Pushing the boundaries of academic publishing


As a recent PhD grad, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to publish as an academic.  I know I’m supposed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, the gold standard for academics. There’s often a silent attitude that writing for other mediums is a waste of time. Even books are considered second tier in many fields, especially for young scholars. For those who don’t work in academics, peer-reviewed journals require all submissions to go through a blind review process in which experts in the field anonymously critique the research ideas, methods, claims and the importance of the work. Only the highest quality research, making the most contributions to the field, should be accepted and published in the journals, although, arguably that isn’t always the case (e.g. due to political forces or inattentive reviewers). While journals typically contain the best research, the downside is that they’re inaccessible and expensive.

Publishing in peer-reviewed journals is incredibly important and can determine an academic’s future. Employment and tenure can be determined by the number of published peer-reviewed journal articles, and the quality and prestige of the journals they’re published in.

But we (academics) have a responsibility to do more than publish in peer-reviewed journals. That means writing in more accessible spaces and using accessible language for practitioners, designers and researchers alike. It means sharing our process, challenges, and lessons learned, rather than just finished results. The hope is that more people can learn from our work and build on it in interesting and meaningful ways.

Academic publishing is still really important, but we need to push the boundaries of what it means to publish as an academic. The peer review process and blind review have their merits, but could we benefit more from seeking open conversations about our work and crowd-sourced reviews?

There are a lot of unknowns about the future of academic publishing; however, changes are slowly on their way (e.g. Open access). Whatever the future brings, we need open dialogue about the research we’re conducting.

What do I mean by open dialogue? I’m referring to making research visible and accessible by sharing ideas and work-in-progress and inviting others to provide feedback and new perspectives. Not only do we need to make research visible and accessible, but also the conversations, feedback, and critiques relating to the work.

There are lots of options for creating open dialogue: blogs, commenting spaces, and of course Working Examples. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what the medium is as long as the space can serve as a hub for vetting ideas and crowd sourcing reviews.

In case you need some more convincing that open dialogue is really important, check out Henry Jenkins post from 2008 about why academics should blog. Jenkin’s post is blog-specific, but the rationale can apply to having an open dialogue in general.

It can help us reach a broader audience, including non-academic experts, the media, teachers, and other people our work is trying to reach. It’s not just an avenue for sharing information, but sharing it in a way that more people can resonate with. It’s a flexible space where we can express passion, feeling, and sense of discovery much easier than in academic publications. We can draw readers in with images, videos, and other media we can easily create and share.

It can help build our reputations as researchers and young scholars can build their reputation earlier in their careers. I imagine someone would have to do something really wacky or unethical for it to hurt their reputation.

It can make us proactive, rather than reactive to the media and other’s work in the field. This form of “just-in-time scholarship” means our ideas are heard in the moment rather than several months or years down the road, as is the case with publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

Additionally, it’s an invitation for feedback. It’s a great way to access new perspectives and work through challenges during a project rather than afterwards.

PhD student Megan Farnel is one scholar using a blog to vet ideas (and possibly crowd source reviews down the road). Recently, she began blogging about her dissertation, including notes to her committee and all the nitty-gritty details that go into developing a research study. Likely this will help her to document and make sense of a very complicated process and study, get feedback, and build credibility in the field. But, it’s also valuable for the rest of us. We can learn from her experiences, build on her ideas, and, of course, share them with her and the community.

Maybe writing blog posts and sharing Examples about our work won’t help us get jobs or tenure now, but I suspect soon it will – especially in departments that are forward-thinking and eager for change. Most important, open dialogue can give us something that a faculty job and tenure might not be able to provide: satisfaction that we’re doing everything we can to disseminate our work and make an impact.

A version of this post was originally published on WorkingExamples.org.

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