Digital Documents and the Future of the Academic Community
Today the academic community is the subject of an experiment in technological innovation. That experiment is the introduction of digital documents as a new currency for scholarly communication, an innovation that some think will replace the system of print publication that has evolved over the past century. What will be the long-term consequences of this innovation for the conduct of research and teaching, for the library and the campus as places, and ultimately for our sense of academic community?
This work on technology and scholarly communication has been focused upon one dimension of this process of innovation: the economics of scholarly publishing. The central focus has been to understand the formation and dynamics of new markets for digital information: will digital modes of publication be more cost-effective than print modes, both for publishers and for libraries? We must learn how readers use on-line journals and how the journal format itself will evolve in a digital medium: will digital publications change the form and content of scholarly ideas? Together these papers investigate the emerging outline of a new marketplace for ideas, one that will probably be reshaped by new kinds of intellectual property law, but that will certainly include new kinds of pricing, new products, and new ways of using information. These questions are important economically, yet if we knew the answers, would we know enough to understand the impact of technological innovation upon the academic community for which the system of scholarly publication serves as an infrastructure?
One reason this question must be asked is the debate about what economists call "the productivity paradox." This is the observation that the introduction of information technology into the office has not increased the productivity of knowledge workers thus far, unlike the productivity gains that technology has brought to the process of industrial production. Yet Peter Drucker has described
the productivity of knowledge workers as the key management problem of the twenty-first century. And more recently, Walter Wriston has described information as a new kind of capital that will be the key to wealth in the economy of the future, saying: "The pursuit of wealth is now largely the pursuit of information, and the application of information to the means of production." Why, then, does it seem that information technology has not increased the productivity of knowledge workers?
Erik Brynjolfsson has defined three dimensions within which an explanation of the productivity paradox might be found: (I) perhaps this paradox is a measurement problem, since the outcomes of work mediated by information technology may not fit traditional categories and are perhaps difficult to measure with traditional methodologies; (2) the productivity paradox might be a consequence of the introduction of very different cultures of work based on new kinds of incentives and skills; hence productivity gains may require redesign and reorganization of work processes previously based on printed records; (3) perhaps information technology creates new kinds of economic value (such as variety, timeliness, and customized service), which change the very nature of the enterprise by introducing new dimensions and qualities of service.
Although the analysis of the impact of information technology on scholarly communication has only indirectly been a discussion about productivity thus far, it should be understood that the question of productivity raises issues like changes in academic culture and the organization of academic work, not just about its efficiency. For the purposes of this discussion, however, what is of immediate interest to me as a political theorist and university librarian is the way the productivity paradox frames the possible dimensions of the dynamics of technological innovation, thereby setting a research agenda for the future. How might our understanding of the outcomes or impact of research, teaching, and learning change? How might the incentives for academic work evolve, and would the organization of the process of research and teaching change? Will new kinds of value be introduced into academic work, changing its cultures, and will traditional kinds of value be lost? This broader research agenda provides a context for discussing the price, supply, and demand for digital publications.
In sum, how might the substance and organization of academic work change as information technology changes the infrastructure of scholarly communication? To borrow a term from a very different economic tradition, the question of the social impact of information technology concerns the mode of production, that is, the complex of social relationships and institutions within which academic work is organized, within which the products of academic work are created and consumed, and within which cultural valuation is given to academic work. In the course of this exploration of the changing modes of production that govern knowledge work, it will be necessary to think seriously about whether printed knowledge and digital information are used in the same way, if we are to understand the nature of demand; about the new economic roles of knowledge, if we
are to understand issues of price and supply; and about how the management of knowledge might be a strategy for increasing the productivity of knowledge workers, if we are to understand the future of institutions like the research library and disciplinary guilds.
The System of Scholarly Communication
The idea that there is a system of scholarly communication was popularized by the American Council of Learned Societies newsletter Scholarly Communication, which began by publishing a survey on the impact of personal computers on humanities research in 1985. "Scholarly communication" is a term invented to frame both print publication and digital communication within a single functional schema, tacitly asserting a continuity between them. It is this continuity that is in question, not least because the term "scholarly communication" encompasses the very research processes that are obviously being transformed by information technology, resulting in the creation of new kinds of information products and services that were not part of the scholarly publishing marketplace in the print era. These products and services include, for example, patents on methodological procedures and genetic information; software for gathering, visualizing and analyzing data; information services, such as document delivery and databases; network services; electronic mail, mailing lists, and Web pages; and electronic journals and CD-ROMs.
Today each of the institutional parts of the system of scholarly communication built over the past 50 years-research universities, publishing, and libraries-is changing, and it is unlikely that a new equilibrium will resemble the old. This system is unusual, perhaps, in that different participants perceive it from very different, perhaps contradictory, perspectives. From the perspective of the academic community, both the production and consumption of scholarly information are governed by a culture of gift exchange: production by the faculty as members of scholarly guilds, and consumption by free access to information in libraries. In gift exchange cultures, information is exchanged primarily (although not necessarily exclusively) in order to create and sustain a sense of community greater than the fragmenting force of specialization and markets. From the perspective of publishing, however, production for the academic marketplace is centered on the faculty as authors, a relationship governed by contract, and consumption is centered on academic research libraries, governed by copyright law in print publishing and by contract law in digital publishing. It is this variation in perspective, perhaps, that leads each side to hope that digital documents will replace printed journals without changing other aspects of the system of scholarly communication.
Gift and market exchange are symbiotic, not opposites. If scholarly publishing is governed by the rules of market exchange, it must manage the boundaries between two gift cultures, that within which knowledge is created and that within which knowledge is consumed. The crisis of scholarly communication has made
these boundaries very difficult to manage, as ideas from the university are turned into intellectual property, then sold back to the university to be used as a common good in the library.
Why the crisis in boundary management? The immediate crisis that has destabilized the system is the problem of sharply increasing costs for scholarly journals in science, technology, and medicine. The causes of the crisis are varied, but they begin with the commercialization of scholarly publishing, a dramatic shift from nonprofit to for-profit publishing since the 1950s, that created the hybrid gift/market system. In turn, the historic growth in the amount of scientific, technical, and medical information, driven by federal funding, has increased costs, particularly as specialization has created journals with very small markets. And the waning of a sense of the legitimacy of library collection costs within the university has allowed the rate of growth of collection budgets to fall far below the rate of price increases. Even with cost/price increases, the academic gift economy still subsidizes the market economy, for faculty give away their intellectual property to the publishers, yet remarkably, those who subsidize research do not yet make a property claim on the research they support. Subsidies include, for example, the federal funding of research, institutional subsidies, and the voluntary labor of faculty in providing editorial services to publishers.
This system evolved at the turn of the twentieth century as a subsidy for nonprofit university presses and disciplinary society publishers in order to circulate scholarly information and build a national intellectual infrastructure. Since 1950, however, federal research funding and commercial publishing have reshaped the system, creating the hybrid market-gift exchange system with many unrecognized cross subsidies.
Higher education is both the producer and consumer of scholarly publications. As creators of scholarship, faculty are motivated by nonmarket incentives, primarily promotion and tenure; yet at the same time, faculty see themselves as independent entrepreneurs, managing a professional career through self-governed disciplinary guilds that cross all educational institutions. This guildlike structure is a deliberate anachronism, perhaps, but one that sustains a sense of professional identity through moral as well as material rewards.
Scholarly publications are consumed within a gift culture institution called the library, a subsidized public good within which knowledge appears to the reader as a free good. Publishers would add that this gift culture is, in turn, subsidized by the owners of intellectual property through the fair use and first sale doctrines, which generally allow copyrighted information to be consumed for educational purposes.
The ambiguity at the boundary of gift and market extends to institutions of higher education as well, which are simultaneously corporation and community. But the dominant factor that has shaped the last 50 years of higher education is that universities have become a kind of public interest corporation that serves national policy goals. Just as the Morrill Act created land grant colleges to promote
research and education for the development of the agricultural economy, modern research universities have been shaped by federal research funding since World War II as "milieus of innovation," functioning as tacit national laboratories for a polity uncomfortable with the idea of a formal industrial policy.
This system of scholarly communication is in crisis. Consider, for example, the possible consequences for this system if some of the ideas and questions being debated nationally were to come to pass:
• What is the future of university research? Does the research university still play a central role as a national milieu for innovation, or has the corporation become the focus of innovative research and national information policy?
• What is the future scope of higher education? Historically, colleges and universities have had a tacit monopoly of the education market based on accreditation and geographical proximity, but instructional technology and distance education have created new markets for education. With the Western Governors' University proposal, a national market for education would be created based on selling teaching services that will be evaluated by examination rather than the accreditation of traditional institutional settings for education. Moreover, corporate training and for-profit education is on the verge of competing directly with some sectors of education.
• What is the future of the library as a public good? In the polity, the idea of a national digital library has been modeled upon the universal access policies governing telephone and electric utilities. Here the public good is fulfilled by the provision of "access," but it will be the consumer's responsibility to pay for information used. The cultural legitimation crisis of public institutions within the polity extends to the funding of academic research libraries within the university as well.
• What is the future of the academic disciplines in a world of increasing specialization that makes it difficult for traditional disciplines to find common terms of discourse and at a time in which disciplinary metamorphosis is now creating new fields like molecular biology, neuroscience, cultural studies, and environmental science?
• What is the future of fair use? Rights that exist in print are not being automatically extended to the use of digital works. Federal policy discussions about intellectual property in the digital environment have not included fair use, giving priority to the creation of a robust market in digital publication and the creation of incentives for the publication of educational works.
These are questions, not predictions, but they are questions that are being discussed in the polity, so they are not mere speculation. They are intended only to point out that the system of scholarly communication is a historical creation, a response to certain conditions that may no longer exist.
Three new factors define the conditions within which a system of scholarly
communication may evolve. First, the emergence of a global economy in which intellectual property is an important source of wealth creates a context in which the value of scholarly research may be a matter of national interest extending far beyond the traditional concerns of the academy. Second, the end of the cold war as a stimulus for national information policy that took the form of federal patronage of university research may fundamentally change the shape and content of federal funding for research. And third, information technology has created global communication, enabling new links between researchers around the world, creating the possibility that the intellectual disciplines of the future are likely to develop paradigms and concerns that transcend national boundaries.
Digital Documents and Academic Productivity
What is the nature of digital documents as an innovation, that it is possible to ask whether they might affect the value of information and its use and the organization of academic research? Geoffrey Nunberg has identified two differences between digital and mechanical technologies that affect both the value of knowledge and the organization of its reproduction.
Unlike mechanical antecedents like the printing press, the typewriter, or the telegraph, the computer isn't restricted to a single role in production and diffusion. In fact, the technology tends to erase distinctions between the separate processes of creation, reproduction and distribution that characterize the classical industrial model of print commodities, not just because the electronic technology employed is the same at each stage, but because control over the processes can be exercised at any point.
... The second important difference between the two technologies follows from the immateriality of electronic representations and the resulting reductions in the cost of reproduction.
The fundamental consequence of these differences, Nunberg argues, is that the user has much greater control of the process of digital reproduction of knowledge as well as its content, essentially transforming the meaning of publication by allowing the reader to replace the author in determining the context and form of knowledge.
However, these differences in the process of the reproduction of ideas do not apply to all digital information, only to information that is "born digital," sometimes also called "digital documents." Today's marketplace consists largely of digitized documents, that is, works written for and reproduced in printed journals, then scanned and distributed on the network. Digitized documents conform to the modes of production of print journals: to the rhetorical rules of the genre of scientific and to the traditional relationships between author, publisher, and reader. If prior processes of technological innovation hold in this case, however, digitized documents represent only a transitional stage, one in which the attempt is made to
use new technologies to increase the productivity of traditional modes of production and to reinforce traditional authority patterns. CD-ROM technology is a good example of the attempt to preserve the traditional modes of production yet take advantage of the capability of digital signals to include multimedia, by packaging them within a physical medium that can be managed just like a printed commodity. The immateriality of networked information is much more difficult to control, although encryption and digital watermarking are technologies that give to digital signals some of the characteristics that enable print copyright to be regulated.
The interesting points to watch will be whether the content of digital and print versions of the same works begin to diverge and whether readers will be allowed to appropriate published digital works and reuse them in new contexts. Markets are made by consumers, not just by publishers, and the fundamental question concerns the future of readers' behavior as the consumers of information. What, for example, is the unit of knowledge? Will readers want to consume digital journals by subscription? Or consume single articles and pay for them as stand-alone commodities through document delivery? Or treat a journal run as a database and pay for access to it as a searchable information service? As Nunberg points out, the intersection of technology and markets will be determined by the nature of the digital signal, which unifies the processes of production, reproduction, and use of information.
In thinking about the nature of digital documents and the kind of social relationships that they make possible, consider the credit card, which may well be the most successful digital document thus far. The credit card itself is only an interface to liquid cash and credit, taking advantage of mainframe computer technology and computer networks to manage market transactions wherever they occur around the world. It replaces printed currency and portable forms of wealth such as letters of credit and traveler's checks with a utility service. It creates new kinds of value: liquidity, through an interface to a worldwide financial system; timeliness and access, through 24-hour service anywhere in the world; and customized or personalized service, through credit. These new kinds of value are not easily measured by traditional measures of productivity; Brynjolfsson notes that by traditional measures, the ATM seems to reduce productivity by reducing the use of checks, the traditional output measure of banks. Yet to characterize the new kinds of value simply as improvements in the quality of service is not a sufficient description of the value of credit or debit cards, since they have created entirely new kinds of markets for financial services and a new interface for economic activity that supports entirely new styles of life, creating a mobile society.
One of these new markets is worthy of a second look, not only as an example of innovation, but to explore the reflexive quality of digital documents. When I use a debit card, a profile of my patterns of consumption is created, information that is of economic value for advertising and marketing; thus I often receive coupons for new or competing products on the back of my grocery receipt. Information
about my use of information is a new kind of economic value and the basis of a new kind of market when used by advertisers and market analysis. In tracking the use of digital services, network technologies might also be described as keeping the consumer under surveillance. Issues of privacy aside, and they are not sufficiency recognized as yet, this tracking will make possible an entirely new, direct, and unmediated relationship between consumer and publisher.
Thus the discussion of protecting intellectual property on the Internet has focused not only on technologies that allow for the control of access to copyrighted material, but also on technologies that audit the use of information, including requirements for the authentication of the identity of the user and tracking patterns of use. The consequences of this reflexivity may well reflect a fundamental shift in how we conceive of the value of information. While markets for physical commodities were regulated by laws and inventory management techniques, markets for digital services will focus on both the content and use of information and will use the network as a medium for knowledge management techniques.
To summarize this process of innovation, credit cards might be described in productivity terms as an efficient new way to manage money, but they might also be described as creating entirely new genres of wealth, literally a new kind of currency; as new ways of life that create new kinds of social and geographical mobility; and in terms of the new kinds of markets and organizations that they make possible. Digitized documents may lower the costs of reproduction and distribution of print journals and perhaps some first-copy costs, but they also create new kinds of value in faster modes of access to information, new techniques for searching, and more customized content. And in the longer run, true digital documents will produce new genres of scholarly discourse, new kinds of information markets, and perhaps new kinds of educational institutions to use them.
At the moment these new possibilities tend to be discussed in terms of the capacity of the new technology to disrupt the laws, cultures, and organizations that have managed research, reading, publishing, and intellectual property in the era of print. Most prominent among these disruptions has been the discussion of the protection of copyright on the Internet, but there is also active concern about the social impacts of digital documents. For example, we have just identified the problem of privacy and surveillance of networked communication, a capacity for surveillance that has already begun to change the nature of supervision in the workplace. Or, to take a second kind of social impact, pornography on the Web has been defined as a social problem involving the protection of children. But these problems are only two examples of a broader issue concerning the impact of a global communications medium on local norms, for the scope of the network transcends the jurisdiction even of national regulatory authorities. There is discussion about the quality of social relationships in Cyberia, negatively manifested by the problem of hostile electronic mail and positively manifested by emerging forms of virtual community. And in national information policy, debate continues about the proper balance between the public interest in access to information
and the commercialization of information in order to create robust information markets.
To summarize, digital technology is not so much about the introduction of intelligent machines, a process that Wriston described as "the application of information to the means of production," as it is about the productivity of knowledge workers. The process of technological innovation implies social and economic change and will be marked by changing knowledge cultures and new genres, which support new styles of life; by changing modes of production, which are likely to be manifested in new kinds of rhetoric, discourse, and new uses of information; and by new forms of communication and community, which will be the foundation of new markets and institutions.
Digital Documents and Academic Community
In an essay called "The Social Life of Documents," John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid have argued that documents should not be interpreted primarily as containers for content, but as the creators of a sense of community. They say, "the circulation of documents first helps make and then helps maintain social communities and institutions in ways that looking at the content alone cannot explain. In offering an alternative to the notion that documents deliver meaning, [there is a] connection between the creation of communities and the creation of meaning." That is, the central focus of analysis should not be on the artifact itself or even, perhaps, on the market as the primary social formation around documents, but instead the focus should be on the function of the artifact and market in creating and sustaining the social worlds, or communities, of the readers. Here, at last, we have identified the missing subject for discussions of the impact of technology and digital documents on social change: the academic community.
Recently the business management literature has begun to consider an interesting variant of this thesis, namely that the formation of a sense of community within electronic commerce on digital networks is the precondition for the creation and sustenance of markets for digital services. For example, John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong argue that producers of digital services must adapt to the culture of the network.
By giving customers the ability to interact with each other as well as with the company itself, businesses can build new and deeper relationships with customers. We believe that commercial success in the on-line arena will belong to those who organize virtual communities to meet multiple social and commercial needs.
Whereas producers controlled traditional markets, they argue, the information revolution shifts the balance of power to the consumer by providing tools to select the best value, creating entirely new modes of competition. The markets of the future will take the form of virtual communities that will be a medium for "direct channels of communication between producers and customers" and that will
"threaten the long-term viability of traditional intermediaries" (p. 204). In the context of scholarly communication, "traditional intermediaries" would mean libraries and perhaps educational institutions as well.
The questions concerning productivity and technological innovation might now be reconstituted as a kind of sociology of knowledge: What kind of academic community first created print genres and was in turn sustained by them? What kind of community is now creating digital genres and is in turn sustained by them? And what is the relationship between the two, now and in the future?
On a larger scale, the relationship between community and digital documents is a problem in national information policy. In the United States, national information policy has tended to focus on the creation of information markets, but the broader discussion of the social and political impact of digital communications has been concerned with issues of community. For example, the Communications Decency Act and subsequent judicial review has concentrated on Internet pornography and its impact on the culture and mores of local communities. Social and political movements ranging from Greenpeace to militia movements have used the Internet to organize dissent and political action; is this protected free speech and association? Universities are concerned about the impact of abusive electronic mail on academic culture.
The bridge between technology and community is suggested by the elements in the analysis of productivity: how new technologies add new value, create new incentives, and enable new kinds of organization. Brown and Duguid argue that our nation's sense of political community was created by newspapers, not so much in the content of the stories, but in their circulation:
Reaching a significant portion of the population, newspapers helped develop an implicit sense of community among the diverse and scattered populace of the separate colonies and the emerging post-revolutionary nation.... That is, the emergence of a common sense of community contributed as much to the formation of nationhood as the rational arguments of Common Sense. Indeed the former helped create the audience for the latter.
Similarly, and closer to the issue of scholarly communication, the scientific letters that circulated among the Fellows of the Royal Society were the prototype for scientific journals, which in turn sustained scholarly disciplines, which are the organizing infrastructure for academic literature and departments. New forms of value, which is to say new uses of information, create new genres of documents, which in turn create literature, which serves as the historical memory for new forms of community.
In the case of print and digital documents, change is not evolutionary because these two kinds of information offer different kinds of value, but they are not opposites. Genre, for example, has been shaped by the physical characteristics of the print medium, including the design within which information is presented (e.g., page layout, font, binding) as well as the rhetorical norms governing the structure
of information (e.g., essay, scientific article, novel). Rhetoric has been described as a structure to govern the allocation of attention, the scarcest resource of modern times. Our frequent complaints of information overload may well reflect the early stage in the development of rhetorical structures for digital media. Certainly we face more information and more kinds of information, but the real problem reflects the difficulty in determining the quality of digital information (e.g., the lack of reputation and branding); or the difficulty of knowing which kind of information is relevant for certain kinds of decisions (e.g., the problem of productivity); or the relatively primitive rhetorical practices that govern new media (e.g., the problem of flaming in electronic mail).
Consider, for example, the technology of scientific visualization and multimedia. Thus far, visual media tend to be consumed as entertainment, which require us to surrender our critical judgment in order to enjoy the show. Thus the problem of the quality of multimedia information is not simply technical, but requires the development of new genres and rhetorical norms within which visual media are used in a manner consistent with academic values such as critical judgment.
Or, consider some of the new genres for digital documents, which might well be described as adding new kinds of value to information: hypertext, the Boolean search, and the database. Most of us did not learn to read these new genres in childhood as part of the process of becoming literate, and we lack conceptual models for learning them other than those derived from our experience with print; there is, perhaps, a generational difference in this regard. The database raises new problems in defining the unit of knowledge: will consumers read the digital journal or the digital articles, or will the unit of knowledge be the screen, the digital analog of the paragraph, which is identified by a search engine or agent? HTML raises the question: who is responsible for the context of information, the author or the reader? As readers jump from text to text, linking things that had not previously been linked, they create context and therefore govern meaning, and reading becomes a kind of performing art. These questions might be described, perhaps, as a legitimation crisis, in that the traditional authorities that governed or mediated the structure and quality of print are no longer authoritative: the author, the editor, the publisher, and the library. Who are the new authorities?
Information technology was designed to solve the information problems of engineers and scientists, becoming instantiated into the hardware and software templates within which new genres and rhetorical forms have evolved, thence into computer literacy training for nontechnical users, and thence the user skills and modes of reading that the younger generation thinks of as intuitive relationships with the machine. Hypertext, for example, turns narrative into a database, which is a highly functional strategy for recovering specific bits of information in scientific research, as, for example, in searching for information with which to solve a problem. Electronic mail is a highly efficient means for exchanging messages but has little scope for lexical or rhetorical nuance. This limitation has little effect on groups sharing a common culture and background, but it becomes a problem
given the diverse social groups that use electronic mail as a medium for communication today, hence, the frequency of flaming and misunderstanding.
In any case, as sociologists like Bruno Latour have noted, the original intent of the designers of a technology does not necessarily govern the process of technological innovation, for the meaning and purpose of a technology mutates as it crosses social contexts. Thus the problem may not best be posed in terms of an emerging cultural hegemony of the sciences and technology over academic institutions, although many of us do not find it intuitive to be giving "commands" to a computer or pressing "control" and "escape" keys.
But the cultural and organizational consequences of information technology need to be thought about, as technologies designed for the military, business, and science are introduced across the academic community. Thus far the discussion of this topic has occurred primarily in the context of thinking about the uses of distance education, which is to say, the extension of the scope of a given institution's teaching services to a national, or perhaps global, market. But there is a broader question about the nature of the academic community itself in a research university: what is the substance of this sense of community, and what sustains it?
It is often claimed that digital communication can sustain a sense of virtual community, but what is meant by virtual, and what is meant by community in this context? The literature on social capital, for example, argues that civic virtue is a function of participation, and those who participate in one voluntary social activity are highly likely to participate in others, creating a social resource called civil society or community. Robert Putnam argues that television, and perhaps other media, are a passive sort of participation that replace and diminish civic communities. The question is whether today's virtual communities represent a kind of social withdrawal or whether they might become resources for social participation and community. If this community is an important goal of digital networks, how might they be better designed to accomplish this purpose? Can networks be designed to facilitate the moral virtues of community, such as trust, reciprocity, and loyalty?
And finally, to return to the question of the productivity of knowledge workers in an information society, and mindful of the heuristic principle that documents can be understood in terms of the communities they sustain, is not the research library best conceptualized as the traditional knowledge management strategy of the academic community? If so, how well does the digital library perform this function, at least as we understand it thus far? The digital library is generally conceived of only as an information resource, as if the library were only a collection, rather than as a shared intellectual resource and site for a community.
The social functions of the library are not easily measured in terms of outcomes, but are an element in the productivity of faculty and students. To some extent, perhaps, libraries have brought this problem on themselves by measuring quality in terms of fiscal inputs and size of collections, and they must begin to define and measure their role in productivity. But in another sense, the focus on
the content and format of information to the exclusion of consideration of the social contexts and functions of knowledge is a distortion of the nature and dynamics of scholarly communication and the academic community.