The impact of impact

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In an article based on his presentation at the UKSG conference earlier this month, Ernesto Priego gives a researcher-focused perspective on ‘impact’

‘Impact’ is a word that is never neutral.

Researchers today are required to reach audiences inside their academic discipline and within national boundaries at the same time as reaching beyond the walls of universities and sometimes even across national and linguistic borders. In addition, there are increasing demands for student satisfaction, particularly in an age of higher education commoditisation, while at the same time there is a need for quality of both content and academic and public engagement. All of these demands impact on the time we have to do these tasks and the funds required to do it.

All these pressures mean that, although official mandates seem to be to open up and reach out, in very practical terms there can be great difficulty in achieving this idea. The precondition for becoming ‘social machines’ is ‘frictionless sharing’ but what we really have are too many obstacles.

Cultural change in scholarly communication is often imposed rather than encouraged and this has led to a series of negative sentiments associated with the word ‘impact’.

There is an increasing polarisation, in both discourse and practice, between visions of the future  and the pragmatic limitations still experienced by many. So far the voices of funders have been heard (or mis-heard), as have the voices of some key players of the academic publishing industry. However, not all researchers, and particularly surprisingly to me, not all PhD students and early career researchers, are fully invested in the debates.

The old dictum of ‘publish or perish’ has turned academic publishing into an empty signifier, a landmark to reach in order to get a stamp on the passport. You could say that publishing has become the process where content goes to die. Researchers move on after publishing an output as there’s pressure to publish more and more, and many publishers consider the job done once the content (or often rather just the URL, or the abstract) is online.

This is complicated further by the contradictions between the newish publishing and dissemination platforms of the web and the old notions of intellectual property, authorship, authority and reputation. This situation imposes limitations when it should be lifting them.

At the moment we have the problem of highly restrictive copyright and of academics signing copyright agreements without thinking about their implications. Scholarly outputs where authors have transferred their copyright to their publishers become a one-way street where often only illegal sharing (academic piracy) can ensure the road is opened.

Because of this, the researcher is forced to think outside the box in order to ensure at least some degree of openness. And this is really the heart of the matter, that openness is not a business model but a way of thinking and doing research.

Open scholarship implies the diversification of the channels in which academics have traditionally produced and recognised research. Openness implies fluidity of form, interconnection and interoperability. The paradigm of print has ossified the metaphor of the paper, and the PDF has been proven to be a flat, restrictive and restricting format.

The available technology, in conjunction with the increasing desire (in some cases) and obligation (in many others) to reach wider audiences and to conduct research with the methods of today has opened up what researchers can do. However, academia has failed so far to recognise these, making innovation and experimentation the privilege of those who no longer have to worry about finding an academic job.

The reality today is that the research life cycle is now social, taking place online and offline, through a combination of so-called ‘traditional’ methods and the employment of newer technologies and methodologies. This is not only ‘papers’ but also other research outputs such as posters, infographics, videos, decks of slides and datasets.

Those of us in publishing and librarianship will be inclined to agree that knowledge can be created if we build networks and relationships and make sense of interconnections. The communication chain of today, integrating web-enabled devices, is built on the premise that interconnection is possible. This interconnection between individuals and researchers cannot only be about sharing the metadata but about sharing the actual content.

Therefore interoperability is a key term, but this is only possible through shared open standards. Conflicting proprietary systems will not talk to each other, in the same way that researchers that are forced to compete against each other will not share their data or findings with each other until the output has been fixed somewhere.

Researchers of today know that their published outputs need be discoverable online but institutions often fail to recognise that making research outputs visible takes time, specialised skills and resources. This means that many researchers still dedicate their efforts towards traditional, pay-walled reputation. This was seen recently, for example, in the case of some Wellcome Trust-funded scholars who, in spite of having received funds to publish open access, allegedly decided not to.

The landscape varies across academic disciplines, and recently these differences have surfaced more clearly. In STEM fields, collaboration, team working and multi-author journal articles are the norm, whereas, in other fields, authorship is mostly individual and largely represented by the monograph or collected editions.

For humanities and social sciences researchers, collaboration would help ensure that a certain output becomes visible and shared. However, the incentives remain funding-based, and output-centred. The focus has sadly been not the conversation, but the result. What we have instead of collaboration is competition; the scarcity of resources accelerating an unhealthy culture of possessiveness and secrecy.

In spite of the many positive aspects I see in the recent open-access mandates in light of the REF post 2014, they don’t really encourage a grassroots, researcher-led publishing culture change. I’d like to suggest the situation we have requires long-term thinking and a tackling of the cultural foundations of academic research, beginning with postgraduate students and early career researchers.

Today, lack of employment opportunities has entrenched a culture of privilege where those who can afford to can spend their unemployment creatively engrossing their CVs and lengthening their publication lists. Supervisors keep encouraging young scholars to favour traditional journals and channels over innovative, experimental platforms.

In spite of all the buzz of innovation, many early career researchers still choose where to publish according to impact factor. Some have never heard of article-level metrics or alternative metrics, although some of us already require output-level metrics, going beyond the concept of the ‘article’.

This all goes in complete contradiction of what many of us have been advocating, the idea of scholarly outputs as part of a network, where models such as the mega journal and the disaggregated journal (such as PLoS ONE or the proposed Open Library of Humanities) point towards a possible future where the emphasis is not on where you publish but on what you publish.

Researchers are not paid by publishers as content providers and editorial work force. Therefore attribution, not royalties, is our most important currency, and open licences are contributing to develop this culture. Attribution is only really possible when people are actually reusing your work.

At its core, a culture of open scholarship asks an essential question: why researchers publish, and why publishers do what they do.

There is increasing awareness that academics are not exempt from cultural moves towards greater transparency and accountability. Many authors do research without funding, and not all funding considers open-access publication costs. This also means that researchers need to be consciously aware that publishing costs money (although perhaps not as much as some publishers would like us to believe).

For me, the real challenge does not have to do with technologies or business models but with the values that drive researchers to publish, and with the development of a culture where researchers willingly share with each other and the public.

A vision for research outputs

Not all researchers will become publishers, so close collaboration between us is essential so that the current demands defining our professional practice are met. Research outputs need to be easy to find but also easy to access. This means easy to reuse, which, in many cases at the very least, means being easy to cite, financially viable, and also protected from digital rot, archived and preserved in different locations.

In addition, we need outputs where the researcher grants a licence to publish and authors retain their copyright whilst allowing reuse without intermediaries under some conditions. Research outputs must also match the dynamic culture of digital content, which is multi platform. Outputs and platforms need to be open in the sense that they are machine-readable and easy to mine for computational analysis/distant reading, with digital object identifiers for easy aggregation and measurement.

We must also make research outputs really count by transparently sharing data, subject to quantitative and qualitative analysis. And it’s never just about the figures, but about mapping the reach and networks of reception and collaboration.

In a nutshell, we need research outputs that are easy to measure, map, track, reproduce and share. And, if reduced to three key points, the priorities are: proactive publication, machine readability, and explicit open licences.

‘Impact’ has to be about the people who do the research and those others who might be interested in it. True impact would be to achieve a culture of sharing that is researcher-led and collaborative, and rewarding, not exhausting and resented.

Many of my colleagues feel they are being bullied into open access. They seem to feel they are being restricted from choosing where to publish their research (this, for me, often means choosing to restrict their own research). Some of us, on the contrary, feel we are being restricted from publishing in newer, open channels as these are not fully recognised.

We need to find ways to build bridges, not walls. We can turn 'impact' into a positive word again, not a blow but a handshake or an embrace. Open scholarship should be encouraged, not imposed. That will take time and patience, and understanding. In a way, the future is up to us.

Ernesto Priego is a lecturer in library science at City University London, UK. He researches publishing and scholarly communications and is editor-in-chief of an open-access, peer-reviewed, researcher-led journal published by Ubiquity Press. He is also a member of the LibTech committee of the Mellon-funded Open Library of Humanities