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The role of cuddles in research publishing

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To accuse academic librarians and others within universities of offering tacit approval to the predators, as Jeffrey Beall does, is simply unfair – claims Paul Sturges*. I am pleased to present his guest post challenging a Beall’s opinion on open access polices.

In a recent blog post Jeffrey Beall (the scourge of predatory publishing) draws attention to a new publisher called KnowledgeCuddle Publication and its two open access journals. He comments that ‘The publisher’s name is silly and unprofessional, more evidence of scholarly open-access publishing’s decline into absurdity.’ It is hard not to agree with the first part of this – the name is certainly ludicrous. But maybe if we look at the meanings of the word cuddle, we can see some sense in it. First of all cuddle is a consoling embrace we might give to a child or other loved one. Secondly it has come to be used as a euphemism in dating adverts and website posts so that ‘likes cuddles’ actually means ‘looking for sex’. Clearly neither of these applies here, but a third meaning that implies nurturing conduct is actually quite relevant. To look at open access publishing as a positive, nurturing process is rather appropriate, particularly when one compares it with some aspects of conventional scholarly publishing.

If we ask ourselves what is the purpose of research publishing, a helpful answer might be that it is to facilitate the dissemination of good research. Note the choice of the word good rather than excellent in this formulation. This might seem a slight semantic difference, but in fact it opens the way to a head on clash with the tendency of traditional research publishing as practiced by the most prestigious print journals. Their quest for excellence has not only tended to marginalise perfectly respectable and worthwhile research which we can only call good, whilst further institutionalising the harsher face of academic practice in American universities. It is not unfair to suggest that the American PhD system in its search for excellence and the tenure track contests in their appointments systems have a very cruel streak. The tendency of both is to grind researchers into choices of topics, ways of working and forms of expression that represent a strict orthodoxy. In particular, doctoral advisers play god in just the way their own advisers dominated them and encourage a cult-like set of academic practices via peer review. The aim of peer review is to foster technically excellent publications but at the same time it frequently has a (presumably) unintended consequence of both discouraging the truly original and failing to recognise the respectable and useful.

First a personal example of how good open access publishing can counter this tendency, before some general thoughts on the value of nurturing the good. After an academic career that included negotiating the progress of my many articles through the peer review process for a whole range of information science journals, I wrote something that was different from my previous output. To be precise it was an academic article on the writing of comedy. It might seem obvious that the optimum home for this would be a journal in the literary studies literature. However, that is a notoriously theoretical and highly academic field. A good, but probably not excellent, article risked not rejection but reviewers’ comments which sought to make it more like all the rest of the rather artificial published output of literary scholars. The solution was a broadly welcoming open access journal from a highly reputable international publisher. Submission of the text led into a very nurturing review process which certainly improved the content without making the author feel like an intruder in an exclusive club. The results can be judged for themselves. (The production of comedy: the joke in the age of social media’. Sage Open, Oct-Dec 2015, pp.1-7. DOI: 10.1177/2158244015612521) If you take the trouble to look at this I’d like you to think it is excellent, but I’ll be well content if you merely think it is good.

More important than my own experience is the significance for the academic world as a whole. It is the word ‘world’ that is important in the previous sentence: research and its publishing is now a global activity. This is exactly the way it should be, but it is driven by the almost universal use of English as the publishing language. Whilst this tends to disadvantage most of the world, it also makes content accessible to all. We do indeed need easy access to the very large and exciting quantities of worthwhile research that is taking place in the global south (East Asia in particular). What is not needed is a further layer of difficulty in publishing it imposed by the kind of contempt for open access publishing expressed by Beall (in the sentence quoted in the first paragraph). This line of argument risks shoring up academic publishing as a kind of exclusive first-world club. His claim that scholarly open-access publishing is descending into absurdity focuses on Knowledge Cuddle Publication and its many similar predators. This is understandable, but not really acceptable.

In particular, it is not acceptable as he goes on to do in the blog post discussed here, to suck institutions such as the University of Arizona and Florida State University into his critique. Their open access policies do not endorse KnowledgeCuddle and its like just because they do not specifically draw a line between respectable and predatory open-access publishers. It is surely not the role of university policies to attempt to specify such distinctions: it is the role of research administrators, librarians and others within a university community to build a set of guidance procedures and processes for researchers. To accuse academic librarians and others within universities of offering tacit approval to the predators, as Beall does, is simply unfair. He has expended an enormous effort over the years in drawing attention to the predators. He seems to feel that he is losing the fight, but he can be reassured that such is not the case. It is precisely because we have colleagues like him applying standards to the field that the predators will not win. What must not happen is for a campaign for excellence to swamp the nurturing of the good.

Image by gina pina, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

* – Paul Sturges is the Editor-in-Chief of Open Information Science and Emeritus Professor of Library Studies Loughborough University, UK / University of Pretoria, South Africa.

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