The death of community and consensus

18 September 2009

In a series of recent posts, I have explored the issue of self-publishing from many different angles. To recap these posts have been:

A wider issue

There is, however, a wider issue with self-publishing that troubled me as I began sketching out the series – its impact on the wider scholarly community and the often-unstated consensus that gives coherence to this community. Unfortunately, while this issue troubled me, its shape was – and still remains – unclear. Hence, what I write today may be reworked at a later stage.

Broad communities

Among the reasons why you might consider self-publishing your scholarly output are:

  • This is where the future is (the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship)
  • Altruism (the free exchange of information/research)

Certainly, these ideas and ideals are common among people engaged in such collaborative endeavours as Wikipedia, in the Creative Commons movement, and in open-source publishing more generally. These are indeed broad communities given coherence and energy by their mission.

So what’s my problem?

My problem is that these interest groups have many scholars among their members but they are neither scholarly groups per se, nor are scholarly concerns as such a central concern for them. Moreover, they may function as communities but they are not and do not represent the interests of the wider scholarly community in its entirety.

Elements of the scholarly community

Of course, I run the risk here of invoking an ideal – the scholarly community – that is not grounded very much in reality. That said, despite its fragmentation into fields, factions and fashions, I think that we can discern the outlines of a scholarly community found around the world (areas of it global, others firmly anchored in a local setting). In part, this is defined by:

  • The pursuit of knowledge
  • A spirit of questioning and exploration
  • Scientific inquiry framed by an intellectual discourse and grounded in the application of commonly accepted methodologies
  • (In most cases) collection, analysis and presentation of evidence that is observable, empirical and measurable (sometimes derived from experimentation)
  • Information exchange and debate
  • Scrutiny and validation by one’s peers
  • Advancement on the basis of merit
  • Collegial responsibility

The last two points are of course debatable. No doubt some people would add a few other defining characteristics as well: greed, envy, in-fighting, etc.

Where self-publication doesn’t measure up

But, if the above features are reasonably correct, where is the difficulty in placing self-publication firmly within this community?

Scholarly endeavour is not rewarded equally so let’s not get too starry-eyed here. Nonetheless, I guess that in one way or another my misgivings all relate to (lack of) scrutiny and validation by one’s peers and what this implies. A few points:

  • Some presses are less rigorous than others in enforcing scholarly standards but there is a general consensus among them on what the standards are. Realistically, can these standards be provided by the ‘wisdom of crowds’ instead?
  • If no common standards are applied to measure all scholarly output, can there be any coherence to the body of knowledge or confidence in its veracity?
  • Peer review has its faults but replacing it with a ranking system derived from social networking would have quality losing out to popularity as the main determinant of worth.
  • Peer review is a semi-altruistic activity; although a notional payment may be received, it is an important way for scholars to contribute to their field and thus build a ‘community of excellence’. Replacing it with social ranking would likely be divisive and encourage scholarship based more on activism than on the pursuit of knowledge.

In addition, there is the issue of value to consider. Publishers exist in part because they offer quality in return for payment (sales finance the editorial input). However, a tenet of open-source publishing (home of many self-publishers) is that information should be free. While there can be debate about the correlation between the price charged for a publication and its intrinsic scholarly value, it is undeniable that not charging for a work makes it far less likely that there will be any (impartial) editorial scrutiny of it beforehand.

As such, in my mind self-published works have a place in the scholarly world but not an important one. Certainly, they may be good for specific individual scholars but as a phenomenon they do not meet our collective needs; they do not measure up.

Peer review and academic credibility – barriers to self-publishing

31 August 2009

The fly in the ointment

For aspiring novelists, self-publishing is a smart new way to get the attention of agents and ultimately publishers – it’s a great calling card. In reality, then, quite often a self-published novel is not the end product of literary effort but rather a means to achieving the ‘real’ end, which is to be accepted by a publisher.

The situation is different for scholars. Generally speaking, if the publication route chosen is self-publication, then this is the end destination, the final act.

Given that there are lots of good reasons to self-publish and the prospects for conventional publishing don’t look too good anyway, why aren’t academic authors in their droves rushing off and self-publishing their work? Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment: academic credibility. How to guarantee the quality of this published scholarship and hence receive the stamp of quality and approval that a scholarly press or journal confers on its books/articles?

In my next post, I shall look at self-publication as a riposte to rejection by a publisher. But first I wish to explore the mechanism most likely to lead to such a rejection – peer review – and understand the effect it has as a measure of academic credibility and what this means for the self-publisher.

A lousy system, but …

Peer review is the process by which a book publisher or journal subjects a scholarly work intended for publication to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field. The process has a value in itself but what is crucial is that a kind of certification of quality is conferred.

Despite persistent criticism of peer review for being elitist, prone to bias, overly slow, etc., and calls for new forms of ‘soft’ peer review, to date the system holds sway in the academic world. What Churchill said about democracy applies equally to peer review: it is a lousy system, but to date all the alternatives have been even worse.

(Peer review is much more than this and the issues are much wider – as can be seen in a separate post –  but this is all that we need concern ourselves with here.)

A problem for the self-publisher

But if peer review is the only show in town, where does this leave the self-publisher? With a problem. Because the effect of peer review is to put a stamp of quality and approval on a work, the result is that publications not peer reviewed are usually seen as being of inferior quality (and even regarded with suspicion) by scholars and professionals in their field. Moreover, such works are more likely to be excluded/disregarded when:

  • The author’s publications list is assessed;
  • Selection boards and tenure committees make their hiring decisions;
  • Research councils and other funding bodies decide on funding applications;
  • Assessors carry out the research evaluations on which institutional funding is often based; and
  • Citation indexes decide on which works to include.

Does this matter?

Does this discrimination matter? Only if such exclusion/disregard is of little importance to you should you consider self-publishing. That in turn depends on what your aim is in self-publishing the work and what your measures of its success are (the subject of a later post).

Meantime, let us move on to consider rejection – normally a result of the peer review and a common reason prompting authors to choose the self-publication route – and why this should be thought through carefully when self-publishing.