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.