"Scientific innovation frequently exceeds the pace of social development, and established cultural institutions often experience a period of upheaval during the integration of new technologies. Until recently, the cost of printing and distributing hardcopy texts might have warranted the traditional academic peer-review process, whereby a small group makes editorial decisions for journals that have thousands of readers. The procedures that systematise these publications suffer from technological lag, as advances in electronic communications have precluded the necessity of this conventional evaluation method. Today, traditional peer-review procedures have become obsolete, a circumstance that calls for a re-conceptualisation of the academic publication process." (Herlihy-Mera, 2012)
"We are fully immersed in the digital age, but cultural change takes some time to catch up with technological advances. The way we view academic publishing is also changing at a varied pace." (Global Academy Jobs, 2015)
Put succinctly cultural lag 'theory' (if it can be called such) says that changes in cultural practices always happen more slowly than technological developments and this delay causes problems of different sorts.
The trouble is, as the eminent sociologist Robert Merton says, "Once a theory includes such concepts as 'lags'... it becomes so labile and so indistinct that it can be reconciled with virtually any configuration of data" (Merton, 1951, p. 238). The same is true of the concept of 'culture' of course. So the theory of 'cultural lag' must be one of the most unstable sociological ideas around. Some of its inherent problems are usefully elaborated by Brinkman and Brinkman (1997).
In terms of its application to academic publishing, cultural lag theory really explains nothing, partly because it misses some important evidence:
1. Academic publishing deploys some very sophisticated technologies applied to: search-and-retrieve; permanent archiving; setting up and defending paywalls; marketing; managing editorial, review and publishing processes, and much else besides. And academic practices have kept pace with them: readers, authors, reviewers, editors and others have adapted their practices quickly, partly because of the benefits brought by those technologies.
2. However there are some evident gaps in the deployment of technologies in some aspects of academic publishing, which seems odd given the significant changes that have happened very rapidly in other parts.
3. Where there are gaps in the use by academic publishing of technology-enhanced solutions – for example in the peer review process – other commercial sectors show that such solutions can be effectively deployed and used. Amazon, ebay and tripadvisor each show in slightly different ways how crowd-sourced reviews work. And again there has been no noticeable 'cultural lag' in terms of shifting practices to their use. There are many benefits for users and large numbers of them have shifted their practices in the area of consumption and leisure.
The explanation of these gaps in academic publishing does not lie in some vague notion of 'cultural lag', therefore, but in an exploration of the drivers behind technological deployment and, particularly, the non-use by journal publishers of extant technologies. The questions that need asking are:
- Who has the power to decide what gets deployed, and how?
- Who benefits, and in what ways, from deployment and non-deployment?
- What structures of power, profit, authority and status are supported and challenged by the different options for change?
- Which ways of seeing and valuing are supported, which occluded, in the process of choosing between these options?
Herlihy-Mera addresses some of these issues around peer review in his chapter (2012). He describes an alternative to the current system, what he calls “open-source peer review” in this way:
"[A]ll texts are listed in a database or online forum; a journal’s readership browses the texts and has authority to decide which merit top placement. Texts that receive positive comments advance on the list."
He offers a few disparate examples of this happening. However there is some confusion in Herlihy-Mera’s chapter between 'open peer review', with 'open' referring to the absence of anonymity in the process, and 'open-source peer review', as described above. I am grateful to Vicki Trowler for pointing out that a more accurate term for the latter is 'crowd-sourced peer review', where the crowd comprises the journal’s readers. That crowd is likely to be a well-informed if somewhat heterogeneous one. This term also helps draw a clear line between discussions of open peer review and the more radical alternative described above.
I am grateful too for Vicki’s work on chaotic conceptions (V. Trowler, in press, 2015). She says:
"[C]haotic conceptions are abstractions [Vorstellung] that require further disaggregation into simpler and simpler concepts [Begriff], unmasking the ‘rich totality of many determinations and relations’ (Marx, 1973, p. 100). ‘Chaotic conceptions’ are neither simply sloppy nor accidental; they function actively to carry out real ideological work, disguising interests and inequities."
It strikes me that using the conception of 'cultural lag' as an explanation for the lack of better peer review processes might itself be an example of a chaotic conception, masking the interests and inequities which are maintained by the failure to deploy extant technologies to develop an improved system. And the "rich totality of many determinations and relations" which Marx discusses are certainly evident in the academic publishing industry, as my earlier blogs have indicated.
Websites last accessed 1 June 2015
Brinkman, R. L. and Brinkman, J. E. (1997) Cultural lag: conception and theory. International Journal of Social Economics, 24, 6, 609-627.
Global Academy Jobs (2015) Why publish in an academic journal? http://globalacademyjobs.com/blog/81/Why-publish-in-an-academic-journal
Herlihy-Mera, J. (2012) Open-source peer reviews: a paradigm shift in academic publishing. https://www.academia.edu/8507075/Open-Source_Peer_Reviews_A_Paradigm_Shift_in_Academic_Publishing. This is published as a chapter in N. Collé-Bak, M. Latham and D. Ten Eyck (Eds.) (2014) Book practices & textual itineraries: textual practices in the digital age. PUN-Editions Universitaires de Lorraine.
Marx, K. (1973) Grundrisse. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Merton, R. K. (1951) Social theory and social structure. Glencoe: The Free Press.
Trowler, V (in press, 2015) "Negotiating Contestations and 'Chaotic Conceptions': Engaging 'Non-Traditional' Students in Higher Education" Higher Education Quarterly.