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June 22, 2011, noon

PressForward: A new project aims to rethink scholarly communication for the age of new media journalism

How journalists communicate has been radically changed by the Internet. Is it time for the academic world to catch up?

Today, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University launches PressForward, a new discovery portal and publishing platform for scholarship and intellectual discussion on the web.

The big idea of PressForward is to create a digital-first alternative to the cumbersome mechanisms of traditional gatekeepers — academic journals — while keeping main benefits of print publication and peer review: their ability to concentrate a community’s attention around the best emergent writing and research. The project is bankrolled through a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Digital Information Technology program.

It’s not the first time the Center has tried to crack a long-standing scholarly problem with a big new digital venture. CHNM is probably best known for developing open-source software tools for researchers and cultural institutions, including the citation manager Zotero and Omeka, a publishing platform for online collections and exhibits. The center also inaugurated THATCamp, “The Humanities And Technology” unconference for humanities computing pros and enthusiasts modeled on software programmers’ BarCamp and Foo Camp. And like those two “camps,” THATCamp workshops are now happening almost every week all over the world.

What’s unusual about PressForward, at least for a university venture, is that it both draws inspiration from new media journalism and seeks to include it in the new wave of digital scholarship. As CHNM’s Dan Cohen writes, “the web has found ways to filter the abundance of online work, ranging from the tech world (Techmeme) to long-form posts (The Browser), which act as screening agents for those interested in an area of thought or practice.”

With those examples in mind, PressForward’s genesis was animated by two questions: “What if we could combine the best of the scholarly review process with the best of open-web filters? What if we had a scholarly communication system that was digital first?”

Innovating through shocks to the system

The team behind PressForward is likewise a blend of researchers, journalists, and publishers, spanning science, business, and humanities — all equally at home in the worlds of scholarship and the web. Besides CHNM’s Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, PressForward’s advisory board includes two journalists: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, and Adam Aston, former editor at BusinessWeek and The Economist.

“We believe journalists have been ahead of the curve in thinking about the changes that the digital realm implies for publishing,” Cohen told me. “Scholarly publishing is far behind the experimentation that is going on in digital journalism… Academic publishing has been far more static, likely because it hasn’t faced (yet? to the same extent?) the economic pressures to change that, say, newspapers have felt.”

At GMU’s THATCamp, Cohen led a session (that I attended) titled “What Can Digital Humanities Learn From Journalism?” Even though the handful of journalists in the room immediately put a huge asterisk next to the proposition that news organizations had digital publishing figured out, we quickly agreed that there was more overlap than not between the two communities.

Both journalism and academia are reeling from systemic shocks. Both are trying to innovate without losing the resources and values it’s taken decades or centuries to build. Both are figuring out how to solve practical publishing problems, like developing new tools and interfaces for representing data. And increasingly, new media journalists are producing material that looks more like scholarship, and scholars are producing material that looks more like journalism.

Broadening a narrowed field

Journalism, though, has benefited from having fewer barriers to entry. It’s easier for people at the margins of traditional journalism to quickly start their own ventures, or even to move towards the center. “Academics [need] to recognize that ‘good is good’—regardless of the credentials of the author,” Cohen says. “The example I often bring up is the case of Nate Silver, the baseball-statistician-turned-political-commentator, who, in a prior era, would never have cracked into the top ranks of commentary (and is now working for The New York Times after having started his own blog). There are many intelligent, knowledgable, independent scholars who currently feel uncomfortable submitting to academic journals but have much to add to the conversation.”

That’s what PressForward is for: Like THATCamp, it’s about getting professors, journalists, librarians, technicians, museum curators, independent researchers, and students together without the cruft of hierarchies to see what they can do together.

Even though Cohen’s hoping that his scholars will benefit from contact with journalists, I’d argue that journalists might benefit even more from contact with scholars doing innovative digital work.

For instance, I asked Cohen what value he thought a journalist or reader of journalism might get out of having access to a site like PressForward. When I wrote the question, I was thinking in relatively narrow terms, like making it easier to find expert sources, or being able to browse open-access archive that might substitute for Lexis-Nexis or other databases in a pinch.

Cohen didn’t even blink: “I think journalists could set up their own field-based publications using our system —aggregating and curating stories and commentary.” Not bad, guys. Not bad at all.

POSTED     June 22, 2011, noon
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