The New Metrics of Scholarly Authority
By MICHAEL JENSEN
When the system of scholarly communications was dependent on the physical movement of information goods, we did business in an era of information scarcity. As we become dependent on the digital movement of information goods, we find ourselves entering an era of information abundance. In the process, we are witnessing a radical shift in how we establish authority, significance, and even scholarly validity. That has major implications for, in particular, the humanities and social sciences.
Scholarly authority is being influenced by many of the features that have collectively been dubbed Web 2.0 by Tim O'Reilly and others, and what I'll call Authority 2.0 in order to explore more fully the shifts that seem likely in the near future. While those trends are enabled by digital technology, I'm not concerned with technology per se — I learned years ago that technology doesn't drive change as much as our cultural response to technology does.
That abundance changes greatly both the habits and business imperatives of the online environment. The lessons derived from successful Web 2.0 enterprises like Google, Flickr, YouTube, etc.include a general user impatience with any impediments ... [snip]. Abundance leads to immediate context and fact checking, which changes the "authority market" substantially. The ability to participate in most online experiences via comments, votes, or ratingsis now presumed, and when it's not available, it's missed.
Web 2.0 is all about responding to abundance, which is a shift of profound significance.
I think we're speeding — yes, speeding — toward a time when scholarship, and how we make it available, will be affected by information abundance ... .
But right now we're still living with the habits of information scarcity because that's what we have had for hundreds of years. Scholarly communication before the Internet required the intermediation of publishers. The costliness of publishing became an invisible constraint that drove nearly all of our decisions. It became the scholar's job to be a selector and interpreter of difficult-to-find primary and secondary sources; it was the scholarly publisher's job to identify the best scholars with the best perspective and the best access to scarce resources. Before risking half a year's salary on a book, the publisher would go to great lengths to validate the scholarship (with peer review), and to confirm the likely market for the publication. We evolved immensely complex, self-referential mechanisms to make the most of scarce, expensive resources. Consequently, scholarly authority was conferred upon those works that were well published by a respected publisher. It also could be inferred by a scholar's institutional affiliation (Yale or Harvard Universities vs. Acme State University). My father got his Ph.D. from Yale and had that implicit authority the rest of his professional life. Authority was also conferred by the hurdles jumped by the scholar, as seen in degrees and tenure status. And scholarly authority could accrue over time, by the number of references made to a scholar's work by other authors, thinkers, and writers — as well as by the other authors, thinkers, and writers that a scholar referenced. Fundamentally, scholarly authority was about exclusivity in a world of scarce resources.
Online scholarly publishing in Web 1.0 mimicked those fundamental conceptions. The presumption was that information scarcity still ruled. Most content was closed ... and the "authoritative" version was untouched by comments from the uninitiated. Authority was measured in the same way it was in the scarcity world of paper: by number of citations to or quotations from a book or article, the quality of journals in which an article was published, the institutional affiliation of the author, etc.
In contrast, in nonscholarly online arenas, new trends and approaches to authority have taken root in Web 2.0.
Other Web 2.0 authority models are represented in a wide variety of sites. For example, there are the group-participation news and trend-spotting sites like Slashdot ... , which remixes, comments on, and links to other information Webwide; and digg, enabling up-or-down votes on whether a news story is worth giving value to. There is del.icio.us, a collection of favorite sites where descriptive tags denoting content raise the authority of a listed site. [snip]
That engaged participation helps filter out crap and is a version of the "hive mind" form of conferred authority, where increasing populations simply add more richness to a resource. [snip]
S o what will be the next step? What is Authority 3.0, or Web 3.0? We will soon be awash in hundreds of billions of pages of content. How can we make sense of them? x Most technophile thinkers out there believe that Web 3.0 will be driven by artificial intelligences — automated computer-assisted systems that can make reasonable decisions on their own, to preselect, precluster, and prepare material based on established metrics, while also attending very closely to the user's individual actions, desires, and historic interests, and adapting to them.
In the Web 3.0 world, we will also start seeing heavily computed reputation-and-authority metrics, based on many of the kinds of elements now used, as well as on elements that can be computed only in an information-rich, user-engaged environment. Given the inevitable advances in technology, remarkable things are likely to happen. In a world of unlimited computer processing, Authority 3.0 will probably include ...
- Prestige of the publisher (if any).
- Prestige of peer prereviewers (if any).
- Prestige of commenters and other participants.
- Percentage of a document quoted in other documents.
- Raw links to the document.
- Valued links, in which the values of the linker and all his or her other links are also considered.
- Obvious attention: discussions in blogspace, comments in posts, reclarification, and continued discussion.
- Nature of the language in comments: positive, negative, interconnective, expanded, clarified, reinterpreted.
- Quality of the context: What else is on the site that holds the document, and what's its authority status?
- Percentage of phrases that are valued by a disciplinary community.
- Quality of author's institutional affiliation(s).
- Significance of author's other work.
- Amount of author's participation in other valued projects, as commenter, editor, etc.
- Reference network: the significance rating of all the texts the author has touched, viewed, read.
- Length of time a document has existed.
- Inclusion of a document in lists of "best of," in syllabi, indexes, and other human-selected distillations.
- Types of tags assigned to it, the terms used, the authority of the taggers, the authority of the tagging system.
None of those measures could be computed reasonably by human beings. They differ from current models mostly by their feasible computability in a digital environment where all elements can be weighted and measured, and where digital interconnections provide computable context.
What are the implications for the future of scholarly communications and scholarly authority? First, consider the preconditions for scholarly success in Authority 3.0. They include the digital availability of a text for indexing (but not necessarily individual access — see Google for examples of journals that are indexed, but not otherwise available); the digital availability of the full text for referencing, quoting, linking, tagging; and the existence of metadata of some kind that identifies the document, categorizes it, contextualizes it, summarizes it, and perhaps provides key phrases from it, while also allowing others to enrich it with their own comments, tags, and contextualizing elements.
Encourage your friends and colleagues to link to your online document. Encourage online back-and-forth with interested readers. Encourage free access to much or all of your scholarly work. Record and digitally archive all your scholarly activities. Recognize others' works via links, quotes, and other online tips of the hat. Take advantage of institutional repositories, as well as open-access publishers. [snip]
For universities, the challenge will be ensuring that scholars who are making more and more of their material available online will be fairly judged in hiring and promotion decisions. It will mean being open to the widening context in which scholarship is published, and it will mean that faculty members will have to take the time to learn about — and give credit for — the new authority metrics, instead of relying on scholarly publishers to establish the importance of material for them.
I also don't know whether many, or most, scholarly publishers will be able to adapt to the challenge. But I think that those who completely lock their material behind subscription walls risk marginalizing themselves over the long term. They simply won't be counted in the new authority measures. They need to cooperate with some of the new search sites and online repositories, share their data with outside computing systems. They need to play a role in deciding not just what material will be made available online, but also how the public will be allowed to interact with the material.
That requires a whole new mind-set.I hope it's clear that I'm not saying we're just around the corner from a revolutionary Web in which universities, scholarship, scholarly publishing, and even expertise are merely a function of swarm intelligences. That's a long way off. Many of the values of scholarship are not well served yet by the Web: contemplation, abstract synthesis, construction of argument.
Traditional models of authority will probably hold sway in the scholarly arena for 10 to 15 years, while we work out the ways in which scholarly engagement and significance can be measured in new kinds of participatory spaces.
But make no mistake: The new metrics of authority will be on the rise.
And 10 to 15 years isn't so very long in a scholarly career. Perhaps most important, if scholarly output is locked away behind fire walls, or on hard drives, or in print only, it risks becoming invisible to the automated Web crawlers, indexers, and authority-interpreters that are being developed. Scholarly invisibility is rarely the path to scholarly authority.
Michael Jensen is director of strategic Web communications for the National Academies. A version of this essay was originally presented as a speech given at Hong Kong University Press's 50th-anniversary celebration last fall.
The Chronicle ReviewVolume 53, Issue 41, Page B6
Copyright © 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education