NO LONG AGO I was interviewed by a woman researching community gardening. At the end of the interview I encouraged her to publish her research online so that anyone, including the community gardeners whom she was interviewing, could benefit from her findings. This was something I did with all such interviewers. She was apologetic in telling me that she had to publish in an academic journal and that to see her work you would have to subscribe to the journal, which is quite expensive, or buy a single copy, also presumably quite expensive. She offered to send an abstract. I'm still waiting.
Had I know all of this I might have said no to the interview.
This was one of the many interviews I have done on community gardens and urban agriculture for students doing their master's degree or their PhD thesis. As all have been, she was a pleasant woman (almost all have been women, something I find curious) who thanked me for my time.
…it has to do with my willingness to have that hour or so of my time and knowledge privatised by a monopoly publisher. In effect, all those interviewed for this sort of publication subsidise a private good for no recompense. Not a good business arrangement at all.
TIME TO DEREGULATE THE ACADEMIC PUBLISHING CARTEL
The interview took something over an hour and as I left the community garden where we had met, the thought occurred to me that it is time in this country to deregulate the monopolisation of research findings by colluding universities and academic publishers, and require any research receiving public funding to be published openly.
My understanding of this publishing arrangement is far from complete, and my comments above are based largely on what my interviewer told me. As I walked away from the community garden along the narrow, inner urban street, I reflected on my notion that monopolies are seldom a good idea in part because, as in the case I mention here, they create a sellers' market in which the publisher can overprice an item if they see fit. Is it a case of charging what the market will bear, I wondered? Or do publishers of academic journals have high costs due to their limited market?
This also raised the observation — it's not my observation alone — that academics tend to talk (and argue, academia is not exactly an inveigle, intrigue and conflict-free zone) with each other rather than share with the interested public. I generalise, however communciation with others who lack the language and the theories and who exist beyond the walls of the university is often as problematic for academics as it is for scientists.
It had been pleasant sitting talking with this young woman there in that rambunctious community garden, surrounded by dense foliage and fruit trees, so why would I consider saying no to an interview like this? I pondered this as I made my way along the street towards the cafe and the cuppuccino and came to the conclusion that it has to do with my willingness to have that hour or so of my time and knowledge privatised by a publisher. In effect, all those interviewed for this sort of publication subsidise a private good for no recompense. Not a good business arrangement at all. And it is a business arrangement because the research is turned into a salable commodity by the publisher. I'm unsure whether the student research receives an author's fee.
Because of my role in community garden and policy development I have been interviewed by university students and the media numerous times. Media interviews are comparatively easy — they are brief, especially those for radio. They are repetitive and superficial, being intended to introduce listeners or readers who know nothing of it to the practice of urban agriculture.
The demand for student research interviews came to my attention most forcibly when I was temporarily taking over the role of someone who had been administering a local government community food and gardens policy while she had the next year and a half off.
I think it was on day three of handing over the job that the woman whose role it was said to me that, like her, I would probably receive requests for interviews from university students writing their theses and various other academic papers. It was up to me, she said, whether I say no to the lot, no to some, yes to the lot or yes just to some.
The reason, she explained, was that responding to these requests took a lot of time and that had to be fitted into the demands of the job. There was seldom any return on the time invested, either. Seldom, almost never, did a student send in a copy of their research even when they said they would.
She, as I understood it, had started to say no to interviews after saying yes for some time. Later, I heard that a woman in a similar position in another local government was now saying no, too.
…it came as something of a surprise to me to read a US article claiming that the average PhD thesis is read by all of three people.
I had been interviewed by tertiary students before taking on that job. One, I recall, had the thoughtfllness to publish her research online where it is probably still available. That represents return on time invested and has turned her research into a resource for all who are interested.
The woman whose job I would occupy was right about the requests for interviews. Unfortunately, I never bothered to count the meetings I had with students. I should have.
SHELVES BOWED UNDER THE WEIGHT OF UNREAD THESES
By now, there must be quite a few student academic papers on urban agriculture, community gardening and the like scattered around the universities. Without wanting to sound cynical, I assume that most sit on the shelf where they never benefit the interviewees, urban agriculture or community gardening practitioners or others undertaking similar research. Even though I know this, it came as something of a surprise to read a US article claiming that the average PhD thesis is read by all of three people.
Some would argue that student academic research is not written to benefit anyone other than the student. They are right, except where students say they will supply a copy to interviewees or organisations so that they too may learn. A number of those I was interviewed by indicated they would do this, however none were forthcoming. Offering a copy of the research sets up a win-win relationship and, in my opinion and that of others in business and elsewhere, that's the best kind of relationship.
Others might argue that there is some kind of moral obligation to share knowledge with student interviewers. There isn't. University education today is essentially a business transaction — fee for service. Universities work like educational and research service organisations offering their services for a fee, like any business organisation (this is not a put-down; there is some really interesting research done at universities, some really edgy educators and quite a lot of progressive, forward-thinking staff, one of whom I worked for at UNSW).
Education is a tradable, marketed service. It is not free as it once was. Looked at in this light, university students are taking the knowledge resource of their interviewees — their raw material — and turning it into a product that earns them a degree of some kind and, hopefully, a good income. That's the transaction.
THE BEST RESEARCH IS APPLICABLE
For some of us engaged in community-based and social enterprise food systems, the best sort of research, including that done by students, is that which can be used to improve something or to go out and make it. I am aware that university student research is often directed at studying and describing something rather than actually creating it. Studying something has greater value if there's some way to act on that research, but to do that it must be accessible.
Local government staff (and most community gardeners) don't have time to do their own research, so it is disappointing when the promised copy of the researcher's findings never arrive. That denies insights the researcher may have developed and that could be applied. A thesis resting quietly on a shelf at the university or in the writer's computer memory is essentially knowledge lost to the world.
When I think back to all those students researching community gardening and urban agriculture, I still come away with the idea that rather than simply talking to its practitioners they would have done better joining a community garden and studying it through the experience of participant observation. This type of immersive research is what is done in anthropology, and community gardens, their productivity, social roles, organisational structures and interpersonal relationships are a fine topic for anthropological research whether done within that discipline or in some other.
Some of those student researchers I have spent many hours talking with have been genuinely interested in their topic, others gave the impression that urban agriculture was something that caught their imagination at the time and that they thought unique enough to furnish material for their research. It was a pleasure to meet with the former and, as for the latter, I hoped to influence their thinking that urban food production was a good idea that their research could contribute to.
Speaking as a journalist, when you interview someone you have a set of scene-setting questions that define the parameters of your topic and establish the role of the interviewee in their field. Almost all the researchers I spoke with did this, some in greater detail than others. Some had done prior research, sometimes on articles and material I had published as well as that of others working in the field. Doing this is a good idea as the interviewer then has some idea of your thinking and background and can identify ideas to follow-up in greater detail.
I have to say, though, that in general the questions were repetitive. The same question would usually be asked repeatedly, and not just those first, general questions. I'm used to this in radio interviews where, exceptions excepted, you have all of two or three minutes on some program. That's different to academic interviews where you would sometimes be with the interviewer for a couple hours.
Those couple hours consumed by student researchers can be another issue. That's one of the reason that requests for interviews are sometimes declined. Thinking back, I would estimate that an hour was about the minimum for an interview. Some would take well in excess of that.
Perhaps now you can see why some people in local government and those involved in community food systems are sometimes reluctant to meet with interviewers. The exception, usually, is the media as there is sometimes, just sometimes, a small but useful return on that.
It's my belief that reform of university procedure would benefit the interested public and their organisations. How would it be for student research to be published online so it is of potentially broader benefit? This would mean, ideally, that universities distribute it under a Creative Commons licence.
I started writing this story a little time ago and have only now returned to it. I thought it might be better to leave it unpublished so as not to put off students seeking interviews with urban agriculture practitioners. Having been a student some time ago, I know how important those interviews are to students completing their assignments, though my course — communications at UTS — took a different approach in that some of our work was actually broadcast and published — a practical product rather than theoretical that was heard or read by more than three people.
It was just over a week ago that I was stimulated to put this story online. That came from two sources.
The first was a woman who has a lot of community gardening experience, both practical and organisational, emailing others to ask whether they thought that participating in a university's research, as had been requested, was worthwhile. She too receives periodic requests for interviews.
The second was a young woman, an online systems designer and code monkey who also works in the realm of community economics, especially community-based trading systems. Without my mentioning this story or anything anything about requests for interviews, she offered the observation that she is frequently approached by students seeking interviews for their coursework and that this is taking more and more of her time. I left that convesation with the impression that she is thinking of starting to say no.
Maybe an admission is due here.
I considered the advice of the council woman whose role I was taking up but decided to remain available to student researchers. I met with all who requested an interview — usually in the cafe downstairs where I treated the student to a coffee — and I enjoyed those that went longer and those where a set of prepared questions gave over to a broad conversation about the research topic.
I saw doing this as part of the job although it wasn't in the job description (which I think I actually read once) and as part of my own role in explaining the value of civic agriculture in all its forms.