The Open Access movement continued gaining steam in 2012. A third iteration of the Research Works Act was quashed, the number of universities adopting official open access policies continued to grow, dozens of new open access journals were launched, and a petition calling for public access to all federally funded research gathered enough signatures to get the attention of the White House.
But Open Access is only one part of a larger shift taking place in the academic world—particularly the sciences—says Richard Price, founder and CEO of academia.edu. Price argues that academia is moving toward a system where the credibility of research, publications, and ultimately researchers themselves, is gauged not by the prestige of the journal in which works are published, but by the usage, citations, and professional feedback that the works generate online.
That’s the theory behind academia.edu, a social media-inspired platform that allows research scientists and other academic professionals to critique and collaborate on research. Since its founding in the fall of 2008, the site has attracted almost 2 million members (including a growing community of librarians), 1.7 million papers, and 3.9 million unique visitors per month.
“Scientists are moving from an era where basically 17th century tools are used to share research papers, to an era where all of the sharing is based on the web, and using web technology,” Price told LJ.
As transitions go, this has been a rather obvious one. Clearly publications are moving online and researchers, particularly those in fast-moving STEM fields, are gravitating toward technologies that speed and simplify collaboration. As Price notes, it generally takes about 12 months for a paper to move from submission to publication in an academic journal. If another researcher wants to respond, that response could be published a year later.
This reflects a slow and inefficient peer review process by today’s communications standards, Price said. “Peer review does not take 12 months. At the end of it, you have two academics that have expressed opinions on the paper, and no paper takes 12 months to read. But it’s so incredibly low on [the reviewer’s] list of priorities, and the journal infrastructures are so incredibly slow.”
Sidestepping the traditional publishing industry, blogs and social media tools now allow content creators to raise awareness of their own research efforts and cultivate their own audience; many scientists prefer to reach their audience of peers more directly, Price said.
“That’s the broad, systemic change that’s going on,” he said. “The journal used to be the primary node—the main brand, the main distributor of scientific information. Scientists fed their information into that node and then the node would take care of distribution. What you’re seeing more broadly on the web is the middle-man being cut out.”
Of course, hiring and tenure review committees still expect to see Curricula Vitae filled with publications. And the accrued prestige of many journals remains one of the key factors stemming the shift toward Open Access journals. Blog posts and twitter followers, or even publications in upstart journals, simply don’t carry the same weight.
What academia.edu does is allow researchers to share their papers and then use web analytics to track how often the papers are read, for example—hard numbers that could be used on a CV. Smaller works that would otherwise go unpublished can also be posted for the use of other researchers. And, the platform allows the sharing of multimedia—something that is sorely lacking in the traditional paper format, Price said.
Historically, the published paper has been the primary credibility metric for academics. In recent years, one unfortunate result of that has been that scientists have little incentive to make the extra effort to share other types of media, such as data sets, code, comments on papers, or videos taken during the course of research, Price argued.
“Those pieces of scientific output languish on people’s hard drives,” he said. This platform gives researchers a place to publish that information and receive proper credit for it.
Price contends that the personal brands that scientists and other academics cultivate for themselves will soon begin to eclipse the brand of many of the journals in their field. Internet-driven stardom for a few, particularly in the small world of academia, is not difficult to imagine. More broadly speaking, however, Price believes that credibility metrics will continue to shift. Everyone applying for a grant or for tenure or for a new position is looking for every possible edge, he said. As emerging, Internet-driven metrics such as total paper views and other web-analytics become familiar features on CVs, they’re likely to be given more weight over time by review and hiring committees.
All of these factors—changing credibility metrics, the growth in open access journals, and the expansion of online communities that facilitate collaboration between researchers with similar interests—point toward the “systemic change” that academic publishing is currently undergoing.