Thursday, February 5, 2015

The object not the author

There's a problem in the higher education sector.  I've really been struggling to write this for several months including through a number of peer-reviewed writing processes. It's here because I didn't know how to otherwise say it.  

Universities own knowledge, because they must.  
Universities are in the business of creating specific spaces where knowledge is held and attributed according to their own requirements, and they explicitly operate using these practices.  For academics there is a publish or perish imperative that drives the need to ensure your name appears on publications.  As a senior researcher, I have it.  My institution, my boss, expect me to have research work with my name attached to it. They expect me to publish the ideas from my work in peer-reviewed journals, chapters, books, proceedings,  and to have that endorsed through citation.  My name and its association with my institution is an absolute work requirement.   There is a lot of 'I' and 'My' in these sentences because that's how the academic path is managed. Communities of practice, networks, research teams and support systems notwithstanding, academics are assessed as individuals.

Publish or perish. 
Publish or perish and the pragmatic metrics of universities aside, it's also a great feeling to know that you've done work that could be helpful for people, theorised it, and then published it for it to have some kind of impact and maybe effect change or get people thinking about things differently. When I was invited to publish a conversation piece between me and another academic who had worked on a practice-research project in a prestigious journal, I was both flattered and relieved that I could pass on some of that information that had might effect change.  The project focused on Australian Indigenous Studies at unis, and I'd been working on it and the ideas around it for some years, particularly through my work with the Office of Learning and Teaching, and I thought I had a lot of good perspectives and ideas about where it could go and what its function was.   

The process would be a conversation, and we decided after some to and fro-ing that doing it via email (so written convo really) would be the easiest way.   I was effectively writing what I had to say and it was kind of a one-sided conversation, but the topping and tailing would be down to the person asking me the questions.  So the conversation was formed for publication by me answering a range of questions in long form, theorising the value of the work and its place across the sector, the value of the OLT and it's other work.  It provided me an opportunity to really talk up the wonderful work we'd been doing and I was thrilled and kind of mortified at the same time that I was doing most of the 'talking'.   But I hoped that I'd just managed to encapsulate both what the other person wanted to say (surely that's why my contribution remained to publication) and that the theorising of our position was coming through in this conversation. 

Naming is the same as owning. 
The title of the work even included my name, which surprised me, why not both our names... surely a conversation is between two people? I suggested it, but nah it was all good, her choice, really.  I got a final copy for approval, and it was pretty much everything I had said, with a beautifully constructed intro and a conclusion that was great - a collaborative effort.  The whole work contained a great deal of significant analysis over what had happened in the national network that we had both worked on with my reflections as an Indigenous academic who was concerned about what was happening in the broader teaching and learning space of higher education.  It looked great. I did look at it properly, didn't I? 

I am the object not the author
As you can imagine, when you're a researcher you assign time to various tasks and your workplace gains valuable research outcomes or other work product.   I frequently report to my boss about this, let him know what publications are coming up and I did this here.  I've felt the pressure a lot more lately, everyone has - not from my boss, not from the Institute -  but from the industry we work in.  He was waiting on this research outcome and I got it from the other author, and was about to send it on when I read the line.    I wasn't the author. 

In academic contexts it is not the person who provides the words or ideas but rather the person who nominates that they own the right to the presentation of these ideas that legally becomes the author and owner, no matter how significant the content provided.   It was only a conversation with me, that was my only contribution.  I wasn't the author. 

It is attributed, but unowned. Standard practice in research publication attributes knowledge ownership to the person whose name appears as author, not the knowledge holder.  
And I wasn't the author. 

And while this may seem like a criticism of the author whose name is attributed, it should be noted that these decisions are formed by a university imperative to publish or perish, where a single author across some research fields has a greater impact, a far greater impact.  And where the knowledge is owned by whoever first claimed it first, and in writing.

It is also important to note that I was, without question, deeply complicit in the actions that led to a failure to enact a citation in line with author-ownership. I read the words I had written prior to submission and had not realised that my name was absent from the authoring page, and was surprised that in the final publication that I had been included as content, not as author. 

I was the object, not the person, and definitely not the author. 

The material that I wrote I can't now write. I wrote it already, it's already out there. It was framed as an interview, but the words were written on the page, and the analysis was incorporated into that writing and published in the leading journal in the field.  Where would I publish it?  Now it's kind of just a reminder of my own ineptitude and everything that's wrong with the academy.  And it's also actually a really cool piece. 

Who should have known?
First and foremost, me. In fact when I realised what had happened I had a sinking feeling in my gut for about a week. It made me literally weak and really angry. I summoned up the courage to tell my boss about my mistake and what had happened. I knew it had an impact on us as an Institute, and that it wasn't something that I'd forget in a while (well I thought that, then fast forward to Jan 2015).   Other universities (like the ones that did benefit from this) are big and a missing attribution means  nothing, for us, it's important.  Again, I should have been more careful, because that I knew.

Building a career.
I could blame the author or the editor, the editorial board or the publisher - all competent and prestigious, but actually they're just doing what comes naturally for academics and for publications, they're building, edifying. They are doing what all academics are trained to do, take knowledge and publish it as their own.   For some there is no real trust in this academic space, but I still don't believe that this means that trust is misplaced when people work together.  This is not damning of anyone, instead it's the failure of these pumped up silos of one.  

Research material so frequently fails to attribute. 
There is no sense in any publication that I know of that says that the analysis or the core of the material has to be 100% from the author, or even 90% from the author. It can be from anyone, as long as they are cited. The credit will always be with the author; that's how academic publications work.
I spend so much of my working life talking about the risks of this, of failing to attribute, of taking knowledge and information and academics using it as their own, it's hard to fathom that I let it happen to me.   Of course I would have said that I was talking about Indigenous Knowledges and I would have fought hard for attribution for others, community, elders, people working across cultural and creative spaces. Like many academics I've refused - no matter how tempting -  to use material that is inappropriately attributed or sourced, where the lines of ownership are blurred.  That just seems like politeness and who wants to be cast as the person who used spurious, dodgily-sourced material?

About two weeks ago I got an email from someone asking me to do it again.  I wasn't good enough to write with them or for them, but they needed some quotes, some information that they could put into their own published material.  I readily said yes, then as I was writing it tonight for them, I realised what I was doing. 

One of the reasons I've been so proud of the Batchelor Institute publication by Associate Professor Lyn Fasoli and Rebekah Farmer 'You're in New Country' (a brilliant text on Early Childhood contexts in Indigenous Australian settings) is that they were very clear that their authorship would not be named as absolute.  They frame themselves as researchers who compiled, designed and brought together material from people who provided it.  And all of them are named.  You might be thinking that that's nice, or that this comment about the book is about 'You're in New Country' being respectful, but respect is a cornerstone for the text, everything else is built from there. It's clever because of the authority of authorship, we know who provided the information and their motivations.  

I know that I can only do this in the context of single author publications and that many journals and edited books won't permit it, but I will never fail to think through the process of accreditation.  It just seems like politeness.  

It's worth thinking about this.
I hope that if you've read this, heard this, and you write research that you seriously consider the implications of the work that you undertake. If your research involves others who own the information that you're interpreting, know what their contribution is and tell them what it means.

I could be talking about colonisation here, but I won't even go down that path.  The process is colonised and if I let that happen to me, I did it out of stupidity because that's what the system does. But I also like the system, I get to work within it and I shape and remove that shell of colonisation with every action that we take, I believe that.  I don't have to be is colonised within it. I work at an institution that is remarkable and that contributes to different ways of thinking about academic work. I owe it to my colleagues to do that as well.  We all owe it to ourselves to never be the person who cares more about their position in the academy than their colleagues and their integrity.

Ironically it's also forming a part of a broader sound text work called Cited or the Object, that operates as a practice-research set focusing on problems around cultural authority.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sandy, thank you for this important post. This is something I think about as a research subject and most of the reason as to why I am now looking at sharing my own narratives as a writer and (hopefully one day) as an academic. Not sure what else to say, except to say that you have my support!