Content vs. technology? All tied up in knots… in a good way

In scholarly publishing, the relationship between research content and the technology to deliver it has been widely discussed, especially as broader advancements in digital communications have dovetailed with longstanding critiques of the journal system. Very few would argue the two comprise a zero sum game. No one makes a choice for one over the other. Not across the board, at least.

Taking a more moderate position, you might consider the second fiddle model where one is considered subordinate to the other. Two combinations emerge: (1) technology serves as the central focus, while content becomes the wrapping around it. Or vice versa, (2) research content is the core enterprise while technology merely ensures that the content is delivered. But in each, the elevation of one component entails a degree of disregard for the valuation of the other.


Two combinations of the second fiddle model in publishing

Technology cannot be tacked-on as an afterthought in academic publishing. Refreshing CSS templates may offer users a clean, streamlined presentation more responsive to the variety of readers’ needs, be it focused skimming or deep reading. Interactive microscopy images can offer enhanced views of cellular changes incorporated into the research analysis. Computable document formats can enable users to interrogate the data and their models presented. More broadly speaking, if we do not take seriously the wide-ranging potential of technology, we refuse the opportunity to envision completely new ways of doing and sharing science.

But neither can we overlook content, specifically, the process of its production. Editorial leadership and control are critical. New ethical issues arise as instantly as new methods do and (bio)materials are synthesized. This occurs all the more as research becomes increasingly globalized and regulatory policy from states rush to catch up. Peer review is a labor intensive system involving the recruitment, training, and coordination of over half a million experts across the globe to ensure speed, consistency, and quality of review. With regards to the content itself, publishers define and regulate what is considered an article. This may involve a broad host of elements, including: scope of research (size), type of content considered suitable (article type), required metadata, and the treatment of supporting information (data, code, etc.).

An illustration of double crossing over from Thomas Hunt Morgan's A Critique of the Theory of Evolution (1916).

An illustration of double crossing over from Thomas Hunt Morgan’s A Critique of the Theory of Evolution (1916).

Neither two options are sufficient to describe the productive relationship possible. Consider instead a relationship of interconnections between the two areas. This is a chiasm model where both engages each other without the reductionism of a simplistic dualism, sometimes to reinforce, other times to oppose.

Content and technology form this chiasm. Neither can be subsumed by the other. Technological assets enables publishers to speed and scale operations. They also power the content (ex: recommendation algorithms, article-level metrics, etc.). But intellectual capital is required to set the terms and conditions for the production of content.

As the two strands cross, divergence may arise. In a world where we have to prioritize finite organizational resources, moments of overlapping and encroachment are guaranteed to occur. The challenging scenarios between content and technology will play out in vastly different ways depending on use case and context. But ultimately, content and technology must intertwine in a chiasm, like a rope, to form a stronger and more powerful entity than either strand alone. These interactions in fact may very well contain the most potential, forcing us back to a thoughtful place to rethink about our overarching aims and goals in this enterprise.

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