Tuesday 20 September 2016

Status Scarcity and Academic Publishing

Update: 25/9/16: A more complete version of this post is here: https://www.academia.edu/s/b6902593d0/the-status-of-scientific-publication-in-the-information-age?source=link

A published academic paper is a kind of declaration: the board of such-and-such a journal agrees that the ideas expressed in the paper are a worthy contribution to its discussions. It is, in effect, a license to make a small change to the world. Alongside the license comes other prestige indicators which carry real value for individuals: in today's academia, publications help to secure the position of academics in universities (without them, they can lose their jobs). Beyond publication itself, citations serve as further 'evidence' of approval of a community. Fame and status as a "thought leader" comes from many citations, which in turn brings invitations to keynotes at conferences, impact of ideas, secondary studies of an author's ideas, and so on. Fundamentally, there is a demarcation between the star individual and the crowd. Publication counts because it is scarce: approval for publication is a declaration of scarcity.

Publication in some journals is more scarce than in others. The less the probability that a paper might be accepted for publication in a journal, the greater the status associated with that journal.  High ranking journals attract more citations because they are seen to be more authoritative. Journals acquire status by virtue of their editorial processes and the communities they represent. The scarcity declarations made to an author reflect and serve to enhance the journal's status.

With scarcity comes economics. Access to published work in high ranking journals has a value greater than work published in less highly ranked journals, or work published for free. Since academic job security is dependent on acceptance by the academy, and since the means of gaining acceptance is to engage with the scholarship in high-ranking journals, publishers can demand a high price for access to published work. This is passed on to students in Universities, and access to intellectual debate is concentrated within Universities whose own status is enhanced by their position as a gateway to high ranking scholarship.

Moreover, Universities employ academics, who they expect to be publishing in high-ranking journals. The status of individual academics is enhanced through publication in high-ranking journals, and the status of journals in enhanced by their maintenance of scarcity of publication, the University declares scarcity in the access both to well-published academics and to high-ranking journals. Successful publication increases job security because it reinforces the scarcity declaration by the institution.

A third layer has recently emerged which reinforces the whole thing. The measurement of status through league tables of universities and indirectly, journals has introduced an industry of academic credit-worthiness into which institutions are increasingly being coerced to submit themselves. To not be listed in league tables is akin to not being published in high ranking journals.

In the end, students and governments pay for it all. The money is split between the Universities and the publishers.

The problems inherent in this model can be broken down into a series of 'scarcity declarations':

  • The declaration of scarcity of publication in journals for authors
  • The declaration of scarcity of access to journals by institutions
  • The declaration of scarcity of status of institutions through league tables
  • The declaration of scarcity of intellectual work within the universities

How has this situation evolved over history? How has technology changed it?

Before the Royal Society published its transactions (generally considered to be the first academic journal), publication was not considered something that scientists ought to do. The publications of scientific discoveries was frequently cryptic: an assertion of priority of the individual, without giving anything away in terms of specific details of the discovery which might then be 'stolen' by other scholars. So Galileo's famous anagrams were a way of making a declaration that "Galileo has made a discovery" without necessarily saying what it was.

The possession of knowledge was the key to enhancing status in the medieval world - so scientists became 'hoarders' of knowledge. It is perhaps rather like some university teachers today who might be unwilling to have their lectures videoed: that if their performance in class was captured in a way that could be infinitely replayed and reused, their jobs would be threatened because they would no longer be required to lecture. Equally, many academics today are resistant to blogging because they don't want to 'give their ideas away'. The medieval scholar was much like this.

In an age of printing, knowledge hoarding became increasingly difficult to defend. To enhance one's own status within an institution increasingly necessitated reaching out to a larger readership in other institutions. Publication practice gradually took on the form that we now know it. One of the best examples is the Royal Society's publication of its history (two years after its foundation!). This received considerable and well-documented bureaucratic processes and editorial control: the 'history' was a declaration of the institution's status itself, and it sought to preserve its own distinctness.

The  contrast between the Royal Society's practices of peer review was a change not only in scientific practice and epistemology, but also in the democratisation of intellectual status acquisition. Publication and admittance to the academy was technically available to all. The status of observation and experiment supported the democratic movement. The noteworthiness of the experiment and its results were more important than the status of the individual. Science was the gateway to truth - the uncovering of certainties in nature. We tend to see this epistemological shift occuring alongside the shift in communicative practice. But fundamentally the technologies of communication and the scientific epistemology were probably interconnected - the technology brought about new epistemologies.

This is an interesting perspective when we come to the internet. If we live in what some call an 'information society' is it a surprise that information frames a new scientific epistemology? The contrast between our information world and the world of the Royal Society is the certainty that was assumed to lie behind scientific discovery. Uncertainty rather than certainty is the hallmark of modern science - whether it is the probabilistic modelling of economics or patterns in DNA, the analysis of big data, the investigation of quantum fields or the study of ecologies. And information itself is, at least from a mathematical perspective, a measure of uncertainty. So we move from the certainty of the Royal Society and the democratisation of the academic publication, to the uncertainty of information science and yet we retain the publication model of the 17th century.

This publication model is in trouble. Journals struggle to get reviewers, publishers have become over-powerful, education is increasingly unaffordable. Meanwhile Universities have adopted practices which have reduced their running costs, employing cheap adjunct lecturers who can barely afford to eat, whilst increasing their revenues. Consequently the ecology of scholarship is increasingly under threat. It is curious that in a world where knowledge is abundant, universities have maintained their scarcity (evidenced by rapidly rising fees), and publishers - whilst coming under attack for their practices - largely operate with the same models that they did in the 18th century. These are all signs of education in crisis.

There have been attempts to address this crisis. In the early 2000s, the realisation of the technological abundance of knowledge suggested that it might be possible to bypass the institution altogether. Guerrilla tactics to open up closed journals have appeared, with Sci-Hub being the most famous example. New models of peer-review have been introduced, and new models of open access publishing. But as one part of the status problem is addressed, so a different aspect on the same problem opens up: open-access publishing is often little more than the opportunity for an author to buy increased chances of citation.

But the journal paper itself seems outdated. Video appears to be a much more compelling case for advancing intellectual arguments and engaging with an audience. Why do we not present our ideas in video? On YouTube it is artists rather than academics who have harnassed the power of video for coordinating understanding. An uncertain world requires not the presentation of definite results and proof, but rather the determination and coordination of the constraints of understanding. In an uncertain world, knowledge and teaching come together. Then there are other means of coordinating understanding through online activities.

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