Dave Beer makes some interesting points in this short article which frames current debates about open access in terms of trends within music culture, which have been driven by broadly similar structural processes and have been playing themselves out for much longer. Some people argue that rendering academic publishing more ‘open’ could prove hugely problematic, as unrestricted access to the means of ‘making public’ could lead to an even more confusing mass of literature than exists at present:

 Kirby points out that the ‘footprint’ of academic publishing has grown ‘exponentially’ since the 1960s. His point appears to be that even in the current system we are already faced with an unwieldy mass of journals and journal articles. This, as the statistics indicate, already represents an unfathomable amount of published resource. Anecdotally we can probably reflect here on how hard it is to keep up with the articles published in our own specialist areas let alone across entire disciplines and cognate disciplines. The point, it would seem, is that this situation could very well get even worse if we adopt an unlimited open model of publishing. The implicit observation is that academic publishers limit and classify the output of academics and thus filter and order the content. Kirby’s suggestion is that with open access we will be opening the floodgates whilst also losing some of these ordering mechanisms. As such we might well end up, Kirby (2012, p. 259) claims, with even more material and with ‘no obvious means to make any sense of it’.

There’s a certain plausibility to this argument though I think it, as well as Dave’s response, ignores the significance of network filtering (as happens through social media) and correspondingly overestimates the significance of bureaucratic filtering (as happens through publishing corporations). Journals are becoming less important to discovery and perhaps less important as cyphers of quality, at least in terms of the reading decisions individuals make (clearly this is untrue in terms of institutional use of prestige as a cypher for quality and associated decisions about the distribution of scarce resources). Nonetheless, it’s unrealistic to imagine that a socially networked academia could, as an unintended emergent effect of sustained online communication, “limit and classify the output of academics and thus filter and order the content”. Which is why the mechanisms being deployed within the music industry to filter content and aid discoverability are potentially so relevant:

Against this backdrop of cultural cacophony, music cultures have found ways to organise content so that it might find an audience. The broadcast model, despite the recent changes, remains relatively powerful in music. And so we still have large organisations shaping consumption at the top end of the market through TV shows like The X Factor. Amongst the chaos in music we also have systems that enable people to locate new music that they might like to listen to. Here predictive analytics are increasingly beginning to rule. Music fans are often told what music they are likely to want to listen to by machines. Software applications built in to iTunes, Last.fm and the like are predictive of tastes. These predictive systems provide a means for managing the chaos as the music automatically ‘finds’ its audience. This is an era in which, as Scott Lash (2006) has put it, the data ‘find us’. The practices of tagging music with metadata and the accumulation of personal profiles combine to enable this form of ‘knowing capitalism’ (Thrift, 2005) to operate. If this were to happen in academic research then one of the solutions to the intellectual din of open access might be apps that enable research articles to ‘find’ their desired audiences. This app might well predict what type of thing you might want to read and recommend it to you. An early version of this type of recommendation system, although based just on links with individual articles rather than one’s comprehensive browsing history, is provided by Elsevier’s ScienceDirect platform. It sounds nice and convenient, but as with music we are forced to question the underlying algorithmic infrastructures that will then be so powerful in shaping the formation of knowledge (Beer, 2009Hayles, 2006). These algorithms will shape the knowledge we encounter and will in turn then impact upon our ideas.

I just read an interesting (though slightly depressing!) post from Nick Hopwood giving useful advice to PhDs and ECRs. I’m not quibbling with his advice per se and I genuinely enjoy his blog but I took issue with this paragraph:

I had vague ideas that academics, with a few obvious exceptions, get on in their careers by doing good, solid research, teaching effectively, and making quiet contributions to institutional and disciplinary life. The quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship would ensure that their recognition. If that was ever true (which it may not have been) it certainly isn’t now. You get, and get on in, an academic career by actively (perhaps aggressively at times) peddling your ideas, your effectiveness as a teacher, and your value to the uni or your field. You have to push. This comes from having the vision and courage to apply for grants when you’ll probably get rejected, to aim for top journals, to try out new teaching approaches, and to step up in working groups, push new ideas through committees, take on roles in your disciplinary organisation. But it also comes from capitalising on those achievements when you make them. An academic life is pretty much a constant sales pitch (see below). Here, I mean you’re selling your work to others.

I completely see what he’s getting at. But I’d like to make a (potentially naive) argument against it. His case rests on the suggestion that, in the contemporary academy, people won’t receive recognition through the intrinsic virtue of their scholarship. There’s a certain plausibility about this claim. But does it hold for open scholarship? I suspect not but I don’t wish to suggest that ‘openness’ somehow ameliorates all that is wrong with higher education. However I do think that when the development of ideas becomes, via social media, an open process then Nick’s argument largely ceases to be true. This could be construed cynically: perhaps social media is intrinsically self-promotive? Or more positively: genuine openness in academic life would make it much more likely that people receive recognition in virtue of “the quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship”. Thoughts on this  would be much appreciated, as I’m not entirely sure whether I’m convinced by my own argument. I guess the intuition underlying it is that ‘doing work in the open’ cannot be equated to self-promotion even if, in practice, the former leads to the latter.

This interesting post by Pat Thomson left me speculating on the future of edited books. I co-edited an edited book (see below) early in my PhD, with an existing project inviting me onboard as a fourth editor – largely, I assume, because my knowledge of the  asexuality literature was useful to the project. It was a great experience in many ways. I gained an understanding of the publishing proces and I realised how usefully such projects can broaden your grasp of the literature. So that was great. But on the other hand it also left a chapter which I was immensely proud of stuck in a book (which, as my first, I was also quite proud) with a price tag that might as well have gone hand-in-hand with a coversheet saying that it was intended for institutional libraries and everyone else should get lost.

Ok, so this is a problem, but surely they’re still worthwhile? So I thought as I set off on a second editing project. This time I put together a CfP for an Asexuality Studies anthology. Largely due to rookie mistakes and the intervention of some pretty major upheavals in my personal life during this time the project soon began to collapse into a bit of a mess. I also started to question my choice of publisher and, after consulting a number of people I trusted, settled on another. But the timescales involved at this stage were such that I had to go back and update all the existing contributors and gain permission to repackage the project. Given the real problem I was having with e-mail at the time (now resolved by becoming one of those irritating people who insists on getting to inbox zero everyday) this dragged on and on. While continually cursing the fact I hadn’t recruited a co-editor who was more organised than me (I’m great at time management but bewilderingly inadequate when it comes to the sustained feats of low level organisation necessitated by a process like editing a volume) I attempted to persevere, albeit punctuated by intermittent rounds of guilt ridden procrastination, before finally calling it a day a few months ago and sending profuse apologies to all concerned.

My third experience of editing has been brilliant. I led a team of guest editors for a special asexuality themed issue of psychology and sexuality (some of which is still open access) which came out earlier in the year. Some things went wrong. The aforementioned personal difficulties (a year that was in theory one for wedding planning had become a year for untangling lives instead – it’s the sort of thing which makes it hard to prioritise academic editing…) got in the way a lot, as my general level of self-organisation got way too low to be able to sustain a project of this sort in a manageable way. Thankfully my co-editors were wonderful (though one did understandably get rather frustrated with me at points) and we eventually pulled it together. The end result is a genuinely groundbreaking text and, if you’re interested in sexuality studies, it’s an interesting one as well. Plus we have a proposed extension of it into a book under review at the moment. So in all this was a good experience. Though it’ll probably be a while before I get involved in editing again.

So here are some things I learnt which might be useful to PhDs/ECRs who are doing this stuff for the first time:

  1. Don’t underestimate the amount of work involved. Or rather don’t underestimate the consistency of it. It’s not really that onerous in many ways but it does need little and often to succeed. If you are someone (like me) whose level of self-organisation veers between extremes then this is particularly important to address. As I found out to my cost, procrastinating for a month on an edited collection can make the mess you have to clean up afterwards radically more onerous as a result.
  2. Don’t underestimate the potential benefits attached to it. Assuming this is a topic you’re interested in then you’re likely to massively increase your connections with others working on the topic, as well as getting a broader review of the field as a whole. I have a vague anxiety that 75% of the world’s asexuality researchers think I’m a complete flake after my behaviour during the editing proceses described above. But on the flip side I’m pretty sure I know 75%+ of the people working in one of my fields.
  3. Don’t try and do it on your own! Just don’t. I did it largely because, well, I thought it would look better to have been a sole editor. But it was a disaster. Whereas if I had, so to speak, had a Todd on that project (my very experienced co-editor from the other two projects) then I doubt it would have failed. If anything is a natural focus for collaboration in the contemporary academy, it is edited collections.

So I think editing collections can be a very worthwhile thing to do but it should be approached cautiously for those in the early stages of their careers. I can say with near certainty that I will never agree to edit anything again unless I have a co-editor who I have a prior working relationship with. But what about the broader landscape within which an individual might choose to offer time and energy to a project like this? I still think there’s value in them for many of the reasons Pat describes in her article. After internalising the horrible attitude “book chapters are worthless” I’ve started to relent in recent months. I’m writing a chapter with Milena Kremakova for the Paracademics Handbook and I’m writing a chapter giving an overview of the asexuality studies literature for a psychology handbook later this year.

But the price issue still troubles me. Sure, I can post a pre-print on my academia.edu and on my blog. But that’s still an unsatisfying workaround. Edited books no longer have much credentialising function within the audit culture and their communicative function is hampered by the unit costs resulting from the commercial organisations to whom we are choosing to outsource the publishing. So more than any element of the contemporary landscape of scholarly publishing, it seems that the production of edited collections is a practice ripe for revolutionary change. I’ve written a little about this here but it’s something I want to come back to in future.

This session will explore the profound changes currently taking place within academic publishing and address their implications for researchers. Debates around ‘open access’ have recently entered mainstream debate, with the Guardian talking of an ‘academic spring’ building around the world. However the issues at stake go beyond open access and a focus on the technical details of particular proposals can often obscure the broader questions which the academic community, scholarly publishers and funding bodies are currently attempting to address. By putting currents debates in context, as well as exploring their practical consequences for those either undertaking or seeking an academic career, this talk aims to help move beyond headlines and bring some more clarity to the debate.