Academic Ethics in a Networked Age

Now I am a grad student and, even though I am only in my first quarter, we are being encouraged to write for academic publication. This is a great idea except:

  1. Submission to peer-reviewed journals causes publication delays of many months, even when the article is accepted.
  2. Academic journals often forbid publication of the article elsewhere, creating artificial scarcity(artificial since there is no longer a technical constraint on limitless free copies).
  3. Even when published, access is limited to elites (those with academic affiliation at well-funded institutions) since subscriptions to journal databases are prohibitively expensive.

To some, these may simply be inefficiencies, but I see an ethical dimension. The current system of academic advancement encourages the benefits of scholarship to be narrowly distributed, though technology now allows broad distribution. The scholar is encouraged to use her mental products for her own career advancement by seeking to have them published in a peer-reviewed journal which, as mentioned above, delays and limits broad access.

To rely on an inefficient technology to disseminate ideas with public value is unethical.

This system of academic publishing allows the scholar a benefit in renumeration (employment) and prestige (official recognition of the value of the mental product within the academic community), but prevents broad access to her findings and thus limits their social impact.

At least in the hard sciences and social sciences, this system of delay and limited access creates a contradiction by the following logic:

  1. If a research finding has public value, then delay in making that finding broadly and quickly public is unethical.
  2. If the subject does not have public value, it is not an apt focus of focus of research.
  3. Ergo, if a subject is an apt focus of research, it has public value, and…
  4. to not to make it broadly and quickly public is unethical.

It may seem odd that I am equating publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal with not making research findings public. This is a result of changes in what public knowledge means in the digital age of instant mass self-publication.

Even a few decades ago, mass self-publication was not possible, so an academic had to rely on the slow closed system of academic publishing to make their work public in any way. Now, the Internet has surpassed the past efficiency (print, closes databases), to turn it into an inefficiency (Clay Shirky pointed this out at a talk at MIT last year). Because the findings of the hard and social sciences have public benefit, to rely on an inefficient technology to disseminate those ideas is unethical.

The fact that the careersof academic are tied to this unethical and inefficient system is unfortunate. The job-for-life tenure system relies of publications of books and peer-reviewed journal articles. This makes it difficult for academics to act ethically, because they are putting their financial well-being and those of their families (not to mention their opportunity for advancement) in jeopardy. Still, I think many academics would acknowledge the truth of the argument I have sketched above.

So it is up to certain academics to decide to buck the system and not embargo their ideas. In some instances there might not be a trade-off. One may be able to share basic research findings publicly while still submitted another version of those findings for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. In other instances, however, there will be a trade-off. Publishing findings publicly will mean that the findings will not be accepted for academic publication.

I personally commit not to submit for academic publication any research finding without also sharing it publicly at the same time. I have yet to apply this personal commitment to any piece of work, so I am not sure how this will work in practice, but I am willing to make this commitment publicly in order to help myself to abide by it.

There is a project greater than publish-or-perish, greater than tenure, greater than poster sessions and conference papers. This is the human project and it is the only measure of professional success that matters.

7 thoughts on “Academic Ethics in a Networked Age

  1. Agree with your argument here. However, in most cases rather than just some, I think you can avoid having to make a decision between publication and self-publication. Admittedly, this may be in cases where the “findings” of the piece of qualitative research are more theoretical. In these cases, it would usually be fairly straightforward to publish in journals and circulate a rewritten version through, e.g., a blog. Of course, this essentially means writing two papers – although this should become common practice, it academics wish to speak to multiple audiences.

    My own phd supervisor actually promotes publishing via social media, via blogs, and so on, rather than stressing the importance of journal publication – although he also admits that most of his colleagues do not.

    • @adpaskhughes, I think slowly the culture will change, but only if people start challenging the closed nature of the journal system.

  2. Yeah I pushed for my college to start accepting thesis’s on memory sticks and as PDF precisely for this reason. The methodology for my own research in late 2010/11 was to us online resources, (including cracked programmes) only, in so far as that was possible.

    My supervisor was super supportive an it helped having a few anarchist academics within the department.

    I posted the thesis up on Scribd the morning after I handed it into be graded. It now has 3,500 read (ok i doubt they are all full reads) but bets the hell out of doing work for it to sit on dusty shelf in ivory towers of geographically and culturally bounded institution

  3. All very sweet. But the truth is that everything you desire is available within the current author agreements from Elsevier, T&F, Emerald etc.

    You will be given a final published copy of your work – which you can place in your institutions open access repository or on your own web site. You can email it to your mum, photocopy it for your old classmates and pin it to the noticeboard in your local public library.

    As to the delay – well yes peer review takes time and costs money even in these times of super-dooper web stuff. But there’s nothing to stop you posting or publishing drafts, excepts or so forth of your work.

    And remember that most academic research is inevitably elitist and serves only a narrow audience. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want the wider public to understand what you’re doing – use the press, write a blog…

    Just stop doing down publishers, they are your friend in all this.

    PS I don’t have any interest – financial or other – in publishing nor am I an academic.

  4. Right now in the US, many of the academic journals become part of private publisher databases. There needs to be laws that any research done with federal funding, any results or research must be publicly published for anyone to download and read. There needs to be a Pirate’s Bay for academic research. That would greately reduce the costs of running a server and completely cut out the middle man. There also needs to be support from government and universities to allow professors and researchers to include participating in journal publications as part of their work. The World Economic’s Association has made most of its publications open and available for download

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