Wed 21 Dec 2011
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 Social media is nice, but it is not peer-reviewed.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 . . .