Thursday, 17 June 2010

A Publishing Revolution

On Thursday I attended a talk on publishing, mainly intended to give postgrads some information about what to look out for and think about when trying to get their thesis published as a book. However, there were some interesting thoughts about the publishing industry, and how in the 60s and 70s the commercial publishers moved in because they could see profit opportunities there, which are now somewhat on the way out.

Salient points that stuck in my head were the horrendous price hikes on journals (which I already knew about before from attending the library committee meetings) and the smaller print-runs on monographs, which nobody really wants to publish. Also, publishers have somewhat been given a role through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its successor, the ominous REF, which they are not comfortable with: by taking decisions based on economic grounds (which books will sell) they cause academic judgments to be made (this is research with high impact). Not good.

There are several relevant issues at stake, but in this post I'll stick to the two most important ones:

a) Peer review. This is one of my favourite pet hates. Many people believe that peer review is what sets us apart from monkeys sitting at typewriters. Peer review is supposedly essential quality control which stops rubbish from getting published (it doesn't) and somewhat guarantees that what you read is the truth (it doesn't). Instead, peer review stifles innovative ideas, as it is inherently conservative and averse to new (and risky) ideas. One counter argument is the unfettered wilderness of the web, where everybody can publish anything, and oh boy, they do. I just today came across some guy claiming that his god had created dinosaurs, probably on day 6 of creation. But, and that is the point, I can judge for myself whether I accept it or not. Nobody has pre-vetted it for me, and it means I have to think myself. Not a bad thing. Do you like Google filtering your search results? No? Thought so. So why are you happy with some random reviewers filtering what academic publications you can read? Quality control? That's a job for copy editors and the free market.

b) Prestigious journals. Publishing in some journals is worth more than in others. Why? I never quite understood that. It's harder to get into those journals, because everybody wants to publish in them, but I have never not read a paper because it was not published in a particular journal. In fact, the only time I look at where something has been published is when I want to check whether our library has a subscription to it (it usually hasn't). With many people putting their publications on their webpages, this is becoming increasingly irrelevant. I typically look for publications by a specific author, not for stuff published in a particular journal. And the run on a select few journals just means that stuff published there is already years old by the time one gets to read it. And ground-breaking research is often published in fringe journals anyway.

Publishers claim they add value to the academic process of disseminating knowledge through peer review and the production process. Peer review we can do without, so the production process remains. Copy editing, mainly. Making sure that what is written can also be understood. But surely there must be an easier way to do this?

Currently, academics write stuff, give it to publishers (mostly for free, or for very little money), these then package it up and sell it to other academics and libraries, in the case of text books also to students. So universities get a double whammy: they pay their staff to do research and write it up, and then they pay publishers so they get a printed copy of the research to put into their library. Why not by-pass the publishers? PhD theses are usually put into libraries (or now increasingly into electronic repositories) without extensive copy-editing by publishers. They are peer-reviewed in the sense that they have been examined, though they do of course have their own particular conventions of style. But are they unreadable? I think not. Maybe not something to read for leisure, but at least they're free.

There is a problem, though, and that is that academic life is so fixated on publications. For any job or project application, you need to submit a list of publications. And if they are all self-published papers on your private website, then you might as well not apply. Prejudice or what? True, there is no guarantee that the publications are any good, but at least they are openly accessible and everybody can read them and judge for themselves, and they are not hidden behind a paywall that means they are only available to the libraries of the richer universities that can afford them.

It will require a change in culture, and to be honest, I don't believe it is going to happen. There is too much at stake. But one can still dream...

The No-Win Situation

As an academic committed to evaluation and feedback of one's teaching (aren't we all?) we frequently end up in no-win situations. This is when we try out a new innovative approach to teaching (or even an old, tried-and-tested one), solicit feedback from the students, and end up being stumped. Unlike the theoretical ideal, student feedback rarely ends up in a bell-shaped curve, where we have a few very positive, a few very negative, and a whole lot of indifferent plus/minus positive or negative bunch in the middle. Depending on whether the mean of that curve is more on the positive side or the negative one, we can judge the teaching innovation as having been a success or failure.

However, it more commonly seems (purely impressionistic non-scientific anecdotal impression) to end up with the 'Valley of Death', where roughly half the students are in favour of it, and the other half against. One such case was in last year's FREDA module, where I got the students to work in groups, and to write a formative essay as a group. Some students felt this was "not the way we work in English", as if group work was only suitable for those pesky science types, whereas others were initially skeptical, but realised that it was great because you'd get to see how others approach the same task and topic from a completely different direction.

So, what to do? The route of least resistance would be to drop the change, as then the negative comments have been taken into account, and the positives don't matter, as long as they don't state they wouldn't want to go back to the situation before the change. This, however, is deeply unsatisfactory, and my non-pc view is that we as qualified educators know better and that our views, based on sound pedagogy, are actually more worthy than those of the students. This attitude is of course not popular in a culture of constant evaluation and league tables, but then, it's a no-win situation anyway. Maybe I should just retrain as a merchant banker.