A couple of days into the first week of my doctoral studies, I was button-holed in the library by one of my supervisor’s other students so that he could impart a few words of advice. Mainly, as I recall, it was about the best time to visit the UL tearoom for its gargantuan scones (this was what passed for induction and guidance in those far-off days; that, plus the helpful comment of the amazing Jonathan Walters that doing a PhD meant constantly wondering whether or not you actually had glandular fever), but he also made a remark that traumatised me at the time and stuck with me for much of the next couple of years – I was, it has to be admitted, a sensitive little flower. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was words to the effect that I’d need to be careful about how much I said to other people about my research because they might steal my ideas and publish them before I had a chance to. In retrospect this was self-evidently jocular and ridiculous, but I didn’t take it that way, and, notwithstanding the fact that I didn’t actually have any ideas to steal, I took several years to lose the mild paranoia that this instilled in me.
There have been times in the last six months or so when I’ve wondered whether older graduate students still say this sort of thing to newcomers; there have been a few remarks, in various recent discussions about blogs, to the effect that some people feel nervous about joining in because of the fear that their ideas might be stolen. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, the opposite seems to me to be the case: getting something out into the public domain with your name on it seems a lot more secure than raising it in a conference or seminar, where the idea might rapidly become ‘a passing remark that I happened to pick up, can’t remember where’ rather than ‘X’s idea’. Of course there’s the risk that it turns out to be a silly idea (but there’s still a case for getting told that earlier rather than later), or – worse – an unformed idea that someone else picks up and develops much better than you can (but you should still get the credit for having the idea in the first place). It still seems to me that it’s better to get the feedback and get the idea out there with your name attached, as soon as you feel sufficiently confident to stand by it (however provisionally) – or until you achieve the attitude of not caring too much, so long as the idea is vaguely interesting. The reason why this blog has become a lot more active in the last few months goes beyond the dangerous cycle of writing something that gets a bit of attention (mentioning someone more famous, like Tom Holland, seems to help), getting hooked on page view numbers and so feeling bound to write more so as not to lose everyone’s attention again; I find the genre of the blog post – developing a single passing thought into something that others might be interested in thinking about, informally and briefly – more and more satisfying.
Having become more or less comfortable with developing academic activities online, even if I’m still years behind many people (especially in terms of my grasp of the technology), I increasingly feel conflicted by the opposite problem: holding back from putting something online because it’s due to appear in old-fashioned print. This is an especially live issue this week with the death of Aaron Swartz, noted activist for the liberation of data, being hounded at the time of his death by the US authorities for downloading huge numbers of articles from JSTOR (some good tributes, and links to further info, at Crooked Timber, a good discussion of the HE dimension by Timothy Burke in Inside Higher Ed, and see above all Swartz’s own Guerilla Open Access Manifesto). According to that perspective, I should have no hesitation in putting up pdf files of published and to-be-published pieces whenever I like – after all, this was publicly-funded research, so the public should be able to access it, not to mention the clear evidence (albeit not so much of it yet gathered from the humanities) that the more we share ideas and debate them, the better the discussion and the more progress we make.
My main problem is that I still have the mindset of feeling almost pathetically grateful to a journal that it’s accepted my paper, rather than feeling outraged that a publishing conglomerate is getting me to produce exploitable content for them free of charge, so if they tell me I can’t post a piece anywhere else I meekly go along with it. As for chapters in edited volumes, it’s the feeling that I’d be letting down the editors, who are almost always friends and colleagues, by reducing the value of their enterprise. Clearly this is not a very well-thought-through position, and it’s also not a sustainable one; unfortunately it is a fairly typical one for me. After all, my response to the demands of research evaluation and the comments of my superiors that I needed to place more papers in journals and other prestigious places rather than contributing to interesting but low prestige collections was to write more, so that I can submit papers to journals and still participate in collective projects; there is an obvious risk that I’m going to deal with the current problem by writing even more so that I can meet the REF demands, contribute to volumes and have stuff that I can post on the web. Besides missing the point spectacularly, which I readily concede, at some point I’d quite like to find time to dig the vegetable garden…
Realistically, this is another one for the New Year’s Resolutions list: get to grips properly with Open Access debates, and sort out a coherent position. The alternative may be to suffer for a couple of years (at least) from the consequences of a confused and misleading view of the way the world is, exactly as I did as a doctoral student.
Addendum Some further, slightly more practical thoughts. The traditional argument in favour of publishing in a major journal was that this is the best way of getting your ideas out to as many people as possible, as everyone in the discipline will read, say, Journal of Roman Studies but lots of people won’t bother to read smaller journals, and only paranoid graduate students will work through the volumes of L’Annee Philologique to identify every article every written that’s possibly relevant to their thesis – everyone else would happily remain ignorant of much of what was published, on the assumption that if it wasn’t in a major journal it probably wasn’t much good. This is clearly no longer true: it’s so much easier to search for relevant articles (I hope someone is keeping copies of APh so that we can show young students what bibliographical research was like before the internet…), and to get hold of them, however obscure their place of publication. So, the main function of the journal is now the assumed mark of quality I mentioned just now: articles in prestigious journals are assumed to have passed rigorous peer review in order to be accepted, therefore they must be good; articles in less prestigious journals have been through some sort of peer review, even if the threshold for acceptance is lower; open access journals will print any old rubbish so don’t count.
Is this true? At present it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: because of these assumptions, almost everyone will seek to publish in the most prestigious journals and avoid open access ones. That’s great for the journals and their publishers, but is there anything more to it than the choices made by academics? Good peer review can certainly improve an article, but I can’t be the only person whose experience of peer review is at best mixed – plenty of good reports that engage with my argument, plenty that entirely miss the point and/or demand changes that would turn the argument into something completely different. Peer review in the sciences is focused on ensuring that the study conforms to accepted standards of scholarship and scientific practice; peer review in the humanities – partly because of the nature of the material we deal with, but partly because the system allows such opportunities to reviewers – is more focused on the substantive content and the argument, so that an article may be rejected (or a ridiculous quantity of changes demanded) because the reviewer simply doesn’t like the theoretical approach or doesn’t agree with the conclusions, and works back to show how the argument that led to these conclusions must be flawed. Not least because peer reviewers are generally drawn from the established academics, there’s an in-built tendency towards conservatism, perpetuating the subject as it’s currently practiced at the upper levels of the academy rather than being open to radically new approaches; and that’s likely to be accentuated at major journals where publication depends on the consensus of an editorial board, rather than the decision of a single editor.
If peer review does not reliably guarantee quality, and may even work against it on occasion, what does the major journal have to offer? Its name, of course: prestigious publications carry more weight in decisions on appointments, promotions, grant awards, tenure and the like, and in the UK – whatever the protestations of the reviewers that they read everything properly regardless of where it was published – there must be at least a suspicion that it influences the judgement of research quality in the REF. An article in JRS is almost by definition internationally excellent because JRS is read internationally and has the reputation of being difficult to get into; an article in an open access journal, let alone just posted on the internet, can’t be considered excellent in the absence of direct evidence of readership and uncertainty about the peer review process, if any – regardless of the actual quality of the research.
Where does this leave us? The system establishes incentives to conform with existing practice and disincentives to do anything else: even someone in an established position like me faces the risk of letting his colleagues down by failing to publish research that will be judged of high quality by the REF process – if I publish anything elsewhere, it can’t be my best stuff (or at any rate my most conventionally acceptable stuff) – and anyone who’s still trying to get a job, promotion, tenure etc. really can’t risk breaking the rules. For the moment, then, it looks as if we can only work around the margins of the established journals, blogging our ideas in advance and trying to get permission to post copies of articles after they’re published, rather than adopting an entirely different approach.
This feels rather feeble, and I’m not sure it’s an adequate answer to Burke’s claim that academics are complicit in the system through their passivity. But it must constitute a step forward to recognise the real conditions of one’s situation, that this is – for the moment, at least – what one must do in order to survive in the system, individually and collectively, rather than simply accepting such a system as the only possible way of managing things, and feeling beholden to publishers that they’re willing to make money out of my ideas.
[N.B. Before anyone shouts at me: I'm well aware of the distinction between journals of learned societies, that don't necessarily make much money, or at any rate put the profits into the work of the society rather than into shareholers' pockets, and fully commercialised academic journals. But I'm not sure how far I'd want to follow the argument that a system of closed access to research should be defended because in a limited number of cases it supports good work elsewhere.]