Thursday, July 10, 2008

e-Review to prosper

In "We must e-publish or perish" (Higher Education, The Australian, July 09, 2008), Colin Steele, fmakes a good case for academic open access publishing on the web. He points out that the assessment of research excellence through books is a key issue in the humanities and social sciences. I suggest we need to go further and apply electronic peer review to all academic publishing.

Colin points out that the average academic monograph (librarian-speak for "book") only sells 300 copies. University presses (librarian speak for "publishers") have responded by producing more generalist publications to try to make some money.

He points out the publishers are having to choose between producing scholarly work, or something that will sell. In fact, as far as I can see, they have mostly failed to do either: with universities producing books which are of little interest to scholars and not profitable.

I agree with Colin that solution is for the university to publish online and give away the content. However, this still costs money. If it is seen as part of the core function of the university, then free online publishing can be subsidised from other activities. The danger is that this can be a form of academic vanity publishing: those institutions who can afford to pay, get their academics published. The high quality institutions can afford to produce quality publications, the others will produce what they can afford. There is no control over the quality of the results as there is no requirement for review and no market test, as the publications are not sold.

Turning a Thesis into a Book

The article points out that "... the vast majority of students will never see their theses published in monographic form and they would be far better advised placing them in the various institutional and nationally linked digital theses programs". Having edited one thesis to turn it into a book, I can confirm this.

In 2000, I edited Michael J Bourk's thesis to produce the book "Universal Service?- Telecommunications Policy In Australia and People with Disabilities", published conventionally in Australia, as print on demand in the USA and free in electronic format online. The editing process was straightforward, assisted with free online tools, and I looked around for other theses to publish. However, I quickly discovered that Michael's thesis was very rare in that it was both well written and on a topic of interest. The others I searched in the online archives were so badly written that they would have to be completely reworked, or were on a topic few people would be interested in, or both.

Colin quotes Richard Fisher: "putting the finished copy of (your book) in the hands of your dean or head of department remains a tangible moment that no click can yet replicate, and one to which tenure and promotional committees in our worlds remain highly susceptible". However, there is an easy solution to this, used for my own publishing, by the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and later by the ANU's E Press: give away the publication online and sell printed copies.

Over a period of a few years the ACS has transferred its research publishing to be mostly an electronic operation. A few years after introducing an electronic edition of the journal, the print edition was made optional for subscribers. Last year the defaults were reversed, so that subscribers had to specifically request the print edition. Within a year it is likely that the print production will drop to only a few hundred copies out of 13,000 subscriptions. However, with on demand printing this small run can still be done cost effectively.

In the case of ICT onference publishing, the organizers of a conference can choose an optional printed edition and most still do. While an electronic copy is easier to search, a printed set of proceedings provides a tangible memento of a conference. A row of dozens of volumes of the proceedings in color coded bindings looks impressive on an academics' shelf.

Book Assessment Flawed

As Colin points out, the assessment of research excellence through books, as used in the humanities, receives little attention compared to debates over journal papers. In my view there is a fundamental flaw in the way academic output and quality has been measured in Australia and this flaw is perpetuated in the ARC's "Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA)", consultation paper.

The ARC propose a separate category for book chapters from a "non-commercial publisher". It has been a longstanding practice of the ARC to asses the worth of books based on the profitability of the publisher. This makes little sense in itself, there being no obvious correlation between the academic worth of a book and its commercial value. Profitability is not used as a measure for journals, which are not expected to make money. Also it is not used as a measure for the publishing arms of universities, many of which pretend they will make money one day, but in fact survive on subsidies from the university. This would all seem a quaint academic exercise, if millions of dollars in government grant money was not allocated based on the results.

Apply electronic peer review to all academic publishing.

It makes little sense to apply a peer review process to journal articles and a separate commercial test to books. Demanding that journals make a profit seems unlikely to be practical, nor a useful way to assess the quality of the work. As free open access publishing becomes more common a commercial test will become less relevant. The alternative, to peer review books, in the same way journals are reviewed, is feasible and logical. Online systems, such as Open Journal Systems (OJS), have been developed for journals to administer the review process and could be applied to books.

Electronic Peer Review of Researchers

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From: What is Naymz?, Naymz, 2008

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