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Is Digital Disruption the cause of quality decline?

David Crotty, in a Scholarly Kitchen post, talked about declining editorial standards, and suggested that “digital disruption” was at least partly to blame. “Digital disruption” is the phrase used by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma.  Christensen’s idea, as you probably know, is that companies fail because they continue to provide the same services that satisfied their customers in earlier years. The customer needs change over time, but many organisations stay the same – and become irrelevant. The subtitle of Christensen’s book, “When new technologies cause great firms to fail”, indicates the thesis: when a new technology arrives that disrupts the market, the organisation must change in response to that new technology.

So far, so good; but what about the “the gospel of digital disruption”? There is no gospel in Christensen’s book. His book has indeed been condemned for followers who apply the theory mindlessly (as in a recent Guardian article), but brainless implementations of a theory do not invalidate the theory itself. The term “gospel” suggests unthinking slavish adherence to a doctrine. It could be argued that for scholarly publishing the changes to the market in this case have been exactly what the customer wanted: more opportunity to publish articles, and the articles more rapidly published. Everything else is subsidiary.

Has the demand for more articles to be published resulted in declining standards? There are of course highly publicised examples of scholarly articles being retracted after it was discovered they were based on flawed research, but given the dramatic overall increase in the number of articles published, has the proportion of retractions incre­­ased? I would guess that the proportion has stayed the same or even reduced. Because retractions are rare, they generate considerable publicity.

I would suggest that Christensen’s idea is frequently blamed for declining standards when “digital” is in fact neutral. Christensen does not suggest that digital disruption results in lower standards. A dispassionate observer looking at the scholarly academic publishing ecosystem could observe that declining editorial standards are more likely the result of human decisions – one of which, for example, is the decision by PLOS ONE that the criterion for publication acceptance was not to be the excellence of the results but simply that the article is of sufficient quality. That decision was not taken as an implication of digital transformation. Perhaps a manager at PLOS ONE took the decision to adjust editorial standards; the to publish to a “good enough” quality was a human decision. Hence to use the phrase “the gospel of digital disruption” as a way of explaining declining standards is, I would suggest, inappropriate.