Time to think?

I have taken part in an exchange about publishing practices in Polish academia. Poland’s science (in the European sense) is at the verge of new law which wants to make sure that Polish academics publish more on the international arena, that is to say in English. I want to comment on this.

I’ll start with a personal comment. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be an academic. This is probably because of my father for whom a person with a doctorate was a demi-god, and a professor was someone of unmeasured wisdom (boy, was he wrong!). So, when I graduated, my dreams came true – I got my first academic job. When I  started looking around, I quickly realised that there were a number of choices to be made. One of the choices was how I would publish.

To a considerable extent that choice wasn’t mine. It came out of astonishment that I tended to read stuff written by people far away and not by people I (sort of) worked with. In other words, the literature I read was largely in English (getting it was very difficult at the time in Poland) and people around me largely wrote in Polish. The difference was that between ‘local’ (which doesn’t necessarily mean bad) and ‘global’ science (which doesn’t necessarily mean great).  I was absolutely convinced that I wanted to be part of the global science. But to be completely honest, I wanted that because it was a challenge (not only in vanity), I wanted to show myself and others that I could do it.

And so, after some initial and continuing hiccups, I have published in English ever since. Lately, I have also published texts in Polish, but they are (someone else’s) translations of what I wrote in English. This bias is so strong that I find it quite difficult to write academic texts in Polish. Moreover, to a considerable extent, I have not questioned this bias and, to be honest, I don’t question it. I still want to be part of the international exchange of ideas (though how international and to what extent it is an exchange is very debatable), this is also the advice I offer, when asked.

But that’s my personal view and perspective. The question I want to consider is whether such a perspective should be adopted by Polish academia in its entirety. In other words, let’s take it to the extreme, should all Polish academics only publish in English in international outlets? And my answer to a question like this is a resounding no. I think there is a place for academic outputs in Polish. I am quite convinced that not every research is of interest to the international academic reader, I am also fairly convinced that not all research which is not of interest to such a reader is of low quality.

And so, I think there is space for Polish lawyers reflecting on Polish legal practice, scholars reporting on their research into Polish literature, language, history or society, but also for Polish research in medicine to be more accessible to Polish medics. I don’t think this is particularly controversial. Moreover, it is also quite uncontroversial to say, I hope, that my last book on men’s suicide notes would not have dropped in its quality (assuming it has some), if I had written in Polish. The readership would have been limited, definitely, but the quality would have stayed. I’ll go further, I still think that the best qualitative research into experience of suicide has been written in Polish (Justyna Ziółkowska’s Samobójstwo). And it will not dramatically gain in quality if it is translated into English and published by the top international publisher. It really won’t.

And we come here to the first issue. The discussion about the language of publication is not really about language at all. It is, in fact, about quality, quality assurance, and publishing practices in (parts of) Polish academia. One of my best stories is about the editor of a well-respected Polish journal (neither will be named) who was so unwilling to reject a very bad article from a fellow professor that s/he practically rewrote the article her/himself and published the rewritten version. It is a true story, from about 10 years ago, from the assistant editor who was flabbergasted by this.  This is, of course, likely to be an extreme case of (idiotic) editorial policy, and, of course, things are changing.

Yet, I think that instead of discussing ways in which to get editorial and reviewing standards up, the debate has gone almost exclusive into publishing outside Polish outlets, which to a considerable extent have been associated with bad standards, poor quality, poor research. In some cases that association is quite justified, in some cases it’s not. There is no debate about attracting expat Polish academics to publish in Polish in Poland. There are cases (e.g. Polish Psychological Bulletin) of attracting international scholars to publish in English in Poland, still these are individual practically unsupported initiatives.

And so, I would prefer much more discussion about how to make sure that publications in Polish are commonly of high quality, how to make sure that the reviewing process is of the best possible quality. This is not so easy, as Polish, quite undeservedly, I’m sure, is not the most popular of foreign languages. Yet, I’m pleased to say that over the last few years, I have been getting articles in Polish (from Poland) for reviewing, in some cases saving the Polish academic from reading some dreadful stuff, but sometimes offering comments for improvement. I suggest using us, Poles abroad, who are outside your networks or your dependencies, more.

As I write about publishing, I want to ask one more question. Why do we publish in the first place? When I started, I think I published for two reasons. First, because I had something to say, second, perhaps less important, because I wanted to show everybody that I could. This is long gone and academic work has intensified beyond what I could ever expect. We publish because we must publish, regardless of whether there is anything to be said. We even invented the notion of least publishable unit, as ‘we’ salami slice our research to achieve more publications. Publishing stopped being a means to report research, publishing, I think, is more and more a way to have more publications. Stopping to think seems impossible, as finishing one text means beginning of work on the next. No one seems to care that, apparently, as many as half of published articles are not read at all and the real value of article is only in its being cited (and I just don’t understand why I should worry about how many papers are really uncited).

I will not say anything new when I say that there is a debate to be had about how we publish and what the hell for. The same applies to my Polish friends and colleagues, particularly in broad humanities and social sciences. What do you want to achieve? You still haven’t espoused the madness of installing a conveyer belt of publications in every department, but you’re on the way. It may well be that preserving an article in Polish means preserving academia which is still thoughtful. Academia which stops to think and consider. So, perhaps some of the debating effort should go into making sure that publications in Polish stand for best quality, yes, local quality, but quality nevertheless.

I also have a suggestion for my Western colleagues, one which has been made time and again. Instead of sabbaticals for writing, researching or whatever else, how about having sabbaticals for thinking? Yes, it will look like you’re doing nothing, but, in fact, you will be hard at work – you will be thinking.

I do know that I am a dying kind. I’m not part of a writing or citing cooperative. I still would like to do research which makes sense and not because there is a grant opportunity. And even though I do like collaborative stuff, I still also like working on my own (in my ivory tower, sigh). That’s, apparently, such a complete waste of resources (i.e. waste of me). I also like writing books, completely ignoring the fact that they so could be published as a series of articles.


    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      That’s the bottom line, I think, our research integrity. And I still think that it’s possible to maintain it. But it’s more and more difficult to publish articles which are controversial or niche. But, on the other hand, this is perhaps the chance for smaller outlets. After being rejected 7 times for no good reason (so far as I could tell), I sent the paper to small (and rising) journal and they published it (after reviewing it, of course). But that means changing the way we think – it’s less important where we publish, but more important what we publish.

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