I love my job. I work as a “Research Policy Manager (Publications)” at Loughborough University. And I spend my time understanding and advising on how we can improve the quality and visibility of our research. However the strategies for achieving this aren’t as straightforward as you might think. And increasingly I feel like I’m leading a double life, both seeking to play and change the scholarly communication game.
‘Communication’ by Jackie Finn-Irwin CC-BY 2.0
What do I mean by this? Well, the game we’re in is one where publications mean prizes. If others rate them (e.g. in the REF) or cite them (as measured by the University League Tables), you win. To be a winner, we know you need to produce quality research (of course), collaborate internationally (improves quality and visibility), and publish in those journals that are indexed by the tools that both expose your research to the world, but importantly, also do the citation measuring for the aforesaid REF and University League Tables. And although there is a huge backlash against using journal metrics as an indicator of the quality of the underlying research, there is no doubt that getting a paper into a journal with extremely rigorous quality standards still means something to academics and their peers.
So the current game is inherently tied up with journal publications. And there are two well-rehearsed reasons why this is not a good thing. The first is that journals are expensive – and getting more expensive. The second reason is that journals are slow at communicating research results. Publication delays of years are not uncommon. (There are of course other objections to journals, not least the murky waters about how an end-user may re-use journal content, but I won’t go into these here.)
This is why we need to change the game. And the best option we have for changing the game is to keep producing quality research and collaborating internationally, but to also create new means of scholarly communication that are neither expensive, nor slow.
Some might argue that you can have it both ways. Publish in a journal which has a liberal green open access policy. This will allow you to provide immediate access to the research through the pre-print, and access to the peer reviewed research through the postprint . And to be honest, this is the compromise we currently go for. But this form of open access is showing no signs of reducing the cost of subscriptions . And not all journals have liberal green open access policies. And not all academics want to release their preprint until it has been accepted by a journal, in case the paper is rejected – so this rather defeats the object.
Now there are many alternative models of scholarly communication that ARE inexpensive and speed up publication. These include preprint archives or ‘diamond’ open access journals that charge neither the author to submit nor the reader to read. However, the problem is that these are not picked up by the citation benchmarking tools. This is either because they are not journals at all (preprint archives) or because they are new entries to the market so have yet to prove their significance in the field and be selected for inclusion.
So what does a Research Policy Manager (Publications) do? Well, it seems to me like I have two equally unsatisfactory options. The first is to continue to play the journals game in order to ensure the citedness of our research is captured by the key citation benchmarking tools, but encourage OA as a means for improving visibility and discoverability of our work. Whilst this isn’t going to speed up publication or reduce our costs, I think there is something about the lure of a high quality journal may well be a driver of research quality – which is very important.
The second option is to dramatically change our focus on to new forms of scholarly communication that will speed up publication rates and reduce our costs, such as preprint archives and diamond OA journals. And by so doing, we’d need to hope that the well-documented citation advantage for immediately open research will do its thing. And that when the research is considered by the REF, they really will just focus on the content as they promise, and not the reputation of the vehicle it is published in. Always bearing in mind that any citations that the research does accrue will only be picked up by open tools such as Google Scholar and not the tools that supply the REF – or the league tables.
So to answer my own question – what does a Research Policy Manager advise in these circumstances? Personally, I try to live with one whilst lobbying for the other, and as far as possible seek to ameliorate any confusion faced by our academics. This is easier said than done – certainly when faced with later career academics who can remember a time when research was optional and where you published was entirely your business. To now be faced with a barage of advice around improving the quality, accessibility, visibility, and citedness of your work, bearing in mind that the routes to these are often in conflict with each other, is a constant source of agony for both them and me.
I recognise that we have to play the game. Our reputation depends on it. But we also have to change the game and provide quicker and more affordable access to (re-usable) research results. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, the future may depend on it.