Starting a Revolution…in academia

I am disturbed by something that does not make sense in academia (and there are actually a few more). It is about publishing. Researchers must share their work and most of the time it means that they are required to publish their research. The purpose of publishing therefore is a good one – to ensure that the fruits of their labour reach as wide an audience as possible. Publishing benefits both the authors and the readers. Academic journals, university presses and commercial publishers are there to serve this purpose – to disseminate the ground-breaking work of researchers to a learned community, policymakers and whoever is interested. One valuable contribution of research is that new research enhances current knowledge by expanding or revising existing theories, sometimes even inventing new fields of knowledge. The impact of a research is often measured by the number of citations it gathers. I am not saying that the number of citations is the only way to measure impact, but it is a pretty good measure to use – it means someone agrees with your argument and builds on it, or someone does not agree but cites your argument to refine the field further; both cases will gratify a researcher to some extent. (Try typing the name of your favourite researcher in Google Scholar and see how many citations his/her most influential publication has attracted so far.)
So publishing makes sense. But the question is where. I will focus on book publication. Recently, the American Historical Association released a statement proposing the embargo of History PhD dissertations for up to six years. In a nutshell, it means that a new history PhD graduate can prevent online access to his/her work for up to six years. Wait a minute, why embargo research when researchers want to share their work? Here’s why: in the American academic system, especially in history, a published book is still a requirement for tenureship. If an assistant professor can’t publish a book within six years, it’s almost impossible to get tenured. After figuring out the complexities of their subject of research in their magnum opus, historians do not want to make their dissertation accessible online because their careers are on the line!
Here comes the disturbing part (sorry to keep you waiting…). Open access  or digital publishing has been around for a while now. Like a traditional publisher, most digital presses put manuscripts through a rigorous peer-review process. So there is no difference in quality of the work published – if it’s not up to the standard of experts in the field, a manuscript will surely be rejected regardless of which publisher it is submitted to. (It is not hard to detect that some traditional publishers turn out crap quite consistently.) Furthermore, an advantage of digital publication is that you can actually count the number of downloads – a better indicator than the number of copies a physical book has been sold. But will a book published by an e-press win a junior academic tenureship? Unfortunately, no. That’s the problem.
Junior academics are sure to destroy their careers if they publish with an e-press, and this is wrong. There are real benefits to e-publishing: ease of sharing new research (which increases chances of getting more citations); almost zero cost for readers; no sacrifice in quality etc. But the wealth of wisdom residing in universities somehow can’t figure that out.

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