January 31, 2012

Ed Carr on Publishing, peer review, and how "only the senior faculty can save us"

Who can save us...from ourselves?  Who can put an end to the current fiasco that is academic publishing?  Since we are all so entrenched in this system, where can we look for a way out?  In a post about some of the issues that academia faces when it comes to the current politics of publishing and peer review, geographer Ed Carr over at Open the Echo Chamber makes the case that escape and salvation from may lie in the hands of senior faculty.  Is he right?  He might be.

Carr starts off the post by expressing his concern that academia is using practices like peer review as a way to segregate itself from wider audiences.  He argues that peer review is, at heart, not a bad thing, since it provides a way of vetting ideas in an important way.  But, he writes:
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.
One of the deeper issues, Carr argues, is that peer review can be riddled with politics that end up "slowing the flow of innovative ideas into academia" because those ideas may "run contrary to previously-accepted ideas upon which many reviewers might have done their work."  Ultimately, Carr writes, these issues with peer review certainly don't do much to help with the public image of academia (although he is speaking more specifically to geographers here, this applies to academics in general).

Here's Carr's solution, or, at least, his ideas for a way to start digging out of this trench:
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 . . .
Again, although he is speaking directly to other geographers here, I think this proposal applies to and should resonate with the anthropological crowd as well.  For Carr, such a move would be a critical step for opening up academic publishing to wider possibilities, conversations, and collaborations.  I agree,nd I think he is right that certain established faculty members are in an important position for inciting and promoting change.  It's a matter of interest and desire.

At the same time, coming from the position of a graduate student, I can't help but wonder how those of us on, well, lower rungs of the academic ladder can do to actively foster these kinds of changes.  Since we are all encouraged to publish publish publish, maybe it would be a good idea to start thinking more strategically about how and why we are publishing, and more importantly WHO we decide to publish with.  If every graduate student and new professor is constantly upholding the current regime by basically giving up the fruits of their labor (and effectively providing certain publishers with a never-ending stream of valuable products), why WOULD anything change?  So, in the end, I think that Carr is definitely right, but that many of these changes are going to have to start taking place on multiple fronts as well.

On that note, check this out.

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