Looking somewhere other than under the streetlamp

Perhaps shockingly, I don't plan to so much as try to wade through all seven-hundred-odd pages of this report on scholarly-publishing practices. It's thorough, it's well-documented, it's decently-written… and based on the executive summary (itself weighing in at a hefty 20 pages), it won't tell me a thing I don't already know.

Academia is conservative. Academia thinks its current scholarly-production system is just fine and dandy, thank you. Academia has a love-hate relationship with peer review. Academia wants to outsource its tenure and promotion decisions any way that is convenient and looks just barely irreproachable enough.

None of this is news. It's dispiriting, but it's not news.

I invite you, however, to take a look at the survey population. "45, mostly elite, research institutions" (p. i) they drew their sample from. Just on the face of it—if we're looking for change in scholarly communication, especially disruptive change, elite researchers in well-established disciplines at elite institutions are the wrong place to look.

Of course such researchers don't want the hill disturbed—they're king of it, aren't they? They're the people for whom "sustaining innovation" is designed, in Clayton Christenson's parlance. They're the very tippy-top of the academic prestige market; they are the last to notice, much less use, a disruptive innovation.

For similar reasons, we don't want to look at the big, established journals and publishers for disruptive innovation. Sustaining innovation, yes, plenty of it. But once again, the king of the hill doesn't allow mining underneath him when he can prevent it.

"But there's better light over here under the streetlamp!" goes the old joke. So where might we look instead, despite the darkness? Well, I have some ideas.

Interdisciplinary, inchoate novelties like the "digital humanities." Young, impecunious disciplines. New journals—what is the proportion of OA to TA journal launches these days, and how is that ratio changing? Disciplines where data need a place to live and thrive. Disruptive innovations start where there's a need that the existing market can't or simply won't address.

That's where the action is likely to be—and to be blunt, most of the reason I'm not wading through that Berkeley report is that it doesn't tell me a thing about where I believe the action is.

Still, there are some good bits about data in there, so the executive summary is worth a skim.

More like this

The old joke you refer to is actually attributed to Rumi as a riddle where a friend helps an old drunk looks for his key lost at night. They look for it under a streetlamp for a while and don't find it, whereupon the friend asks where the key was lost. The old man says he lost it in his house, but is looking out here "because here's where the light is."

Do you know the real provenance of this story or in what compilation of Rumi's works it can be found if it's really from him?