Monday, December 17, 2007

Who should cover the costs of publishing?

Traditionally, readers are expected to pay for the production costs of books and magazines. However, in the majority of cases others also contribute. Advertisers are a good source of revenue to the extent that many publications are fully funded by them. In academic publishing ‘open access’ is another way of saying that someone else other than the reader pays.

Many pharmaceutical companies cover the costs of publishing medical research so that doctors have no barriers in accessing results that help to sell their products! But such benefactors are in short supply when it comes to arts and humanities publishing.

If we are honest, the main beneficiary of academic publishing is the author whose ideas are ‘perpetuated’. As such, they should be the ones who contribute to the costs of making publication a success. In practice, there are already resources to support publications based around creative practice.

Unfortunately, most of these funds are wasted on self-indulgent self-publishing. Most artists’ concept of publishing is limited to production of a physical artefact without considering the wider issues of marketing and distribution. They use their limited budgets fully in producing a book based on their own aesthetic sensibilities without considering the potential readers. Most authors are also not aware of ways that the book could be produced using value-for-money formats. Any resources saved by the publisher in production could then be spent on marketing.

A professionally produced academic book benefits from the experience of the publisher in many ways. To begin with, the process of peer review eliminates vanity publishing. Secondly, the publisher acts as a proxy for potential readers, thus making the book more welcoming to the readers instead of being an obscure object of self-indulgence. Most importantly, the publisher places the book in the mainstream of potential readership through its existing contacts.

I acknowledge that many new avenues of self-publishing have emerged via the internet. However, the role of a publisher remains as critical as ever. In this respect I was pleased to read Vint Cerf’s opinion (Media Guardian, 3/12/07) that while blogs and video-sharing websites have opened up new outlets to millions of people around the world at the same time, the appetite for professionally produced content continues to grow.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Why we need ‘peer review’!

Manuel Alvarado in his reply to my earlier comments makes a very clear case against the process of ‘peer review’ in academic publishing in the arts and humanities. He presents 3 reasons behind his objection:

1) When trying to create new intellectual disciplines, a body of literature does not exist, nor is there a body of experts for the peer review process. Therefore, he suggests we should only use peer review in long established areas of scientific and medical publishing.

2) When the subject matter of the books may date quickly we should avoid slowing down the process by peer review.

3) Peer review is inherently conservative and would hinder publication of intellectually stimulating and groundbreaking work. Peer review does little more than confirm that conventional academic protocols have been observed. Reviewers may have academic and personal prejudices and hobbyhorses.

I happen to disagree with Manuel and would like to respond to each of his points.

1) It is true that publication as a method of dissemination is new to the arts and humanities. However, there is no good reason why publication of academic work in these areas should be exempt from the review process. In fact, the process of educating academics in these subjects to become good reviewers contributes to their development of a solid academic community. If we allow a poor publication model to be applied to the arts and humanities, we will end up with these becoming poor academic subjects. It is of paramount importance to a publisher to promote and encourage high standards as these new subjects are developed.

2) Academic publications are “archival repositories of verified knowledge”. Material that requires rapid dissemination need not be considered for inclusion in a long-term repository. Part of being academic is to take time to reflect on whether one’s discoveries can take the test of time.

3) It is true that peer review in a very small measure acts as a filter that rejects some material that may be good. But for sure it also rejects a lot more material that is poor in quality of presentation and some that is plainly not worthy of publication. And what is wrong with art and humanities publications following consistent style concentrations? Clarity of presentation helps in better communication.

To be honest I don’t believe that Manuel has bypassed peer review in his past publishing enterprises. My view is that as a result of his being both an academic specialist as well as being the publisher, he has been able to perform the peer review process in-house. His dual role has allowed him to speed up the publication process, giving the illusion that peer review was not needed.

In fact, most of what Manuel says confirms to me that peer review and the rest of what an academic publisher offers an author is a discipline that does the author more good than harm!

Publishing is a process of mediation and conflict! At each stage the author negotiates an improvement:

• the refereeing process (proposal, MS) - need to persuade peers it is worth publishing it.
• copyediting process - need to be clear to a non-specialist reader
• design and layout - need to fit into a house style while making sure that ‘form’ reflects the ‘content’ of the publication.

Manuel is right in mentioning the web as a crucial tool in the process of dissemination. The web comes into its full potential as an alternative when the author is unwilling, unable or in too much of a rush to negotiate publication via a caring academic publisher. A publisher adds value to the author’s work, but at a price! It requires the author to be more patient as well as increasing the financial costs.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Why do artists want to publish?

Well, most artists don’t. They may like to have someone interview them and write about them. But most creative think that art speaks for itself!

“If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Edward Hopper (American Painter. 1882-1967)

But some artists also work as art teachers, and some even teach in universities. These ones have got to publish in the same ways as their colleagues in science, engineering and even humanities need to do.

Manuel Alvarado calls this “the dead hand of the pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).” For those who do not know what RAE means, I can explain. The British Government in its wisdom decided that the part of a university’s budget allocated for research should be distributed through a periodic assessment of the quality of research produced by UK university departments. It seems that measuring the volume and quality of research output via publications is the easiest way of doing this. University based artists and others in practice-based work have found themselves challenged to back up their creative artefacts with written material that contextualises them in their academic context.

Of course, there are other mediums where one’s ideas can be communicated to an audience:

• a website, blog, DVD
• a video diary, television programme, movie
• a radio series
• a song
• a painting, a photograph
• an installation, exhibition
• an ad series
• a peaceful demonstration
• an act of terrorism
• a bombing raid

But writing has won the day! In some way I am glad about this because I like words as a cultural currency.

• is cheaper than staging a play
• can preserve the creative work
• offers reflection on Practice
• helps build a creative heritage

Of course, there are drawbacks when we use writing as the main currency. For example, documentation establishes a standard version, there is less freedom for improvisation, and there may be fewer variations!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What kinds of academic writing are there?

There are many kinds of writing that originates from academia. In my view there are three clear-cut categories that can use for them.

1) Research papers (in journals or as monographs)


• assume an audience with a basic knowledge of the area
• avoid the use of jargon wherever possible
• are written in a style which is disciplined and precise, and avoid the use of convoluted constructions
• emphasise original contributions
• give full standard citations.

2) Survey papers (in reference books or monographs)


• assume an audience with a basic knowledge of the area
• are written in a style which is disciplined and precise, and avoid the use of convoluted constructions
• emphasise tools, techniques or products
• define the extent of the survey area
• give full references for further reading or information.

3) Tutorial papers (in textbooks)


• assume an audience that is inexpert in the topic
• define the extent of the topics covered
• are written in a style which is disciplined and precise, and avoid the use of convoluted constructions
• emphasize basic concepts.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Why do academics need to publish?

We have all heard the phrase “publish or perish” applied to academics. But why? In one of my workshops I asked some recently appointed lecturers why they thought they needed to publish. Their replies included:

• Reproduction of experiments
• Critical evaluation
• Funding application
• Distribution of ideas / Sharing your ideas
• Teaching
• Patent/ Credit/ recognition of effort
• Feedback
• Quality Assurance
• Self satisfaction
• Ego/ prestige/ good on CV
• Helping the economy / IPR
• Collaboration
• Closure/ end point of a research project

While I agree with all of the above as important (especially the one about ‘closure’), I feel there is something more important then all of these! Vygotsky (The Collected Works of L.S.Vygotsky, Vol. 1 NY: Plenum Press) has observed that people clarify what they mean while they try to articulate it in words. This is endorsed by the experience of many that when they try to talk about something they discover flaws in their argument and correct them before others get round to pointing it out to them.

It is now widely accepted that talking about something can consolidate an individual's knowledge and even lead to discovery of a solution. In other words, publishing is an integral part of the discovery of new ideas. Not just because it brings the idea to the attention of others, but also because it allows the author to have a more critical relationship to their own ideas.

The potential audience’s role changes the objective of publishing. If your main concern is with the ‘development of ideas’ then your audience size may be zero, and you can get away with cryptic notes. While if your objective is the ‘distribution of ideas’, then you want as wide an audience as possible, which in turn means writing in a way that recognises their needs and limitations. There is a trade off here, which in my view is best seen in a PhD thesis. A thesis is aimed at impressing two or three examiners, and as such does not make good reading as a general book. While a general readership book does not pass a PhD examination.

There is a second trade off between the ‘ownership of ideas’ you have developed, and the ‘size of the audience’. If you want to protect your idea, then you limit the size of its audience. While if you want the widest readership, you may have to let others champion them in their own way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is there a future for an academic publisher?

The focus of publishing is no longer the production of an elegant book (or some other artefact) at the right price. There was a time that if a publisher produced a book that satisfied the reading habits of a community of readers, the chances of selling copies of it were influenced by the product, its price as well as the publishers marketing efforts.

The role of the publisher is changing in today’s environment, where books and other material overwhelm communities of readers directly presented to them by the authors. The focus has become on building a long-term relationship with a community of readers who come to recognize and trust a publisher’s brand.

Most academic authors do not need a publisher to produce their books or articles. They can easily produce elegant books with computer based page layout systems. Digital print-on-demand facilities also make it easy for the authors to produce copies with minimal up front investment and have them despatched to the readers. In addition the distribution via the web makes the print medium less critical.

Some academic authors find the intervention of a publisher in the production process annoying! Academic publishers demand that all manuscripts be subjected to peer-review. This incorporates a long delay in the production process and in most cases requires the author to revise the manuscript. Publishers also use trained copy-editors who revise the language and style of the publication to a level of consistency within the publisher’s house style with which the authors may not be comfortable.

In my view publishers are winning on two fronts and losing on a third when it comes to academic publishing.

1) Most academic articles are published in established journals and publishers own these. Academics are locked into these brands and attempts to break out of this have had limited success. The publishers clearly add value to the process and their brand helps bring the authors to the attention of an established readership. The idea of “open access” in my view is a red hearing as it still acknowledges the role of the publisher. It only shifts the payment to them from the reader to either the author or a third party benefactor.
2) Reference and textbooks are growing to be the main stay of academic publishers. They meet the needs of communities of readers and publishers are better at finding out such needs and getting authors to fulfil them. As the potential audience for a textbook or a reference book is large publishers are willing to take risks to make them work.
3) It is the publication of research monographs that has most suffered in recent years. The readership for an original idea is small and expensive to reach in marketing terms. Authors are not convinced that they need a publisher's help to reach readers. The publishers see little financial gain in ever smaller audiences for ever larger number of books.

What does a publisher do?

A publisher connects readers to writers. This is done through some kind of “media” which needs to be a permanent artefact, such as ink marks on paper. The oral communication of ideas in my view should be excluded from the publishing process unless there is a recording (such as an audio book).

Publishers are not passive intermediaries. They play a “creative role” in bringing readers to the authors.

Some publishers start with the needs and desires of the readers (such as a desire in celebrity gossip or desire to learn how to cook) and then find the best author to produce the product to meet that need. Some other publishers start with authors who have something to say (on religion, politics, ecology etc.) and then search for readers who are willing to listen.

Most publishers claim that they are some where in the middle of the above spectrum. These publishers normally have a rough idea of who their typical readers are even if they do not specifically attempt to meet their needs. In this case the publisher tries to choose among a mass of submissions those that may meet the needs of the typical reader. The editorial revisions are the publishers’ way of making the square peg of an author’s submission fit in the round hole of the readers’ interests.

From the time a manuscript is chosen to the time it is read it is subjected to the creative act of publishing. In this period it is checked for accuracy and ease of comprehension (edited); checked for grammar and spelling (copyedited); laid out for the page (typeset) and produced (printed). It is then marketed, distributed, sold, monies collected, bills paid and the author given a royalty statement (and maybe a cheque).

Who am I?

I am a publisher.

The question of identity is a central part of anyone’s existence. In my case being a publisher is the central part of my identity!

But it was not the case before. “A publisher” a few years ago replaced “ a teacher” as the central part of my personal identity. Although I retired as a Full Professor and as a Dean I had for almost 20 years seen myself first and foremost as a teacher. Gradual promotions and the introduction of various audit systems within the British higher education took the joy out of being a teacher and I decided to focus my attention on another part my identity. I have been a practising publisher ever since I entered secondary school education. Then at the age of 50 I came out and felt that being a publisher was my main avenue of serving humankind.

It is worthwhile saying that I was born in Isfahan (in the centre of Iran, a city of great many blue Mosques) where people are born to be good with money matters! A part of being a publisher involves making a little bit of money go a long way!

Most of my childhood was signified by the fact that I was very thin, as I did not like the taste of meat. My parents thought I was clever but lazy. I enjoyed reading books, any books, on any subject. Seeing the film Farenheit 451 (based on Ray Bradury’s book of the same title) articulated for me what I had felt about books. Books and other forms of representation of ideas via words were my favourite cultural artefacts. In the same way as music, art or performance resonates with some people, books gave me a handle on life – that of my own and of others.

I got into editing the school magazine, as it was a way of getting out of doing the compulsory Physical Education classes. By the time I was sixteen I was being published in the national press under various pseudonyms, as well as competing in the national school journalism competitions.

I wanted to become a journalist but my parents did not approve of that career choice, as it was dangerous at that time in Iran with Shah’s regime. I ended up enrolling for an electrical engineering degree. I managed to publish my first book. My second, a children’s story, was turned down by the censors.