How we could do academic publishing differently…

Given that it ended up taking us a couple of months to actually finish them (pretty much entirely my fault), I thought it would be worthwhile reposting the series of articles myself and Pat Lockley wrote for LSE Impact Blog about academic publishing and social media:

Part 1

Cite or site? Citation, or the seeking of capital via academic publishing, is obviously unavoidable for anyone involved in academic research while ‘site’ – as in to publish content via social media, would perhaps seem a marginal alternative, perhaps an indulgence, when considered in terms of the intense structural pressures all researchers are under to ‘publish or perish’. After all, isn’t it basically a form of self-publishing, a shiny technological alternative to the vanity presses of old?

Sites, which we use as a synonym for academics utilising social alternatives to journals for research dissemination, create the possibility of engaging more widely, as well as more productively, with broader audiences. However the differences between social media and ‘traditional’ publishing are both quantitative and qualitative. The phrase “academic publishing” now defines how an academic is published, not how an academic could publish. Antipathy towards the idea of online dissemination within academia comes from the assumption, perhaps unacknowledged, that the former impacts negatively on the latter: that the capacity to reach so many more people through alternative publishing risks the academic value of the material being published, as if ‘publishing’ is but a single, individual action, and not a series of different, distinct events.

One such difference is between writing for an academic audience and for a general audience. Some of the features of academic writing deemed to be negative, such an excessive reliance on technical jargon are, at least in part, a reflection of the properties of their traditional medium. If you find yourself writing for a renowned high-impact journal, only the most intellectually self-confident, particularly when the author is a grad student or post-doc, would not feel any temptation to throw in a bit of additional academic jargon as a means to, consciously or otherwise, foreground the technical sophistication and conceptual rigor of their argumentation. If you find yourself writing for a relatively specialised journal, perhaps in a very narrow field, it’s natural to assume a great deal of knowledge (of theoretical perspectives, historical disputes, methodological controversies etc) because these are so personally familiar and, given the relatively niche interests of such a journal, chances are they will be to other readers.

However, some journals explicitly ask that such writing be avoided as part of their editorial policies such, as for instance, the British Sociological Association’s flagship journal, ‘Sociology’, which states that “jargon or unnecessary technical language should be avoided, as should the use of abbreviations”. Presumably such policies are motivated by a desire, at least in part, to open up the journal to a wider readership. Yet such policies run up against the brute empirical fact that, given what an academic journal is in the present setting, no one outside of academic sociology is likely to have even heard of the journal, let alone chosen to read it.

Acknowledging this brute fact isn’t an anti-intellectual attack on long-standing practices within the academy. Nor does it entail the suggestion that traditional mediums of academic publishing, as well as traditional forms of academic expression, lack value. Nothing could be further from the truth. But at present the academy suffers from a pervasive crisis of over-production: ever more intellectual energy goes into producing papers for an ever wide array of journals which even fewer people read. In doing so, academic publishing is tending to inverse economies of scale. Publishing in this sense tends towards the opposite of it’s own meaning (‘to make public’) but also into smaller and smaller communities where impact becomes ever diminshed.

The social structures of both the modern university and of commercial publishing have combined to crystalise a structure of perverse incentives. The need to publish, the need to differentiate oneself and raise one’s profile – ultimately the need to make oneself ‘valuable’ in terms of the ludicrously narrow quantitative auditing of the REF – have led us to objectively perpetuate, though subjectively disavow, a system which eviscerates academic values (with ‘salami slicing’ being perhaps the most egregious ensuing practice).

We need to have an ongoing and honest conversation about what academic publishing is, what it could be and what it should be. At present, academic publishing remains in meaning being published in a journal, and as such is not a meaning to which the word academic confers only the source of the content, and possibly the nature of the potential consumer. Within the phrase is no inference, or limitation of the platforms used or usable. So how did its meaning become so limited and/or specific, and how can those limitations be overcome?

Part 2

The journal article has become, over time, the sine qua non of a successful academic profile. Such dominance has meant few have had any motivation to either challenge this or to explore alternative models. Narrow understandings of what the communication of academic ideas entails may have been compounded by the fact that, until recently, alternative modes of dissemination were few and far between.

As a channel for communication (as a wider term than dissemination), the journal paper presents two distinct problems. The language of journals has tended to find expression through a dialect which radically reduces the potential readership. Once the linguistic difficulties have been overcome, the average reader faces the problem of deciding which journal to favour from an ever-expanding range (how would you explain why one journal is better than another?) and probable commercial pay walls before they can actually get to the paper.

Furthermore if they are fortunate enough to access open journals, is the software they use comparable in ease of use and user experience to most common websites? Many of the factors which impede the communicative impulsive that has traditionally motivated academic publishing are mundane and/or contingent. But this doesn’t mean they’re not important.

How inherent in the practice of research is the moral imperative to communicate; to ensure that its results are communicated as widely as possibly to as many as we can? Organisations such as Openbook publishers argue working “openly” is the future for scholars. An approach focused on journals can no longer be said to fulfil this goal, and is most certainly “one size” which is in no way “one size fits all” – by its very nature it has become the epitome of Fordism.

We also seem to accept that the preferred form of academic to academic communication is the journal. The REF and academic publishers stand as comparable to an intellectual monopoly come bottleneck like a revisionist Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, blessed by government powers to control communication. A google search for “Sociology” returns as the first result – The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology – which has the following structure in its references:

  • Book (eds) (4)
  • Whole book (35)
  • Journal (8)
  • Government report (1)

The most recent article in American Sociological Review – Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality

  • Journal (40)
  • Book (22)
  • Book (eds) (4)
  • Government report (2)

and the most recent Sociology article –Families, Secrets and Memories

  • Journal (12)
  • Book (19)
  • Book (eds) (2)
  • Government report (0)

So it is in no way apparent that the journal is the de facto unit of communication, even amongst academics. Even this channel and form of communication is perhaps open to discussion. Then we face the issue, as suggested by John Ioannidis in “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, which argues journal papers aren’t working for communicative purposes.

These issues stand in a rapidly evolving cultural context. There is a seemingly growing demand for intellectually challenging content, across a range of audiences, which the physical sciences have thus far tended to fill. But surely the social sciences are innately better suited to the predominantly text-based or info-graphic communication channels which have proliferated on the internet?

These are channels in which we are likely to be already in some way engaged, and the action of taking our research into this domain should be second nature. Yet for the most part it is not. This raises retrospective questions about why this isn’t the case but also proactive ones about how it could become so. A cursory glance at the figures shows that there is an enormous hunger, across a diverse populace, suddenly manifesting itself through a variety of online channels.

Apple’s iTunes U, as of this time last year, had 300 million downloads from 350,000 available files. Over 3 and a half million people downloaded LSE podcasts in July alone. The RSA, with its recent catchphrase, “21st century enlightenment”, has been an innovator in this area, particularly with its innovative RSA Animate videos, condensing academic talks on Youtube and combining them with fast moving animation, which have proved enormously successful:

Coupled with these platform-based approaches – often which require overheads that perhaps would invite criticism of suggesting they too are “one size fits all” – how many academics actively take steps to maximise the exposure of their research? Even working on something as simple as editing a wikipedia article may maximise exposure.

The utility of these channels extends beyond public engagement. As the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, Nigel Thrift, recently observed (in his eminently readable blog) entire fields of inquiry are beginning to be fermented online, as instantaneous low cost communication has provided a potent environment within which graduate students and early-career researchers, in particular, are able to articulate new directions of thought outside the temporal and editorial constraints of traditional academic structures such as peer-review, which, as Steve Fuller recently argued, is an important though ultimately backward-looking exercise sometimes inimical to risk-taking and innovation.

As we stated in the first part of this series, we are not advocating that academic journals be abandoned in favour of communicating through social media. Even were this desirable, it would not be feasible for all manner of reasons, not least of all because of the REF. Instead we are suggesting that this unparalleled expansion of communicative opportunities available to researchers demands a creative and on-going re-appraisal of the purpose and practice of academic publishing.

Part 3

‘Site or Cite’ was, and remains, a terrible pun about how to publish the outputs of research so as to maximise their potential impact. Exactly what could constitute ‘best positioning’ is a complex matter, encompassing issues such as the discoverability, availability and accessibility of publications. Advocating Twitter as a panacea ignores the fact that, much as MySpace has withered, an equivalent risk remains inherent within all media forms, including the journal. Unreserved and unqualified favouring of one platform over another does little but to force our choices onto those who may well not appreciate or understand them.

Can social media versus journals be seen as some form of platform war, with the winner not necessarily the best format, but merely the most popular? Before the X Factor was bequeathed to us, the opportunities for artists to gain exposure were entirely different to those we see today. Similarly serious debates over impact must now engage with the Brian Co-X  factor – how can academics who aren’t telegenic former rock stars possibly compete? There are a plethora of choices faced by researchers when considering how to thrive professionally and personally in this changing media environment.

Managing impact isn’t purely a matter for individual academics though. Universities spend thousands of pounds a year running services to highlight the research outputs of their academics. However unlike the REF, much of the impact of this is factored into the expenditure. Simple comparisons between services can reveal stark differences, such as between an institutional repository and document hosting websitescribd. Research and knowledge live within an ‘ecosystem’, and as covered in the last post in the series, there are inevitably economies of scale in discovery, given the advantages of having your work situated near similar content. So too in being on sites people visit. LSE has, via this blog (and its wider family), made a substantial effort to maximise the value of this. So too has Warwick’s KnowledgeCentre. Both show how universities themselves are, albeit unevenly, exploring this uncharted terrain at an institutional level.

With this institutional activity as a backdrop, researchers are free to publish material in other forms suited to their individual preferences, utilising the web (and web platforms) to seek impact in different ways. Citations for crowdsourced software now occur in journal papers, adding courses to Wikiversity or use of a site such as github, most commonly used by open source software developers. If you think github is an unsuitable analogy, look at the impact graph feature for a project. ‘Publishing’, as traditionally conceived, is but one part of the academic process in which impact could be sought. The widespread uptake of social media tools, as well as increasingly institutional support for the platforms they give access to, creates an opportunity for us to ‘open out’ our conception of the publishing process.

Perhaps it’s time to move from the Cathedral to the Bazaar. These metaphors from the open-source software movement refer to contrasting models of software development. In academic terms we might see them as referring to distinct orientations towards publishing: one which works towards the intermittent, largely private, production of one-off works (papers and monographs → cathedrals) and the other which proceeds in an iterative and dialogical fashion, with a range of shorter-term outputs (blog posts, tweets, online articles, podcasts, storified conversations etc) standing in a dynamic and productive relationship with larger-scale traditional publishing projects: the ‘cathedrals’ can be something we build through dialogues, within communities of practice, structured around reciprocal engagement with publications on social media platforms.

Construing the research and publishing process in such a way inevitably leads to a reconceptualisation of related notions: not least of all ‘impact’. As an example, a service such as klout offers a way of gauging the impact of Twitter users. Doing analysis of this blog’s “social science” list on twitter, potentially different “impact” patterns could be proposed. Niall Ferguson has almost 20000 followers, but follows no one, and of his last 200 tweets not one was a reply. Ferguson has had 285 retweets however, compared to Mark Carrigan’s retweet total of 617. If we see the publishing process as both multi-stage and dialogical then impact inevitably starts to seem less a matter of broadcasting reach and more a matter of productive engagement.

The tools utilised in the ‘continual publishing’ process all provide easily accessible quantitative metrics of the sort which could, were they to become more recognised, easily permit their recognition and legitimisation by institutions. Open working as a form of continual publishing maximises impact by increasing one’s ‘academic footprint’ across the full range of potential platforms. It also helps overcome the problems of intellectual over-production we talked about in part 1 in terms of both expanding our conception of what ‘publication’ entails and broadening the range of platforms we utilise in these activities. It offers, analogously to the open-source movement, a collaborative and non-hierarchical alternative to existing models of intellectual production which may, potentially, lead to better outputs and a more rewarding working life.

Concepts that I want to try and unpack/expand in the future:

  1. Value pluralism when considering the point of an academic career (in general) and publishing (in particular)
  2. Why we publish & how to better match infrastructure to practice to motivation – I had a plan for a panel on this for BSA conference 2012 but it got superseded by my C Wright Mills fan boy event.
  3. How available modes of production/dissemination have been sedimented in notions of academic value & legitimacy
  4. The changing cultural environment for public engagement & intellectual work
  5. Academic footprint & intellectual profiling when pluralistic publishing gets taken seriously
  6. Continuous publishing & how open-source methodologies could be adapted to academic research & publication

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