towards revolution over evolution, but we need to open a few more eyes before this can happen.

So how do we get people to step outside and look back in? This article doesn't address this. Arguably the people who will show up to Dave's presentation of this are already eyes-open, so perhaps together we can scheme to break the spell that the status quo holds over others.

Framing this (improving the scholarly comms ecosystem) as an interdisciplinary research problem could be emphasised more. Certainly we could solve all of the technical problems, but the social and political ones remain. I hope that we can take some inspiration from SOCIAM in tackling this in the years to come.

🏷 academic publishing edsc2017 linked research reviews social machines