René König is a sociologist researching at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. He is interested in online knowledge hierarchies and focuses on transformation processes in academia triggered by Web 2.0. Together with Miriam Rasch he co-edited the “Society of the Query Reader. Reflections on Web Search” (Institute of Network Cultures, 2014) and he wrote “Cyberscience 2.0: Research in the Age of Digital Social Networks” (Campus, 2012) with Michael Nentwich. René was a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and studied Sociology in Bielefeld (Germany) and Linköping (Sweden). You can follow him on Twitter.
Hybrid Publishing Lab: The Internet offers scholarly networks and different forms of publishing and communication to the academic sector. From your perspective, what technologies are the most important here, and how does this affect scientific research?
HPL: You research scientific controversies – how have they been influenced by the digitization?
König: As mentioned above, the Internet allows for by-passing established gatekeepers and social hierarchies. Therefore, controversial perspectives can easily be published via alternative channels and their supporters can also collaborate more efficiently through the Internet. However, that does not necessarily mean that these marginalized positions move closer to the center and become more established. For example, the Wikipedia community – despite its structural openness – tends to follow a rather conservative inclusion policy for their articles: Perspectives which are not backed up by well-established sources usually don´t survive very long. I think this could be described as a participatory dilemma: The stronger the participation within a platform, the more participation has to be limited in order to maintain high quality knowledge production. And usually it is limited in favor for more established views. But of course, there are also areas online in which marginalized perspectives benefit, so this is a double edge sword.
HPL: Search engines have a big effect on knowledge. How does their use change the way we perceive knowledge? And do you think they will have an effect on scholarly publishing?
König: Search engines don´t provide us with knowledge but decontextualized bits of information. It is up to the user to make sense of the results. So, at first glance they seem to make things a lot easier but at a second glance they require substantial additional competence: We need to know how to judge the context of the presented information pieces and how search engine algorithms decide what is relevant for the individual searcher. The problem is that search engine results are usually not questioned in this way: Often people just click on the first result and trust more or less what they find. Since the search engine market is clearly dominated by a single company – Google – this leads to massive competition over the first few results within this platform (at least in the West). In the commercial world this has been recognized already a while ago and many companies hire search engine optimizers to get the best possible ranking for their websites. Academic content is now also increasingly optimized for the logic of search engine algorithms and some have suggested to strategically choose titles, keywords and even publishers to receive good rankings for scientific articles. It has also been shown that some academic search engines like Google Scholar are particularly vulnerable to manipulation. Therefore, scholars should be aware that the relevance created by search engines often has nothing to do with academic relevance.
HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?
König: I guess I´m supposed to mention an important book now that had an extraordinary intellectual impact on me. But in fact, it is exactly these kinds of books that I prefer in a digital shape. I travel a lot, so I try to keep the most important things with me on my hard drive or in the cloud. Moreover, I like digital features like full text search. So, it might sound narcissist but if I´m really honest, I think the only books that I love to see printed are the ones I worked on myself. Yes, I said see not read. If I would need to actually look into them (which I try to avoid), I again prefer the digital version. But it´s the analogue copies which serve as monuments for all the blood, sweat and tears you put into them.