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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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There was a recent conversation on Twitter's excellent #phdchat hashtag revealing the angst that can be involved in getting the balance right between holding an idea back (for formal academic publication) and putting it out there. I'd like, in this post, to enumerate the pros and cons of each side, both ideologically and pragmatically. This isn't to say that it hasn't been done many times before -- in fact, Vitae has just run a piece on this very issue -- but I'd like to put my take on the issue out there.

A guard standing in front of a gate

In terms of thinking purely what would be better for the world, better for academia and better for the work you produce, an analogy to the free software world is in order: Release Early, Release Often. Under this paradigm, when developing code that is open source it makes sense to submit it for review under the broadest set of eyes possible at the earliest stage, on a frequent cycle. This will lead, ultimately, to a better piece of work from which everyone can benefit.

The comparison here is obvious. In the way that academia divides us, relying on the stereotype of the lone genius who can alone produce the killer breakthrough piece of work (I'm not saying that doesn't happen; hey, it could even be my work!), a lot of articles come out that certainly would have been better had two, or more, experts in the field collaborated. For instance: much academic dialogue in papers is dialectically combative. Professor 1: says "this". Professor 2 says: "'this' is wrong. It should have been 'that'. Here's my view founded on 'this' and 'that'.". Instead of this to-ing and fro-ing, if the critique had been mounted at an earlier stage, all sides could have been considered in the original paper. While this is the opposite stance taken by Brian Wetherson in his post on this topic, I think that while there is a place for division of labour, I also think that multiple people working on the same parts of production will produce a better end-point artifact.

Secondly, it promotes a culture of openness. There is a massive problem with library acquisition budgets falling far short of journal subscription costs, one of the only solutions that seems to feasibly work (although not flawless, but outside of this post's remit to discuss) is Open Access. Under this system, journal articles are free to the reader at point of delivery and are accessed online. They are still peer-reviewed and quality controlled, but they are open. By sharing ideas openly and early, we contribute to a culture which benefits us. We work to encourage others to do the same, making the research cycle faster and more accessible. Help others to help you. Help to change the system from the inside.

Yes yes, very nice. However, you also need to consider how the world is, not only how you might like it to be. This involves thinking about your career, and your research, especially if you want to go into academia.

The first thing to say, however, is that it's not entirely negative. You will want, if sharing ideas online, to make sure that you don't scupper the chances of getting a version published; this is how the system currently works. With this in mind, however, one of the biggest fears people have, is of being scooped. You can spend years working on a research project, only to have someone publish the same work one week before you. Project scuppered. Now let's say, hypothetically, that you had posted a version that outlined your work, your ideas and some conclusions online. Not in any way that might compromise a full publication, but in enough detail to mark you as the author of these ideas, conclusions etc. Now, if your "competitor" moved to scoop you, without giving you credit, they would be in serious trouble for plagiarism. Everything you write online is protected by copyright (except for non-copyrightable statements). If, on the other hand, they do scoop you, they are at least going to have to give you credit for getting something on the topic out there first. In short: you could get something, rather than nothing, even if you are scooped.

Online reputation is a difficult area. Moves are being made to begin thinking about the ways in which tenure could take account of online activity, but these are extremely preliminary. In the UK, for instance, public engagement is increasingly being seen as a criteria for demonstrating impact. Not to be cocky -- I know it's relatively modest -- I certainly cite 16,000 visits a month to this site to people as demonstrating the reach of my voice. That's still 16,000 more than if I didn't. By balancing your posts between public engagement, and research outlet, you perform both functions and sustain a healthy academic blog environment that could be used to demonstrate impact. This is certainly a boon for your online reputation, both with the public and also with hiring committees. You must also consider, though, the fact that the web, in one sense so ephemeral and shifting, can also do lasting damage. Be careful what you put out there. I don't think you need to go so far as to hire online reputation management as do some academics, but merely to consider both sides of everything you say online. For instance: posting occasional private snippets to Twitter. A bad idea you might think. However, a study has shown that professors who tweet personal details are deemed more credible by students.

Of course, treading the fine line between revealing too much and too little isn't easy, but I would argue that it's a risk that it's worth considering both ideologically, and pragmatically. Putting your research online can help accelerate research cycles, bolster your online reputation and, I believe, should not make it possible for people to simply rip you off.

Featured image by Sofia S under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.