Why I Won’t Try to Publish as I Move Towards Tenure

I believe in science, but I spend almost no time reading the academic literature where the science of my craft (journalism) has traditionally been published. I spend even less time trying to craft research that would get published in those outlets.

For most normal human beings, this is not a controversial stance. As a tenure-track professor, this cuts against the grain of how you are normally told to proceed. In the Academy, professors traditionally are expected to do research and then publish that research in one of a number of peer-reviewed journals.

A growing number of faculty, including myself, have begun to reject that road to tenure.

The reason: the academic publishing system is built around a 1-2 year publishing process that requires the best and brightest minds to turn over all of their intellectual property without any compensation for that work.

Before I came to the Academy, I was a digital journalist. I worked briefly for Wired before moving to Wired.com, where I first made my name. Eventually I left and helped places like Yahoo! Games and Variety launch their blogs while I finished my first book. My last job before becoming a professor was running MIT’s Technology Review‘s online operation.

I loved each of those jobs, but I would never have worked for any of those places had they not paid me for my work. Now that I’m a professor, I have yet to see a compelling reason to publish in academic journals that neither compensate me for my work, nor give me the right to keep and control the distribution of that work.

Outside the obvious ethical issues I have with this business model, the closed business of academic publishing stands against everything that science represents. At best this system makes it very difficult to parse through data, find relevant science and information, and drive innovation. At worst it works directly against these three.

This has prompted me to finally make concrete what I have danced around for several years:

In my last pre-tenure year as a professor, I’ve decided to see how serious the Academy is about re-evaluating how we disseminate information to our colleagues, our students, and the beyond. And I’m interested to see how other faculty respond to a junior faculty member who decides to explore new, emerging ways to distribute creative scholarship and leave behind the notion of publishing in closed academic journals.

The Academic Journal Cartel

Professors have long been at the mercy of big academic publishers. The tenure system, rightly built on the idea that scholars must add to the collective knowledge of their discipline in order to demonstrate their worth, demands that academic publish results of their research so that others might evaluate it.

Until recently, pre-tenure faculty had little choice in this system. You were expected to shut your mouth and toil away at your research, collecting data, and writing up your conclusions. Once finished, you would ship those findings off to journals, which would send those manuscripts out for review.

If the paper met the criteria of the publication, it would be published.

The culmination of this long process came with the realization that your work was going to reach a limited audience. In fact very few people could afford access to the very best journals, which meant counter-intuitively the more prestigious and important your finding, the less likely it would find a wide audience.

Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.

For years, academics had no other option. If they wanted to distribute their research, they had to go through the academic journal system. Thanks to the Internet, the Web, and the mobile Web, there are now have alternate ways to distribute their work.

The California Universities are encouraging faculty members to only publish in open-access journals, which make the dissemination of information the priority over the construction of lucrative business models.

Getting published in a prestigious scholarly journal is a big deal in academia because it’s one of the ways that universities decide who will be promoted and receive tenure.

But in this traditional publishing process, authors usually sign away exclusive first publishing rights to the journal. The journal makes its money by charging subscription fees to university libraries and others, and doesn’t allow the research to spread outside of its publication for a year or two.

The reason for this switch: faculty are tired of being held hostage by these journals that use the system of tenure as a way to get professors to turn over their work for no compensation. Harvard University faculty have said that “major publishers had created an ‘untenable situation’ at the university by making scholarly interaction ‘fiscally unsustainable’ and ‘academically restrictive’, while drawing profits of 35% or more.”

As these major institutions push back against the cartel of academic publishers, the doors are opening up for the distribution of ideas.

The Process of Getting to Science

Since I first stepped on the tenure-track line at Northern Kentucky University in 2008, I have been bothered by the idea that the Academy had no real mechanism for incorporating emerging media and digital scholars.

I’ve been “the digital guy” since 1984 when I was in 8th grade and helped teach the computer programming class to 7th graders when my math teacher got sick. Everywhere I’ve gone since then that moniker has followed me. (My first collegiate award as a professor: innovative use of technology.)

I’ve long ago gotten past the fact that few people understand what I do on a practical level. What concerns me is that they haven’t yet grokked the importance of tinkering. The people who play on the edge offer a valuable window into what’s coming next. What those people who tinker with emerging media, software tools, and communication technology allow us to do is peel back science to the pre-research level.

Tinkers get their hands on tools before they become commoditized. They get the chance to take them apart, put them back together, and see how they might be used. Computer scientists build the digital tools, but the tinkers create the artifacts and experiences that researchers study.

To put it another way: I believe in the scientific method, but I also believe in the process of getting to the scientific method.

My Year of Blogging Academically

Academic journals are, in general, built around science and research.

While I’ve earned a graduate degree in journalism from UC-Berkeley and a graduate certificate in human-computer interaction (HCI) from Indiana University, I am not a trained researcher.

I’ve spent a good deal of time around scientists in my adult life, and I can say without hesitation that I am at this point in my life incapable of even the most basic scientific research.

What I bring to the Academy is that I’ve spent my life tinkering on the edges of technology. Along the way I’ve pulled together a Web of connections that span the globe, I’ve done a series of big-scale projects with students, I’ve experiments with digital publishing and storytelling in real and virtual spaces, and I have been lucky enough to serve on advisory boards at South by Southwest Interactive and Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center.

All of these elements combined with my experience with technology has allowed me the opportunity to tinker with tools and to interact with really smart people who are helping make the future.

What those things don’t lead to are academic publications because those things aren’t science.

  1. The Soho Theater Project may have brought playwrights together to learn how to tell transmedia stories, but it didn’t result in any scientific research on my part.
  2. When I can talk to Evan Ratliff about The Atavist before it goes live or talk about transmedia storytelling with Andrea Phillips before most folks are having discussions about that, this is the business of exploration.
  3. When I stand on stage with Guy Kawasaki, Chris Sacca, Mark Suster, Tim Draper, and Bob Metcalfe, I’m getting a front row seat to where innovation is happening.

I suspect that tinkering with all of these has helped me open a window into what might be happening in the next few years for my students and my colleagues.

This is what I do, and so I’ve decided that my academic life is best served by pursuing that exploration as the expense of pumping out academic papers that support a business model that is, in my opinion, the antithesis of what science and knowledge represent.

Let’s Not Get Dramatic

I’m not overly concerned about the tenure process. One of the reasons I have valued my time at Ball State University is that I believe my colleagues value my contribution to our college. I am also fortunate to work at a university that considers creative scholarship on par with traditional scientific research.

Knowing that, I’ve decided not to spend my last pre-tenure year scrambling to write and publish several traditional papers and create posters for small new media conferences.

Instead I’m going to focus on writing on this blog each week. I’m going to explore how I’m approaching teaching journalism in an online graduate program, unpack the creative projects I’m working on, develop open-access course syllabus creation, and bring to the blog some of my friends who are working on building that future I’ve talked so much about.

It’s a self-ethnography, of sorts. A self-referential experiment that I hope focuses less on me and more on the results experiences around it.

Along the way I hope this becomes a conduit for conversation about teaching, technology, and storytelling. But that’s the thing about tinkering: you never know where it’s going to take you.

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