Sunday, December 23, 2007

Some Thoughts on Mr. Gates

Updated 6:59 p.m.: Copy cleaned up.

Time marches onward, and ideas percolate in the brain.

I try to never pass up a chance to hear someone interesting, because one never knows when a seemingly tangential comment will become a seed crystal in the mind fostering many new and wonderful thoughts. [Thanks to Robert M. Pirsig for this analogy].

This happened a few weeks ago during a faculty development workshop on book publishing hosted by Don Jugenheimer, Ph.D., chairman of the advertising department at Tech. During that workshop, we started talking about self-publishing books, specifically print-on-demand.

This got me thinking about gate keeping, the mass communications tenet the suggests that a piece of information must pass through several gates before it is ultimately published or broadcast.

I used to be a gate keeper when I worked in journalism. As sports editor, I used to make the decision about what stories made it in the paper and which did not. As an education and health care reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News, I used to decide what got covered on my beat.

To be sure, my city editor had a hand in this -- especially when it came to big stories. But in the day-to-day operation of the beat, I decided what was a story and what was not.

In one of the landmark academic studies on gatekeeping published in Journalism Quarterly in 1949, David Manning White outlined "The 'Gate Keeper': A case study in the selection of news."
Manning writes, "It is a well known fact in individual psychology that people tend to perceive as true only those happenings which fit into their own beliefs concerning what is likely to happen. It begins to appear (if Mr. Gates is a fair representative of his class) that in his position as 'gate keeper' the newspaper sees to it (even though he may never be consciously aware of it) that the community shall hear as a fact only those events which the newsman, as the representative of his culture, believes to be true" (p. 390).
The problem is that I don't like -- and don't trust -- gates. In this space, I have complained about the peer-review system, which is the most substantial gate in academic thought (read here, here, here, here, and here). And, you see, I am just totally over it.

In part, some of our problem is being productive. We crank out a lot of research, so we get a lot of reviews back. And with few exceptions, they tend to contain the same unhelpful comments. You can see the gate, but it's a largely irrelevant gate, yet nonetheless you reshape your work to fit through the gate.

And I'm over it.

But I'm not even tenured yet. And the problem is not that I don't have a lot of things to say -- I do -- but I am tired of reshaping my thoughts in ways that are not helpful.

In my career, I have worked most often with a particular journal editor. This editor is very helpful, and s/he represents that way that the gate was intended to function. But journal articles have to be spread around, so we don't get the good fortune of right-minded editing very often. Choosing reviewers is, in my opinion, the most important thing that an editor does. And it is a rare skill.

With new media -- for lack of a better term -- things are changing. But slowly. I could, for example, make a PDF of our research and publish the results here exclusively. Google is probably a better search engine than the academic searches that I use anyway, so that might even be an improvement.

The problem is credibility. The name atop a publication lends some credibility to the information contained therein. And that is important. If everyone starts publishing, then it becomes a caveat emptor world of information to the highest degree. I keep my job because of my publishing record. The chief academic officer at Tech need not know communications research to evaluate my tenure case, as he (in this case) can look at objective rankings of the journals in which I publish.

For all the trials and tribulations of peer review, it does have its benefits. Our 2004 publication in the Journal of Consumer Psychology is a prime example. Then-editor Robert Wyer helped a lot in making our ideas worth reading. Although it was painful at the time, I am very thankful for his help in advancing our ideas.

But that represents the minority of cases. I cannot point you to a piece that represents the opposite because unhelpful reviews do not lead to publication. Often they lead to you revising an idea so greatly that it no longer resembles itself. In this case, one is often forced to scrap the revisions and revert to the original since the manuscript is now alien to its former self. This is the case with our recent publication in the Journal of Advertising [PDF not ready yet; in December 2007 issue]. In the meantime, it took the data more than 3 years to see the light of day.

So we are left with a system that marginally works some of the time. And it works
slowly such that ideas often take at least 18 months to make it into print. And that is wrong, and it must change.

Books -- the particular form of mass communications that got me thinking of this topic in the first place -- are no better.

My recently oft-quoted Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has sold millions of copies and is touted as the best selling book on philosophy of all time. A huge success, right? Consider the following quotation from Pirsig:
Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn't be discouraged.
Here we see the case where 121 gate keepers failed, and the 122nd grossly underestimated the situation. How many other great ideas in history remained locked in the desk drawer while other drivel saw the bookshelf simple because it was likely to make a profit?

We must do better.

As I see it right now, I think the following dual-route system of publishing is in the correct direction. First, we need a rapid dispatch system of publishing. We need to get ideas out there. Therefore, I think that scholars should publish on Web sites. And they need to do it quickly.

The simplest way to do this would be to make PDFs of accepted conference papers. We submitted our American Academy of Advertising papers on Oct. 1. All three were accepted. I have know that for more than a week. By now, I could have incorporated suggested revisions and published the papers. So if you were working on a similar idea, you could learn from our mistakes ... or hopefully our good ideas.

This leaves some gate keeper in place. There is some check on credibility, and you still have to present your ideas in a public forum.

Now, what we currently do is try to revise that conference paper into a journal article. Often my lab combines conference papers into multi-experiment journal articles. This slows down the dissemination of information greatly. Think glacial pace.

Instead, I propose allowing the conference papers to stand for themselves. Leave the PDFs on your Web site, and allow the search engines to index them. All of this information would then be free to libraries. Taxpayers pay for this research, and now it would be accessible to them. If the academic conferences would agree to any standard form of publishing their program (think table of contents), the search engines could double check that the papers were actually presented.

For the second step, I suggest moving toward the print on demand technology. Write a book. Synthesize. I think this is what scholarship is about. If you've been programmatic about your work, then you will have something to say in a book. If you have done nothing but an unconnected series of studies, then you have nothing to say.

And a synthesized book would provide a great introduction to a subject matter. They could be used as textbooks and introductions. A book would also allow a researcher to go back and correct things and update information. I remember early on in my career in studying with Annie Lang of Indiana, I had written an entire paper predicated on one of her earlier papers.

When I gave it to her to review, she wrote in the margins that they had never replicated that individual finding. Oops. My bad. But the traditional publishing model does not allow for this. A journal article is concrete in time even as theories march on.

I suggest print on demand books because I don't want to simply relocate the gate keeper. Moreover, traditional publishing is about profit, and scholarship should not be about profit. In the case of book writing, we allow for a marketplace of ideas in the truest sense of the word.

This system creates a problem of separating the wheat from the chaff. I admit that this is a problem. In terms of sheer volume, we would have a genuine problem for the young scholar. There might be too many voices. How do you find out what is good?

I see one immediate way to help rectify this problem. Instead of publishing conference papers, we could create a system of peer reviewers within academic societies. In this case, an administrator (rather than an editor) could recruit reviewers of "raw" papers. These reviews would provide feedback to the author(s) but would not serve as a gate. If there is a fundamental disagreement between author and reviewer, the reviewer would have the chance to publish a counterpoint.

This would be akin to a dissent in a judicial opinion. Or the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which invites open commentary. If we largely eschew the journal process, scholars will have time to do such reviews (instead of journal reviews), which are more meaningful since you would have the chance to comment back. Instead of trying to persuade an author in a double-blind way to make changes, you could add an open commentary that says, "The authors used solid methodology, and there is much to like in this study. However, I believe that these results are more parsimoniously explained by Theory X."

And again the marketplace of ideas will be at work. Time may well show that one of the peer commentaries will become the more influential piece of scholarship.

This would solve the problem of information credibility for the first step, but we still have the problem of books. A primary problem here would be copy editing, and this expense would have to come out-of-pocket from the author(s). However, I spend a couple of hundred dollars each year in journal subscriptions, and I could easily transfer this to editing.

Thus, although the books are printed on demand, I believe that the front matter of the book should have a certificate of copy editing. Technical writing companies could provide this service. In any case, the author could opt out, but you, the reader, would know that it had not been edited if there was no certificate.

For a second step, I would invite peer commentary. You could invite experts in the field, and perhaps there could be some sort of forum to post notice of publication. Would-be reviewers would have the chance for open commentary. Some sort of arbitration committee would be needed in the case that an open commentary were completely hostile. Again, academic societies could step in here.

Give these ideas a thought, and please post a comment. I would love to know what you think. I know that we need to change. And the ideas that I have expressed here seem -- in some sense -- to be a step in the right direction.

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Blogger Tim Laubacher said...

You have some interesting ideas for fixing the current information dissemination process in the research community. It's easy to criticize the system but difficult to offer solutions.

Probably my favorite part of what you wrote, and the part that makes the most common sense to me, is to allow scholars to offer counterpoints rather than block the sharing of ideas.

If a book is being sold on Amazon, people have the chance to write comments sharing their support or displeasure with the work. But they cannot block the book from being sold.

Similarly, respected scholars should have the opportunity to offer insights into why an article is or is not a worthy contribution to the community. But perhaps they should not have the ability to close the gates.

Merry Christmas to you and your ever growing family Sam!

11:08 AM  
Blogger IUAngelini said...

It's an interesting proposal, but I wonder about it in some ways.

In your discussion about allowing publishing of conference papers online, not all conferences are equal. I wouldn't put the quality of some of the papers accepted at NCA at the same level of the papers typically accepted by Info Sys at ICA. Do we work toward a unified model of what a conference deems good enough to accept, and then in turn allow to be published? And you have to admit that the quality of many accepted conference papers are certainly not the same as the quality of some journal articles.

And what about a scholar like myself when it comes to publishing books. Do I think I may do that in my academic life - I'm not sure. I'd like to think I had the ability to build a body of research that would allow that, but I just don't know. Does this put me at a disadvantage in the tenure process?

And what does this model mean for the tenure process? Are we now being evaluated on accepted conference papers? Or is having a book now going to be a must?

Just some random thoughts. :)

12:32 PM  

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