What is the best way to publish innovative research?
When you ask this question in the academic community, the answer might appear obvious. Serious research must be published in academic journals or books. A community of peers should assess research output. After all, peers are best placed to make a judgment of quality and integrity.
The number of publications in the “best” journals — as well as citations — are generally used as an index of academic performance and achievement. Promotion and tenure requirements depend on such publications.
But is this the best way to publish new ideas today? Particularly in the area of social science and humanities? And particularly research that aspires to be original, innovative or disruptive?
The reality is that publishing academic research can be a bureaucratic, time-consuming and, often, political process. This is especially true of well-established journals or prestigious publishing companies. It can take years from the initial submission of a proposal or draft to final publication.
The format and style of traditional academic publishing presents a second set of difficulties. Traditional academic journals and publishers expect a standardized format and “specialized” language that is difficult to understand. The demand for “evidence” also creates pressure to add more and more footnotes.
This has become a problem. Academics have an obligation to disseminate their “discoveries” to a wider audience. Not least because the public pay for most such research.
And yet, most academic research is slow to publication and presented in a form that is inaccessible to most people. Traditional academic publishing has become a space of bizarre time-scales and almost willful obscurity.
The result? The potential audience for such work has become minuscule.
The time has come to say goodbye to the “but, that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality that currently dominates.
And there is more . . .
We live in a digital and connected age. A world of new opportunities has changed every aspect of how we live, work and learn.
Young, fast-growing companies with few assets and fewer employees challenge traditional business models. Large and established companies struggle to adapt to new business realities. A “millennial” workforce has transformed expectations and demands of work. Artificial intelligence is on our doorstep. And innovation cycles are shorter.
Disruption has become a permanent feature of everyday life.
In this new world, speed is everything. Researchers also need to reach their audience as quickly as possible. But, the need-for-speed is not enough to replace the traditional academic publication process. “Open access” platforms (e.g., SSRN) enable researchers to instantly disseminate their research. A “final” version can then be published later in traditional outlets.
Yet, open access sites do not solve the “problems” of researchers today. Not least, people’s reading habits have changed. Much content — including “academic” content — is now read on mobile devices. People read when they are lying in bed in the morning, when they travel or when they are bored in meetings.
The way we read has changed, as have expectations of what we read. This means that academic papers need to be shorter, more accessible and more “media-friendly”, if they are to attract a wider audience.
The solution? Medium
There are several online publishing platforms that researchers can use to publish their research. Having used LinkedIn Pulse and Medium, the latter is my preference. Pieces look stunning on smart phone, tablet or computer.
Since anyone with an account can share stories on Medium, it is open to criticism. Some colleagues argue that it is a social media website and not a platform for serious research.
It is true that there are lots of “personal” essays on Medium. Also, Medium pieces are prone to a faster “decay process”. The shelf life appears to be shorter than traditional articles.
Yet, the data shows that the longer pieces of 7 to 10 minutes get most attention on Medium. This makes it a potential platform for publishing serious research. And if the length is longer than 10 minutes, authors have the option to break the article up in several pieces. The benefit of this is that new research is continuously published. This will help communicate and build an audience.
There are several clear advantages:
(1) creating your own community
Medium offers readers with the option to recommend a story or to start following an author. These features help writers build a community of readers and an on-going dialogue around their ideas. This is particularly helpful for innovative research not yet established within the academic community. Such research often struggles to get published in more established journals. Everyone can establish a community irrespective of their qualifications, institutional affiliation, status or experience.
The less formal nature of Medium makes it easy to test new ideas. It is no surprise that many iterations allow ideas to be refined. Publishing on Medium also makes writers more creative, productive and innovative.
The discipline of regularly posting research can be extremely powerful. It forces researchers to think, articulate and question. It also obliges them to adopt a more accessible style. Online tools (such as a “Headline Analyzer” and “Hemingway Editor”) and writer-apps (such as “Ulysses” or “Scrivener”) can help make them better writers.
(3) real-time feedback
The Medium publishing platform provides writers with important stats in “real-time”. These include views, reads, read ratio and recommends. These statistics provide instant feedback. Such information helps writers improve their skills and produce clearer articles in the future.
(4) specialized publications
With a growing number of Medium users, more specialized communities and publications emerge. The impact of research increases if the editors of high-quality publications syndicate a story.
In the world of traditional academic publishing, success is measured in small units. An academic book that sells 1000s of copies or an article cited 1000s of times is considered a success. Contrast that with the world of social media. The potential reach of such platforms is incomparable.
(6) shorter, better, faster . . . and free
Medium may actually be better than traditional academic articles. Research suggests that blogging about an article can lead to hundreds of new readers in a very short time. Before there may only have been a handful.
Complementing Medium with blogging and tweeting is a great way to build awareness of research. It is my experience that social media is currently a better tool to generate debate in government, civil society, and academia.
Surprisingly, few of my colleagues use or even know about Medium. But, it cannot be ignored. Academics should realize that publishing on Medium will not ruin them. It is part of a broader cultural shift. Building an online footprint and community is becoming more important than being covered by a respectful journal with only a handful of readers. Change is coming.
Yet, it is a mistake to think of this cultural shift as marking a dramatic break with the past. The best academic research has always aspired to reach a mainstream audience. The possibilities of new platforms such as Medium are just an evolution of this same goal.