Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thoughts on research, and saved by Scribd

When scholars from the year 2058 look back on the current state of academic research and the dissemination of knowledge, they surely will marvel at the fact that so much of it remained oriented toward printed words on paper.

It is a surprising situation. Never mind that nearly all educated members of early 21st century society are already familiar with the World Wide Web, the most extensive and accessible publishing and communications tool ever invented. Despite this, many facets of the academic world remain firmly planted in the ways of the early 20th century. Whether it's writing a term paper or conducting a major research project, the fruits of students' and scholars' efforts usually end up as printed sheets of paper destined for a professor's mailbox, a filing cabinet or a university library. Even a doctoral dissertation that takes years to complete is probably going to exist as a paper hard copy in just one or two locations. The insights contained in it may never be read by more than a handful of people.

This is not to suggest that academics are Luddites. Far from it -- most students and educators are very familiar with email, search engines, online databases, and Microsoft Word. But even if students use software programs to make and distribute a term paper or thesis proposal, electronic copies hardly ever venture beyond the hard drives of the students who created them, or the inboxes of the professors who received and graded them. On occasion, high-level research will be deemed good enough for a wider audience, but all too often these works remain restricted to books or journal articles that can only be seen in university libraries or expensive, password-protected databases. Fifty years from now, the scholars of the future will marvel at all of the ideas, hypotheses, evidence, analysis that were expressed but were only shared with a limited slice of humanity, despite the ubiquity of the Web and the many software tools at our disposal to share them with a much wider audience. This system will not only be viewed as inefficient, it will be regarded as isolating researchers from potential sources of knowledge and preventing them from making discoveries and improving our understanding of the world around us.

But there is hope. I have mentioned initiatives at MIT, Berkeley, and elsewhere that are attempting to leverage the power of the Web to spread knowledge more widely (see Online education, sharing knowledge, and a proposal for Harvard and UC Berkeley's free lectures on YouTube). Harvard Extended itself represents my own personal effort to share my experiences, observations, and research findings with a wider audience, and has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations -- Google Analytics tells me that more than 3,000 visits to Harvard Extended have taken place in the past 30 days, and nearly 85,000 visits have occurred since I first started using the tool in May of 2006.

Still, I want to do more. My blogging on Harvard Extended will come to an end in the next week, and it bothers me that the class papers I worked so hard on over the years do not have a permanent online home. Collectively, they took many hundreds of hours to research and write, and were shaped by my interactions with Extension School instructors, including members of Harvard's faculty. What a waste if they were to be resigned to a box of old papers in my basement, or a file directory on my hard drive. When I was still a student at the Extension School, I posted some of them to a fas.harvard.edu Web server. Unfortunately, I lost my FAS computing privileges when I graduated earlier this year, but I think I've found an alternate solution: Scribd.

Scribd is kind of like the YouTube of electronic documents. Registered users can upload their PDF or Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and random .txt scribblings. Anyone with a Flash-enabled Web browser can view them, or even embed them on their own websites, just like you can do with YouTube videos. The database is searchable and indexed by Google, meaning that people anywhere can readily find specific documents, if they use the right search terms.

So, I've taken a half-dozen papers and uploaded them to Scribd. The idea is to share them with my readers on Harvard Extended, and anyone else who finds them interesting. I've linked them below, and embedded one of them in this post -- my final research paper for HUMA E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext). You can read them in your Web browser, or download a PDF copy, but I've disabled text and Word exports to discourage plagiarism. Here are the papers, starting with the research proposal I prepared as part of my proseminar back in the winter of 2003:

Defining a Territorial Sea: China's South China Sea Policy in the 1950s and its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea (research proposal)
  • January 2004. Harvard DCE/SSCI E-100B (Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing in Social Sciences), Joe and Doug Bond, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University
Historical Nationalism: How Interpretation of China's Past is Used to Build Unity in the Present
  • August 2004. Harvard DCE/Archaeology S-171 (Archaeology of the Silk Road), Irene Good, Peabody Museum, Harvard University
China's Emerging Overseas Chinese Policy in the Late 1970s and Implications for Ethnic Chinese Communities in Vietnam and Kampuchea
  • May 2005. Hist E-1834 (Chinese Emigration in Modern Times), Professor Philip Kuhn, Harvard University
Evaluating Official Attitudes Toward Post-Mao Chinese Film Through a Quantitative Lens
  • August 2006. History S-1855 (Film and History in Postwar Japan and Post-Mao China), Prof. Charles Hayford, Visiting Scholar, History, Northwestern University
Proposal for a Thesis in the Field of History in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Master of Liberal Arts Degree
  • February 2006. Prof. Donald Ostrowski and Prof. Alastair Iain Johnston, Harvard University
The Rise of the Press in Late Imperial China
  • November 2007. HUMA E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext), Matthew Battles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
I am also embedding the last paper I ever completed for the Extension School in January of this year, which was also for Battles' excellent survey class. It's quite fitting that it should end up here, as the class discussed the history of the written language from the time of the Sumerians through Gutenberg's printing revolution and finally the beginning of the current publishing revolution taking place on the Web. I took things a step further, and looked at emerging Web-based software technologies and photorealistic 3D environments. It's entitled Video, Computer-Generated Environments and the Future of the Web: One thing that's missing from this small collection of papers is the most important paper of my Extension School career: my thesis (title: Making a Case for Quantitative Research in the Study of Modern Chinese History: The New China News Agency and Chinese Policy Views of Vietnam, 1977-1993). There's are several reasons I have not included it here. While Scribd is a very easy way to host documents, one thing that Scribd does not have is a vetting process or a reputation for reliability. The contents of an academic journal will have been vetted by experts and editors, and quality will be high. On Scribd, anybody can publish anything without it being vetted by anyone, and quality is mixed. For academic papers published on Scribd, the good appears alongside the bad. You'll find astounding creative works and rigorously designed research projects, as well as limp efforts at scholarly writing and even deliberate misinformation. Users can flag offensive content and copyright violations, but the process is flawed and leaves a lot of bad content on Scribd's servers. Interesting or quality content can also be highlighted by readers and illuminated with comments, but this system is imprecise in that it does not differentiate the praise from a 15-year-old kid trying to finish his homework and a 60-year-old university professor who stumbles upon a great paper on Scribd through a search on Google.

You'll have to take my word that all of the above papers were submitted to Harvard faculty or Extension School instructors for review, and all received excellent grades. However, the weaknesses in the Scribd system have convinced me to hold off on reposting my thesis on scribd.com. I want it to have the largest possible impact on my field, and I don't believe it will have that impact if posted to Scribd. Instead, I am holding out hope for a Harvard-sponsored solution. Nearly two years ago, I petitioned the Extension School to archive masters theses in the same electronic database used for doctoral dissertations at Harvard, ProQuest UMI (Update: My thesis is now available through UMI/ProQuest). While this is a closed database that can only be accessed through university library systems, it is restricted to vetted, accepted research from university masters and doctoral programs. It is widely used in academic circles -- in fact, the literature review in my thesis referenced several dissertations that I had located in the ProQuest UMI database. I hope that someday my own thesis might also be useful to future scholars of modern Chinese history, Cold War history, and Chinese media studies, if Harvard decides to extend this resource to ALM theses from the Extension School.

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