Feel the rush

Incisive debate on contemporary issues is curtailed by the glacial pace of academic publishing, argues Tim Luckhurst. Adopting new journalistic models would inject vitality into academics' work

December 2, 2010

As a journalist, I learned a lesson that many academics consider not just counter-intuitive but heretical: if a job is worth doing it is often worth doing fast. If the job is very important, it may be necessary to complete it at supersonic velocity.

To an editor in national news or current affairs this is axiomatic. The duties to inform the public and beat the opposition are pressing. Good journalists dare not imagine that their obligations to accuracy and fairness permit them to delay publication. Quality and speed must be partners, not antagonists.

It is daunting to begin the day staring at the empty flatplan of an 80-page newspaper. But every editor knows that a professional team will fill it with eloquent, informative news, comment and analysis. And, if an important story breaks late in the day, they will pull the pages apart and start afresh.

In broadcasting and online, the process is quicker. Running orders for heavyweight programmes such as BBC Radio 4's Today or Channel 4 News are often rewritten while the programme is on air. Presenters may not know who they are to interview next until moments before they are asking them the first question.

Such speed and precision of response require intense concentration. Editors must avoid hazards legal, regulatory and ethical and adjudicate on questions of taste. These are jobs for highly intelligent, driven people who embrace responsibility and exercise leadership.

Throughout my career in journalism, I retained memories of the first people I met who displayed such confidence and quick-wittedness. They were academics who taught me as an undergraduate. Their dynamism reinforced my ambition to pursue a second career as an academic.

So, imagine my regret on moving to a university chair and discovering that colleagues routinely take months to review a journal article and even longer to publish it, and that some books are published less rapidly than ships are built. Such delays are frustrating enough to colleagues who research and write about issues of no immediate public concern. In my field they frequently destroy opportunities for academic work to make an impact in the profession it seeks to describe and analyse.

My introduction to the glacial pace of academic publishing occurred early. Invited to review a new collection of essays for an eminent journal, I accepted instantly. The editor's nonchalant attitude to deadlines confused me.

"When do you need it?" I asked.

"As and when," he replied. "It doesn't have to go in the next edition."

Reader, I thought he was joking. He was not. I received page proofs three months after submitting copy. My response was blunt when a voice on the telephone asked me, "Do you know how long it takes to lay out a page?"

The idea is remarkable that a review published long after the title can serve a useful purpose. If the book dealt with the economics of rabbit farming in 14th-century Lincolnshire, its authors might reasonably worry that their research might be overtaken before it was reviewed. When, as in the case of my review, the subject matter is 21st-century journalism, the injury is grievous.

A new on-demand publishing model, adopted by Richard Keeble of the University of Lincoln and John Mair of Coventry University, and operated by Richard Franklin, managing director of Abramis Academic Publishing, has shown that such delays are inexcusable. It is not difficult to take an academic book from conception to publication in six months. I know. I contributed to it.

Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines (edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, Abramis 2010) had its origins in a conference in Coventry in March 2010. Journalism academics and serving front-line correspondents came together to discuss the editorial and ethical challenges of reporting the war in Afghanistan and their consequences for representation of the conflict. The conference was organised in conjunction with the BBC College of Journalism and chaired by its executive editor, Kevin Marsh, a former editor of the Today programme.

Keeble and Mair concluded that papers given in Coventry could form the basis of a book. They commissioned chapters, invited short contributions from journalists and their editors and, six months later, on 15 September, the book was launched before a capacity audience at the Frontline Club in London. An animated debate followed. The book contains the testimony of Britain's best front-line correspondents set in historical context alongside detailed academic analysis. It is rigorous, relevant and timely. It has been widely discussed on websites including journalism.co.uk.

Rapid publication allows academics to contribute fully to debate about current controversies. It also expands the range of subjects to which we can turn our attention. Keeble argues that the catatonic sloth approach adopted in the publication of many academic books and journals impoverishes and distorts their contents.

"It means that serious debate about contemporary issues is seriously curtailed," he explains. "Books tend to concentrate on broader theoretical issues and lack the urgency and vitality of more 'journalistic' texts."

His conviction that delayed publication encourages academics to rely excessively on purely theoretical methodologies inspired the design of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. Also published by Abramis, this peer-reviewed journal operates to deadlines that permit a mix of lively think-pieces by journalists and scholarly essays by academics. The result is a publication that stimulates readers within and beyond the academy.

Lethargic publishing schedules restrict academia's ability to make impact in debates to which academics have much to contribute. It limits the development of connections between theory and practice.

"It is a disgrace," says Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books. "But the academics are 90 per cent to blame. Why is their reviewing process so slow?"

He accuses academic peer reviewers of decelerating to the pace of their most snail-like colleague.

It is an accusation I have heard frequently from colleagues frustrated to tears by elongated timetables and woefully malleable deadlines. Many are frightened to declare their annoyance. They should be less timid. Glacial peer reviewing may explain late publication but it cannot justify acquittal because it is entirely unnecessary. Journalists are not the only people capable of publishing fast and accurately. Where competitive and commercial pressures apply there is evidence of very rapid publishing in science journals.

Academic study of journalism has a journey of interstellar length to complete before it will be taken seriously. It cannot afford to tolerate the deplorable delays typical in academic publishing, still less to excuse them with complacent and deluded arguments about quality and standards. Similar pressures now apply to many academic disciplines with valuable things to say about the state we are in.

Of course, paper publishing is old-fashioned. Skill and technologies that can write, edit, print and distribute books fast mean that academic writing can be published instantly online. In my subject, willingness to analyse and comment upon developments as they occur is widespread and growing. Several colleagues recognise that bringing professional journalists and academics together to discuss online topics of mutual interest is now so easy that there is no plausible reason to resist.

And the speed with which we can now bring our ideas to market does not just sharpen their impact. It generates a benign storm of review by peers we have not met and may collaborate with in future. Abandoning the idle pretence that excellence and speed are incompatible helps us to engage with the world. As higher education confronts intense new pressures, maximising such engagement will be crucial.

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