Prestige and Open Access (Printed in the Daily Princetonian)
Describing journal subscriptions as “fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive,” the Faculty Advisory Council of the Harvard Library is now formally encouraging members of the Harvard community to resist the stranglehold of academic publishers. In one of several recommendations, the Council suggests that Harvard faculty eschew financially prohibitive journals in favor of free or low-cost alternatives. The effect, they say, would “move prestige to open access.”
That sentence, lurking inconspicuously in the middle of a university-sanctioned press release, should bring shudders to academic publishers. With a few words, the guardians of Harvard’s library have made it clear beyond the last profiteering doubt that Harvard and her peers can overcome the publishers.
Not to say that doing so will be straightforward. The journals have become structurally embedded in the academic world. As Yale Librarian Susan Gibbons has noted, “You get tenure by, in part, publishing in the best journals. And until those journals are interested in an open-access model, which really takes away their revenue stream, we have this tension going on.”
Journals, which publishers can sell individually for as much as $40,000 per year, facilitate academic discourse. Through peer review and distribution to an established audience, the journals play an instrumental role in spreading new ideas and discoveries. Because publishing in a top journal is essential for any researcher looking to make a name for herself or at least spread her contributions to the most relevant minds, the journals possess exclusive access to some of the most significant academic literature.
Although librarians may be willing to reconsider their relationship with the journals, junior faculty members are in a far less convenient position to do so. Since universities grade the quality of their personnel partly with respect to the influence of their work, non-tenured members of the faculty are unlikely to favor a less-renowned, open-access journal in the name of a moral claim against journal publishers.
Traditional journals are in the business of distributing prestige as much as quality research. And the strange politics of prestige in academia has sustained their dominance. But if the politics of prestige should change — which I believe is inevitable — the parasitism of the journals may lose its grip. That is why the Harvard librarians’ statement, “move prestige to open access,” is so interesting.
To that effort, it has been suggested that the Harvard community publish in open-access journals or at least, when possible, avoid any affiliation with journals associated with unfair pricing policies. If members of the Harvard community start publishing en masse in these open-access journals, these alternative journals may very well see a boost in status.
Princeton, for its part, instituted a formal policy early this year that authorizes University faculty to publish their work in open-access areas, such as open-access journals, other freely available archives and personal web sites.
Although these efforts are commendable, it is unclear whether open-access journals in their current form will be able to threaten the journals’ death-grip over academic discourse. There is a fundamental difference between finding research and discovering research. Open access makes it possible to find a piece of literature that you’re looking for. But discovering research, which the top journals excel at, is the key to an engaged discourse. As long as the top journals filter the best research, they will prove a necessary burden. And if they lower their prices, which could happen if enough universities join Harvard’s protest, they may prove a lasting one too.
For the sake of the academic community, I hope that this confrontation amounts to more than just playing out negotiations in public. Unfair pricing is just the wedge for a larger issue.
Stewart Brand, of “Whole Earth Catalog” fame (whose slogan of “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” was revitalized by Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech), once said that information wants to be free. Brand’s idea suggests that as the cost of producing information decreases over time, its availability will increase. While I agree with this claim as a historically grounded observation, the issue here isn’t simply about being on the right side of history — though as it happens, Harvard’s librarians likely are. At stake here is a greater ideal: Knowledge should be free. Academic research should be free, or at least free in the sense of universal accessibility, which does not preclude information from having a price; it merely demands an accessible one.
The Future of Education (Printed in the Daily Princetonian)
For centuries, the university system has flourished as the primary means by which knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the next. The university’s advantage over alternatives has been its incomparable access to resources, not only in its libraries of texts and artifacts, but also in its collection of scholars, whose method of instruction has proved over the years superior to self-tutelage by the bookshelf.
But the rise of the Internet threatens such advantages as distribution of the world’s information approaches a liminal point of democratization.
Let there be no doubt: We are experiencing a revolution in the way that society transmits knowledge, and it is occurring at the margins of our education system — far, far away from ivory towers and college greens. And yet, despite all the reasons to prepare for coming winds of change, Princeton and other institutions face an inevitable paradigm shift with stunning indifference.
Paradigm, meet Sebastian Thrun. Until recently, Thrun was a tenured professor at Stanford — that is until Thrun realized that he could teach well beyond the scale of a classroom by moving his courses online. After 160,000 students enrolled in his digital version of Stanford’s CS 221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Thrun decided to leave his tenured post at Stanford to found a new online university called Udacity. With good reason, Thrun says he believes that the platform of the web has become more powerful and more effective than any podium that Stanford could provide. The example Thrun sets is clear: Instructors with stature — even those without it — no longer need universities as a means of distribution. The web provides all that is necessary to educate at scale.
Imagine what would happen if even some of the nation’s top educators in the sciences — the subjective nature of the liberal arts do not seem at all scalable — should turn away from their classrooms and move to an online platform as Thrun has done. A student in the sciences could conceivably achieve an education of similar quality to one offered by Princeton, Stanford and MIT for a fraction of the cost.
So in an evolving landscape where traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are no longer unique for distributing technical education universities will have to figure out how to get better or risk some varying degree of irrelevance. The truth is the quality of instruction hasn’t really changed over the past 50 years. There have been only negligible improvements because the organization of information and mode in which it is transmitted has barely changed.
So I’m calling for an overhaul for the University’s software solutions (which is the modern mode of organizing information).
Let’s start by replacing Blackboard with something less ancient and clumsy. I suggest CourseKit, an elegant course management solution that can facilitate class discussions and store class resources seamlessly.
But we have to think bigger than just improving communication inside of classes.
The revolution at the margins underscores what scales and what doesn’t. Information transmission scales. Community doesn’t. No online campus seems capable of building a dedicated and vibrant community of scholars. That is our greatest strength, and our embrace of technology will be best implemented when we leverage it. In that regard, I suggest the creation of a collective project that organizes in one place the intellectual output of this University.
Imagine one destination where every Princetonian’s research was accessible. Imagine a news feed for the published work of Princetonians. Imagine every syllabus, every document of lecture notes for all of our classes accessible in one place, with links to their resources available to everyone in the University community. And beyond that, a place where students can publish class work that is deemed exemplary. It would be an intranet for our collective scholarly products.
As a senior, I’m tempted by the deflating thoughts that 32 classes weren’t enough — the bitter regret of an academic career in its twilight. A system like the one I’ve described would have given me — and could continue to do so for those who have graduated — Wikipedia-type access to the University’s resources despite the practical constraints of course registration.
I bemoan the state of technology in the University not because I want Princeton or other institutions to become the democratic platform that Thrun is making on Udacity. Rather, I’m frustrated by the sorry state of our information resources — poorly organized and face-palmingly constricted. The organization of information matters and is crucial, even tautological, to the evolving paradigm of the modern university — one that looks, even from far away, more like Thrun than us.
Facebook, Path and UX Evangelism
Good UX should make interactions seem natural. When you see an object, you should know immediately or as soon as possible how to use it.
But how is it that users are able to use anything? The short and sloppy answer is that in order to use something, we need an idea of that something--a chair, a hammer, a button etc...--and an associated set of ideas about how and for what we can use it.
Short and sloppy as it is, this understanding of object relations should suffice for the argument I'd like to set forth because it suggests a powerful (albeit uncontroversial) idea: that we can learn how to use things. And here's the kicker. Since we learn through repeated exposure to concepts, it follows that if we come across use-elements (i.e. things we use) repeatedly we should be conditioned in most cases for their use.
Because we spend so much time on Facebook, a new design element there has an incomparably high chance of being learned and internalized. We're not just consuming content when we use Facebook--we're being conditioned for certain behaviors.
An analogy can be made convincingly for the conditioning that we undergo as we adapt to new features of the world: consider how foreigners pick up behaviors and customs in a new setting. The more we come into contact with something, the more natural our interactions become. The same is true for design elements on the web. And since we spend the majority of our time on the web on Facebook specifically, it would seem that Facebook drives our understanding of design elements in an unparalleled way. To put it more plainly, Facebook is an integrated part of our digital lives by the sheer force of our exposure to it.
The effect is persistent and no doubt influences the way we navigate other interfaces.
Consider Path, whose stunning re-launch features a few telling similarities to Facebook's Timeline and as I take it, stands to gain quite a lot from those similarities.
Timeline is trying to reshape our collective understanding of the social web. Although Zuck and Co. are principally determined to help you share with the world, Timeline communicates a more sophisticated vision: telling your life story.
Hmm...You know what sounds familiar? Path's mission as a smart journal. Sharing to a social network as part of the larger project of recording your life may once have been a strange idea. But on Facebook, repeated exposures make nothing strange. And on Path, we have a beautiful application of what will soon become a familiar mode of sharing.
I'm hardly saying that Facebook represents the full palette of good user experiences. But I do think that their power to condition has the effect of evangelism: good ux strives for natural experiences and Facebook's design of the social web is either second-nature to users or soon will be.