All entries for Wednesday 01 July 2009

July 01, 2009

The disruption of scienctific publishing – is this a wider issue?

Writing about web page http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=629

A very interesting post from Michael Nielsen on the disruption faced by the world of academic publishing: http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=629

What I find challenging about this post is that you can take the arguments and apply them beyond that context. So, when you hear ‘oh, HE won’t be effected that much’ or that ’ all this disruption talk is over-hyped’ we should bear the following in mind.

1. Industries and sectors do fail – there are plenty of examples of long established sectors and industries that do suffer significant upheaval, often without warning. HE is not immune to this by any means.

As my recent podcast interview with Steve Fuller reminded me, our modern concept of HE and universities is just that – a modern view. Who is to say that this view is not likely to go through a major readjustment as a response to digital developments.

2. The case of the music industry is characterised as – they were too stupid to see it coming or they are evil so deserve what they get. This may or may not be the case, but as Michael points out, just thinking you are smart and good is not a get out of jail card.

‘But if disruption can destroy even the smart and the good, then it can destroy anybody.’

I guess Universities see themselves as being on the site of progression and social good. This should not render us complacent to the challenges of digital disruption.

3. Michael points out that blog news sources are a lot cheaper and a lot more flexible than traditional newspapers, and so seem to be kicking the ass of print media. Universities are generally not cheap or flexible. We should be wary then, right?

This paragraph is interesting in this respect:


The same basic story can be told about the dispruption of the music industry, the minicomputer industry, and many other disruptions. Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

4. Another quote:

One common response to such predictions is the appealing game of comparison: “but we’re better than blogs / wikis / PLoS One / …!” These statements are currently true, at least when judged according to the conventional values of scientific publishing. But they’re as irrelevant as the equally true analogous statements were for newspapers.

Universities may think they are the best at research and teaching, but what if values change? Change happens.

5. What about risk taking:

When new technologies are being developed, the organizations that win are those that aggressively take risks, put visionary technologists in key decision-making positions, attain a deep organizational mastery of the relevant technologies, and, in most cases, make a lot of mistakes. Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works

It is hard to see how big organisations like universities are able to take big risks, especially as we are publicly funded. This is not a problem for other groups getting into this space. Apple, Academic Earth, YouTube and so on – they can take risks we can’t.

So, should troubled financial times be a stimulus to change? Probably. Inertia is a killer and reputation matters little when things shift so quickly, especially in a globalised environment.

Big disruptive change may or may not occur, but if we kid ourselves that it is impossible, then we or any of our peers are as likely to fail as any other organisation.

Warwick should be well able to deal with disruption – we are a disruptive force ourselves!


facebook groups part 2

Follow-up to faststudentcash.com and facebook freshers groups from Contemplating the Frame

So, I had an interesting exchange with the owner of one of the facebook groups relating to Warwick freshers.

Essentially they denied any connection to faststudentcash or to the 118 other groups with identical content. In the absence of further evidence to the contrary I will give them the benefit of the doubt. This is not to say that the other ‘official’ groups are in the same boat.

Note that in general this is not a call for Uni’s to seize control of facebook or prevent people from setting up groups relating to specific institutions. I have no issue with unofficial groups and am happy for students, present future or past, to do what they will with FB.

Where there seems to be something systematic though, this should be raising eyebrows.

Where this is useful is in reminding HEIs that they need to be active in their engagement with these channels, rather than passive. The creepy treehouse effect is a strong argument for non-involvement – do you want your dad at the school disco? However, a vacuum is there to be filled and so as Brad Ward argues, better to have a University sanctioned presence so that there is some clarity as to the official line rather than a free for all where no-one is clear who is official or not.


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