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.