Opening access to academic knowledge beyond the usual echo chamber

My publication and open access strategy

I am working at a public University with an explicit open access policy and an active funding pipeline to extend open access to academic journals. This includes an open access repository for faculty publications (KOPS – The Institutional Repository of the University of Konstanz). Publications are listed when they come out and after one year of publishers’ embargos are uploaded in full text. Incentives are available to partially pay for publications in open access journals – but not for open access options in closed access journals.

Over the years of publishing for both academic and practitioner audiences, I have developed my own open access strategy by using free social media tools, like this WordPress blog or Twitter and Facebook to push information about new publications out.

Here is my own publication strategy:

I. Academic journals in the public administration field

I am publishing only in public administration journals that I consider the core journals of our field and are ranked highest based on the number of citations they receive. The ranking is derived from Google Scholar’s top publications in public policy and public administration list:

1. Public Administration Review
2. Government Information Quarterly
3. Public Management Review
4. Public Administration
5. The American Review of Public Administration
6. Administration & Society
7. International Review of Administrative Sciences
8. Review of Public Personnel Administration
9. International Public Management Journal

So far, I haven’t tried to place articles in German speaking public administration journals given my above mentioned reasoning to submit to highly cited journals. But I might change this in the future. I also don’t write book chapters anymore – except if they are low cost in terms of effort or a PhD student needs to get into a writing rhythm. I noticed that none of my 18 book chapters received a single citation – so in effect it is dead knowledge and a waste of my time. However, it might be a useful tool for PhD students to learn how to write and how to handle reviewer feedback.

I have also mostly stayed away from conferences – in the IS field for example – that require full-texts and publish them online. In PA, these conference proceedings are usually not considered as full publications – only as conference presentations.

II. Practitioner-oriented blogs and research reports

A few years ago, I decided to repurpose my academic research and ‘translate’ it in plain language for public managers. I like to have an impact, but much more importantly: I experienced the risk-taking attitude of many public managers who are willing to explore and experiment with new technologies to make their organizations more efficient and effective. They continuously amaze me by taking the time for research interviews, follow-ups, and by providing additional documents. I like to give back – but the timeframes that academic journals have do not match the needs of public servants, who are RIGHT NOW working on the problem I am conducting research on and could potentially use the input I received from their peers.

The problem is: The academic community tends to label those of us who step outside as “practitioners”. Which in all other fields is an honor, but apparently among academics it moves you into the category of the shunned… I wish people would be more open minded, especially in public administration a field that is highly applied and works on the hard problems that society – and by extension public administrators – are currently dealing with.

Now that my research is also publicly funded, I believe we even have an obligation as academics to give back to society and move our research out in formats that are accessible to all – not just our own echo chamber.

I was lucky to have received several research stipends to publish my reports for public managers. You can find an open access list on my faculty page.

III. Social media to move my writing into people’s timelines

When I started my first faculty job in 2008, I was lucky to conduct research on how the US bureaucracy absorbed some of the technological innovations that were moved from the Obama political campaign into day-to-day governing. This coincided with my own habit to write about my research experiences online, so I repurposed my social media channels mostly for professional use.

I use my WordPress Blog “Digital Innovations in the Public Sector” to post about new publications, add a URL to the open access version as well as any additional information that people might find useful. I sometimes add background or links to related topics.

Recently, I started to separate out German blog posts on a new Medium blog under my own name. I felt it was important to cater to German public managers who might not read my English updates on WordPress.

There are other blogging options out there. For example, professional organizations are offering their members blogging options. For the Public Management Research Association, whe have set up the PMRA Insights Scholarly Blog on which members of the Board of Directors post about their research. Or LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog on which we recently published an extension of our Big Data in Public Affairs PAR paper. Brookings’ TechTank blog that allowed me to post an update about one of my social media projects.

In addition, I repost these writings through all other social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Xing. I tend not to get into heated conversations on social media – and revert to DMs or email instead.

IV. Listing for transparency and impact assessment purposes only

For transparency purposes I am also listing my research on ResearchGate. Unfortunately, ResearchGate has caved in to the pressure of publishers and has removed all full texts I was once asked to upload. This has made the process even more cumbersome, because now you have to answer to requests for articles that are already available on the platform, but no longer accessible to the members of RG. What is the point of staying on RG? The impact indicators are interesting – but otherwise I haven’t figured out an additional purpose yet. I removed myself from other predatory platforms, such as Academia.edu, and hope that my University’s open access strategy will become similarly relevant for academics who are looking for my writings.

My OrcID and GoogleScholar pages are automatically populated and sometimes I add updates, for example for funding I received or early publications that are not listed yet.

V. Building an Open Public Administration Commons

In 2008, I attended the third Minnowbrook Conference III that is organized every 20 years to review and revise the directions of public administration as an academic field. The findings from Minnowbrook III are summarized in this edited volume “The Future of Public Administration Around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective” by Rosemary O’Leary, David van Slyke, and Soonhee Kim – who were also together with Stuart Bretschneider members of my tenure committee. I contributed a book chapter on social media that later served as the foundation for my research program.*

As part of Minnowbrook III, we also contributed to a special issue of JPART – Journal for Public Administration Research and Theory. Together with my co-authors, we developed our vision of open public administration scholarship – and I am in the process of establishing exactly that: an open access platform to move our research and the students’ research each semester online and make it accessible. At the moment, I am the only one who reads it. It is archived in paper format in the library, but not available in the open – a shame given that lots of it is empirical in nature and many public servants have taken the time to answer surveys or conduct interviews with my students. The platform will provide the full versions of articles, final papers from my seminars, and bachelor, master and PhD theses. In addition, an editorial team will work with the students to summarize these full text versions into smaller, easier to digest pieces of 2-3 pages. We are planning to publish both in English and German, so that our writing continues to be available for international audiences, and most importantly also for practitioner audiences in German public administrations. Stay tuned for the announcement of OPAS.

I am curious what other people’s publication strategies look like. Please leave a comment!

=> A German translation of this blog post is available on my Medium blog.

*Mergel, I. (2010): The use of social media to dissolve knowledge silos in government, in: O’Leary, R., Kim, S. and Van Slyke, D. M. (Editors): The Future of Public Administration, Public Management and Public Service Around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective, Georgetown University Press, pp. 177-187.

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LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog: What does Big Data mean to public affairs research? Understanding the methodological and analytical challenges

The following text was originally prepared for LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences Blog and reposted here.

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The term ‘Big Data’ is often misunderstood or poorly defined, especially in the public sector. Ines Mergel, R. Karl Rethemeyer, and Kimberley R. Isett provide a definition that adequately encompasses the scale, collection processes, and sources of Big Data. However, while recognising its immense potential it is also important to consider the limitations when using Big Data as a policymaking tool. Using this data for purposes not previously envisioned can be problematic, researchers may encounter ethical issues, and certain demographics are often not captured or represented.

In the public sector, the term ‘Big Data’ is often misused, misunderstood, and poorly defined. Public sector practitioners and researchers frequently use the term to refer to large data sets that were administratively collected by a government agency. Though these data sets are usually quite large and can be used for predictive analytics, administrative data does not include the oceans of information that is created by private citizens through their interactions with each other online (such as social media or business transaction data) or through sensors in buildings, cars, and streets. Moreover, when public sector researchers and practitioners do consider broader definitions of Big Data they often overlook key political, ethical, and methodological complexities that may bias the insights gleaned from ‘going Big’. In our recent paper we seek to provide a clearer definition that is current and conversant with how other fields define Big Data, before turning to fundamental issues that public sector practitioners and researchers must keep in mind when using Big Data.

Defining Big Data for the public sector

Public affairs research and practice has long profited from dialogue with allied disciplines like management and political science and has more recently incorporated insights from computational and information science. Drawing on all of these fields we define Big Data as:

“High volume data that frequently combines highly structured administrative data actively collected by public sector organizations with continuously and automatically collected structured and unstructured real-time data that are often passively created by public and private entities through their internet.”

This definition encompasses the scale of newly emerging data sets (many observations with many variables) while also addressing data collection processes (continuous and automatic), the form of the data collected (structured and unstructured), and the sources of such data (public and private). The definition also suggests the ‘granularity’ of the data (more variables describing more discrete characteristics of persons, places, events, interactions, and so forth), and the lag between collection and readiness for analysis (ever shorter).

Methodological and analytical challenges

Defined thus Big Data promises access to vast amounts of real-time information from public and private sources that should allow insights into behavioral preferences, policy options, and methods for public service improvement. In the private sector, marketing preferences can be aligned with customer insights gleaned from Big Data. In the public sector however, government agencies are less responsive and agile in their real-time interactions by design – instead using time for deliberation to respond to broader public goods. The responsiveness Big Data promises is a virtue in the private sector but could be a vice in the public.

Moreover, we raise several important concerns with respect to relying on Big Data as a decision and policymaking tool. While in the abstract Big Data is comprehensive and complete, in practice today’s version of Big Data has several features that should give public sector practitioners and scholars pause. First, most of what we think of as Big Data is really ‘digital exhaust’ – that is, data collected for purposes other than public sector operations or research. Data sets that might be publicly available from social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter were designed for purely technical reasons. The degree to which this data lines up conceptually and operationally with public sector questions is purely coincidental. Use of digital exhaust for purposes not previously envisioned can go awry. A good example is Google’s attempt to predict the flu based on search terms.

Second, we believe there are ethical issues that may arise when researchers use data that was created as a byproduct of citizens’ interactions with each other or with a government social media account. Citizens are not able to understand or control how their data is used and have not given consent for storage and re-use of their data. We believe that research institutions need to examine their institutional review board processes to help researchers and their subjects understand important privacy issues that may arise. Too often it is possible to infer individual-level insights about private citizens from a combination of data points and thus predict their behaviors or choices.

Lastly, Big Data can only represent those that spend some part of their life online. Yet we know that certain segments of society opt in to life online (by using social media or network-connected devices), opt out (either knowingly or passively), or lack the resources to participate at all. The demography of the internet matters. For instance, researchers tend to use Twitter data because its API allows data collection for research purposes, but many forget that Twitter users are not representative of the overall population. Instead, as a recent Pew Social Media 2016 update shows, only 24% of all online adults use Twitter. Internet participation generally is biased in terms of age, educational attainment, and income – all of which correlate with gender, race, and ethnicity. We believe therefore that predictive insights are potentially biased toward certain parts of the population, making generalisations highly problematic at this time.

In summary, we see the immense potential of Big Data use in the public sector, but we also believe that it is context-specific and must be meaningfully combined with administratively collected data and purpose-built ‘small data’ to have value in improving public programmes. Increasingly, public managers must know how to collect, manage, and analyse Big Data, but they must also be fully conversant with the limitations and potential for misuse.

This blog post is based on the authors’ article, ‘Big Data in Public Affairs’, published in Public Administration Review (DOI: 10.1111/puar.12625).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

mergelInes Mergel is full professor of public administration at the University of Konstanz’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. Mergel focuses her research and teaching activities on topics such as digital transformation and adoption of new technologies in the public sector. Her ORCID id is 0000-0003-0285-4758 and she may be contacted at ines.mergel@uni-konstanz.de.

rethemeyerKarl Rethemeyer is Interim Dean of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York. Rethemeyer’s primary research interest is in social networks and their impact on political and policy processes. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-5673-8026 and he may be contacted at kretheme@albany.edu.

isett_portraitKimberley R. Isett is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Georgia institute of Technology. Her research is centred on the organisation and financing of government services, particularly in health.  Her ORCID id is 0000-0002-7584-0181 and she may be contacted at isett@gatech.edu.