Why is academia so slow?

In short: academics don’t care. 

Why should they?

Incentives are powerful and for academics, speed is not incentivised.

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I worked on an academic paper for 18 months with my co-author, then we submitted it to a journal and it took three months to get a reply, then we took one month to make some fixes, then it was published two months later. Two years in total!

How can academic publishing possibly be so slow? And how can it afford to be slow in fields like the one I’m interested in – media/tech – which changes three times a day and shifts substantially several times a year?

I wanted to know, so I asked.

Five media academics gave me the same answer (‘That’s just the way it is’), but the sixth told me something different:

Academics don’t care about publishing fast. We aren’t trying to get products to market, unlike you guys in industry. We’re working to a different timescale – identifying long-term changes is the aim, and getting published is the key to success. Yes, academic publishing is slow. But so what? Academics don’t need to be first, so we don’t need to be fast. So in a sense we just don’t care.

So long as the academic reward system is tied to publishing through traditional channels, there’s little incentive for academics to change. Mystery solved. But a deeper problem remains.

In media/tech, the field in which I work and in which I was researching, academia has almost no voice.

Academics typically have access to less information, less context and less expertise than the practitioners about whom they write. And the world turns fast, so much of what they do produce is either hard to apply or out of date.

This is a terrible shame. Some of the brilliant academics I have worked with wield powerful models and frameworks, can draw connections across multiple disciplines, and can identify and explore patterns hidden to the fast-paced industrial worker bees. 

So the near-absence of academic work in much of the media/tech industry is a great loss. 

The challenge is not just one of speed. Relationships, distribution, access to information, and many other obstacles remain. But the result is a painful distance between academia and industry. 

John Sutherland wrote a great editorial on this in The Computer Games Journal. The title sums it up:

Yes, you did it, I read it, but does it *mean* anything?

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For more, follow @toddmgreen on Twitter.

 

What do you think?

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