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The Changing Landscape of Global Academic Communication

It is fascinating to see how academic communication is changing around the world. A new generation of scholars is using online tools to grapple with issues of public concern.

In the past, the communications choices were fairly simple. There were journal articles and books to reach other academics. There were the occasional professors on television, the various columnists in the print media, and, with a bit of luck and a lot of application, news articles about university work. But the times are changing. Many more channels mean that much more content is dispersed.

As a result, the ability to broadcast academic opinion and information worldwide is much greater than before.

Online communication is growing in many ways, each of them “worldwise” in their attention to building international constituencies.

One is to act as an aggregator for knowledge and expertise on a particular issue. For example, an online site can act as an academic and practical resource. Take the case of the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion. Established in 2008, the institute’s purpose is to support research on money and technology among the world’s poorest people. It seeks to create an international “community of practice and inquiry into the everyday uses and meanings of money, as well as the technological infrastructures being developed as carriers of mainstream and alternative currencies worldwide.” The institute acts as both an originator and a clearinghouse for research and practice in this vital domain.

Another example is sites that aim to act as points of intercultural academic discussion. I particularly like Meridian 180, a forum for Pacific Rim intellectuals, with a linguistic presence in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Its aim is “to work toward solutions for the next generation of transpacific relations, and to devise innovative ways of confronting new challenges and tensions that threaten the Pacific Rim region.”

There are also sites that try to provide a continuous feed of stories and commentary from universities. There is, of course, the very effective Futurity. There are the well-known aggregators like Eurekalert and AlphaGalileo. There is also Australia’s The Conversation, which allows academics to write stories using a defined template, stories that are then professionally edited.

Then, there are the numerous Web sites, social-media tools, and blogs that act as outreach from universities, as well as from individual academics. Some remarkable new Web magazines, aimed at informed audiences, are starting to appear out of this nexus, including Aeon. Then there is the site Academia.edu, which is becoming indispensable. So far as blogs are concerned, I often look at the blogs of the London School of Economics and Political Science. But blogging has grown so much that it has become a normal part of the academic way of life. The same holds true for Twitter. Some academics have large numbers of Twitter followers. But I think Twitter usually works best when a small number of people want to rapidly share information and produce preliminary views and reactions to events, as is often found in the world of journalists.

In other words, the landscape of communication is becoming all-encompassing. That sparks another problem, of course: How to find time to read it all? Indeed, as I read numerous blogs listing their authors’ best books and Web sites of 2012, I realized that we will soon need aggregators to aggregate the aggregators.

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