Scholarship, Liberated From Paper at Last

David Cutler for The Chronicle

April 01, 2012

I was probably among the last doctoral students to write a thesis entirely on a typewriter. In 1982, barely nine months after the release of the IBM PC, the personal computer was out of reach for me. Cut and paste (literally), Liquid Paper, rub-on Greek symbols, and the correcting back space were my editing tools. Punched cards were my computer code.

Today almost all research papers are born digital. Words, images, data, models—all of the things that research creates—have been liberated from paper to the more malleable and dynamic world of bits and bytes. Yet when it comes to reviewing, publishing, and distributing research, the academy runs the risk of discouraging digital scholarship through structures that inhibit innovation and fail to reward innovators.

The evolution of digital scholarship is astounding. My Ph.D. thesis, which explored how information could be used to improve personal navigation across networks, included experiments tracking how human subjects reach unfamiliar destinations, as well as computer algorithms for optimizing routes. That research would be very different today. I could search for and acknowledge not just journal-published papers but also works in progress. I would most likely access detailed data sets produced by GPS devices carried by individuals or installed on vehicles that track every movement, rather than rely on my hand-recorded observations. I could tell the story of my experiments through moving images, not just prose and photos, as well as provide tools that could be used immediately on real data. And I could share my work, and receive feedback, well before my thesis was completed.

In 1982, research results were published almost exclusively in print. Peer review served a system in which postpublication discussion would have been costly and impractical, and in which papers were organized in libraries by traditional discipline categories.

Today the situation has improved. For instance, arXiv (pronounced "archive"), operated by Cornell University, offers an extensive digital library of works in the sciences and mathematics. Individuals post their publications without formal peer review, speeding the pace at which research is disseminated to, and discovered by, others. Peer review may still occur, but often only after the research becomes well known.

Another model is open review, in which readers publicly review posted work, as in a recent experiment by the editors of Shakespeare Quarterly. Taking that approach one step further, research can be made available to others for modification and integration, along the lines of the Creative Commons.

But to take root and flourish, these new approaches require support and encouragement for their proponents. Instead, the structures of universities often fail to reward and champion digital innovators, particularly in guidelines for promotion and authorship that privilege traditional scholarship.

If we do not create mechanisms that reward faculty and students who form digital-research communities, then innovation may bypass universities entirely, putting us at risk of falling behind institutes, private companies, and even individuals.

Recognizing the risk, some institutions are exploring new practices in research distribution. The Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) preserves all types of research and makes the results accessible to the public. The Allen Institute for Brain Science, in Seattle, has opened its whole-brain atlas to researchers everywhere. "We don't wait to analyze our raw data and publish in the literature," Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of the institute, wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Our goal is to speed others' discoveries as much as to springboard our own future research."

At my own institution, we held a series of faculty workshops on creativity and collaboration in which we debated how universities can become better at knowledge creation and dissemination by offering new tools, changing the rules governing research, and building a culture of innovative scholarly practices. One of our discoveries was that the issues surrounding digital scholarship are universal, virtually the same in the sciences as in the humanities. As we are freed from the rigidity of old structures, we find better ways to communicate our ideas and collaborate with our colleagues.

Therefore, working with our university research committee, we revised our promotion-and-tenure manual to recognize individual contributions to group efforts in digital form. We provided new funds to support collaborative research groups, on topics as varied as game theory, digital humanities, and brain health. Our Shoah Foundation Institute created a digital repository to archive and share all types of research products. We are now in the process of establishing a bio-repository that will become a library of shared specimens that will inform medical research.

We also rewrote guidelines for attribution of research products, now endorsed by our Academic Senate. They were framed around "attribution" rather than "authorship," because we saw that the contributions of our faculty and students cannot be encapsulated in discrete books and articles but may also include data, media, models, and other creative works. In a time when elements of research are combined and integrated among collaborators (one person's data set, for example, is used in another's analysis), we seek to acknowledge and encourage all types of contributions that advance research.

Much academic work still follows traditional models, but all institutions should be making room for the new forms of scholarship of the digital age. Here are some good starting points:

  • Revise promotion-and-tenure guidelines where they discriminate against the collaborative work typical of much digital scholarship.
  • Create an infrastructure for the wide sharing of research and data.
  • Move beyond the outmoded concept of "authorship" to recognize scholarly contributions in forms other than books and papers.

A hundred years before I finished my dissertation, Mark Twain was, by all accounts, the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript for publication as a book. The day of the typewriter is now long past. In its place, digital technology gives our faculty and students the ability to be as creative in how we express ourselves as we are in the research itself. Rewarding them will open the door to a new world of scholarship.

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Randolph W. Hall is vice president for research at the University of Southern California.