Manya Whitaker’s recent Chronicle column on publishing strategies generated some Twitter discussion (Here is an example, and here is another). Whitaker is critiqued for suggesting that early career researchers should focus on peer-reviewed journals from credible publishers, at the expense of more publicly engaged kinds of publishing. They should make sure that their material “appears in a venue that is actually considered scholarly”. They should avoid “blog posts, op-eds, or other opinion oriented writings on their CV”, and generally what she calls “second-tier scholarship”. They want to ensure that “Other scholars should want to cite it, assign it in class, or, at the very least, read it”.

That view of early career publishing strategy doesn’t leave much room for public engagement and for innovative dissemination of scholarship. Sadly, it describes a mostly true state of affairs. It shouldn’t be true. It is up to established scholars to do something about it, instead of presenting it as an inescapable jail, controlled by big commercial publishers, suffocated by the hand of gatekeeping pre-publication peer-review, and measured by whatever profit-making metric is currently in vogue.

Whitaker’s advice still carries substantial value and should not be ignored by graduate students and early career researchers. On the other hand, it is up to established scholars to make sure that early career researchers can publish what they think they should, where and when they think it will make the contribution they want to make.

I say Whitaker describes a mostly true state of affairs because, to reference a target of much internet angst over the past few weeks, there’s a big difference between mostly true, and all true. Mostly true is slightly false.

When Whitaker says to focus on publications that will “count” toward tenure, she is saying that they must be publications that the academics in charge of hiring, tenure, promotion, and granting committees will think should count. In other words, we, including Whitaker as a newly minted Associate Professor, actually decide what counts and why.

Slowly but surely, I am seeing a greater range of types of publications and projects start to count. For example, I am investing time in commenting on Whitaker’s column and the discussion it has spawned. Some of my own blog posts have apparently been read. Judging by my site’s traffic statistics, one of my posts on equity in archaeology was recently assigned as a reading in a course at DePaul University. Admittedly, I don’t know whether it is presented as a do or as a don’t.

There is apparently enough appetite out there for citing blog posts that the venerable APA, on its own style blog no less, gives instructions for citing blog posts. Tweets, of all things, can now be cited, and in some very few cases, should. Some tweets pack a significant contribution.

In the past few years of sitting on various kinds of evaluation committees, I have regularly made the point that we should evaluate publications and projects, not for the venue in which they appear, but for the contribution that they make. I have even heard others make the same claim. In some cases, the committee as a whole has actually agreed to do this. I have encountered, once introduced, very little actual opposition to this idea. It is sometimes missing from the conversation, but almost never rejected once it is brought up.

I am not yet at the point where I will tell graduate students and junior scholars to throw caution to the wind, just post their contributions to any old sub reddit, and hope for the best. I am however, at the point where I can tell them that they should make the contributions they think are valuable, in the venues that will reach their intended audience. They should explain their publishing strategy in the piece itself or in a cover letter. There are people out there who are working to make sure their material is evaluated fairly, regardless of venue, or of type of document.

Because of the power relations and opportunity costs involved here, it is up to established scholars to lead the way toward a more open scholarly publishing landscape. This should be a landscape in which contributions are intended primarily to make a difference to the community, and in the process help a career, rather than the opposite.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s