Scholarly Communication

Introduction: The International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science explains that “scholarly” generally describes academic activities that involve research or investigation (Feather & Sturges, 2003). Communicating scholarly activities dates back more than 300 years and is grounded in the scientific process of disseminating data and research results essential for adding to the knowledge body of a scientific community (Garvey, 1979; Mukherjee, 2009). Per Garvey & Griffith (1971), scholarly communication is a process for transferring information through various stages of communication—from the informal to the formal domain—to ultimately create knowledge often represented by formal publication. Their research of scientific communication was explicably tied to scholarly publishing practices as print journals endured as the dominant forum for scholarly discourse. They identified the journal article as the paramount form of formal publication but explored the iterative communication processes leading to the desired final output. Their research of scientific communication as a highly interactive social system provided a foundation for study on the manner in which disciplinary information flows (Garvey & Griffith, 1967).

The traditional way of considering the scholarly-communication system via a print structure blurred with the technological changes to the publishing industry during the mid-20th century and subsequent explosion of digital technology since the 1990s (Hahn, Burright, & Duggan, 2011). The system has adapted to the progression of disruptions and will continue to evolve, propelling scholarly communication into a “complex sociotechnical system” that further engages the scholarly community in interactive discussions of insights, discoveries, perspectives, and interpretations (Borgman, 2007, p. 47). The technologies have changed some of the ways scholars communicate, but the purpose remains steadfast—the information exchange of academic activities between scholars, researchers, and professionals.

 

Modes of Scholarly Communication: Scholarship is communicated in various ways which is typically realized through two basic information channels—informal and formal. While both elements serve distinct functions within the system, scholarly communication is most efficient when formal is complemented by informal sources (Garvey & Griffith, 1967; Meadows, 1998). As such, the study of scholarly communication is commonly defined to include the use of both domains to advance academic ideas and information.

Garvey & Griffith (1967; 1971) characterized an early model of the formal and informal communication channels. They described a system—albeit print centric—often beginning at the start of the research process, where ideas are communicated between colleagues through informal, personal contact. Important throughout all stages of a project, the informal channel serves to communicate, evaluate, and refine new knowledge by testing its acceptance among peers (Barjak, 2006). This information is traditionally exchanged through a network of activities, such as personal communication (i.e., letters, conversations), conference presentations, and technical reports (Borgman, 2007; Garvey & Griffith, 1971). Meadows (1998, p.7) described informal communication as “ephemeral;” its transformation to the formal domain occurs when information or new knowledge is converted into a robust and reliable form—per Garvey & Griffith (1971), at the point of publication in a scholarly journal.  The formal communication channel signifies acceptance by the scholarly community through evaluation and validation of research output or “communication artifacts” like peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as conference proceedings, and books (Crane, 1972; Borgman, 1990, p.16). The formal channel serves to both communicate research results to a wide scholarly community and provide a permanent record of authorship (Crawford, Hurd, & Weller, 1996).

 

Technology Impacts: Today, scholarly communication is fully linked with electronic communication—e.g., telecommunications, computer networks, the Internet—which creates a much more rapid and dynamic exchange of information and knowledge (Borgman, 2000; Kling & Callahan, 2003). Technology transforms both formal and informal scholarly communications as advances impact the medium and the social processes for scholars to communicate, as well as the research cycle process from ideation to formal publication (Kling & Callahan, 2003).

The most obvious impact of technology on informal communication is in expanding the ability to interact by eliminating the barriers of physical proximity previously needed to communicate informally. The channel of networked informal scholarly communication is often described as “invisible colleges” (Crane, 1972). Coined in the 1960s, it is a concept that has evolved as practices have progressed from relying on the physical to relying on the virtual, developing into electronic driven “cyberspace colleges” or new invisible colleges (Cronin, 1982; Gresham, 1994, p.47; Wagner, 2008). The result has been an increase in the exchange of information by improving the ease and speed of transmitting text and other media. This has produced a growth of new informal communication channels and activities not previously considered or possible in a print-only, pre-digital environment (Hank, 2011). However, these still support communication such as discussions, exchange of personal information, and sharing of views and opinions, all important to the informal scholarly discourse.

Information technologies have had a major influence on formal scholarly communication practices and communication artifacts as well. As scholarly communication is the processes by which knowledge is transmitted and used, the formal communication channel is linked to formal scholarly publishing activities such as, peer review, dissemination, citation impact, information access and use, and preservation. Technological advances to this mode of information delivery have produced electronic vehicles in each of these activities from the electronic article to online manuscript management to open-access journals. Computers, the Internet, and networked technology have changed the scholarly publishing industry from submission to publication, making the dissemination of scholarly output easier and faster, but also increasing the number of publications, blurring policy issues, and disrupting cost models (Ramaiah, Foo, & Choo, 2006; King & Tenopir, 2011; Tenopir & King, 2014). In a mutual feedback loop, these changes reshape scholarly publishing practices, such as self-publishing (e.g., personal websites, independent peer-review platforms) and self-archiving in disciplinary or institutional repositories, and even influence the attitudes toward producing and consuming information resources (Jihyun, 2010; Perakakis & Taylor, 2013; Nicholas et al., 2014).

In most cases, the dominant formal artifact—electronic journals (ejournals)—remains an online rendering of the print version, but publishers are beginning to take advantage of the interactivity, linked content, and multi-media capability of the digital environment (Lynch, 2004). As such, ejournals have developed into a “gateway to additional information” providing content that could not previously be made available, such as supplemental data, video, and hyperlinks to citations. (Boyce, 1999, p.190; Schaffer & Jackson, 2004; Kenyon & Sprague, 2014).  These initiatives, however, still tend to focus on how a print article can be presented online, rather than transform the underlying scholarly communication. In 2009, Elsevier embarked on a project to explore better ways to create and deliver the formal published record (Elsevier, n.d.). Their “Article of the Future” is grounded in the recognition that new technology has influenced scholarly communication practices by impacting how researchers both formally and informally produce, use, share, and access information or knowledge. The Article of the Future places research tools inside the article and connects articles with related data sets and external data repositories to provide greater understanding and deeper insights (Aalbersberg, Heeman, Koers, & Zudilova-Seinstra, 2012). Elsevier is also investigating how automatic technologies, like text mining, can enrich an article, enabling research to become more integrated throughout the scholarly communication system (Aalbersberg, Atzeni, Koers, Specker, & Zudilova-Seinstra, 2014). While user tests suggest that the Article of the Future can compete with the traditional electronic version, publishers are not showing a mass conversion (Zudilova-Seinstra, Klompenhouwer, Heeman, & Aalbersberg, 2014). In fact, Borgman (2007, p.160) contends that the slow transformation of the journal article “reflects scholarly practices rather than a rejection of technological capabilities.”

 

Team Science: Along with an explosion in the volume of scientific data being generated and disseminated, innovations in technology are impacting research practices (Borgman, Wallis, & Enyedy, 2007). At the same time, environmental and societal changes are provoking more complex and globally significant questions that require new approaches to problem solving. Although the importance of research teams—big and small—is an accepted paradigm in knowledge production, these global questions are too multifaceted for an individual discipline alone (Wuchty, Jones, & Uzzi, 2007; Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research & Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, 2004).  As a result, to face today’s grand challenges, the focus is on collaborative research across traditional disciplinary boundaries—known as “Team Science”—to leverage technologies and concepts from many fields (NRC, 2015; OSTP, n.d.).

While the interdisciplinarity of Team Science is its foundation, it is also the source for many challenges in collaboration and communication between and among researchers. Although the nature of conducting research is communal, collaborative, and connected, Team Science members approach a problem by combining expertise from their different fields—concepts, methods, and perspectives—while remaining anchored in their respective disciplines (Crane, 1972; Klein, Mitcham, & Frodeman, 2010). This initiative assembles a team of differing disciplinary cultures, styles, and technologies that often cause difficulties in communication and understanding, preventing productivity and impact (Jacobs & Frickel, 2009). While the Garvey-Griffith system attempted to describe communication across all disciplines, actual communication practices vary from one field to another, creating barriers that can impact scholarly communication from the informal to the formal (Crawford et al., 1996; Palmer, 2001).

At the early stages of a project, scholars rely heavily on informal communication channels for discussions such as techniques, preliminary information needs and sources, experimental design, and interpretation of findings (Hurd, 1996). Scholarly communication within interdisciplinary teams depends on this dialogue, which requires understanding and coordination among the participants. However, disciplinary differences are intensified by specialized language—definitions and jargon—and often become a major obstacle to information exchange and collaboration (Bauer, 1990). Success in Team Science necessitates learning to use language as a tool to improve understanding and develop integrated research (Bracken & Oughton, 2006). Creating a common vocabulary based on analogies and lay language specific to the research focus can improve team processes to enhance effectiveness (Hall et al., 2012; NRC, 2015). While technology cannot remove the language barriers from Team Science, information technology can support the interdisciplinary information exchange. Information systems can be developed to translate discipline-specific terms into language that is meaningful across fields and develop techniques for searching across disciplines, currently constrained by the domain concepts of knowledge systems and tools (Palmer, 2001).

Informal communication networks additionally support the effectiveness within Team Science by facilitating trust and providing knowledgeable sources when exploring unfamiliar domains (Palmer, 2001; NRC, 2015). But interdisciplinary networks (i.e., invisible college) can be weakened by cultural habits (e.g., not cultivating sharing across research communities) often reinforced by disciplinary segregation in structures such as specialized meetings, journals, and academic departments (Jacobs & Frickel, 2009). Conversely, however, research has shown that technological changes to informal activities (e.g., shared data repositories, listserves, telecommunications) have reduced barriers between disciplines among Team Science members by dispersing knowledge toward a specific problem and initiating connections between domains (Hurd, Weller, & Crawford, 1996; Palmer, 1999).

Collaborative research is not disconnected from scientific norms and practices. Team Science integrates diverse expertise to produce new knowledge that must be disseminated and shared to gain value. Typically, this communication channel is formal presentation and publication, although Team Science initiatives are often tasked to further focus on societal impacts and translate findings into policies and technology development (Kueffer, Hadorn, Bammer, van Kerkhoff, & Pohl, 2007; NRC, 2015). Publishing practices are not homogenous across disciplines and can often cause barriers in the final stages of a project. For example, in most fields, it is customary to publish final results in peer-reviewed journals; however, in computer science, the preferred research dissemination channel is through conferences, and physicists typically deposit into shared preprint repositories prior to peer-reviewed publication (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research & Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, 2004; Hey & Trefethen, 2008).

Challenges can arise when publishing Team Science results due to divergent disciplinary traditions on authorship order in an article, putting into question the determination of credit, often important for tenure and promotion (Harley, Acord, Earl-Novell, Lawrence, & King, 2010). Author ordering conventions can range from alphabetizing surnames, to researcher seniority, to various combinations of participatory and contribution ranking (Levitt & Thelwall, 2013). Differences in writing styles can also present difficulties in reporting research which can subsequently lead to problems in where to publish Team Science results. The nature of interdisciplinary research does not always sit well within a discipline-specific journal and submissions are commonly discouraged or made more difficult by differing expectations of the peer-review process (Kostoff, 2002). Interdisciplinary journals, on the other hand, provide a venue to exchange knowledge beyond the limits of disciplinary boundaries, and the number of these “problem-centered journals is increasing” (Palmer, 2001, p. 54). An interdisciplinary publishing culture needs to focus on identifying a dissemination outlet to reach appropriate audiences. That strategy could also include communicating with disciplinary experts by publishing in discipline-specific journals that concentrate on multidisciplinary research (i.e., special issues) (Keuffer et al., 2007).

The complexities and traditions in each discipline drive their use of information and communication technology in all aspects of research, communication, and publication (Kling & McKim, 2000). Team Science needs to contend with differences in how a discipline uses the technology to conduct research and the complex social scholarly practices used to communicate the research. Efficient and effective communication will require commitment on the part of researchers and publishers but also provides an opportunity for information science to facilitate communication and dissemination across disciplinary boundaries. The goal being to increase the efficacy of scholarly communication—the process by which knowledge is transmitted and used—to support scientific research and development for the ultimate benefit of society and the planet.

 


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