academic publishing

A PhD thesis for the digital age?

For many years I’ve been impressed by the doctoral theses produced by many of the European universities in which a sequence of research papers are bound together in a small paperback volume along with the brief introduction and summary. They make the traditional hard bound tomes that most British and Australian universities still insist upon look like something from the middle ages.

I liked them so much that when we ran the Centre for Clinical Research Excellence in Clinical Gait analysis and Gait Rehabilitation down in Melbourne we paid  to have doctoral level theses bound and printed in a similar way (even though the Universities insisted on them being submitted in conventional format). I’ve still got a series of them on my shelves today which I show off with pride.

Given this background I was particularly pleased to receive a link to her thesis from Dutch PhD student Lizeth Sloot. She’s taken things one stage further and used a blogging platform to develop a web-site around her PhD thesis (click here to view it). I must admit that I haven’t had a great deal of time to look in detail at the contents but I think the presentation is superb.


My understanding is the she’s develop this approach on her own rather than under instruction from the VU Amsterdam where she has been studying, but wouldn’t it be great if all theses could be published like this. As an examiner, I always feel a sense of foreboding when  a traditional thesis is passed to me and a sinking feeling that here are 200 pages of text that I’ve got to wade through. This style, by contrast, has me wanting to click on the links immediately and start exploring the science.

Well done Lizeth – I hope you’ve provided us with a vision of how all theses will be presented at some time in the future. Perhaps even more importantly, I hope that your defence goes well on 1st April (details here  for anyone in Amsterdam on that day).





Producer pays publishing

In UK Higher Education research quality is assessed every four or five years through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). We have  just finished our submission to REF 2014 and it won’t be until late next year that we receive our results. Already, however,  the government’s plans for the next REF are starting to emerge. The latest communication was an indication that only journal articles made available for open access are likely to be accepted.

The drive is now well and truly on for open access publishing. If public bodies or charities have funded research then surely the results should be open to everyone. I feel a bit like Canute in arguing against the tide, but then again I feel like Canute quite a lot of the time.

The most obvious point to make is that most journal articles are open to everyone already. If you log on to any of the big publisher’s web-sites you can buy a copy of any journal article you like (cost is typically about £30).  The issue isn’t whether articles are open or not, it is what they cost. Most universities and academics are happy to supply copies of individual articles free if you just e-mail a specific request. “Green” publishing effectively formalises this process.

The argument that the research has been funded by governments or charities is still relevant but it is not clear cut. There are many instances where governments invest money but expect the user to contribute at point of use. I’m sitting on a train at the moment that benefits from considerable public subsidy but I still expect to buy a ticket for each individual journey. Even where freedom of information legislation applies there is generally a charge for that information being made available.

The research paper is a product. It’s a product that, if it is useful, someone should be prepared to buy. The general rule for pricing is that the value is determined by what the consumer is prepared to pay.  Open access publishing, at least in the “Gold” form where a fee is charged to the publishing institution, is moving to a model where the producer is required to pay. I can’t think of any other product whose cost is charged to the producer – it runs counter to the logic of the market economy.

The problem with shifting to a producer pays model is that the economics of the system becomes driven by the need to produce rather than any consideration of whether the product is of any value. Most of us in academia are not challenged by the scarcity of data out there – we are overwhelmed by the quantity of it, particularly that which is of low quality.  There is a real risk that by removing demand side drivers and increasing supply side drivers the quality sieve will become coarser, not more refined and there are indications that we are beginning to see this already.

Of course the elephant in the room, and it is a very big elephant, is the academic publishing industry. Its initial reluctance to embrace open access publishing now appears only to have represented the thinking space required to work out a business model to exploit it most productively. Having established this, the big publishers are wading in with “open” arms. It’s a reflection of their inertia that they’ve taken so long to realise that this is a licence to print money. They can now charge the consumer (academic institutions are continuing to pay large fees to have ready access to content) and the producer. Over time the balance will shift from the former to the latter but it is becoming increasingly apparent that publishing a product whose value is set by the producer is a much more attractive proposition than one whose value is set by the consumer.