Putting the “Reach” Back in Research

When my students write excellent papers, I encourage them to submit to conferences and even publications so that their work “has life beyond the classroom.” A related set of concerns has plagued me since graduate school: Do scholars have an obligation to give their work life beyond academia? If so, how can we make that happen?

Who is Your Audience? 

Let me first back up and discuss how academics give our research life beyond our hard drive or cloud account. We typically present our work at conferences (sometimes to a room of two people, sometimes to much bigger audiences). We may deliver other types of presentations or lectures. Some submit pitches to magazines, write letters to the editor, or blog about their work. The greater goal (the one that is most institutionally rewarded), however, is publication in a book or journal. I’m focusing this post on journal publication because it is an area with so much untapped potential to reach bigger audiences.

When searching for a journal to publish their scholarly writing, academics often have several considerations, including

  1. The goodness of fit with their research–in terms of subject matter, methods, and word count
  2. The journal’s reputation–in both the discipline and among people who will be evaluating their tenure or promotion case
  3. The size and type of audience the journal cultivates–considering its abstracting, indexing, affiliations, and access policies

I embarked on a research project at the end of 2014 (with Noelle McElrath-Hart) that involved interviewing public figures. The interviewees are TV critics, editors, and others writers who produce discourse about television. We wanted to know about TV spoiler attitudes and practices to get a sense of how the spoiler wars may have shaped the way writers and editors do their work. In this particular case, Noelle and I made journal selection criterion #3 a make-or-break criterion just like criterion #1: We had to find an open-access publication that fit with our work.

Open-Access Meaning and Benefits

Open-access is a newish label to me, but I’ve long been aware of open-source software, such as WordPress, Moodle, and Linux. (See this helpful librarian’s post for more detailed descriptions of the two “opens.”) In a basic sense, open-access in publishing means that the content is available to the public–no database or journal subscription needed.

Some open-access outlets Noelle and I considered were not appealing because they were not publishing regularly or, to be perfectly honest, their page layouts were ugly. We settled on the International Journal of Communication (IJoC) out of USC’s Annenberg School as our first choice because of their professional web presence and the quality of their articles. After a rigorous peer-review and editing process, IJoC published our essay, “The Spoiler Nuisance Rationale” on Halloween of 2016. The publication is open-access and it uses the Creative Commons 4.0 license. Anyone can read and share the article as long as they are citing the work, not transforming it, or using it commercially.

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Our reason for seeking an open-access journal is this post’s title: to have greater reach for our work. I mentioned earlier that our interviewees for this study are public figures. Most wanted to be named in the piece. If I were them, I would want to look and see my quotes that had been used, what my colleagues said, and how the interviews were analyzed. If we had gone with a traditional print journal, our interviewees’ opportunities to read the published work would be highly constrained and they could not share the work.

The Nuances of Access in Traditional Journals

Taylor & Francis, publisher of many communication journals, allows authors to share their original manuscript (i.e., the essay first submitted that had not yet been reviewed) anywhere. Taylor & Francis also allows authors to put the accepted manuscript on personal pages (such as this blog, Facebook, etc.). However, sites that have greater reach to academic audiences–“Institutional repositories” such as ScholarWorks and academic-based social media sites like academia.edu and Research Gate–are excluded.

SAGE, another big publisher of communication journals, allows authors to post the accepted manuscript (the one that had been improved through peer review) to personal and institutional web pages. To assert these rights, I posted another spoiler article Noelle and I co-authored (published in a SAGE journal) on the blog in summer 2016.

Restricted access (such as subscribing to a journal, paying per article, or subscribing to a database) generates revenue to fund the editing, publication, and marketing processes. My friend and former colleague, Dr. Jennifer Leigh, is an Associate Professor of Management at Nazareth College with a passion for open-access. Jen is one of the Senior Editors for an entirely open-access publication, The Annual Review of Social Partnerships and co-editor of Principles for Responsible Management Education, which had free access for November 2016. This monthly access, she noted “is an important opportunity for management educators around the globe to utilize this research who might not be able to normally.”

Jen noted that the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal is typically funded by society membership dues and university library subscriptions. Other publishers commonly push open-access costs back to authors or their institutions. Taylor and Francis offers authors open-access rights on their accepted articles for almost $3,000. As the publisher says, this will help the “discoverability of your research.” SAGE Open is an online-only open-access journal that accepts all types of humanistic and social scientific work, relying only on one expert to peer-review the piece. Authors then pay an article processing charge (currently $395).

The Value of Access

Noelle and I wrote scholarly essays about TV spoilers. Our work is not world changing, but our research does promote understanding about different television joys and encourage civil discourse about television. It’s a subject that might have broad appeal to the many people who love television–or who have strong feelings about spoilers.

Dr. Leigh has more virtuous reasons for embracing open-access. In an email exchange from November 1, 2016, Jen wrote, “[F]or me it is an ethical issue–if we as academics are serious about addressing the pressing societal and ecological issues facing humanity we have to work on addressing the theory-practice divide. One step in this is providing easy access to high-quality research through open-access outlets.”

Jumping back to the more selfish side of open-access: I estimate that it takes me over 200 hours to produce an essay from start to publication acceptance. And what is the point? So six academics might read that article and cite it in their article that only six more people read?

Irrespective of the content of our work or our reasons for cultivating a wider audience, academics have an obligation to keep reaching. Take some time to be your own public relations agent. Make use of those 50 free eprints you receive. Send them to your colleagues, related non-profits, community organizations, students, people who may have participated in your study, and people who work in media. Post your original article far and wide because you can. And you should.

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