The future of scholarly communications: the 'social machine'?

Speaking at UKSG, David De Roure surveys the rapidly evolving scholarly communication ecosystem.

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At the same time, these pervasive changes call into question the function of the academic paper itself. For example, it is often no longer possible to include all the evidence in a paper, or to reconstruct an experiment based on a paper alone (for example, if the data cited is sourced from Twitter). In addition, De Roure suggested, quality control models scale poorly: “Like big data, publishing has increasing volume, variety and velocity. But what about veracity?”

According to De Roure, “all of this reminds us that it’s not just about data – it’s what you do with it that counts.” But if the article is evolving, and with it the methodologies and materials underpinning the scientific method, where is it taking us? De Roure suggests that the evolution of the article is the ‘research object’ – a collection of ‘stuff’ (which might include the article itself) associated with an experiment, formed as a social artefact, that everyone can exchange. 

In closing, De Roure introduced Tim Berners-Lee’s notion of ‘social machines’ –“processes in which the people do the creative work, and the machine does the administration”.  The important point here is that humans are empowered, not replaced, by machines. In our current social media context, for example, citizens are empowered not just to create content but to create new forms of process, and to do new things with media: “you could argue that every hashtag in Twitter is a social machine”.

De Roure placed his audience of academic librarians and publishers squarely in the eye of the ongoing evolutionary storm. “I suspect that that’s what you’re doing in some of the websites that you’re designing, some of the services that you’re offering, and some of the new workflows that are being created -- you are social machine designers. Can you view your own projects as social machines?”.

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