Is the ivory tower crumbling?

In yesterday's post entitled 'Open or shut', I wrote about a rise in the number of academics who are turning their back on traditional research publications such as closed journals, in favour of more open, accessible outputs such as blogs and open access journals. They are doing so to ensure their research is read by larger audiences, to open up public debate, and to disseminate their knowledge as widely as possible. They are doing this without the approval of their parent institutions, and as an act of conscience. The pitfalls are there, but so are the benefits. As Claude Lord tweeted yesterday, 'it's no longer publish or perish, it's now publish to flourish'. 

The fact is, academics are still judged on their ability to research and publish their findings in 'high impact' peer reviewed journals. High impact journals are those considered to be the most influential in their field, and they are calculated by an algorithm that considers a number of factors including article citations. It's notoriously difficult to get articles accepted for publication in these elite journals - the editors often pride themselves in their high rejection rates. However, the elite journals may have had their day, because as John Bohannon highlighted in 2014, the more highly cited papers are actually beginning to emerge from less prestigious (non-elite) journals. 
"In 1995, only 27% of citations pointed to articles published in non-elite journals. That portion grew to 47% by 2013. And the non-elite journals published an increasing share of the most highly cited papers within each field as well, growing from 14% to 24%."
So is the journal impact system still a valid measure of academic value?

Publication in high impact peer reviewed journals has been the yardstick to measure academic prowess almost since academia began. And yet, as Asit Biswas and Julian Kirshherr argue in a recent online article for the London School of Economics, there is yet another big problem with this:
"Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within the scientific community: 82 percent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. Rarely do scholars refer to 32 percent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 percent in the natural sciences. If a paper is cited, though, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 percent of papers cited have actually been read. We suspect that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely at most by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are miniscule."
Those who publish their work elsewhere, in lower echelon journals or (perish the thought) in open access journals, are often frowned upon by the academic community, or are certainly not regarded as playing the game. They are often excluded from research assessment exercises, and can be overlooked for promotion or tenure. This is all part of the ivory tower game that is played out in universities across the globe. 

It has to stop. 

Maintaining such exclusivity is damaging to the credibility of academia, and restricts knowledge that is made available to the general public. There has always been a power struggle between those who control knowledge and those who require it. What would have happened if Jimmy Wales had been overruled by his colleagues, and Wikipedia had been exclusively a knowledge repository populated by credentialled academics and scholars? What if talented and knowledgeable lay-people had been excluded from contributing to Wikipedia? Would it be as popular and useful as it is today? Fortunately Jimmy Wales won the argument, and Wikipedia is testament today of crowd sourced knowledge, the wisdom of the many, and dialogue of the masses. It is the largest and best used knowledge repository in the world. 

In their LSE article, Biswas and Kirshherr go on to argue that academics should participate more in public debate to raise the profile of scientific issues that impact on daily lives. There is currently a paucity of academics willing to do this. Without the use of popular tools such as social media, blogging and public press however, this situation is unlikely to improve. You see, the problem with peer reviewed journal articles is not confined to their lack of accessibility and their exclusivity. They are often lengthy pieces of text that are laden with impenetrable language and scientific jargon, peppered with obscure diagrams, complex tables and statistics. Brevity and to-the-point summaries are required if most people are to understand the implications of research. How do we solve real world problems, and what are the practical applications of academic research results in daily life? These are the questions the general public are interested in, and academics will need to find better ways to disseminate their findings than publishing as they always have, in obscure, privileged-access journals that are read only by a handful of their own community.

If we are going to see a shift away from this elitism, then the universities, the funding councils and ultimately, governmental education ministries must take a lead. Some universities are now beginning to accept opinion pieces, open access journal publications and social media contributions as a part of submissions for the promotion process. It's a good start.

Photo by Tom Murphy on Wikimedia Commons

Creative Commons License
Is the ivory tower crumbling? by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Gregory Kohs said…
Your commentary about Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia belies a nearly complete ignorance about the actual founding of Wikipedia. You've bought the myth, ignored the reality. Also, just because a resource is large and widely-used doesn't make it a net benefit to culture. Would you say Wal-Mart is the best retailer? McDonald's the best restaurant?
Steve Wheeler said…
Oh dear, Gregory. Have I touched a nerve, or did you just simply misinterpret my message about Wikipedia? Wikipedia trumps other knowledge repositories in so many ways, I couldn't cover them all in such a limited space such as this. I use it as a means to enable my students to think more critically. I have even asked them to create a page on a subject that is not yet covered, and see if it will survive the scrutiny. It's not about a comparison of whether McDonald's is a quality food outlet, it's about access to information and knowledge when you need it, in a form you can understand. Thank you for stopping by.
Gregory Kohs said…
Someone who is interested in knowledge wouldn't make up a story like "if Jimmy Wales had been overruled by his colleagues, and Wikipedia had been exclusively a knowledge repository populated by credentialled academics and scholars". Do you have a reliable source to back up that scenario? I co-founded the site, and there we've gathered many of the original, primary documents that communicated how Wikipedia was created, and for what rationales. I think you are confusing Nupedia's advisory board for an entity of "colleagues" that could "overrule" Jimmy Wales. And where does Larry Sanger figure into your pithy encapsulation of the history of Wikipedia? Have you ever heard of him? If not, maybe you (and your readers) would like to learn:
Steve Wheeler said…
I find it very interesting that you should home in on a small tract from the post, i.e. my comments about Wikipedia, which was meant to be an illustration of a much larger theme - the shift that is taking place in academic publishing. But I checked out your Twitter time line and it became evident that you seem to be conducting a personal crusade against the work of Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia team, so I'm not surprised that you would grab hold of that single comment and try to make a meal of it. I have had 'discussions' with Larry Sanger on this blog and elsewhere and am well aware of the work he has done in this area.

Putting all this to one side - I would be much more interested in your views on the main theme of my blog post - the oligarchy that exists in academia, and that is hiding much of the publicly funded research that should be available, behind pay walls? And what do you think about the new breed of academics, the open scholars, who are making their knowledge available freely to anyone who wishes to read it? I think this is a much more important issue to expend your energy on.
Gregory Kohs said…
Steve, I'm not expert enough to share an informed opinion about the paywall vs. open structures debate in academic publishing. I left the world of academia in 1994, back when I was still using Compuserve. I do know this... in my 25+ years of adulthood, I have come to realize that "you get what you pay for" is one of the most helpful axioms. I spoke about Wikipedia because I am a known expert on it (including television appearances and ample mentions by online and print journalists), and you mentioned it. By the by, I see that you wrote your own biography on Wikipedia. It's possible that fact has helped form your judgment about Wikipedia's utility.
Steve Wheeler said…
Ah, thanks for the clarification Gregory. That explains your interest in my comment about Wikipedia. You're right in pointing out my involvement in my own Wikipedia entry, but you're not entirely correct in your assumptions. Although I set up and populated some early edits for the page, it has since taken on a life of its own, and others have contributed more than I could have done. It's common knowledge that I set the page up, and it's also widespread practice among the academic community, many of whom have done similar. I set my own page up to see how it worked, in the early days when I was exploring and experimenting with social media, and I learnt a lot from doing so.

You are wrong to deduce that because I have my own Wikipedia page (which frankly I can live with or without), that this is the reason I am positively predisposed toward it. The real reasons I think Wikipedia is a useful contribution to education are a) it has made diverse knowledge more accessible to the public b) it gives everyone an opportunity to contribute to the building of knowledge and c) I have discovered it is a useful sandpit for my own students to practice critical thinking, problem solving, discursive engagement, and a whole host of other transferrable skills they can later use in the world of work.

Yes, it has its problems, but that is part of the appeal - students get to discuss provenance, veracity and context, and in doing so - they learn about how knowledge is created.
Ed Buckner said…
I broadly agree about the problem, namely that the peer review process at the big journals is either painfully slow or is poor in quality. A notable philosopher told me recently that one of his best papers took something like 6 years to find a home.

On the solution, I don't know. Not many academics use Wikipedia, and in some areas (particularly mine) the coverage is very patchy.
Ed Buckner said…
"What would have happened if Jimmy Wales had been overruled by his colleagues, and Wikipedia had been exclusively a knowledge repository populated by credentialled academics and scholars? "

I studied the early history of Wikipedia extensively. At the beginning it had a high population of academics. However many of these were driven off by the low signal to noise ratio - dealing with cranks, trolls, all kinds of nuisance. If they had fine tuned it better to get the right balance between openness and exclusivity, this might have been different. Who knows.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for stopping by Ed. In my experience the review process sucks. I had to wait almost 3 years for one of my articles to be published from submission to the paper copy. Now it's published I don't know how many people have read it. I know it has had around 30 citations since its publication in 2007, but compare that with an article I had published in an open access online journal around the same time, and I know that it was seen over 500,000 times and has had over 1000 academic citations. The impact factor between the two journals isn't significantly different. Now that's what I consider a solution.
Steve Wheeler said…
Good points. It would be fascinating to see what the percentage/mix is between those with professional or academic qualifications and those without for any specific subject page on Wikipedia. Anyone have any data?
Gregory Kohs said…
Would you be interested in a study of 100 random Wikipedia articles about businesses?
Steve Wheeler said…
Certainly - do share the link
Gregory Kohs said…
The data analysis for this study of 100 Wikipedia articles about businesses has been in the "nearly complete" phase for over a year, but it is not formally published -- I'm seeking to do that one day (maybe you could advise me on a suitable open-licensed scholarly journal?). So, for now, I'm just going to share these top-line tidbits with you:

It's clear that even though Wikipedia has long had guidelines and policies that discourage editors with a financial or self-promotional conflict of interest from editing directly about their own interest, it happens extensively on Wikipedia. Furthermore, as of June 2014, the Wikimedia Foundation imposed a Terms of Use amendment, mandating that any paid editor of Wikipedia *must* disclose their client on any paid edits. I can assure you that this ToS amendment has not come close to stamping out undisclosed paid editing.

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