I want to write more about some of the practical applications of the general point I made in Communication vs Validation: Why are you publishing?. In particular, I want to connect my approach to writing and publishing with the larger themes of confidence and meaningfulness. This particular post began with a reply to a general question someone threw out on Twitter one day. (initial thread here: Twitter thread in September 2018) I know it is a common concern so I wanted to elaborate on that a bit more in a place that is somewhat less ephemeral and easier to find again. I suspect I will write more on this topic.
The apparent pointlessness of scholarly publication and why you feel pressure to do it
The point of publishing journal articles is to engage with other scholars to advance knowledge. If you want research based intervention for change, that may seem pointless. It’s not the audience you most care about. That said, think about why you decided to do scholarly work in this area. Why are you pursuing research rather than just activism or even paid work in human services. Think about the work that inspires your activism.
I suspect you value both research and activism but they are different activities, and work on different time lines. Furthermore the questions and concerns that activists, practitioners, and policy makers have are usually different than those of your scholarly colleagues. Advancing research knowledge is not the same project as applying research knowledge to problems on the ground. They are connected. They are not the same.
In academic rewards systems (e.g. hiring & promotion), publishing for other scholars is usually more highly valued. Some institutions have begun to change their policies and practices to also value activities that increase the impact of research beyond the scholarly community but these are not widespread and often less radical in their implementation than the policy suggests. In reaction to this situation there are many people suggesting that research (and means of communicating research) with direct relevance to policy makers, practitioners, activists, and other non-scholarly publics is actually more important. I disagree. There is an important place for research with no immediate relevance and for communication amongst scholars to advance knowledge.
The evidence in evidence-based policy and practice
If you value evidence-based policy and practice, you implicitly recognise this. What do you understand by “evidence” in this phrase? Usually, you mean evidence from research that conforms to standards of rigour recognised by the relevant scholarly discipline. The validation part of the scholarly publishing process can be important to research users. In the other piece about communication vs validation I focused on how scholarly publications are used to validate you as a researcher and academic in hiring, promotion, and funding processes. However, publication in peer reviewed journals also serves to validate the research. Peer review, despite it’s problems, is valued by scholars because it gives those engaged in research control over the criteria for deciding what conforms to those standards. Resistance to the increasing involvement of commercial entities in the funding of academic research and to the reduction of public funding for research is also based in the view that the integrity of research is maintained by having some distance from the immediate needs of specific users.
Furthermore, the evidence that you would like to inform policy and practice is usually not from a single study. As a researcher you know that the results of a single study, no matter how well constructed, are rarely generalizable. The methods always impose limits on the interpretation of the results. This is why there is a strong push for funding and recognition of research syntheses like those Cochrane produces for health research or the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produces for climate research. The time it takes to produce solid research evidence and to synthesise the results of multiple studies is often much longer than you would like, given the urgency of the problems. However, publishing the results of your small contribution to that body of knowledge is a crucial step in getting there.
You don’t always need a research synthesis to produce research useful to practitioners, policy makers, and activists because all scholarly research is built on previous work in the field. You conducted a literature review when you were designing the study. Your methods are based on methods that have been tried and tested even if you are innovating methodologically in some way. You need to publish scholarly outputs so that other researchers will be able to build on that work but you may also want to publish (i.e. make public) other outputs from your research.
You may have useful results to communicate with practitioners, policy makers, or activists. Publishing in scholarly journals is unlikely to be the best way to reach them even if they read (or intend to read) scholarly journals due to the difficulties of accessing those publications, the time they have available for reading research, and the fact that the questions that most interest them may not be the questions that are making the most significant contributions to moving research knowledge forward. You should carefully consider what other kinds of research communication would best meet the needs of these potential users of your research. This may or may not be another form of written publication. A participant in a workshop once used the analogy of lighting a fire. There is a way to set an entire building ablaze by strategically lighting two or three tiny fires, something anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of a house fire started by a candle will also confirm. What little tiny fires can you start so that others can make good use of your research?
What if, like one of my former clients, you are coming into a research field at a point where this a strong body of research to build on? My former client is a senior scholar, motivated by activism and a desire to make a difference. After many years of mainly doing academic work (in an applied field), attending conferences, and publishing in academic journals in her (applied) field, she received funding for a major study to test an intervention. Unusually, even the early results from that trial showed very strongly that the intervention was effective. She was frustrated by the embargo on publishing that data, imposed by the funder and the ethics of the particular type of study. She also knew that they had to publish the results of the study before they could start making this intervention available to people on the ground and that further work would also be needed to develop effective programs for training people to do this work outside the confines of a carefully controlled research study.
On the suggestion of a collaborator in a different field she submitted the initial article to a very high status journal outside her usual field, something that not only pushed her out of her comfort zone but involved a considerable learning curve in terms of this journal’s style and revision practices, further extending the time it took to publish these results. Her patience paid off in a wider readership for the results of her studies as well as the additional prestige and authority that this particular journal gave to her results amongst the practitioner community. (Knowing it would be published and featured in such a high status journal, she also sought media training and placed op eds in key mainstream publication to further draw attention to this work.) As further results come out from this study, she and her collaborators will publish them in academic journals for similar reasons.
Because this was applied research that as already building on a strong body of both basic and applied research knowledge, it feels weird for her to get kudos for the final thing. The successful intervention was based on a long tail of research and scholarly conversation (through publications). And yet, she needs to claim that success to ensure that the successful intervention actually gets used. Luckily, her university has support available to help her build different kinds of structures and learn a whole new set of skills for training people to deliver it, setting up a non-profit for that work, and so on. Her collaborators are taking the applied research agenda forward. She is focused on setting up the foundations for ongoing training and support for practitioners and turning her attention to related research projects.
What this means for you
The academic work you do now may well make a difference in the future, even if it is basic research and you publish primarily in scholarly journals read by other scholars in your field. Scholarly publication is a long asynchronous collaborative project of building a body of knowledge. That may not be enough for you, but it is not nothing.
Your scholarship may already build on a large body of knowledge and your findings may be directly relevant to policy, practice, or activism. If this is the case, figure out how much time you have to devote to an activity that is personally meaningful and socially important but undervalued by your employer. You don’t have to do this alone.
You may also need to consider how your scholarship fits with (and feeds?) other forms of activism or professional activity that you engage in personally. Your academic work is not your life, despite an organisational culture that implies it should be. That other work may not be valued by academic supervisors or employers, but if you value it, you need to find a way to organize your work and life so the things you value fit. This is difficult. You are not alone in doing this.
It will not be easy to make time to do this work. It will be especially difficult if you are precariously employed in academia. You will have to carefully weigh the relative importance of making a difference in the world and doing rigorous academic research for you personally. You will need to make some tough decisions about your own priorities right now. You will be able to return to this question and reprioritise when your circumstances change. You will also need to risk being seen by those whose opinions you value, both within academia and in other networks that are important to you, as not measuring up to what they think you are capable of.
This will be tough. You will figure this out. You will probably make a few mistakes along the way.
Prestigious journals and wider impact is an earlier piece looking at this question (based on the example I discuss above)
Thoughts on “Untangling Academic Publishing” has links to a report on the history of academic publishing that provides some useful background on the history of peer review, it’s connection to the validation of research, and how changes in higher education and the entrance of commercial publishers into scholarly publishing affects that.
Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan focuses on the more practical issues of identifying your priorities, setting boundaries, and leaving yourself some buffer for things that come up so that you can do the work that is most meaningful to you.
Risking doing the work you find meaningful addresses your fear that if you do this work you may end up living in a cardboard box under a bridge. Your gremlins exaggerate. And more people might be interested in hiring someone pursing meaningful research than you think.