Sep 042007

A very interesting study has been published by the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of California: Faculty Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding Scholarly Communication: Survey Findings from the University of California. They surveyed the 5000-odd members of the UC faculty in November 2006 and got 1118 responses, a very healthy 23% response rate.

Key findings of the survey were:

  • Faculty are strongly interested in issues related to scholarly communication, e.g. as evidenced by the high response rate to the survey.
    Faculty generally conform to conventional behavior in scholarly publication, albeit with significant beachheads on several fronts. The overwhelmingly rely on traditional forms of publishing, such as peer-reviewed journals and monographs. They believe in traditional measures such as citations and impact factor as proxies for the value of research. They also believe in peer review as an effective mechanism for maintaining the quality of published scholarship. There is limited but significant use of alternative forms of scholarship, with 21% of faculty having published in open-access journals, and 14% having posted peer-reviewed articles in institutional repositories or disciplinary repositories.
    Faculty attitudes are changing on a number of fronts, with a few signs of imminent change in behaviours.
    The current tenure and promotion system impedes changes in faculty behaviour. The current tenure and promotion system drives them to focus on conventional publishing activities that are accorded the most weight toward their professional advancement. Faculty appear more interested in the act of publishing than in the process of dissemination. Furthermore, faculty appear to believe that nearly all published materials eventually
    appear online through the efforts of publishers or aggregators, and are accessible to almost anyone on the Internet.
    On important issues in scholarly communication, faculty attitudes vary inconsistently by rank, except in general depth of knowledge and on issues related to tenure and promotion.
    Faculty tend to see scholarly communication problems as affecting others, but not themselves. For example, they feel that too much research is being published, they do not believe that they are publishing more than they ought to.
    The disconnect between attitude and behavior is acute with regard to copyright. In other words, they way copyright is a big deal for scholarly publishing, but only a minority see it as an important factor for their own publishing, and even fewer take action to retain copyright rights.
    University policies mandating change are likely to stir intense debate.
    Scholars are aware of alternative forms of dissemination [such as open access journals and repositories] but are concerned about preserving their current publishing outlets.
    Scholars are concerned that changes might undermine the quality of scholarship. Many respondents voiced concerns that new forms of scholarly communication, such as open access journals or repositories, might produce a flood of low-quality output.
    Outreach on scholarly communication issues and services has not yet reached the majority of faculty. They were largely unaware of a University Senate proposal to require faculty to grant the University a nonexclusive licence to place their publications in a repository, and were overwhelmingly unaware of eScholarship services
    The Arts and Humanities disciplines may be the most fertile disciplines for University-sponsored initiatives in scholarly communication. Ironically, perhaps because the sciences have led in the adoption of new forms of scholarly communication such as disciplinary repositories and online journals, they were less interested in supporting University-sponsored initiatives, while the Arts & Humanities faculty express greater interest in alternatives, the need for change, and a call for discussion and help.
    Senior faculty may be the most fertile targets for innovation in scholarly communication. Perhaps counterintuitively, the survey results overall suggest that senior faculty may actually be more open to innovation than younger faculty. However, senior faculty are free from tenure concerns and appear more willing to experiment. Because they are also involved in making academic policy and serving as role models
    for junior faculty, their efforts at innovation are likely to have broader influence within their departments
  • Some of these findings echo those of earlier surveys, such as the large-scale surveys undertaken by the CIBER group at UCL (e.g. the dissociation between attitudes and behaviour.)

    The finding that faculty are conservative in their publication behaviour because of the pressures of the rewards and promotion system also won’t come as a surprise to most observers, however dismaying to advocates for new models. The size of the effect is striking, though. There was an echo in the reported “Young scientists and the culture of fear” discussion reported at the recent Nature/Google/O’Reilly Scifoo meeting.

    The last two findings are fascinating, because they fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, which posits for instance a “generational effect” that will eventually see the old dinosaurs replaced by a “born digital” generation that takes newer, more informal styles of scholarly communication for granted. On the contrary, the survey suggests (and the Scifoo discussion echoes) that younger scientists quickly work out what they have to do to get promoted, so surely by the time they become senior faculty members themselves they will be thoroughly socialised in the old models?

    Some of the findings appear contradictory on the face of it. For instance, faculty are reported to be strongly interested in issues related to scholarly communication, yet hardly any of them knew anything about the Senate’s licensing/repository proposal nor about UC’s eScholarship services. Unlike issues of attitude versus behaviour, this is not explained by the pressure of the rewards/promotion system. It may be that the outreach and advocacy work of repository and open access advocates has worked to the extent that faculty are persuaded that scholarly communication is a hot topic, but they have not been moved to action because their own experience belies this, with, for example, unparalleled access to online resources (UC is not, of course, a typical university).

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