I have written before about communication and validation in your publishing decisions, and encouraged you to prioritize communication in your decision making process.
In this post, I want to extend that argument using a recently published scholarly report as a jumping off point. (you can go read it and come back.)
Fyfe, A., et al. (2017), Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research. (It’s open access so you can just download it. No money. No library log in.)
“Academic publishing is not simply an industry adapting to technological innovation. It is a system that underpins claims to new scholarly knowledge, and it is a major influence on the professional standing of the 200,000 academic researchers working in UK universities and their peers worldwide (HESA, 2016). Academic publishing is central to systems for recognising prestige, and is widely used as a form of symbolic capital by the scholarly community and its institutions (Blackmore, 2016; Blackmore & Kandiko, 2011). Thus, for any widespread adoption of new academic publishing practices to occur, they must not only be technically and financially possible: they must also be attuned to the wider academic work culture. At present, most attention has focused on trying to find financial models that will enable new technical possibilities; too little attention has yet been paid to the changes that will be needed in the institutional and disciplinary cultures of academic researchers” (Fyfe et al, pp. 4)
The report provides a good summary of the history of academia in the UK and how publishing has fit into that history. The main points in that history are a move from gentlemanly (and thus gendered, raced, and classed) pursuits, through the formation of academic societies (a form of gentleman’s club where knowledge was shared), to the professionalization of scholarship in universities, and the impact of post WWII expansion (in several waves) of universities.
A key moment comes in the 19th century with the foundation of new universities and civic colleges.
“The widespread concept of a university as a community of scholars, in which both students and staff engaged in critical enquiry, meant that professors were expected to engage in both teaching and research. These professors participated in the voluntary scholarly cultures of the learned societies and periodicals, but also owed loyalty to the institutions that employed them. Academic identity and culture were forged from the adaptation of disciplinary scholarly cultures to the context of professional employment in the universities.” (Fyfe et al, pp. 5)
The expansion of universities exacerbates the tensions between these 2 forms of scholarly institution (the university and the learned society). The scene becomes too large to sustain certain less formal modes of association and evaluation. Publications become a more formal way of assessing scholarly work. At the same time, the entry of commercial publishers into the scene introduces a tension between the scholarly value of openness and the necessity of barriers to access to knowledge to create commercial value. As professionalization, with it’s attendant formalization of criteria of evaluation, promises to open up scholarship beyond gentlemen’s networks, commercial interests create another form of exclusivity.
The authors are particularly interested in the role of commercial publishers at various points in this history. My primary disappointment with this paper is that is downplays the political shifts that happen over the same period, which are only visible by the traces they leave in higher education policy. The combination of the emphasis on the role of commercial publishers and the downplaying of politics has the effect of treating some of the changes as inevitable or primarily economically driven. Nevertheless, the trends and their impacts on academic culture are clear.
A combination of an increased role for publication in scholarly activity, the involvement of commercial publishers in academic publishing, expansion of the university sector, and political shifts that both valued the private sector and reduced public sector funding for universities has created the current climate. Some of the values of the scholarly associations remain visible in the importance of peer review, citation practices, and so on. But the value of openness and the ideas of the university as a community of scholars and of knowledge as a collective endeavour are sorely tested by the bureaucratic regimes for evaluating institutions and scholarly activity on the one hand, and the commercial interests of publishers on the other.
The recommendations at the end of the report are excellent and you, as an individual scholar, may be in a position to work towards adopting them as both an individual, as a member of a scholarly association, and in leadership roles within your institution or your association. I will focus here on what all this might mean for you as a scholarly writer submitting your work for publication.
What does all this mean for your own writing and publishing practice?
As the authors of the report state:
“Clearly academics are not the only stakeholders here and do not bear sole responsibility for change. The wider system of incentives in which they participate is also influenced by governments, funders, universities, learned societies and publishers. We acknowledge the challenges faced by university presses and by learned or disciplinary societies that are also publishers.” (Fyfe et al, pp. 18)
However, knowing the history summarized in this report is helpful as you make personal decisions and engage with the various validation processes. As I argue in more detail in another post, your primary purpose when publishing is communication. Begin with identifying your audience and creating a lot of options for reaching that specific audience. Then make choices amongst the various options based on criteria important for validation.
Prestige can be important for communication as well as validation. It does play a role in whether something gets on (much less to the top of) someone’s “to read” list. However, being aware of the commercial capture of evaluation metrics like impact factors and citation counts, and taking into account the ways in which marketing affects those metrics, you can stop relying on some mysterious process to magically lead your potential readers to your work. The ease with which potential readers can find out about the existence of your work may not correlate with the ease with which they can access it. This affects both your choice of venue and the terms of the publishing agreement. (See Fyfe et al recommendation to grant a licence rather than transfer copyright.)
The process by which readers “discover” your work does not have to be mysterious. Your formal publications are but one piece of a process of scholarly communication. Thinking of the place of this publication in that process enables you to build on connections made in other stages of the process to ensure that your intended audience is aware of the existence of your publications. You can also devote time and effort to considering the search terms readers might use to find articles and books relevant to their work and ensure that your title, abstract, and keywords are aligned.
This will not be easy.
The university is not an ivory tower separate from society. It exists in a political culture still dominated by neoliberalism, with the prioritization of commercial values and the private sector, the attempt to minimize public sector spending, and the attendant accountability processes. Individualism is also powerful (more so in some countries than others, and in some research areas than others) and is embedded in practices of authorial attribution and acknowledgement. The tension between your membership of a scholarly community defined by discipline and your employment (or desire for employment) in a university as an institution will have real effects on your choices.
Reflect on your own practices and examine the values embedded in them and their alignment with your own scholarly values. (The points Sara Ahmed makes, here and elsewhere, are relevant here. In addition to considering gender, race, etc, it is also important how we reproduce the prestige of certain difficult to access publications through our citation practices.)
- How might you adjust your reading practices, as the audience for other scholars’ work?
- How might you adjust your practice of developing reading lists for undergraduate and post-graduate courses?
- How might you adjust the advice you give to students (at all levels) and colleagues to align better with your values?
- What do you do to make others aware of interesting scholarly work in your field?
- How could you adjust your citation practice?
- How does this affect your response to requests to be a peer reviewer?
You will have to compromise. But there is a difference between a compromise made, having examined your values and the options available, and throwing up your hands and just doing things “the way they are done”.
Change takes time. All options carry risks. Your fears may well be founded.
Post updated to add reference to Short Guides, 8 October 2019. Edited and added to the Spotlight on Peer Review, October 2022. Updated to add new Publishing Bundle.