Use the web and open-source ideals to evaluate, improve and publicise research, suggests Geoff Mulgan
Over the next 12 months, the UK's academic community will need to rethink how it assesses itself and how it communicates to the wider world. One prompt is the research assessment exercise. The other, less immediate but just as important, is the rising impact of the web on academic journals.
Possible solutions to both sets of challenges could draw on the hugely successful open-source methods in use in computing.
The open-source movement in computing is young. It is only 14 years since Linus Torvalds, then a second-year computer student in Helsinki, solicited collaborators to help build a free operating system. By 2002, the system that resulted, Linux, had a quarter of the global market for server operating systems. It was founded on a simple idea: the source code should be publicly available but anyone using it had to provide their own modifications on a similar basis.
Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, is another open-source success. Like Linux, it has been built almost entirely by volunteers: any visitor can edit any page regardless of his or her qualifications. In just four years, it has grown larger than the combined websites of Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encarta .
Open review is at the heart of these successful projects and at the heart of academic practice. As a result, both deliver results that tend to be higher quality than non-reviewed work.
These models suggest a possible evolution of the RAE - itself a peer-review system for the allocation of funds. The RAE should be replaced not with another closed assessment system but rather with an open system that allows for continuing comment on academic work by peers within universities and by experts and users outside. Professors and researchers would, in effect, create a virtual community - a visible republic of letters - around their work, in some cases, made up solely of specialists, in others, a broader range of people.
Open methods would not in themselves determine who was or was not a 5* researcher; judgments would still have to be made about the quality of work, with academics in the lead. But the open nature of publications, comments and arguments would provide a more substantial and nuanced body of material than simple counts of articles or books. At present, much vital research, particularly on the boundaries between disciplines, is unsuitable for publication in prestigious journals and is therefore not attractive to professors focused on the RAE. An open system would shift the incentives in the right direction without diluting academic rigour.
The other prerequisite for a more open system is reform of how research is published. One oddity of contemporary academia is that publicly funded research is published in journals that are available to the public only at a substantial charge. It is easy to make any work publicly available free of charge by publishing on the web. But as a quick use of GoogleScholar soon shows, members of the public have to pay for scholarship on the web - Joften £20 or more for a single article.
The medium-term future of academic journals is unclear given that articles are searched for by author name, title or subject, not by journal title.
Peer review is the main value provided by academic journals. But this can be organised in many ways other than through a journal, as the burgeoning field of social software is proving, with many ways of ranking material according to validation by reputable authorities.
For now, public policy, in effect, colludes in making academic work less accessible, by encouraging publication in academic journals but not requiring it to be available to the general public. The US National Institutes of Health already requires all research to be freely available within 12 months of its first publication. In the UK, the research councils are debating where policy should go: it is only a matter of time before all publicly funded research is required to be made freely and publicly available immediately, with peer review built into the preparation and assessment processes.
The time is ripe for the academic community to take the lead on these issues. The open-source movement is a modern adaptation of ideas with a very long ancestry in scholarship. The use of open methods would demonstrate academia's self-confidence to the Government and to the public - and renew the old ideal of an open republic of letters.
Geoff Mulgan is the director of the Young Foundation and co-author with Tom Steinberg of Wide Open: Open Source Methods and Their Wider Application , available on www.demos.org.uk . He was previously head of policy at No 10 and director of the Government's Strategy Unit.