Clay Shirky was this year's McGovern lecturer at MLA, and his talk this morning was full of insight. Taken as a whole his work offers fundamental questions of purpose for health sciences librarians.
Shirky argues that cognitive surplus--what we might do in our free time, such as blogging or editing Wikipedia entries--can be an incredibly powerful force for social good if aggregated. Lest you think "why would people work for free?" the truth is that we already do, because we now have communication platforms that make this easy. And in ten years the amount of worldwide effort it has taken to produce Wikipedia is a fraction of the time people in the US spend in one year watching television. The point is not that TV is bad--the point is that we have lots of spare cycles available to produce user-generated content.
It's true; much of that user generated content consists of videos of LOL cats posted to YouTube. Then again, the printing press published erotic novels 160 years before scholarly journals began. We're just as driven by the trivial and base as ever; only the means have changed. But with today's communications technologies there is a much more democratic opportunity to aggregate random insights into something useful, which is why Twitter isn't useful tweet-by-tweet but is powerful as an analytical tool over time.
What does this mean for librarians? For one, that we should stop hatin' on Wikipedia. Skirky contrasted the entry for biopsy on Wikipedia to that for biopsy on Medpedia, which utilizes physician editors rather than the unwashed masses. Turns out that the Wikipedia entry is much more robust and developed, a thorough introduction to the topic of biopsy available to all. On the other hand, Medpedia offers a puny paragraph and calls it a day. In this case--and by extension for many descriptions of general knowledge--the "wisdom of crowds" prevails over the "cult of expertise." In narrow specialty areas--let's say a new form of biopsy developed by an enterprising clinician--expertise trumps the crowd. But we can't credibly say that Wikipedia has no place in the architecture of knowledge. I am eagerly awaiting the tipping point in which it is OK to cite Wikipedia entries in the reference lists of student papers.
But yes, expertise still matters. Getting back to our enterprising clinican who developed a new type of biopsy...where would they place this discovery? How would they announce it to the world? Given all we know about the ease of publication in this Web 2.0 era, it seems obvious that our clinician should publish their discovery in a way to ensure the broadest possible distribution. But what is likely to happen? This great research would be secreted away to a high-impact factor journal, thereby only available to people whose libraries can afford the subscription fees. Our clinician needs tenure, after all.
Librarians who promote the virtues of open access, myself among them, have yet to fully grasp the import of academic conventions in conserving the status quo. To us the case for open access is so obvious that we can't see why everyone else doesn't see it immediately. But the truth is that open access is only a modest transformation anyway--even if all academics embraced it, we are still in the realm of peer reviewed journals in which the journal name carries an imprimatur that is independent of an article's worth. So rather than continuing to tinker at the margins of this old pre-Web system, librarians could be instrumental in designing new publication systems that totally bust the current paradigm.
After all, the peer review system is fraught with error anyway. Why not harness cognitive surplus to develop insights about health care treatment that were never available on a large scale until now? Shirky cited PatientsLikeMe, a web site where patients voluntarily divulge their health data in a real-time natural experiment of the intersection of openness and health care. Who is going to preserve this data for posterity? Isn't this a more interesting challenge than management of a little used print collection?
Based on the tweets flowing throughout Shirky's talk, many people found it compelling and thought-provoking. But a question by Mike Kronenfeld afterward brought home the dilemma we face. Shirky was extolling the benefits of democratically exploited cognitive surplus, whereas our institutions and their libraries are primed to maintain the cult of expertise. At root, this is what evidence-based medicine is all about--funneling people to articles published in peer-reviewed journals and away from interlopers such as PatientsLikeMe or Wikipedia. We get angry that students reject our counsel and go to Wikipedia anyway, but to me this is like spitting in the wind. I say we should accept the realities of how people access information and work from there, rather than fighting a losing game.
Yes, change is extremely hard. Yes, we are not the faculty--even if librarians start pitching the glories of cognitive surplus, the chair of the tenure committee is likely not to care. But hopefully that doesn't mean we are mere clerks, content with a view of the library as a glorified buyers club. If the tenure chair can't let go of the past, they can purchase their own journals. We could reallocate the collection budget to solve more interesting problems.
In the meanwhile...most of what we'll see on the exhibit floor at MLA this year (as for every year) will be about how to improve operational efficiencies within the publication system we currently have. There will be nothing about questioning that system at its very foundation, but we have the power to do this if we want to claim it.
Maybe most health sciences librarians don't want to do this. After all, this is a field full of bright and brilliant people who could be making more money elsewhere. I note that "serving" is key to many a librarian's self-definition, which doesn't lend itself to rocking the boat. And so we are stuck in this weird place, attempting to retrofit customs forged in the print era into a Web-based world that has literally changed everything. All I know for sure is that I'd rather be a colleague han a servant. Thanks to Clay Shirky for showing the way.