The next generation of academic publishing

books-sidestone.com

(Note: my academia-related posts are strongly colored by my experience studying computer engineering. Other fields will/may differ.)

Since leaving the publication treadmill of academia, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about academic publishing, and what it could/should be.

The publishing process.

Similar to most large entities, the academic publishing and dissemination process is amazingly slow. Here was the process for me during grad school:

  1. Do research and write up a manuscript (anywhere from 1 month to years)
  2. Submit to a conference
  3. Wait 2-3 months for review
  4. Get a review and write rebuttals
  5. Wait a few weeks
  6. Get an acceptance or rejection. If it is a rejection, wait a few months until the next conferences and go back to step 2.
  7. If the paper is accepted, work on the camera-ready and submit a few weeks later.
  8. Wait another 3 months and then go to the conference. At this point, it is officially published put in print and is published.

The entire process is around 7 months. That is a long time.. and that’s if you are lucky and get an accept the first time around!

Many papers go back to step 2 several times, meaning that it can be years before a piece of research is actually disseminated into the world. The rejections can be fairly random too. I have a friend who got a paper rejected 5 times (or was it more?), and then it won Best Paper at the conference it was accepted to.

In computer science, we are lucky to publish primarily in conferences. Journals are even worse. Best case, the turnaround is often a year or more.

Little to no change in the publication process over time.

Innovation is speeding up. As we continue to build on top of prior work, we find ourselves able to accomplish more with less time.

If it publishing isn’t already a bottleneck, it will be soon. As a sample point, I once published a paper that took one month to gather data and write up, and then 7 more months to publish.

What has been done in the last 5-10 years to speed this up? From what I can tell in computer science, nothing.

The major changes I have seen are that ACM and IEEE will put PDFs up online. And to help speed up dissemination of research, people will sometimes publish PDFs to their websites before the conference with a “To appear in…” before the conference title.

To channel Barack Obama, that is not change I can believe it.

A look at online publishing.

As a comparison, what has gone on in online publishing in the last 10-15 years?

It used to be that you had to rely on a publisher to get something out into the world. With the rise of the Internet, blogging platforms (Blogger, WordPress, etc.) were created which enabled anyone to publish to the web.

What about distribution? Well, email lists have existed for a while. And more recently, the big social networks popped up (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) which are great for connecting, but double as distribution platforms. The more likes or retweets a piece of content got, the further it spread into the web-o-sphere.

What about peer review? Peer review is basically a curation process. Social curation platforms such as Reddit and Digg have worked fairly well. If one isn’t a fan of social curation, personal curation platforms such as Pinterest can also be used.

There have been so many tools created for publishing, distributing, and curating content online. And innovation just keeps on happening.

Why can’t academics leverage any online tools?

One possibility.

If I were running a research group right now, I could imagine publishing and sharing without conferences and publications.

My students would each have a blog. They would use it to (1) publish philosophical thoughts on a research area to engage in online discussion, and (2) publish research findings that they want to share with the research community.

My research group would have a blog. Important posts from my students would get cross-posted to the group blog. In addition, I may write to the group blog.

We would all have Twitter accounts, and share blog posts via tweets. We would follow academics who we were interested in, and retweet posts that we liked. We would engage in short conversations over Twitter, and more meaningful conversations via blog comments or our own blog posts.

Peer review would be done with a curation platform. Similar to how conferences have a program committee, a committee of respected individuals could be in charge of curating a number of high quality posts every month. This could be manual, but could also be automatic. For example, if a certain number of committee members retweet a post, it gets automatically put into a collection of great posts.

The archival journals would be official curated collections of posts, and the citations to specific posts would be URLs.

This is just one way to do it. You could imagine many other ways. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as the current system, but it would serve the same purpose.

Benefits.

The benefits would be near-instant publication and distribution. Academics wouldn’t need to sit around and twiddle their thumbs for an accept or reject. They could immediately publish their thoughts and move on. At the same time, they could engage in near real-time communication and conversation about important research topics.

The result would have to be faster turn-around for research, which would speed up innovation. This sounds like a good for the world.

So, who will do this?

I would, except that I’m not in academia anymore. Maybe one day :)

Most people who are jaded with academic publishing have left academia. And that is problem for academia.

Would a current academic dare hop off the publication treadmill and then put their reputation on the line to experiment with creating a new publication treadmill? The problem is that professors and grad students are rated based upon their performance on the existing publication treadmill. It would be extraordinarily risky for a younger academic. If they cared about getting tenure (or graduating if they are grad students), they wouldn’t risk it.

It would have to be an older academic. The problem is that they have made their careers on the existing publication treadmill. Why change it?

So who will get things started?

It will take a brazen academic that respects the pure purpose of academia (to teach and discover knowledge), but does not respect the current incarnation of the academic system. But, what university would hire such a person?

(Photo credit: sidestone.com)

P.S. This is post number #32 in a 100 day blogging challenge. See you tomorrow!

Follow me on Twitter @alexshye.

Check out my current project: Soulmix.

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3 comments

  1. AaronH

    You can do this without sacrificing traditional publication as an outlet by repackaging white papers published via a blog for traditional pubs. My department is looking at less formal (and less specifically academia focused) ways to disseminate findings. There are a lot of audiences and science fandoms out there.

    • alexshye

      Great point. I mostly wrote about replacing the traditional model of publishing because it is possible. But online publishing could also be complimentary to the traditional model, and the research community would probably be better off.

      Thanks for dropping by Aaron!

  2. Pingback: Why I write | Alex Shye

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