When Scholars Weigh Publication Options, Tradition Counts

January 31, 2010

Although more and more scholars are interested in trying out new technologies as a way to share or publish their research, the traditional cultures of their disciplines and the high regard accorded to peer review still tend to have the strongest influence on them, according to a substantial new report on scholarly communication from the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

The report, "Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: An Exploration of Faculty Values and Needs in Seven Disciplines," focuses in depth on the fields of archaeology, astrophysics, biology, economics, history, music, and political science. Produced with the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the report draws conclusions from interviews conducted over several years with 160 scholars from 45 "mostly elite" research institutions.

Although the seven fields surveyed have very different cultures, which are explored at length in the 733-page report, the executive summary points to the persistence of doing scholarly business as usual. "Experiments in new genres of scholarship and dissemination are occurring in every field, but they are taking place within the context of relatively conservative value and reward systems that have the practice of peer review at their core," the report states. It found that young scholars "can be particularly conservative" in their behavior, perhaps because they have more to lose than senior scholars, who "can afford to be the most innovative with regard to dissemination practices."

If that's the case, younger scholars may just be heeding advice to play it safe. "The advice given to pre-tenure scholars was consistent across all fields: focus on publishing in the right venues and avoid spending too much time on public engagement, committee work, writing op-ed pieces, developing Web sites, blogging, and other nontraditional forms of electronic dissemination (including online course activities)."

The executive summary describes a scholarly culture that has taken to the new while still clinging to the old. "Although there is a universal embrace of the rapidly expanding body of digital 'primary' sources and data, there is an equally strong aversion to a 'glut' of unvetted secondary publications and ephemera," it says. "The degree to which peer review, despite its perceived shortcomings, is considered to be an important filter of academic quality cannot be overstated."

The report's authors are Diane Harley, Sophia Krzys Acord, Sarah Earl-Novell, Shannon Lawrence, and C. Judson King, all members of the Berkeley center's academic and research staff. Their interviews with scholars identified five key needs of faculty members in regard to scholarly communication. Those include developing "more nuanced tenure and promotion practices that do not rely exclusively on the imprimatur of the publication or easily gamed citation metrics," and reassessing "the locus, mechanisms, timing, and meaning of peer review."