Are we ready for an “academic spring”?

Danny Burns

The Wellcome Foundation recently announced that it would be taking steps towards open access to information. It is unhappy about the dominance of three academic publishers who according to the Guardian account for 42% of journal articles, and it proposes to set up its own online journal. It is also keen to ensure that research gets out within six months avoiding the absurdly long lead times of some academic publishers. Harvard University is “encouraging its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls”.

These are important steps from large and influential institutions, and I applaud them, but this is only the start of a much bigger revolution in knowledge generation and dissemination that needs to happen.  The model of knowledge that is represented by academic journals is outdated, exclusive and ineffective.

Innovative and creative thinking is most likely to emanate from diverse collaborations. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) pushes academics toward the production of single authored papers in elite journals. Stephen Curry quoted in the Guardian says that although the adjudicating panels have been instructed to ignore the impact factors of journals, no one believes that “it is remotely possible to do so”. Journals are largely disciplinary and yet most real world problems are inter-disciplinary. It is really hard to get good cross disciplinary reviews of research.

Even the idea of peer review needs to be challenged. Who are the peers? Are they affected in any way by the research?  Even if we accept the legitimacy of academic ‘peers’, their insanely busy lives mean that they are usually reading these articles on the bus or the train, or crammed in between other things that they are doing. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is the elite talking to the elite.

While peer review is supposed to ensure good scientific method, the controversies over scientific climate change research clearly show how the perspectives that people bring to these analyses fundamentally impact on their assessment.  When it comes to complex social issues, interpretation and sense making are critical.  Knowledge that is co-generated and critiqued by those people that will be affected by it, is likely to be much more robust than knowledge extracted by external researchers; Knowledge that can pass freely across the internet can be interrogated and subjected to a much more diverse arena of scrutiny; Knowledge that is written in straightforward language that is meaningful to more diverse populations will be triangulated by a far more diverse community.  Knowledge that is generated iteratively and continuously, and tested in action, is likely to make a far greater impact on complex social problems than knowledge crystallised in journals long after the event.

The internet provides other ways of validating research. As the Guardian points out downloads, numbers of bookmarks on social networking sites etc may much better indication of research quality than where it is published. Similarly initiatives like Google Scholar which can track who has cited or used work across a much wide range of outputs offer exciting possibilities. I want to know if my work appears in policy documents, books, pamphlets, films etc. I want to know how it is being used is to impact on poverty and vulnerability. I don’t want to know if an elite journal thinks that I am worthy of publication, and I don’t believe this serves society.

Academics have long assumed the position of “experts” in our society because they have had unique access to information and intellectual argument. This is no longer true. The internet makes access to information ubiquitous and opens that information up to the many different expert voices that have a right to reflect upon it. The more that we open up the knowledge that we generate the more society can benefit from the many views and perspectives which can give it meaning. It will not be an easy journey to find new models of knowledge distribution which allow real access and interaction. These will inetivably evolve rather than be constructed, but many people are starting to think about this and many initiatives are already well underway

There are clear implications for me. We should not stand on the sidelines and say that while we believe in new ideas about knowledge, we will continue to participate in the old system and legitimise it. We should stand up for a new vision of open knowledge generation. Many academics might not want to walk this road because to threaten the status quo might threaten their career progression. But if we believe in the social change that we espouse in our writings, this is exactly what we should be prepared to do.   

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.


6 Responses to Are we ready for an “academic spring”?

  1. Lucia Nass says:

    What a courageous article. i will follow you.

  2. Danny Burns says:

    Thank you Lucia. There is a debate opening up within IDS about some of these issues, and I hope that we will move increasingly toward open access to the knowledge that is generated through our work and the work of our partners.

  3. Danny Burns says:

    see also
    today in the Guardian

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