This is my third and final post in a (rather impromptu) mini-series on academic journals and their place in the 21st century landscape. You may want to read my previous two posts here and here before reading this one?
To find a new enlightening and inspiring idea (as distinct from finding a recipe for getting safely through the peer-built barricade), browsing through thousands of journal pages is all too often called for. With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that were our Palaeolithic ancestors to discover the peer-review dredger, we would still be sitting in caves… (Zygmunt Bauman)
In my previous posts on academic journals I’ve compared them unfavourably – either explicitly or implicitly – with the kind of informal ‘peer review’ that happens through blogs and social media. Some commenters have assumed that this means that, like Bauman (see above) I’m completely against peer review. I’m not.
Peer review is valuable. In fact, it’s so important we need a (re)new(ed) academic ecosystem to protect it.
I’m all for new systems such as hypothes.is which provides an open, distributed peer review layer for the web. Although I don’t want to go into it in too much depth here, academia is one of the few unreformed areas with outdated power structures and glass ceilings.
As Stephen Thomas pointed out in the comments to my previous post, academic journals have, and still do, play an important role in both establishing precedent and providing a quality filter. This is important (most of the time).
But, as Dan Meyer pointed out in the quotation making up the bulk of my first post in this series, it’s the edifice that’s built upon the academic journal system that’s problematic:
The incentive seems strange to me… I don’t understand this brass ring I’m chasing. (Dan Meyer)
This academic edifice is built upon other perceived ‘advantages’ of academic journals, including:
Dissemination of work
Contact with others inside and outside field
Academics, unfortunately, have ended up inventing a stick with which they can be beaten. In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a crude instrument looking a research outputs. Career progression (and therefore status) depends upon disseminating work in journals that are, all too often, closed and paywalled.
Part of the answer, I agree, comes through academic journals becoming open access. That’s a step in the right direction (even if it does smack a little of Henry Ford’s ‘faster horses‘). Going further, something more like Alan Cann’s experiments around open peer review could work. But, realistically, we need something a bit more radical.
How can we save peer review whilst democratising and reforming higher education?
I leave you with the words of Frances Bell, who commented on my previous post:
What I suspect is that more research needs to be done on how, for example. scholarly societies can support research, scholarship and practice in a digital age. (Frances Bell)
Until the late seventeenth century, communication between scholars depended heavily on personal contact and attending meetings arranged by the early learned societies (e.g. the Royal Society). As the membership of these societies increased, more people could not attend the meetings and so the Proceedings, usually circulated as a record of the last meeting became a place to publish papers that had not been presented at the meetings at all and moved towards what we now recognise as scholarly journals. (Wells, 1999)
So journals are a replacement for personal contact.
Are they good for anything else? Brown (1997) cites the following:
distributed (many copies are stored in many places)
scholars trust and understand the system
journals have prestige built up over many years
portable and easy to read
Which of the above benefits either (a) cannot, or (b) are not currently able to be replicated by another system?
Some would argue that an important difference between (for example) a blog post and a journal article is that the latter has been formally peer reviewed.
However, as even the editor of The Lancet points out:
The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong. (Horton, 2000)
Just how big do the cracks in the ivory tower have to get before the whole edifice tumbles?
Odlyzko (September 1997) points out that there was an “extensive resistance to print by scholars” in Gutenberg’s time which included calls to ban the new technology because only trash was getting into print and books were not as durable as parchment. The reaction to the Web of today’s scholars has largely echoed the reaction of scholars to the printing press in the 15th century. (Well, 1999)
Is the only reason we persist with journals and their articles is because they provide a convenient means to weigh the pig?
Today’s a big day in my life. This afternoon I’m heading to Durham to hand in what I’ve been calling on Twitter the #neverendingthesis. That hashtag, of course, is more-than-slightly disingenuous given that I’m submitting it almost two years early. At first, the #neverendingthesis thing was just a bit of fun. However, as I came closer and closer to submitting it I realised that I was feeling what George Lucas must have been feeling when he said, “A movie is never finished, only abandoned”. Making my thesis available online in a wiki format will allow me to tinker in the months and years to come.
Up to this point, and ever since I started writing it, my thesis has been available at dougbelshaw.com/thesis. That now redirects to neverendingthesis.com where you can download a Word or PDF version of my thesis in the form I will be submitting today. I don’t believe that anyone ‘owns’ ideas and, as such, am waiving all claims to copyright. Just like this blog, my thesis: What is ‘digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation is available under a CC0 license.
I won’t use this space to thank people as I do that in the thesis itself. If you’re interested in the journey I’ve taken over the last four years whilst I’ve been working on my thesis, I’d encourage you to check out the Preface and Appendix 3. Re-reading the Preface in particular made me well up a little last night…
What am I going to do with my spare time now? I’ve been in formal education for 26 years!