Should I self-publish my work? This is a question many academics and authors ask themselves these days. I had a discussion the other day on Facebook that started with this question, related to my upcoming book, Create or Die.

Let me first explain my own rationale, then get back to the topic of blowhards and peer review.

In 2010, I self-published Four Steps to Funding as a little book to share a framework for grant writing that I’d developed from my experiences with my own grants and in teaching others how to do it successfully.

I chose to self-publish simply because I had no interest in waiting around for months or years to first find a willing publisher, then for them to get it out into print. Self-publishing, for me, was the most expedient way to get the book in the hands of a wider audience. It has served that role well – having achieved for a short while #1 status in its category in 2012, and having remained in the rankings ever since then. We send out copies of the book on a weekly basis, and we’ve had a consistent stream of great feedback (and the occasional cranky person, which is to be expected with anything).

So, why did I consider going with a publisher for Create or Die?

Honestly, there seem to be few advantages to going with a publisher these days, unless you get a deal with one of the heavyweights who may help with the marketing and promotion. I don’t expect a deal with a heavyweight because I am an “unknown” as far as writers go in this genre of creativity. So, then, the best I would expect is a deal with a smaller publisher who would take this on. Except for rare cases where a book just takes off on its own, the success of a book with a smaller publisher is almost always dependent upon the author’s drive and motivation to promote the book.

But wait! That’s really no different than self publishing, where again, success is largely dependent on the author’s willingness and ability to promote the book. (And, of course, quality comes into play as well, but is not the most important factor in success.)

So why would I consider it? Simply for the logistical-handling aspects. I’m busy helping clients. I keep my team busy. Do we really have time for coordinating the logistics of a big book launch? I thought a publisher might help with that.

And this is where the blowhards come in

You may notice that my concerns above are simply practical ones: how best can I get this work into the world so that it impacts as many lives as possible, and in the process, bringing a return-on-investment for the time and money we spend in doing it?

There’s no concern I share here about “how will the critics receive it?” or “what will my perception be amongst peers?” or “is this going to win a Pulitzer prize?” I give a shit, not – because those are all ego-driven concerns that, to me, are irrelevant.

So when I received a message from a Facebook friend with the following article, which goes on and on about the perceptions amongst academics about self-publishing I almost threw up the huevos rancheros that I’d so happily just consumed. (sorry for that image)

While there were a few people in that article that espoused half-way sane views that seemed to border on practical, there were also the blowhards who talked about the perception of self-published work, implying that it was somehow inferior – especially because it was so lacking in peer review.

Peer review shmeer review
There’s this godawful, ego-centric, and self-limiting notion that many academics cling to that somehow peer review provides a “safety valve” or some kind of assurance of “quality” of a work.

Ha.

If you want peer review, go look at the reviews for my grant writing book on Amazon. There are people who love it, and people who hate it. That’s true for any book on Amazon that’s had any measurable readership.

The marketplace has voted with its reviews and its dollars, and seems to overall like the book.

Now, imagine if we randomly selected just two of those people and let them determine the fate of the book. The people we select, of course, will be other authors of competing grant writing books, who clearly think that their system of grant writing is superior to anyone else’s. Which means they are going to be some of the worst reviews. So, we send it out to these two people, anonymously, and based on their reviews, written while hiding behind that veil of anonymity, determine the fate of the book.

Gag. Argh. Stupidity! Why would anyone accept that?!?

The critic might say: but reviews on Amazon can be manipulated

Yes, that is possible. However: is peer review never manipulated? Have there not been scores of retractions lately of papers that got through peer review with falsified or cooked data? Yes, there have. Are two anonymous reviewers anything but “anecdotal” evidence of the quality of a book or paper? No.

The statistics are clear: blowhards are wrong
When you have a book on a venue like Amazon, there’s this little thing called statistics that proves the case – if there are hundreds or thousands of readers, and a significant fraction of those give feedback, you can actually make a statistically sound argument that there’s some merit in the work. With two reviewers (or three, or four) in peer review, there’s no validity to statistics operating at that level. You are getting what are, essentially, the random effects of reviewer choice (plus some built-in bias against you because if they support your paper, they see it as more competition for funding).

This notion that somehow peer review, or tomes published with a “reputable” publisher of scholarly accord, will lead to “higher quality” is complete and utter nonsense. It is all a bunch of egotistical babble driven by ivory-tower ideals that make no sense in a world where academia is slipping slowly into irrelevancy… (I wish it weren’t the case – I was a third generation academic who would love nothing more than to see academia recover its glory, but that ain’t gonna happen until many of the academic blowhards stop blowing, and start getting practical).

But don’t you teach people how to write grants with a better chance of funding?
Yes. Exactly. And, while the quality of the work is important, quality is always a relative term to the particular audience who’s evaluating the work! Put work that one audience thinks is horrible in front of a different audience, and they will sing it’s praises.

There is no final standard for Quality
Robert Pirsig’s protagonist in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance drove himself literally crazy searching for the notion of Quality. After reading that book (twice), I must admit I also drove myself a bit crazy over that.

Now I look at it after 20 more years of life experience – and specifically having worked with 100’s of scientists on grant proposals across the spectrum – and having realized that there is no one standard for quality. Quality is defined by one’s belief systems about what is important. If you inject different beliefs, you get a different assessment of Quality.

Why drive ourselves crazy trying to find an absolute, objective standard for Quality? I don’t know, but it seems to be a fashionable pursuit, both in and outside of academia, to pretend as if there is such a standard. And worse:, that somehow this standard has more adherence via traditional publishing as compared to self publishing.

It’s ego-driven babble
If the goal of one’s life is ego-massaging, then I suppose it might make that person feel better to be part of a small, elite club where his fellow “peer reviewers” have admitted him to that club. No doubt, there are plenty of people for whom that seems the sole goal in life.

If, however, your goal is something else, say, having more freedom, fun, clarity, and impact, then this ego-driven babble will only hold you back. I know, because I held myself back with that stuff, for many years. I thought I had to be like all those guys who were doing that stuff, so I adopted those views.

Thankfully, life experience spanked me enough times to disabuse me of most of that, and get me back to a point where I care about the practical impacts of my work, far more than the ego-driven impacts of my work.

I find myself naively wishing for more people to join me in that quest of abaondoning ego, and connecting with purpose. I think the world would be a far more fun place to be, and who knows, academia might even find some restoration to its spot in the limelight.

5 thoughts

  1. Nicely put. Peer review leads to the same papers getting published over and over. It does not allow for alternative voices or creative approaches. I agree that letting the marketplace decide the merit of a work is not only faster (and potentially more lucrative), but it also democratizes the process. If more academics chose this route, they might be forced (gasp!) to write for a more general audience and to make their work more readable.

  2. Since this discussion has moved away from self-publication of personal opinion and words of wisdom, toward the self-publication of science (crowd reviewers?); I want to pose a real case for comment.

    A colleague of mine had a Masters student who self published her thesis as a book with no reference to the advisor either with respect to his role as an advisor or his funding of her work. Obviously this is an extreme example. However the thesis DOES deal with water borne infectious organisms. Peer review isn’t guaranteed to deliver the best result every time, but I will trust it more than any self-published scientific data anytime.

  3. Hi Doug,
    It is unfortunate that the student published without due credit.

    We can always find egregious cases on both sides. For example, I could cite all those people who’ve fabricated data that went through peer review without a hitch… often for YEARS before they got caught. Peer review did not stop or catch the fraud.

  4. So, you refuse to be vetted by a publisher, and you refuse to be peer reviewed, but you still want to waste people’s time pitching your bullshit that has been vetted by NOBODY. Fuck you, too, ego-addicted jerk. Some of us have way better things to do than watch you jerk your brain off.

    Seriously, you’re an asshole.

    1. Kell, you helped me prove my point nicely. I had hit “delete” on your comment, because in this context, I am a publisher (of this blog), and hence have ultimate authority to vet anything that gets posted here. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t get shown. So your comment sat for over 1.5 years here, unpublished, simply because one person didn’t like it (me).

      Thank you for demonstrating the point perfectly: when you give the authority to a small number of people to decide what goes and what doesn’t, you get a lot of bias baked into the system. An example: the first Harry Potter book was rejected 9-12 times before being published, yet in terms of the marketplace, it was a wild, runaway success. This shows that the “gatekeepers” had a very poor track record of predicting what the readers would want. This was not an isolated incident: http://www.litrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/ tracks many such cases.

      But anyway, given your ad hominem attacks, it’s clear that you don’t have anything real to add to the discussion except for juvenile ranting and name calling.

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