Archive for December, 2011

Following on my previous post, another thought that springs from personal experience and its convergence with someone’s research.  If you look at my Google Scholar profile, you will note that in 2011 my citation counts exploded (by social science standards, mind you – in the qualitative social sciences an article with 50 citations or more is pretty huge).  Now, part of this is probably a product of my academic maturation – a number of articles now getting attention have been around for 3-4 years, which is about how long it takes for things to work their way into the literature.  However, I’ve also seen a surge in a few older pieces that had previously plateaued in terms of citations.  This can’t be attributed to a new surge in interest in a particular topic, as these articles cross a range of development issues.  However, they all seem to be surging since I got on Twitter and joined the blogosphere.  Bascially, it seems a new circle (circles?) of interested folks now has access to my work and ideas, and the result is that my work is finding its way into a new set of venues/disciplines that it might otherwise not have reached.  It is hard to be sure about this, as my 18 months on the blog and 1 year on twitter are just at the edges of how long it takes to get an article written, submitted, accepted and published, but clearly something is happening here . . .

This seems to be borne out by some work done by Gunther Eysenbach examining the relationship between tweets (references to a paper on twitter) and the level of citation that paper eventually enjoyed.  Eysenbach found that “highly tweeted” papers tended to become highly cited papers, though the study was quite preliminary (h/t to Martin Fenner at Gobbledygook.  You can find links to Eysenbach’s paper and Martin’s thoughts on it here).  This makes sense to me – but it requires a bit more study.  I like what Fenner and his colleagues are trying to do now, capturing the type of reference made in the tweet (supporting/agreeing, discussing, disagreeing, etc.).  Frankly, references in general should be subject to such scrutiny.  As one of my colleagues once said, if citation counts are all that matter we should write the worst paper ever on a subject, jam it into some journal that did not know better, publicize it and wait for the piles of angry negative citations to pile in . . . only we just have to count the citations, not admit that we are being cited because people hate us!

The altmetrics movement is starting to take off in academia (see, for example, this very cool discussion) I have not yet seen any discussion, though, of what social media might do to journal prestige.  While there will always be flagship journals to which disciplines full of tenure-track faculty will bow, once tenure is achieved this sort of homage becomes less important.  Given what I am seeing with regard to my citations right now, my desire to have my work have impact beyond my discipline and the academy, and my concerns for the policing effect of peer review (which emerges most acutely in flagship journals – see my posts here and here), why should I struggle to get my work into a flagship journal when I can get a quick turnaround and publication in a smaller journal, still have the stamp of peer review on the piece, and then promote it via social media to a crowd more than willing to have a look?  If I (or anyone else) can drive citations through mild self-promotion via social media, does the journal it is published in really matter that much?  I wonder what sort of effect this might have on the structure of publishing now – will flagship journals have to become more nimble and responsive, or will they soldier on without changes?  Will smaller journals sense this opportunity and move into this gap?  Will my colleagues embrace the rising influence of social media on academic practice?

Does any of this matter?  Not really.  If the emerging studies on social media and citation are correct, and my trends are sustainable, then one day I will be one of the “important” folks with a lot of citations . . . and I will be training my students to engage in conventional and non-conventional ways.  I will not be the only one.  Those of us who engage with social media, and train our students to do so, will eventually win this race.  Change is coming to academia, but the nature and importance of that change remain up in the air . . .

Been a while . . . been busy.  And yes, I stole that post title from Ralph Nader . . .

As those who follow this blog know, one of my big concerns is with the walls that academia is building around itself through practices like the current incarnation of peer review in specialist journals. It’s not that I have a problem with peer review at all – I think it is an important tool through which we improve and vet academic work. Anything that survives peer review is by and large more reliable than an unvetted website (like this one, for example).

But the practice of peer review in contemporary academia has turned really problematic. Most respected journals are more expensive than ever, making access to them the near-sole province of academics with access to libraries willing to purchase such journals. The pressure to publish increases all the time, both in rising demands on individual researchers (my requirements for tenure were much tougher than most requirements from a generation before) and in terms of an ever-expanding academic community. The proliferation of published work that has emerged from these two trends has not really improved the quality of information or the pace of advances – there is still a lot of good work out there, but it is harder and harder to find in an ever-growing pile of average and even not-so-good work. And I have found peer review to often function as a means of policing new ideas, slowing the flow of innovative ideas into academia not because the ideas are unsupported, but because these ideas and findings run contrary to previously-accepted ideas upon which many reviewers might have done their work. This byzantine politics of peer review is not well-understood by those outside the academic tent, and does little to improve our public image.

So I am wondering where the tipping point is that might bring about something new. Social media is nice, but it is not peer-reviewed. I tend to think about it as advertizing that points me to useful content, but not as content itself (I have a post on this coming next). I still want peer-review, or something like it. So, a modest proposal: senior colleagues of mine in Geography – yes, those of you who are full professors at the top of the profession, who have nothing to lose from a change in the status quo at this point – who will get together and identify a couple of open-access, very low-cost journals and more or less pronounce them valid (probably in part by blessing them with a few of your own papers to start). Don’t pick the ones that want to charge $1500 in publishing fees – those are absurd. But pick something different . . .

This, I think, is all it would take to start a real movement in my discipline – admittedly, a small discipline, so maybe easier to move. Just making our publications open to all is a tiny first step, but an important one – once a wider community has access to our ideas, they can respond and prompt us for new ones. Collaborations can emerge that should have emerged long ago. Colleagues (and research subjects) in the Global South will be able to read what is written about their environments, economies and homes, improving our responsiveness to those with whom, and hopefully for whom, we work. First steps can be catalytic . . .