Lippman and Rich: Some thoughts on the future of the academy

When Andy Lippman and Travis Rich came to Rice (a while ago, I know), they discussed PubPub, an innovative digital publishing platform developed at MIT's Media Lab. This was ostensibly the two presenters' central subject for their talk, but afterward, I felt that they had actually opened two complementary discussions, one about technology and the other about the role of the university and knowledge in broader society. PubPub is an interesting platform, mostly designed to provide a place for the publishing of works that don't fit squarely in one field. As far as I could tell from the short time they demoed it and that I got to use it, it's a full-featured and useful way of publishing and organizing work. It makes annotation and collaboration extremely simple, which are two of the major advantages of digital articles compared to hard copies. Undoubtedly, I'm impressed with what they showed and convinced that PubPub works on a conceptual and technical level.

The second topic, which was not the main focus of the talk, but nonetheless the more challenging and salient one, was how to make this platform (and others like it) viable given the current structure of the university. For fields that don't have an established place in academia, it seems like a great outlet, but when it comes to inviting work from more conventional disciplines, I'm skeptical. I asked the question, "Why would people use PubPub if they can't get paid or professionally rewarded for their work, when a more conventional publishing method would offer those things?" The response was that they would feel encouraged to publish their work for the respect of their peers and to advance their fields. Even though I don't agree with their conclusion, I like this argument for a few reasons. First, evidence exists in the form of platforms like Wikipedia, which proves that people will contribute their time and knowledge without a direct monetary reward.

Second, it functions as a response to status-quo apologists who essentialize "human nature" to an insurmountable greed for the accumulation of wealth, shutting down the possibility of improving society in many fundamental and necessary ways. I am not claiming the existence of an untapped altruism -- "advancing the field" can certainly be done for personal gain as well as the public good -- but it can hardly be a bad thing if we more closely align personal motivations with objectives that have social benefits.

With this said, as much as I appreciate Lippman and Rich's claim, I don't find it entirely convincing as far as their own platform goes. The reason Wikipedia works is because it just doesn't require the level of effort that academic research and writing does. I don't know the ins and outs of the Wikipedia or its user base, but I would be very surprised if people invest the same level of time and energy into Wikipedia as professors or other professional intellectuals do for their work. In fact, they can't possibly do that, or else they would have no time to partake in work that pays their bills.

Although we can dream of a world where people can feed themselves by producing and sharing knowledge without rigid professional structures, it's not the present reality, except for the few people who dedicate their lives to established careers that pay per written contribution or with a salary. These people might find occasion to use PubPub, but in general, they need to work through established paths of career advancement. Maybe, university administration will begin to use openly published articles as a viable measure of potential or an equal gauge of success as traditionally published work, but I suspect we're far from that point.

The technology we saw in the presentation, and in some of the others, seem so beneficial that it's likely external social forces will feel pressure make it viable, but this would require rethinking many aspects of the university. "Publish or perish" epitomizes the inflexible mode of career advancement. Notions regarding the "practicality" of knowledge limit what can provide financial stability for almost anyone interested in academic work. Meanwhile, the huge cost of education helps reaffirm the idea that only certain fields are worthwhile pursuits.

The university may be uniquely positioned within society, but it still reflects society as a whole. People who wish achieve the promise of open publishing have to fight not only to advance technology, but the conditions that will allow innovative technology to survive.