Stepping outside an echo chamber is always a bit unnerving. When I speak to academics about social media, open access and other forms of public engagement, I am usually speaking to the converted, or those who very much want to be converted. Many of the conferences and workshops I attend are advertised and organised to appeal to this sort of person. Some events, however, are very different. Here, the idea of open access is, at best, a utopian ideal and, at worse, a career-destroying folly. Nor is it the stereotypical ‘ageing professoriate’ raising these objects; by and large it is the postgraduates and early career scholars.
Open access publication within a respectable (read: highly exclusive) journal would be fine, of course, but most (according to their unattributable sources) are not taken seriously by hiring committees. Even if they were, how can they be sure that a newer, open access journal will properly vet their research? This, it seems, is the main concern with not only open access publishing but with social media dissemination and the general sharing of on-going research. More than one colleague has whispered to me that they were terrified that their earlier work had been flawed and, by publishing with a ‘respectable’ publisher, they could be sure nothing saw the light of day that might later embarrass them.
On the one hand, this is absolutely right. The very essence of peer review is that disinterested parties (that is, disinterested in whether or not you as an individual have enough publications to impress your next hiring committee) will critically review your work, alerting you to any potential fallacies in your argument and suggesting improvements to its presentation and form. On the other hand, it is also an illusory security blanket. Your work will always have flaws in it. Even if it is read by every living academic and universally agreed upon as factually accurate and stylistically flawless, in a year or a two you will find fault with it. If you do not, you have clearly stopped being an academic.
Part of being an academic is to continually strive for a better understanding of the world and in that striving, we evolve, gaining a more detailed or nuanced picture of our work and its place in this never-ending conversation. However proud we may be of our final, published work, there is always something more that could have been said. Art is never finished, only abandoned. With the benefit of hindsight and, more importantly, new data, nearly every argument we have ever made is probably at least slightly off the mark. Should we hide our association with these clearly tainted publications? Gather all copies and have them secretly burnt? In a recent talk, Megan Blake (University of Sheffield) spoke candidly about her blog and how she integrates such revisions into her previously published posts. As I sat listening to her speak, I could not imagine that this honest engagement with her evolving views had earned her anything but further respect from her readers. I can only hope that my ‘over-sharing’ of preliminary results does the same.
Several years ago, never mind how many precisely, I wrote an essay on how stories from Australia were presented in the Scottish newspaper press. I traced, as carefully as I could, the pathways they took as the trundled along the Indian and Atlantic oceans and up Britain’s post roads. Although the piece has not yet appeared in print (for reasons far beyond the control of the poor editors), my research has moved along considerably in that time. In paper after paper, I have (humorously) disclaimed my earlier findings, explaining how each new development in digitisation and methodology has brought us closer to the ‘true’ pathways of these articles. But however useful an example it may be of my improving methodology, I probably will not return to my Marquesan cannibals in another formal publication—a retrospective look on a forthcoming work seems a very strange use of one’s time!
And, of course, repairing my reputation (if it has in fact been damaged by refining my earlier results) is not what concerns me. What concerns me is our collective occlusion of perfectly natural research cycles. Preliminary results, especially those that didn’t quite pan out, are freely shared at conferences and symposia, on posters and other forms of in-person dissemination, but rarely do these leave a permanent record of the meandering pathways we took to our supposedly final, and permanent, conclusions. We emerge, butterfly-like with our discoveries, hiding our workings with the utmost care. Despite meticulous preparation for these papers and presentations, we abandon them to be only half-recollected by those who were able to attend them.
I, therefore, call on my fellow academics to give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of research notes, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming hard-drives. Let me walk along your meandering paths via Github, Slideshare, Figshare or Youtube, so that I can learn from your evolving research and offer you my help if I can. Wear your purple socks proudly, accept your mistakes gracefully, and remember, all work is work-in-progress.
** Image courtesy of Lisa Dusseault