The transitional state of scholarly communication due to increasingly networked ways of working has been an oft-discussed topic over the past 30 years or so. In “The Future of Scholarly Communications,” David De Roure presents his own take on the subject. De Roure makes the standard gestures toward the Philosophical Transactions, the early development of the Internet at CERN, and the rise of citizen science and social media. He also reiterates a common question: “is [the traditional] model of scholarly communication still fit for purpose?” (233). However, De Roure does deviate from the standard narrative of transforming scholarly communication when he predicts that we will think of academic articles as “social machines” in our collective future.
Social machines, as a term, is not often used in scholarly communication literature (at least, to my knowledge). De Roure traces this wording back to a Tim Berners-Lee quote from 1999: “‘Computers can help if we use them to create abstract social machines on the Web: processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration'” (237). De Roure does not, however, give a sufficient explanation of why academic articles should be considered as social machines beyond the rather simplistic concept that if an article is online than it fits Berners-Lee’s concept of a social machine — something that is human-designed but computer-facilitated. Earlier in the piece he presents a graph of the “scaled-up information society” that depicts social machines as the eventual outcome of an increase in global population and an increase in computers, and suggests that the machines will outlast us all: “we can anticipate an increasingly automated future — we will run out of humans and yet the technology axis goes on” (234). This unsupported statement is a curious technoutopic soundbyte, the likes of which surface throughout the article.
De Roure does ask some interesting questions regarding the ethics and consequences of automating research, which would make for a fascinating exploration in and of itself. Whether or not we will consider research output as “social machines,” however, is yet to be seen.
De Roure, David. 2014. “The Future of Scholarly Communications.” Insights 27 (3): 233-38.