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Web 2.0 and Academic Publishing
Can the Internet revolution transform the staid world of academia?
Ranjit Goswami (ranjit)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-26 11:17 (KST)   
We Indian academics, representative of a strange subspecies within Homo sapiens, preach within and outside the classroom on what's broadly right and wrong and, therefore, what should and shouldn셳 be remediated and how. We discuss case studies of real-life corporate challenges in business schools and do post-mortem analyses of bad decision-making. We typically start a lecture with "change is the only constant in this universe" and end on much the same note -- without understanding much of that dictum ourselves.

I happen to hail from academia myself, having observed the world in earlier incarnations, none seeming all that significant or insignificant in retrospect. In academia the undisputed measure of research remains the peer-reviewed publications accruing to one's credit in journals of professional repute, followed by the number of citations of one's work by other researchers that reflect creditably on the original.

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By way of gauging the actual number of accessions a given journal might experience over a span of days or weeks, a librarian could temporarily seal off a block of pages using, for example, removable tape and then wait for a complaint. Likely none would be lodged, and, disappointing as this would be, she/he might find the tape unbroken.

Little wonder there are so few efforts by the world셲 largest reference libraries to put their collections online with a search service like Google, to be funded by advertisers, preferring to deal with subscribers only, which are revenue models adopted by the New York Times (NYT) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), respectively. The difficulty for publishers is deciding which model will serve them better.


Things are admittedly changing fast, as at times I see WSJ articles in Google News that can be fully accessed without a subscription (along with many others with a "teaser," otherwise reserved for subscribers). During a recent dispute in which Google News had been showcasing articles from Belgian newspapers without paying royalties, it's been reported, in addition to the legal angle, that online readership of these papers declined by double-digits when Google was restrained.

The Belgian newspapers were probably emboldened to take on Google News (which I here take to be synonymous with Internet news, something that may stir objections from legal quarters as well as from vested interests) because so much less online content is generated for one of their languages, Flemish. That advantage, however, may not last indefinitely.

The debate then is nothing new for the majority of content generators, as they increasingly find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, not knowing how to work with the Google monster -- is it friend or foe (or "frenemy," a new buzzword in this rapidly changing scenario)? Google, on the other hand, seems to be only too happy with another type of race to the bottom that content generation companies are now indulging in; e.g., upstart Web 2.0 sites that are quite OK with making the headlines in Google News, as Google doesn't generate any content, enabling them to have their cake and eat it too.

And, legitimately, content generation firms -- more so old, giant ones -- don셳 see it as fair, since Google, with its position as the gatekeeper of the Internet world, makes most of the money. As if that weren't enough, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has saddled content generators with the responsibility of identifying content violators, who have not borne significant monetary penalties in disputes reported thus far but rather only responsibility for removing the material as soon as they receive notification. Also, the time period from notification to removal has yet to be clearly determined.

Efforts are admittedly underway from the Google side to encourage content generation companies in a joint pursuit of an (elusive) win-win model.

The debate is raging everywhere as to what might offer a better, more practicable solution. An imbroglio of a different kind bedeviled TV from the 1930s to the 1950s before advertisers became satisfied as to the payoff in increased sales from their sponsorship. This will probably happen with the Internet as well, until everyone involved can foresee enough ad revenues on the table.

From OMNI's influence on the 2002 South Korean presidential elections to the impact of today's Web 2.0, a similar controversy has been ongoing since a recent Phil de Vellis video on "YouTube" featured Democratic U.S. presidential aspirant Senator Barrack Obama, representing a new breed of politician, to the disadvantage of Senator Hillary Clinton, another Democratic candidate.

The point to be made here is that almost everything has changed sine the advent of Web 2.0 and the Internet-as-platform, be it for the right or wrong reasons. Depending on whose interests are being served, the good/bad news is that what the Internet hasn셳 yet impacted will be impacted, and continuously, beginning right now.

Returning to research-based academic publications in this context and assuming the readership of offline and online subscription journal sites continues to be discouraging (cf. current McKinsey Quarterly notices online in the NYT to the effect that many are waiting for the Harvard Business Review to debut soon and declare victory), how should researchers find desired sources? True, Google Scholar exists for this purpose, but many online research papers/research-based articles available through Google Search aren't in Google Scholar, for reasons best known to Google itself.

Increasingly, the division between a research paper and a research-based article correlates less well with what demarcates entries in Google Scholar from the generic Google search engine. Peer review makes increasingly less sense, because most researchers would prefer concentrating on their own work rather than "clearing others' [stuff]," to borrow a shorthand term used by many reviewers.

Users can post comments, agreements or points of contention all over the Internet.

Many famous academics blog, more in the West and the U.S. For example, countless pseudonyms can be attributed to Prof. Nicholas Carr of Harvard (author of "IT Doesn셳 Matter," judged the best Harvard Business Review article for 2003, which raised a lot of controversy, from the level of Bill Gates of Microsoft downward) and famous economist J. Bradford DeLong of UC Berkeley ("Slouching Towards Utopia") the list can be extended indefinitely.

Many scholars write for OhmyNews and similar sites, giving their perspective on current world affairs. It helps researchers if findings can be interpreted first in the light of world affairs and only secondarily using the quantitative and statistical jargon that may be of interest to academics only. Qualitative researchers believe that quantitative results, if they can셳 be qualitatively interpreted, are only as good as a thousand times zero.

The question then emerges, does the content of these Web 2.0 sites measure up to that of peer-reviewed journals? The answer depends on the credibility of the author and the site. The advantage of Web 2.0 is that research results can be real-time, as against having to do post-mortem analyses of peer-reviewed publications. In today's dynamic world, in many sectors and in many emerging nations, things change fast.

As a research scholar guided by the advice of my doctoral advisory committee, I'm aware of the need for peer review. The problem is that, other than the process being overly bureaucratized, the most highly reputed journals are unlikely to accept my papers, while at the same time any researcher worth his/her salt won't want to publish their findings indiscriminately just for the sake of getting into print.

That's why many researchers from academia prefer to write in OMNI and other similar sites. True, this may put us in competition with journalists, more as regards opinion and analysis than reporting, but I'd see it as a good sign if business journalists tracking financial markets over time take classes on portfolio investing at a B-school.

When the above competitive stance is combined with the broader self-learning opportunity the Internet offers (viz. the fact that instructors, endeavoring to explain a concept in the classroom, find many students with Wi-Fi immediately referring to Wikipedia, even if they draw adverse attention) we academics may soon have to find new career paths.

On the other hand, as a researcher and writer for the alternate media, I believe it reflects well to find my articles cited in other academic research work or even being debated in online forums.

As a researcher, this is encouraging, for one knows his/her views are at least being read. The inevitable question, however, will arise from old-school academic puritans: "(1) Does the work follow the fundamental guidelines of research methodology? If so, (2) Is the audience reading it on the Web 2.0 media capable of debating it, which presupposes an academic understanding on their part?"

We know that on the Internet a tiger can be taken for a cat and vice-versa. With a deeper probe of the Net, the virtual image will bear out the reality, probably even better than real-life images.

No one is sure of the impact Web 2.0 will have on academic publishing. As academic researchers we must ask these questions about the future of academic publishing. For an academic site that tries to address these challenges see the Teachlearning blog, which discusses "the Future of Academic Publishing." There are many more sites developing online with other content generation and distribution organizations.

Many younger researchers are optimistic because, just as academics have earned the right to comment on topics from politics to business management to economic issues because of their expertise, policy and decisionmakers in the corporate world who frame policies should have the right to comment on the quality of academic work. Expertise is no one's exclusive domain, and the Internet happens to be the most democratic domain there is. Many from other domains don't go through offline hardcopy publication, however, they still may have a say based on their expertise.

Finally, let me assess the quality of current academic publishing in India and its accessibility. I happen to be a product of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) system (graduate, post-grad and now researcher) and, to the best of my knowledge, certainly my previous departments did not publish regularly, which has been the practice in my current department. The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), known more for their management focus, do have quarterly publications, and now various new-generation B-schools have a lot more publications. The number of the former, known for their quality, is slight for a country India's size, and the quality of the latter may be open to debate.

One of my friends from the corporate world, in order to attend an interview for a PGDX (Post-Graduate Diploma for Executives) program launched recently by some IIMs, wanted to acquire an academic publication of one of the faculty members on the selection committee to improve his chances of selection in the interview round against stiff competition. My friend worked in IT, but when he wanted to access the paper online, he was advised to make out an account payee demand draft, carry it to the authorities of the appropriate IIM and then be sent a hardcopy.

No doubt my friend would not make it to that prestigious IIM.

OMNI has dealt with Web 2.0 and the attendant global reform, but also there is no doubt we'll need academic reforms before anything else.
©2007 OhmyNews
Ranjit Goswami is a research scholar with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, India; and is the author of the book "Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d'".
Other articles by reporter Ranjit Goswami

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