The Future Is Already Here

This is a crosspost from the Good Science, Bad Science blog, where I am writing these days as part of a course I am taking at the University of Amsterdam.

Attending the seminar on Improving Scientific Practice at the University of Amsterdam last week, I was more than once reminded of the quip by William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) that “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”. It’s a quote that gets thrown around a lot in the hacker circles I used to frequent, but I believe that it’s just as true for science communication.

At one point, Kees Schuyt – a sociologist of law who has been a professor for more than four decades – lamented the lack of post-publication peer review today: in earlier days, a prominent article would have been followed by four, five responses in the journal over the next few issues; but today, he said, he hardly sees this.

Schuyt’s comment is interesting to me not just because it gives an insight into the scientific practices of yore, but also because I see post-publication peer review all around me, everyday. It’s not called that, of course, but scientists, students, and journalists discuss and critique the research of others all the time on blogs and Twitter (see my introduction to using Twitter in the pursuit of good science). Such networked communications technologies are almost perfectly suited to support the scientific discourse – and we are by far not using their full potential.

The Networked Public Sphere

One of the slogans of new media advocates is “we are the media”. Indeed, the strength of blogs lies in the fact that anybody, anywhere, can run one. Seeing the difficulty Nick Brown (another attendee of last week’s seminar) and his collaborators have had in getting their criticism of Barbara Fredrickson’s “positivity ratio” nonsense math published by the original journal, barrier-free access to publishing is an asset to good science.

Yet, a researcher like Prof. Schuyt, reading the journal online or, even more removed, on paper, would never have known about criticism published on a blog. Here, traditional journals lack an interface with other media. The technology to connect original publications and responses already exists: blogs know a so-called “pingback”, which notifies the owner of a link to a specific blog post. Because pingbacks are posted as comments under the article, they are also visible to other readers: they weave a network between articles and responses.

Comment sections, too, are still uncommon in scientific journals, despite their obvious potential for post-publication peer review. Instead, readers wanting to critique a paper have to turn to services like PubPeer – which now offers a browser extension to display comments on publishers’ websites: a user-based work-around where journals have been too slow to adapt.

PLoS One displays tweets containing the article link next to the web version of the paper.
PLoS One displays tweets containing the article link next to the web version of the paper.

Linking papers, blog posts, and comments to each other in such a way is important, in particular for the reader who encounters them later – and we hope our publications to be relevant for years, even decades to come. But in the present moment, the best way to link them is often Twitter: the service allows for real-time discourse linking content across platforms. In its ephemeral nature, Twitter thus complements the more slow-moving debate based on, first, longer blog posts and, finally, responses in journals and review articles.

Making Discourse Visible

If you believe that post-publication peer review is the future, this future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. The tools I have mentioned – blogs with pingbacks, comments, and Twitter integration – already exist, but as of yet, they are used by a technophile few, hardly integrated with scientific publication outlets, and often invisible to the uninitiated.

Integrating official publications with networked media is a particular opportunity for open access journals. Some of them already do: PLoS, for example, allows comments and displays relevant tweets. Other, in particular closed access, publications make it difficult to discuss, review, and correct the scientific record as they lack these features. To integrate these outlets into the discursive network of post-publication peer review will be to evenly distribute the future that’s already here.

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New Publications on Mobile Phones & Citizen Journalism in Africa

The last few weeks have brought a flurry of new publications – my first properly peer-reviewed work, actually. I had a great time working on these rather diverse projects – two reviews and two survey-based studies; on media and on economics; about Africa and Europe. As you can see below, much of the work has been in cooperation with Drs. Mutsvairo, who’s a PhD candidate at Leiden University’s African Studies Center and teaches communication at my College in Amsterdam. He is partly responsible for my shift of geographic focus towards Sub-Saharan Africa, although I’m sure other factors played a role as well. Below is a short introduction to all four papers.

Already out since February is a book edited by Ndubuisi Ekekwe and Nazrul Islam, “Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign” with two chapters in which I’ve been involved. The first is a review of the literature on economic impacts of mobile telephony in developing economics; the second a study done in cooperation with Bruce Mutsvairo and Louis Klamroth on the implications of media usage patterns for traditional media theories.

In another paper just out this last weekend in the Central European Journal of Communication, Bruce and me studied citizen journalism in Africa. I did what I consider a rather comprehensive review of the (sparse) literature on this topic. Some of the key findings are a complex relationship with traditional media (“against, parallel to, and interlinked with…”) and democracy (here I’m drawing heavily on an excellent working paper by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich for the Berkman Center on Kenya). In many parts, the review highlights the lack of sources however: most of the papers cited are case studies of conflict situations.

Finally, a week ago I was in Austin to attend the International Symposium on Online Journalism where Bruce presented a paper written by us and my friend Iris Leijendekker. In this study, we explore the ethical beliefs of African citizen journalists. In particular, we asked our (unfortunately rather small sample, n=20) questions about their motivations, aims, and allegiances. We find that citizen journalists are strongly driven by the wish to inform others and have a tendency to reject self-censorship and governmental control. In a traditional journalism ethics framework, this is consistent with the theory of social responsibility. Especially with regard to our analytical framework based on Yochai Benkler’s notion of the ‘networked public sphere’, this is a hopeful finding; yet the question remains whether beliefs and practices actually measure up.

One issue I have with academic publishing are the restrictions it puts on sharing. The book is available from IGI Global for some ridiculous price (each chapter individually costs $30, of which I get absolutely nothing); the online edition of the Central European Journal of Communication will be out “in Spring 2013” according to the publisher. The very positive exception is the International Symposium on Online Journalism, who put up all presented papers following a request from attendees. Ours is here. As for the others, I guess you know how to write me an email…


Mutsvairo, B., Columbus, S., & Leijendekker, I. (2012, April 20). African Citizen Journalists’ Ethics and the Emerging Networked Public Sphere. Presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, Austin, TX.

Mutsvairo, B. & Columbus, S. (2012). Emerging Patterns and Trends in Citizen Journalism in Africa: A Case of Zimbabwe. Central European Journal of Communication 5(1), 123-137.

Columbus, S. (2012). Is the Mobile Phone a Disruptive Technology? A Partial Review of Evidence From Developing Economies. In N. Ekekwe & N. Islam (eds.), Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Mutsvairo, B., Columbus, S., & Klamroth, L. (2012). Rethinking mass communication theories in the Internet era. In N. Ekekwe & N. Islam (eds.), Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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Recent Projects: Media Theories & Mobile Phone Economics

I’ve just come back from re:publica 11 with a hunch of impressions. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I realize that living in Amsterdam, I miss this bustling net politics scene being part of which I enjoyed in Berlin. I will try to write a bit on my impressions later, but due to my studies that might take a while. However, I wanted to post a short note about what I’ve been up to lately.

As many of you will have noticed, this blog has become rather silent lately. There are multiple reasons for that, but one is certainly that I have taken some time to focus on two academic publications for a book called “Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications”, which is edited by Ndubuisi Ekekwe of the African Institute of Technology and Nazrul Islam of Aberystwyth University.

Together with Bruce Mutsvairo, who’s a PhD candidate at the University of Hull (and a lecturer at my college), and Louis Klamroth, I have written about the applicability of traditional media impact theories in the age of the Internet and, in particular, social media. One thing that is always striking me there is how little use even young people make of the diverse and accessible media landscape they take for granted to have at their hands (a prime example, in my eyes, is the finding of the 2009 JIM – Youth, Internet, Multimedia – report that 70% of German 12 to 19 years olds liked about television that they did not have to actively choose what content to access).

Another chapter I wrote on my own reviews research on the economic impact of mobile phones in developing countries. This project started out with the research of Jenny Aker and Robert Jensen, who have conducted quantitative economic studies, but I have also included much qualitative research (e.g. by Ragnhild Overa). I find this topic particularly interesting because it steers away a bit from the hype that surrounds both digital activism and ICT4D. And the economists provide quantitative data, which is so badly missing from the latter discourses (Patrick Meier was also at re:publica, giving a great talk about Ushahidi. Still I wish he had rather presented his dissertation research, which might substantiate much of all this talk about Facebook revolutions).

Both papers are currently under review. If you are interested, I’ll be happy to share a copy of my drafts with you, in particular of the second paper – just drop me a message at -simon [at] thisdomain-. There are also some other great news to share in the near future, but I have to await confirmation until I can spread the word.

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