Navigating Academic Transitions

In the middle of what was a somewhat average day of tending to the various digital projects I am currently involved with (See this post on Day of DH2014 for my to do list), I walked into the mailroom of the Philosophy Department and was greeted by an old friend I had been looking forward to meeting for a long time. It was the print version of an edited volume on Kant’s Theory of Biology to which I had contributed an essay quite some time ago. My CV had referred to the volume, the paper, and the conference for which it was written, in different forms at different times over the last five or so years.

Ina Goy’s gracious invitation to come to Tübingen to participate in the International Symposium came in 2009, a little over a year after I completed my dissertation Organisms and Teleology in Kant’s Natural Philosophy. The conference was first scheduled for April 2010, but volcanic ash prohibited travel to Germany for many participants, so it was rescheduled for December 2010.

IMG_0022With the travel, the presentation, the comments, my response, formal and informal discussion, revisions, editorial suggestions, and corrections long behind me, now I finally hold the print volume in my hand.  I have to admit, it feels pretty good.

I am proud to have my work included with essays from some of the most prominent scholars in my field in a print volume produced, at great cost no doubt, by a well respected German publisher.  The contrast, however, between the ecosystem of scholars, universities, external funding agencies, publishers, and libraries that enables such a volume to be brought to press, on the one hand, and the very different ecosystem I currently find myself working to establish, on the other hand, strikes me as rather stark.

For the last three years or so, I have been working with colleagues at Penn State, and traveling to other universities to invite collaboration, on a project that bases itself on a two-fold suggestion:

(1) Despite their considerable worth, older models of academic publishing, and corresponding institutional models for credentialing, promoting, and tenuring scholars, are growing increasingly unsustainable.

(2) There is a need to develop alternative approaches to academic publishing that are (at least) equally worthwhile and provide alternative bases for estimating the contributions that individuals make to collaborative, community-based programs of research, curricular development, teaching, institutional service, and public outreach.

Kant's Theory of BiologyI find it slightly ironic that I should receive my hardbound paper copy of Kant’s Theory of Biology on the very same day that I detail a list of tasks and projects related to suggestion (2) above for participants in Day of DH2014. At the same time, I am comfortable with what I perceive to be a productive tension within the academy.  I don’t see any inconsistencies in my current willingness to participate in projects that involve both older and newer models of academic production.

I tend to think of existing standards for scholarly discourse, academic publication, and institutional recognition as some of the many touchstones we should use in evaluating the success of the alternatives we develop. It is not so much the standards themselves, as it is the specific ways we have come to adhere to them, and to use certain proxies for them, that present significant obstacles to our development of more equitable and more sustainable models.

The revolutions in literacy, publishing, and the academic landscape that are underway are, I believe, closer to the description of large-scale historical changes in the sciences that we get from Lakatos than they are to the description we get from Kuhn. Rather than seeing a wholesale rejection of previous standards and a wholesale acceptance of a radically new paradigm, we are seeing changes in some of our standards. These changes, it would seem, are partially brought on by a continued adherence to some other standards through series of changes in the circumstances in which we are called upon to apply them.

For example, in order to think about blogging as an acceptable form of publication for academics, we don’t need to throw out our commitment to the substantive goods we long thought were best secured through blind peer review and highly selective acceptance. If we turn our point of evaluative focus away from the event and the venue of the original publication of some idea, and we focus on its subsequent circulation, uptake, reformulations, and contributions to ongoing research programs, we might just find that blogging fares better in certain arenas than does preparing an article for eventual publication in even the most selective and prestigious journal in the field.

I can’t think of any a priori reasons for maintaining that the prestigious journal will inevitably produce more rigorous, thoughtful, careful, and original scholarship. I can think of some empirically-based arguments that could be mounted in favor of the claim, but I suspect that they might turn on uncharitable comparisons. Yes, the latest pieces in Kant-Studien, for example, are likely to fare better according to scholarly standards than are the latest posts to a blog or discussion forum on the first Critique. However, if we allow that the evaluation of the piece is not entirely a pre-publication concern, then we might see this kind of comparison as yielding information of comparatively little significance. Instead of responding to this obvious fact by appeal ing to a different set of standards, we might be able to respond by suggesting a more enlightening comparison.

If we are looking for evidence for the claim of the prestigious journal, we would do better by starting with a comparison of the first drafts of papers that eventually get submitted to Kant-Studien with the posts on blogs or discussion forums that people submit to the open commenting. The next step would be to compare the accepted journal submissions with the TOP 10% of the papers that were developed further, over a comparable period of time, out of those initial posts. The final step would look at the post-publication impact of each of these papers. The result could be that the boost in terms of impact for some idea that is conceived today and written up in a paper that appears in Kant-Studien in 2016, is more than compensated for by the boost in potential impact that comes from the same idea appearing publicly (first, in a much rougher form) on the open web in 2014.

Whatever the actual results of such a multi-staged comparison would be (and I, for one, would love to see them), I think it would give us a much clearer sense of the relative virtues of each of the models under consideration. If we take careful note of the significant differences in the status of the objects of open, public evaluation that would follow from moving this evaluation back to a much earlier stage in the object’s development, we might be surprised by what we find in the newer models vis a vis the same standards employed in the older models of publication.

The good news, I think, for contemporary scholars who were trained according to older models is that their appreciation of these standards allows them to play an important role in ensuring that new models get designed in ways that do at least as good a job (if not an even better job) of embodying the virtues that animate the older model. The bad news may be that it will be more arduous, and less rewarding, for many of these scholars to participate actively in the collaborative work necessary to address these design challenges than it would be for them to continue working according to older models that have worked well (or well enough) for some time.

I, for one, am glad to be able to continue looking to the examples provided by the generations of scholars that preceded mine as guidance for thinking about my own contributions to the collaborative work of designing new models of publication (of which I hope they, too, would eventually approve).


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