Future of Higher Education

What does the future hold for higher education? How is American academia changing under the impact of continuous technological transformation?

In these quarterly columns I will explore several ways of thinking about this vast and complex topic. Each one will focus on a single topic or dimension, illuminating developing trends and emergent possibilities. Connections between topics and columns will become clear as the series progresses. I hope you'll comment about those links, and about other reflections.

These columns are not intended to predict the future, although some of the descriptions will probably come to pass. Instead their intent is to provoke you to new ways of thinking about what comes next, much like science fiction does.1 I am relying on several futures methods to generate these provocations and models, and have indeed previously written about them in EDUCAUSE Review.2 These include trend extrapolation, the expert or Delphi method, scenarios, crowdsourcing, and prediction markets.3 For this first column the subject is scholarly communication, and the method is scenarios.

The Future of Scholarly Publication

Scholarly publication is one of the most vital parts of higher education.4 Publications are in many ways the acme of faculty assessment: publish or perish. Our articles and books are the visible, enduring record of academic work, outlasting the lifespans of researchers, staff, and students. An entire industry both depends on and supports this output. Research output is deeply interwoven into many aspects of campus life, from hiring policies to library budgets and admissions materials. It is also a field in crisis, hammered by the Great Recession and torqued by ongoing technological revolutions.

What will scholarly publication look like in five years? Let us consider several scenarios, each based on the decisive emergence of a trend apparent in 2011.

Caveats: These scenarios are fictions, narratives of what could be. I do not see any one more likely than another, nor do I prefer any, although some are obviously worse news than others for many of us. While I describe them separately, they actually interconnect. Syntheses are discernable. Other scenarios can be generated on this topic, based on different themes and models, and I would like to hear yours.

1. The Teeming Biosphere

In the first scenario scholarly communication explodes into diversity, appearing in multiple forms — far more than we are historically accustomed to. Peer review is sometimes crowdsourced by the world, or conducted through traditional means (blind refereeing). Open access content coexists with restricted access materials. Students learn from print monographs and downloaded data sets. A single article may appear in the pages of a print journal issue, as a post-print hosted in an institutional repository, read via mobile phone app,5 commented on by any general reader,6 embedded within another scholar's slideshow, linked from someone else's tag cloud… or a combination of all of these.

These practices are organized into large-scale operations, which compete with each other for scarce market share. No one enterprise or design dominates. Multiple business models and revenue streams are in play.7 One journal is funded by contributing scholars (gold open access), while another is supported by government monies. A third offers digital content for free, while charging for print versions; a fourth gives away some digital content, making more advanced and powerful versions available for a fee.

Young scholars navigate this complex ecosystem first as consumers in grad school, then as producers. Every year the environment changes, with new life forms appearing, some disappearing, and relationships shifting rapidly.

2. Bubble Bursts

It's a classic pattern, from Dutch tulip mania centuries ago to American mortgages in this century. Prices for a good increase steadily over time, winning wealth for stakeholders and generating growing value for participants — until the market can't bear the increases any longer, and the bubble bursts. A fallow period follows.

The scholarly publication field has certainly seen the first stage of a bubble, as both journal and monograph prices have risen steadily since the early 1990s.8 Academic libraries and faculty were struggling to keep up before the Great Recession; now that we're all laboring under the impact of financial problems, our weakened ability to pay might just pop this bubble. One publisher cuts prices, then another follows, and they race each other back down the cost slope towards the 1980s. Journals, series, and publishers start going out of business, either from failure or strategic withdrawal.

One side effect of this will certainly be reduced campus access to scholarly publications, as we lose purchasing power or publishers disappear. We're already seeing signs of this "pre–bubble burst," as some campuses lack access to various materials published by their own faculty.9 Another effect is a throttling back of faculty scholarly production, as the number of venues to place materials shrinks. Inter-faculty competition heats up. Off campus, some state politicians might view a bubble burst favorably, if they view scholarship as useless or politically suspect.

3. Die-Off

A different negative scenario is based on a less dramatic process than the bubble one. A die-off or die-back occurs in an ecosystem when a population cannot support itself at its current size any longer, either due to an imbalance between intertwined populations (over- or underpopulation), or a change in local conditions (resource exhaustion). One group's members die without replacement until a lower, sustainable number is attained.

We can see this occurring in scholarly communication, as the current model proves unsustainable. Some populations are already dwindling, like the proportion of tenure-track and hence research-oriented American faculty. Some resources are dropping, such as state financial support. In this die-off scenario scholarly production drops, as fewer articles and monographs appear. The total amount of scholarship continues to grow, but the growth rate drops. Fewer professors produce research per year on campuses, on average. The number of articles, monographs, and discoveries declines. We clamber less rapidly up the shoulders of Newton's giants.10

4. In the Future, All Scholarship Is Gray

In this model a previously obscure form of scholarship grows to dominate the field. "Gray literature" describes the whole set of published materials alongside articles and books: reports, working papers, presentations, drafts, unreviewed conference proceedings, bibliographies, data sets, guides, preprints, white papers, and more.11 Thanks to the growth of the Internet and accessible digital media authoring tools, gray literature has grown in size and impact over the past decade. Academic authors share research through blogs, e-mail listservs and discussion forums, and personal websites thanks to an appealing combination of low cost and broad reach. Presentation slides, formerly the very soul of ephemera (remember acetate?), are now mainline scholarly communication. Gray lit has already played a major role in public and scientific debates about climate change.12

Costs stay low, public and scholarly demand keep building, budgets remain tight, more academics use more digital tools… Given the right combination of factors, gray literature grows to become the dominant form of scholarly publication. Laypeople are more likely to hit scholarly gray lit than peer-reviewed articles through a Google search or Facebook query. Reporters contact scholars based on Slideshare-hosted PowerPoint stacks instead of their scarce monographs. Publishers shift resources to gray lit aggregation and indexing. Scholars shift more time and energy to making their arguments throughout this gray world.

5. Open World

The open content and open access movements have grown over the past near-decade.13 The number of open access journals increases, and some traditional journal publishers have added open access lines. Faculty choose these venues for greater publicity, to contribute more effectively to the shared commonwealth of knowledge. Faculty and laypeople also consume open content because of lower costs and easier access.

In this scenario open content crowds out closed. Readers consult for-pay databases and aggregators (such as Lexis-Nexis) less often than open content sources and open access journals. The majority of scholarly articles appear in open access journals and/or under open access licenses, such as Creative Commons ones. Traditional business models based on for-pay access collapse, and new ones charge for extra features, or print versions of digital content, or more richly formatted media. Colleges and universities devote more funding to help faculty afford placing their articles in faculty-pay or "gold" open access journals. Government agencies and private foundations tend to insist that research they support appears in open formats. Libraries reduce spending on commercial databases, switching bibliographic instruction, research methods, and information literacy over to the open web.

Planning with the Scenarios

How can you use these scenarios? By considering how your institution might navigate its way through each of their worlds. Think of different campus populations and offices, the full range of demographics and technological shifts.

If The Teeming Biosphere comes true, how can your campus support the growing diversity of digital platforms, both on the production side (training, infrastructure) and consumption (critical literacy)? If the Bubble Bursts, or a Die-Off happens, is your campus ready to alter tenure/promotion/hiring criteria? If In the Future, All Scholarship is Gray, can your information fluency classes and research support staff shift to the different venue environment? In an Open World, will academic leadership mandate open access publication? These are just first questions; many more are evident.

No matter which scenario comes true — and remember that these are fictions, with other futures possible — some questions cut across them all:

  • How will your institution keep abreast of emerging developments in and around scholarly communication?
  • Can new scholarly publication forms integrate with a campus learning management system?
  • Should your institution play an advocacy role and try to influence developments?
  • Where are campus faculty publishing this year?
  • When are appropriate commercial enterprises apparent?

At each point these questions link up with other campus technology issues, such as mobile devices, new multimedia forms, and learning management systems. They also link up with other academic concerns, such as funding models, assessment, and generational change. I will address these from other angles in subsequent columns.

This is not only the first installment in a series of columns about academic futures but also the first release in my ongoing research project into scholarly communication. I look forward to your feedback and the opportunity to incorporate it into my subsequent publications.


This column owes a great deal to several groups of people: various Twitterites who discussed this topic over the winter of 2010–2011; Peter Suber, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Roger Schonfeld, who each granted me generous interview time; my NITLE colleagues for their thoughtful and patient conversation, including Joey King, Michael Nanfito, Eric Harper, and Fred Moody. For the scenarios approach, I owe much to discussions with audiences in three 2010 meetings: the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges, the World Futures Society, and the New Media Consortium's Symposium for the Future.

  1. Jamais Cascio (Institute for the Future) has been offering the best elaboration of this futures philosophy over the past several years on his blog site Open the Future.
  2. Bryan Alexander, "Apprehending the Future: Emerging Technologies, from Science Fiction to Campus Reality," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 3 (May/June 2009), pp. 12–29.
  3. For Delphi, the most salient work here is the Horizon Report project. For prediction markets, see the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education Prediction Markets site NITLE game and my introduction to the subject, "A Web Game for Predicting Some Futures: Exploring the Wisdom of Crowds," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 3 (May/June 2009).
  4. Christine L. Borgman, Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet (Cambridge: MIT, 2007), p. 74.
  5. The Mekentosj website "Your Personal Library of Research" offers software for researchers, including mobile apps.
  6. Media Commons Press publishes Shakespeare Quarterly online as an open review journal.
  7. See "Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses: A Report of the AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing," March 2011, on the Media Commons Press website and available on the Association of American University Presses website.
  8. "The Impact of Serial Costs on Library Collections," ARL Bimonthly Report, vol. 218 (October 2001); and Robert Darnton, "The Library: Three Jeremiads," New York Review of Books, December 23, 2010.
  9. For example, consider Bucknell University, a liberal arts university whose library recently discovered that "47 articles (27%) were published in journals that the library does not subscribe to. Of these, 35 were neither self-archived nor published open access, meaning that Bucknell faculty and students do not have access to 19% of the articles reported in this survey," Open Access at Bucknell, "Bucknell Scholarly Communications Practices Survey: Summary Results," February 3, 2011.
  10. See professor Kathleen Fitzpatrick's response to my Quora query, "Will scholarly communication go through a die-off?"
  11. See, for example, Brian S. Mathews, "Gray Literature: Resources for Locating Unpublished Research," C&RL News, vol. 65, no. 3 (March 2004).
  12. See, for example, David Biello, "Shades of 'Gray Literature': How Much IPCC Reform Is Needed?" Scientific American, August 30, 2010.
  13. The Directory of Open Access Journals is one very useful tracking resource. The NITLE Prediction Markets relied on it here.