Publishing With Integrity (Whilst Still Having Career Options)

At the beginning of this month I attended the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting in Glasgow. One of the papers I presented was in a round-table session run by Judith Winters and Erin Osborne-Martin, CA22, on Re-thinking Archaeological Communications: New Approaches to Publishing. Speakers were asked to follow a ‘lightning’ talk format: 9 minutes, 9 slides. This was then followed by an equal amount of time for questions, discussion (and as it turned out, debate).

I gave a talk entitled Publishing With Integrity (Whilst Still Having Career Options). The aim was simply to present my own thoughts on academic publishing, which is informed by my perspective as a nearly finished – and nearly published – PhD student.

I opted for very simple slides, one illustration and only a few words. You can see these below, along with a few of the points I raised with each one (this blogpost is not a complete summary, since I don’t write my talks it’s been put together from notes and memory).

Slide 1: balancing act

A person stands on a tight rope and on one end of the balancing pole is a heart and the other a brain.

I see academic publishing as a balancing act, between my personal ideals, values, morals – and the desire to have at least the possibility of an academic job prospect when I’m done my PhD. How are you supposed to balance these? I’ve narrowed it down to a few key issues and points that I think are relevant…

Slide 2: existing system

A robot holding an academic paper is saying 'publish or perish'.

Let’s look first at the existing system. Currently, in most cases, (academic) career options require: peer-review publications, in high-ranking (and often international journals), which have a high impact factor. Your articles should have a high number of citations, and of course in the UK they should all contribute to REF. In your applications and interviews, you need to be on par with or exceeding your peers. So why doesn’t this work for me?

Slide 3: open access

A tattered cardboard box says puppies, but it is crossed out and someone has written 'knowledge: free (unlimited supply) to a good home.

Ideally I’d only like to published open access – this is because I believe that everyone should have access to research, including all academics (#icanhazpdf, anyone?). But, given that I’ve already failed at this thank goodness for repositories. What are some of the reasons that I have failed to stick to this commitment already?

  • There aren’t an enormous amount of options out there (especially for archaeology).
    • If you’re especially niche, you can’t publish every article in the same journal. Or can you…?
  • Which brings us on to the problem with ‘prestige’. Unfortunately many open access journals (and the articles published within them) aren’t considered equal to more established journals. All that should matter is that the research is good, and the reviews are rigorous! Grr, argh, etc.
  • £££
    • If you are a partially self-funding PhD student (or any other kind of academic), open access can be expensive. Yes there are sometimes waivers, but more often there aren’t. This is where repositories can be particularly helpful, if you’re prepared to compromise.
  • It’s not uncommon for co-authors to have different opinions on where an article should be published – and if they’re the senior academic or the main author on the paper, then it may come down to their priorities over yours.

I did not discuss the ridiculousness that is the for-profit publication system, but I did flag it up. It’s ridiculous.

Slide 4: time

A skeleton is waiting next to a 'publishing stop' sign that states how long various stages take (e.g. review: 2 months).

OMG. How long does academic publishing take? I mean, I know people told me it could take a long time, but SERIOUSLY? Of the two forthcoming articles I have with journals (at the time of this talk), one has been in the process for six months and the other for four. And compared to the experiences of others, that’s no time at all. But, they’re still. not. published. And for one of them it’s particularly frustrating, since some of the data is genuinely out of date.

So, what are the alternatives? I could just put it on my blog. Lots of people will see it, which is great, it will generate (hopefully) some timely discussion, but then of course – there is no peer-review. Although it is subject to a sort of post-publication peer-review through comments (and there are places like The Winnower that are trialling a more formal procedure).

And sometimes I do just put things on my blog. I do this for a few reasons, the two biggest being that I knowingly self-sacrifice publications because of the timeliness of the topic, but there is an element of imposter syndrome, in thinking that many blogposts are simply things not good enough for a journal article.

Slide 5: accessibility

There is a maze that goes from the start of an article to the point of an article. One person is lost inside and the other is going around the outside.

In addition to the matter of pay-walls, many traditional academic publishing methods are restrictive in both format and language – not only for the public, but also a diverse academic audience. We really like to talk about encouraging diversity as a discipline, but we seriously suck at actually doing anything about it.

We need to write better and take advantage of simple measures that can help, like including a basic summary at the beginning of each article (which is different from an abstract). We also need to consider who we’re writing for (big issue, small mention). Personally, if I’m going to make my articles open access, it’s inefficient to make them impenetrable to individuals outside of my research area. Yes, we need to have rigorous and repeatable research reports, but they don’t have to be restrictive.*

Slide 6: alternative formats

A thumbnail showing a confernece poster done in the style of a comic.

Repeat after me: There are more ways to communicate than just writing.

I gave an example of my ‘comic style’ conference poster. It included all of the necessary academic content, but engaging with academics in ‘more creative’ way also had unexpected impacts.

But how do we peer-review something that isn’t an article? Well, Nick Sousanis just passed his viva for an illustrated PhD and Internet Archaeological recently published a photo essay. It needs open minds: most importantly from journal editors and academic reviewers, not just those of us who want to try something new out with our own research results.

I reckon that alternative formats may be single solution for some research outputs, while for others it will be a combination effort – a traditional article with an alternative format as well.

Slide 7: publishing negatives

There is a black hole that is sucking in a positive paper and a negative paper.

There is a publishing black hole. We need to publish negative results. My PhD is all negative results. They’re still interesting. It’s all in how you interpret them. Also, even if you don’t think they’re interesting, I reeeally don’t want someone else to spend four years of their life attempting to use a method that doesn’t work.

In addition to publishing negative results, we also need to publish our failures so that others can learn from them. In order to do this we need, as writers and readers, to be honest and understanding. I see this as especially important in archaeology, where we often inherent incomplete archives and unpublished projects. We worry that our efforts will be judged inadequate, even though we make the best of what we have available. This isn’t right.

We need to cite data. And this probably needs to be incentivised. People hoard their data. I can understand, but I desperately wish it weren’t the case. We are ultimately all working together to try and achieve the same thing – MOAR KNOWLEDGE; we need to be more efficient and sharing data will help to achieve this. I could have saved months of time in my PhD if I didn’t need to re-enter lots of osteological assemblage data into Excel, that I know already exists on other people’s hard drives. If people can get used to the idea of citing data – and here’s the kicker: that citation counts for something in your career, I imagine people would be more willing to give it a go.

“So, Dr. Awesomeface let’s get to your annual appraisal. I see you’ve not only published one article this year and have another in review, but you’ve also made a really important dataset available to other academics and it’s been utilised in projects at three other institutions. Well done!”

Slide 8: post-phd

A large PhD thesis is beside a tray filled with surgical instruments.

Of course, what I’ve covered today isn’t an exhaustive list. I have oh so many more thoughts (and opinions) on academic publishing [seriously, each slide point could be an entire blogspot (series) on its own]. But, when it comes down to it, all of this is stuff that I have to consider… not even mentioning the 80,000 word thesis that’s going to be read by three people and then immediately dissected by me for papers.

Slide 9: balancing act

The person from the first picture is now balancing nine plates spinning.

So, as I said before, academic publishing… it’s a balancing act.

The session was fantastic and I really enjoyed the questions, discussion, and debate that followed every talk. There were a lot of diverse perspectives in the room – field archaeologists, academic researchers, journal editors, database project managers, and more. As on the day, I am more than happy to expand on anything I’ve written above, so please do share your thoughts.

* maybe we should use more alliteration

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One response to “Publishing With Integrity (Whilst Still Having Career Options)

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #12 | Whewell's Ghost·

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