The death of community and consensus

18 September 2009

In a series of recent posts, I have explored the issue of self-publishing from many different angles. To recap these posts have been:

A wider issue

There is, however, a wider issue with self-publishing that troubled me as I began sketching out the series – its impact on the wider scholarly community and the often-unstated consensus that gives coherence to this community. Unfortunately, while this issue troubled me, its shape was – and still remains – unclear. Hence, what I write today may be reworked at a later stage.

Broad communities

Among the reasons why you might consider self-publishing your scholarly output are:

  • This is where the future is (the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship)
  • Altruism (the free exchange of information/research)

Certainly, these ideas and ideals are common among people engaged in such collaborative endeavours as Wikipedia, in the Creative Commons movement, and in open-source publishing more generally. These are indeed broad communities given coherence and energy by their mission.

So what’s my problem?

My problem is that these interest groups have many scholars among their members but they are neither scholarly groups per se, nor are scholarly concerns as such a central concern for them. Moreover, they may function as communities but they are not and do not represent the interests of the wider scholarly community in its entirety.

Elements of the scholarly community

Of course, I run the risk here of invoking an ideal – the scholarly community – that is not grounded very much in reality. That said, despite its fragmentation into fields, factions and fashions, I think that we can discern the outlines of a scholarly community found around the world (areas of it global, others firmly anchored in a local setting). In part, this is defined by:

  • The pursuit of knowledge
  • A spirit of questioning and exploration
  • Scientific inquiry framed by an intellectual discourse and grounded in the application of commonly accepted methodologies
  • (In most cases) collection, analysis and presentation of evidence that is observable, empirical and measurable (sometimes derived from experimentation)
  • Information exchange and debate
  • Scrutiny and validation by one’s peers
  • Advancement on the basis of merit
  • Collegial responsibility

The last two points are of course debatable. No doubt some people would add a few other defining characteristics as well: greed, envy, in-fighting, etc.

Where self-publication doesn’t measure up

But, if the above features are reasonably correct, where is the difficulty in placing self-publication firmly within this community?

Scholarly endeavour is not rewarded equally so let’s not get too starry-eyed here. Nonetheless, I guess that in one way or another my misgivings all relate to (lack of) scrutiny and validation by one’s peers and what this implies. A few points:

  • Some presses are less rigorous than others in enforcing scholarly standards but there is a general consensus among them on what the standards are. Realistically, can these standards be provided by the ‘wisdom of crowds’ instead?
  • If no common standards are applied to measure all scholarly output, can there be any coherence to the body of knowledge or confidence in its veracity?
  • Peer review has its faults but replacing it with a ranking system derived from social networking would have quality losing out to popularity as the main determinant of worth.
  • Peer review is a semi-altruistic activity; although a notional payment may be received, it is an important way for scholars to contribute to their field and thus build a ‘community of excellence’. Replacing it with social ranking would likely be divisive and encourage scholarship based more on activism than on the pursuit of knowledge.

In addition, there is the issue of value to consider. Publishers exist in part because they offer quality in return for payment (sales finance the editorial input). However, a tenet of open-source publishing (home of many self-publishers) is that information should be free. While there can be debate about the correlation between the price charged for a publication and its intrinsic scholarly value, it is undeniable that not charging for a work makes it far less likely that there will be any (impartial) editorial scrutiny of it beforehand.

As such, in my mind self-published works have a place in the scholarly world but not an important one. Certainly, they may be good for specific individual scholars but as a phenomenon they do not meet our collective needs; they do not measure up.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 164 other followers