We May Need More Zero's

In academia, there’s a mantra: ‘publish or perish’. Academics have to publish their work, and the higher the ‘impact’ of the publishing journal the better. Publishing shows that they’re doing stuff, and publishing in high ‘impact’ journals shows that what they’re doing matters. 

In our work to date, we’ve come across many practitioners exploring what it means to work with communities on the basis of parity, trust and an equal voice for all. Few of them publish, if any. To all intents and purposes, the only way you’ll know of their work is if you spend time with them. 

This disparity in publishing is a bigger deal than people realise. In a world of finite resources, everyone has to make their case. Making one’s case is often facilitated by being able to point to published work. By not publishing routinely, the practitioners we hope to support are making their lives - and the lives of their colleagues - harder. 

Of course, not everyone can write. Having been an academic editor and publisher, I can assure you that many - if not most - academics are terrible writers. It may not be their proclivity, it may not be something they like, but with ‘publish or perish’ it’s not something they can choose not to do. Academics have no choice but to publish. 

Practitioners have the choice. And many choose not to. It may not be their proclivity, it may not be something they like, and they can choose not to. But the impact of this is that in a world in which people are looking for ‘evidence’ to back decisions and actions, academics have a greater voice than practitioners - and disciplines with large academic communities have the greatest voice of all. 

To address the imbalance, you have to get practitioners to write. But most won’t. And when they do, what they produce may not be worth the effort. And so, you have to help them. You have to find editorial and publishing resources to help them share their experiences, comment on the field, and through writing hold others to account. 

That’s not cheap. 

Running journals for academics driven by ‘publish or perish’ is pretty cheap, at least by comparison (which also fuels how many journals there are, and hence the perception of how much ‘evidence’ there is). And so, addressing the imbalance is not going to be cheap. 

That’s something we’ve realised in writing grant applications. The more we’ve thought about what’s needed, the more we’ve realised we need more zero’s at the end of the figure we’re asking for. That doesn’t mean we’ve given up, just that we’ve realised that to request something of the order we think is needed, we need to spend longer making the case. 

And so, that’s what we’re doing. Taking stock, thinking again, looking to re-group and bring greater focus (and zero’s) to the ask. Quite whether anyone will fund it, we don’t know, but as we’ve said before, we don’t want to do this work unless we can do it properly. 

Pritpal S Tamber

Founder, Beyond Systems