Monday, October 29, 2007

Why do academics need to publish?

We have all heard the phrase “publish or perish” applied to academics. But why? In one of my workshops I asked some recently appointed lecturers why they thought they needed to publish. Their replies included:

• Reproduction of experiments
• Critical evaluation
• Funding application
• Distribution of ideas / Sharing your ideas
• Teaching
• Patent/ Credit/ recognition of effort
• Feedback
• Quality Assurance
• Self satisfaction
• Ego/ prestige/ good on CV
• Helping the economy / IPR
• Collaboration
• Closure/ end point of a research project

While I agree with all of the above as important (especially the one about ‘closure’), I feel there is something more important then all of these! Vygotsky (The Collected Works of L.S.Vygotsky, Vol. 1 NY: Plenum Press) has observed that people clarify what they mean while they try to articulate it in words. This is endorsed by the experience of many that when they try to talk about something they discover flaws in their argument and correct them before others get round to pointing it out to them.

It is now widely accepted that talking about something can consolidate an individual's knowledge and even lead to discovery of a solution. In other words, publishing is an integral part of the discovery of new ideas. Not just because it brings the idea to the attention of others, but also because it allows the author to have a more critical relationship to their own ideas.

The potential audience’s role changes the objective of publishing. If your main concern is with the ‘development of ideas’ then your audience size may be zero, and you can get away with cryptic notes. While if your objective is the ‘distribution of ideas’, then you want as wide an audience as possible, which in turn means writing in a way that recognises their needs and limitations. There is a trade off here, which in my view is best seen in a PhD thesis. A thesis is aimed at impressing two or three examiners, and as such does not make good reading as a general book. While a general readership book does not pass a PhD examination.

There is a second trade off between the ‘ownership of ideas’ you have developed, and the ‘size of the audience’. If you want to protect your idea, then you limit the size of its audience. While if you want the widest readership, you may have to let others champion them in their own way.

12 comments:

rrada said...

While I agree that writing gives one the opportunity to reflect on one’s own thoughts relative to the anticipated to the anticipated audience’s reaction and thus refine one’s thoughts, I think the argument as to why to publish can be approached from a system’s theory approach to get another perspective on the matter. From a system’s perspective, living things try to perpetuate themselves. Having children is the traditional way to perpetuate the biological material. For the cultural material, one manifestation is the written word and one way to perpetuate it is to publish it. From this premise one can continue to build a model about publishing that measures success or failure of any given publishing enterprise on the extent to which communication has perpetuated some message.

Masoud Yazdani said...

I agree that if the purpose of writing is to communicate a message one could consider its success based on the extent it is perpetuated within the population or over time. Therefore, publishers play a role in magnifying the efforts of the writer. However, my point remains that if the purpose of writing is self realisation then the extent of perpetuation is not the critical factor. In such cases the quality of the thought developed as the result of reflection is the measure of its success.

Manuel Alvardo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Manuel Alvardo said...

Masoud asks the question ‘Why do academics need to publish? I agree largely with what he writes and I like the reference to Vygotsky. It is just near the end of the piece that I wish to take some issue with him.

I have supervised many PhDs over nearly 30 years. I have also been an external examiner for many more. In my supervisory mode I have also worked as a research professor running a PhD programme which included running a research methods course for the institution for which I was working. In that whole period I always stressed with my post-graduate students that they should not just write for me or any other supervisors they might have. I insisted that they always think of a potential wider audience even when their theses were engaging in difficult and abstract work.

In my view theses written for the supervisor, the external examiner(s) and the library shelves of their university are not necessarily pointless but they are selfish. I think all theses should be political (with a small ‘p’) in that they should aim to make some kind of intervention into the wider culture and society with which the research was conducted. All theses should be conceived in terms of ‘publishability’ even if ultimately the student cannot find a publisher for the work (but my students invariably have).

This is not to say that the thesis will be published verbatim – obviously some sections such as the literature review should be cut or adumbrated – but I think ‘publishability’ should be included as one of the criteria of a good and successful thesis. Otherwise why spend three years or more devoting ones life to a project that will literally not reach a wider audience.

My external examining experiences have not been so happy. The number of dreary theses I have read and had to fail (or send back for re-writing) has been a very depressing experience. It is also depressing because in my view 50% of the assessment process focuses implicitly on the quality of the supervision the student has received. A poor thesis not only implies poor supervision but also reflects badly on the supervisor because they shouldn’t have allowed the student to submit for final examination in the first place.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite Shakespearean sonnets begins –

Sin of self love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul and all my every part…

Such may have a bit to do with why authors write….

But important and different are two other sonnet endings:

And all in war with time, for love of you,
As he takes from you I engraft you new.

And again:

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,
So long lives THIS and this gives life to thee.

These bold brags, if rephrased a little more modestly,
could be seen as proper and conservative attempts to
share with others the things and values we love deeply.

And the same sort of poetic hyperbole, after the romantic
revival, is shown in this thrilling poem of a fine American
poet of the 20th century. His "Postcard from the Volcano"

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell,
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what is still
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is… Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

Wallace Stevens (July 1936)

But this is much grander than my own reasons for writing.

Lawler, October 2007

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