Expose peer-reviewed academic literature to online community

By Simon Brown / Columnist

It seems like a week can’t pass without some much-publicized celebrity Twitter feud occupying the headlines of supposedly legitimate news sources. Unfortunately, the mainstream news media has not yet considered the potential market for covering the professional, intellectual disputes that cross the pages of scholarly journals.  

Then again, the headline “Rival historians exchange words over Brazilian sugar economy” doesn’t capture the imagination quite like Jonah Hill snubbing Don Lemon in a hotel lobby. 

It’s no surprise that the world of scholarly discourse rarely captures popular attention. But even in public debates on the political and cultural issues with which academics professionally engage, their learned perspectives too often go unnoticed. All of these trends contribute to what a columnist at The New York Times recently described as the retreat of the “public intellectual.”    

While tired criticisms of the relevance of technical scholarly research need no more response, the suggestion that academics could more fruitfully influence public discourse is well-placed. The only way to make accessible the too-often distant discussion is through new norms for scholarly publication. 

Currently, the peer-reviewed journal article serves as the currency of every scholarly community, as it has since the late 19th century. These journals   — written, edited and read by scholars, usually in the same field or subfield  — determine the career trajectories of any aspiring academic. Their publications lengthen the curricula vitarum under consideration by any tenure committee, and often form the basis for employment decisions. 

What is more, as any junior scholar knows, these journals exist in a complex hierarchy correlated to their scholarly “impact” — or the degree to which other scholars cite their publications in their own work. The higher up on the ladder, the more challenging and prestigious to cite on your CV.

The university presses typically responsible for publishing these journals also publish scholarly books and compendia — the height of academic impact for some disciplines. The presses do not operate on a profit motive, but instead publish important intellectual work as an end in and of itself — in line with their affiliation to the mission of the university.  

Still, the costs of printing and editing these journals are sufficiently high that, in most cases, only university libraries can afford to purchase them — denying access to anyone beyond the gates of the school. 

For universities to begin to open scholarly discourse to public attention, the books and journals that advance these debates ought to be open-access, a proposal advanced by a growing number in academia. By publishing this peer-reviewed research both through traditional print methods and digitally for the access of any interested party, university presses could expand the exposure of their literature without compromising the revenues and other benefits gained in the process.

A 2011 report from the American Association of University Professors found that libraries and presses that provided some type of open-access content saw no considerable decline in revenues from those products and sometimes increased them.

This digital medium can alter not only the method of delivery, but the product, itself. While articles presenting arguments, evidence and conclusions will retain their places as the vehicles advancing their fields, they also rely on a level of familiarity with the literature common only to academics.

Online collaborative projects, however, can present a wealth of information and the digital tools for its analysis, while granting the user the autonomy to conduct his or her own research and draw conclusions. One need only look to a site such as Itinera, an interactive database maintained by Pitt faculty that is amenable to any researcher studying art and travel relationships.

Once tenure committees and employers begin considering this innovative and accessible work for its scholarly merits, digital projects will receive both the public attention and academic critique they deserve. 

But even the most optimistic would strain to believe that the highly specialized and particular information contained within these websites will diffuse to public opinion as soon as they’re made available. Sure, scholars and students may be inclined to consult these sites, but it’s doubtful that the man on the street will peruse his morning issue of the American Journal of Political Science alongside his newspaper — especially when he won’t even peruse the newspaper in the first place, statistically speaking.

Scholars, then, should be better incentivized to contribute to popular discourse, in layman’s terms, as magazine and newspaper contributors. As it stands, Ph.D.s see little professional encouragement to distill the research in their field to a publicly-consumable form. Those distinguished scholars who do, usually in the pages of The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books, for example, typically enjoy the tenure and prestige that lets them disregard the potential reproach of their colleagues. 

If tenure committees and employers would review these contributions alongside journal publication and judge them for their responsibility and accuracy as they would any article or monograph, they could allow younger scholars to represent their fields to the reading public at large. 

If not, I can only hope that my future academic employers don’t ever stumble upon this article. 

Write Simon at [email protected].