Are journals hindering creative academic writing & engagement with research?

tl;dr (for those who find blog posts on academic publishing too long)
The focus on
open access publishing’ and ‘better academic writing’ may be overrated when it comes to fostering creative writing, public engagement with research or finding cures to eradicate poverty because the commodity of academic journal articles has limited value outside a relatively narrow circle of academic insiders.
In addition to advocating for more open access publishing we should think outside the box of a particular written genre to ensure that the goals we envision to achieve are truly met in today’s digital world.
And sometimes not publishing another article at all can be the part of the solution, too...

A familiar presentation of journal article writing rituals and standards
For quite some time now, there has been a debate in the academic sphere about the future of academic journal article publications that more or less focuses on questions around access, namely on publishing these articles under various ‘open access’ options. Aaron Swartz was maybe the most prominent activist in this area (see my development-related post Rituals, risk, development & Aaron Swartz – in response to Owen Barder), but there is also an interesting debate at the Guardian about the (im)moral dimension of open access publishing which I found quite interesting. Although mostly ‘STEM-’ or natural science-focussed, anthropology has recently stepped into the arena and has started to debate the subject vividly. The debates are complicated and this is not a post to review the arguments.
More recently, another debate emerged that at first sight seems only marginally related to journal publishing: Why is Academic Writing So Bad and how can academics enhance their skills?

What I find fascinating, though, is that the debates seem to be focussing on which way is the best to publish articles and not if academic articles are the best, future-proofed way of engaging with ‘the public’, contribute to the advancement of science, enjoy the process of creative and ‘good’ writing or fulfil many of the aspirations that open access publishing seems to be promising.
My main argument is that as long as we think within the genre box of ‘academic journal article’, questions of ‘access’ or ‘quality’ may actually be far less important and may even take up valuable discussion space that could be used for broader debates around publishing in the academy and supplementing reputation-building with alternative forms of writing.

Academics tend to overstate the impact of their academic writing
There may be a belief by some ‘members of the public’ or ‘taxpayers’ that academic journal articles are pretty much the Holy Grail when it comes to academic impact and publication. In today
s highly specialised, fragmented and professionalised academic industry journal articles are the leading commodity in career and reputation building, but with the exception of a few medical and technical journals they often present new, interesting, thought-provoking findings that are only relevant to a small community of colleagues. I like writing, reading, reviewing them, but I am also aware that these processes take place within the parameters of any genre of writing.
In short, even if every journal would be available online, for free and openly accessible, many, many articles will still go unnoticed.

Academic articles are a literary genre with substantial limitations to style and content
Open or not, academic articles are only one way of writing, publishing and engaging with stakeholders, partners, policy-makers and members of the public. They follow a certain structure, they have undergone many rounds of feedback, revisions and rewriting which make them ‘academic’, but in many cases almost unreadable or at least uninteresting for a broader readership. Most journals also have strict guidelines on length, citation styles and other technical details and they are usually published in a visually less-than-appealing environment of a publisher’s very technical website. Again, I do not want to dismiss their value, but I want to caution enthusiasts who think that open access publishing will solve ‘all’ our problems. In many instances, articles seem to end up as a data entry into a searchable database-very important to find relevant material, but almost the opposite of an encouraging environment to write outside the box when keywords and abstracts matter a lot. Other than books, academic articles are pretty much the only legitimate way of publishing in academia and if we really care about ‘impact’, ‘public engagement’ or ‘making research accessible’ maybe we should spent less time on this particular genre at all – whether behind a paywall or openly accessible. I would respond to the question ‘should I submit my paper to an open access or journal or not?’ with ‘Why do you have a paper in the first place?’.
I realize that the US National Science Foundation has now extended submissable products in their grant applications to things other than printed academic work, but for social scientists this is potentially more difficult.

Academic articles have become part of the publisher’s ‘value-chain’ where in some instances the author no longer even receives a complimentary physical copy of the journal issue the article was published in
How important is open access publishing of academic articles for the future of higher education?
Another point I find is that I sometimes feel that the debates around ‘open access publishing’ mask some more important questions about research, universities and higher education funding.
Is it really the paywall of an academic journal that prevents, say, scholars from the global South to contribute to research? Would development really improve if every aidworker had access to the latest academic journals for free? And would academic library budgets been adjusted to the money they would save on expensive journal subscription packages?
Once you go beyond access you will find many issues from underfunding of tertiary education to linguistic or cultural issues or complicated research grant applications that may be more difficult to address. And maybe the focus on for-profit-publishers is too convenient when we should be asking questions about for-profit-universities, for-profit-governments and other for-profit entities that benefit from research and publishing?
Let me be clear: Open access is the preferable, hopefully soon to be default standard, but it may be a smaller battleground in the future than we anticipate.

Look, mum, I paid for a poster that celebrates the publication of my article I published for free in an expensive journal! 
Do paywalls create stronger and ‘better’ (informal) academic networks?
Yes, this is a provocative headline. But bear with me for another short paragraph...I know the ideals of open access publishing, the sharing, commenting, citing, connecting, curating, remixing and building towards better research. But this sounds very similar to what idealists thought about ‘the Internet’ before the arrival of trolls, obnoxious newspaper commentators, conspiracy theorists, lobbyists and big multinational companies. I am blogging so I do want to engage with the wider world, but I am more skeptical when it comes to academic articles in particular. You can share them already today, informally, within a grey area, often legally and other times illegally (which I never do and never encourage).

In short, those who are interested in your work, those who are part of your networks and those who want to include your name in a big, fat research grant application will be able to access your work. Open access would make it easier and potentially would expand your networks beyond the ‘filter bubble’, but how realistic is that really? Like finding a job through LinkedIn or finding a long-lost relative through facebook it happens, but for many people in many areas it is likely to remain an illusion. I do not want a happy petting zoo of academic articles behind paywalls, but every digital innovation has brought a lot of ‘noise’, too, and given that most academics are already working long hours I am just wondering aloud whether an email from someone who requests a copy of your article could be more ‘valuable’ than 50 ‘random’ people downloading it from an open access site. This is definitely a more complicated debate.

Not publishing more academic articles could be a moral stance, too
Every discipline has seen a vast increase in publications. New journals, new formats, more articles, more books,...and all of them for the advancement of science and society. It is interesting how we in the academic industry have internalised this discourse and yes, publishing has always been an essential part of academia since the days of Humboldt and probably even earlier. But the current debate about access is also addressing some traditions, customs and ‘ways we have always been doing these things’.

‘This is a system generated email ! Please do not reply to this message’.
You worked on the article for 10 months and all you get is an automated message from a database
My final thought is therefore that the discussion could go beyond how we publish to why we publish – and why we need to publish more of a particular genre. Not everything needs to be short or blog-able. Not every researcher can and should write op-eds for newssites. And different institutions will always have different demands when it comes to assessing careers, reputation and public engagement.
I just find that many commentators tend to overestimate the impact of freeing academic articles as a timely way to share ideas or engage with non-academic audiences. It would be great for many reasons, but maybe we also need to think outside the ‘academic article’ box more radically.


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