Learned Inquiry and the Net: The Role of Peer Review, Peer Commentary and Copyright

Article excerpt

I should begin by defining some of the metaphors I use in this paper. By the 'Gutenberg Galaxy' I mean the world of print on paper. Thus the 'PostGutenberg Galaxy' is its successor, the virtual world of bytes on tape, disk and screen - and especially dispersal in the fibre-optic cables enmeshing the globe and transmitting them everywhere at the speed of light. I also use the term 'Skywriting,' for the dissemination of the written word in the PostGutenberg Galaxy is very much like writing it all up in the sky, for everyone to see and to append their own scribblings onto, rather like the serial graffiti in public toilets, except on a galactic scale. Or perhaps a global Hyde Park, with the orations and cat-calls all delivered graphically rather than orally.

But perhaps the best simile for the Net is that it is like a clean nuclear weapon still being used mainly for children's games. For if you consider the only written corpus that matters to those who have taken the path of Learned Inquiry, then it is a fact that as of this day in late 1997, 99.9% of it is still available only as print on paper. There are a vast number of bits up there in the sky, but very few of them are the learned bits. And even those that are, are mostly hidden behind 'firewalls' that keep out anyone who has not paid to view them.

Why not, you ask? People's writings were not given away gratis in the Gutenberg era either: why should skywriting be free now? After all, Learned Inquiry surely isn't literally (if one can be literal about a metaphor) a Hyde Park or Global Graffiti Board. But of course the authors of the learned serial literature - that means the contributors of everything that appears between the covers of the refereed scientific and scholarly journals to which research libraries must subscribe and on which all further research depends - are never paid a penny for their texts. Nor do they wish to be paid.

It's time for another metaphor, not a flattering one to scholars, but a handy way of understanding the anomaly of this state of affairs, unique in the Gutenberg Galaxy, where most writers are paid for their texts, in some cases very handsomely: When the scholar/scientist is wearing his learned-journal hat - for scholars may wear other hats too, when they are trying to write popular books or textbooks or magazine articles - when they are writing for their fellow-scholars in their specialized periodicals, the text they publish is much better thought of as an advertisement, rather than as anything analogous to normal fee- or royalty-based publication. It makes about as much sense for a learned author to restrict his work to those who have paid a fee to access it as it would for an advertiser to allow only those to read his adverts who have paid for the right to do so.

In his learned journal articles, a scholar is trying to make a contribution to knowledge. The only mark of having made a contribution to knowledge is to have one's work read, cited and built upon by one's fellow scholars. Otherwise one may as well not have done the work at all, pursuing instead a career with more tangible rewards. This is not to say that Learned Inquiry does not have material rewards. Few get Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals, but promotion, tenure, travel - plus the funds to perform further research (in the disciplines that rely on research grants) - all of these depend on one's scholarly contribution; and the main measure of that contribution is one's learned serial publications. (I am agnostic about those fields of scholarship where it is books rather than journal articles that carry a scholar's intellectual goods, though I rather suspect that the story for esoteric learned monographs will be similar to the story for refereed journal articles.)

Although publish-or-perish bean-counting is still definitely with us, it was never a matter of publishing just anything, in just any journal: there is a hierarchy of learned journals in every field, and those at the top are rightly assigned a heavier weight in reviewing a scholar's contribution than the ones at the bottom. …