Are Academic Institutions Limiting the Spread of Knowledge?

Last week Stanford put on a conference called Mobile Health 2011. Here’s a reflection from Craig Lefebvre, one of the organizers, which sounded very familiar:

Few of the presentations were data-driven, many were anecdotal, and perhaps more maddening were the number of academicians there who said to me “Oh, I have some data under review at a journal right now – but can’t talk about it before it is published.”

Conclusions that are not data-driven? Too many anecdotes? Data on lock-down in the ivory tower? I felt like I was reading about my own field of digital activism. He quanitifies the problem:

As was noted by more than one presenter, that’s likely 6-7 years between submitting a research idea, having it funded, conducting the study and analyzing the results, and then having it appear in a peer-reviewed publication. That process might work for people who measure their careers in decades, but in the quickly changing world of mobile health technologies [or digital activism…], that’s at least a generation or two.

Academia is designed to facilitate the creation of knowledge and insight, but its institutions – particularly current processes of peer review and the narrowness of what counts toward tenure (books not blogs) – are an impediment in the digital age.

As Clay Shirky put it in a recent talk at MIT, at one time the paper press was a means of increasing the speed with which knowledge could be transmitted. As newspapers and magazines have learned through their sagging circulation rates, print has moved from efficiency to inefficiency in the task of information transmission. Yet academia still operates in a “paper world,” embracing the onetime efficiency that is now clearly an obstacle to the goal of knowledge creation.

At the Meta-Activism Project we always try to make information free, to leverage new affordances to make information as accessible as possible. Our Global Digital Activism Data Set case study list has been available for download since its earliest days and the final coded data set will be available through a creative commons license. Our book, Digital Activism Decoded, is available for purchase through Amazon or for free download in PDF form.

Yet we do not operate in a bubble. Many of our collaborators are in academia and feel the “publish or perish” pressure, which does not encourage open digital collaboration. If academics choose to work on free-form digital projects or share data it is due to their own beliefs, not because their institutions are facilitating these choices. As long as the Meta-Activism Project is operating in a paper world, we will keep running up against the frustrations Prof. Lefebvre speaks about.

9 thoughts on “Are Academic Institutions Limiting the Spread of Knowledge?

  1. Pingback: Fixing Peer Review, Freeing Knowledge Creation | The Meta-Activism Project

  2. To add to the pessimism concerning tradition academic publishing, we academics tend to live in narrow disciplinary ghettos with few incentives to venture into new ideas. A few dozen scholars may dominate a niche represented by a single journal. This promotes cycling of old ideas. International relations theory, for example, is just now beginning to consider (embrace would be too strongly stated) that conventional news media play an important role in the international system. Ushahidi and other ICT-based developments? Not so much.

    • And I am guessing that academics are also incentivized to stay in those well-defined niches because it makes publication in those niche journals more likely, which is important for tenure.

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