Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Slooow academic time

One of the most striking differences when I shifted from shipping software to academia is the difference in time scales, but not the way you might think. Academia actually has two (or three) time scales. One is very inflexible: I know what I’m doing tomorrow morning at 9am and tomorrow night at 6pm, and being an hour late (let alone a day) isn’t acceptable.

In research, a subset of academic papers nominally have inflexible deadlines — a special issue of a journal or a conference that requires submission by a particular date. But, as it turns out, some deadlines are a little squishy, and if you ask the right people, a few days’ extension is often possible.

But many academic time scales are long, slow or indeterminate. I’ve been on committees that met monthly in order to not resolve the same issue. Compared to journalism (when I wrote articles that appeared in print in 3 hours), or blogging (instant gratification), the time scales for journal articles are mind-boggling, as with the paper that I co-authored in 1997, which won a prize at an August 1998 conference and then appeared in print in June 2004.

Today’s example is the Academy of Management, a professional association for b-school professors in management (OB, strategy, HR) and some related fields, including innovation & entrepreneurship. Besides being huge (annual conferences of 7,000+ plus), it’s run entirely by academics — vs. some professional associations that I’ve belonged to where the leadership and membership are partly or primarily from industry (AMA, IEEE, PDMA).

AoM has a reputation of being highly socially conscious (critics would say “politically correct”) in the sorts of causes, movements and ideas that it supports. This includes special interest groups on “gender and diversity in organizations” and “critical management studies” (i.e. a postmodern critique of management theory).

So one would assume that it is an AoM priority to save trees — phasing out or at least making optional the dead tree version of their journals. Every member gets an annual stack of printed paper at least a foot thick, with the four Academy journals. I’m guessing that’s around 10 tons of paper mailed each year. The society INFORMS (which publishes Information Systems Research, Management Science and Organization Science among others) has had electronic-only subscriptions for at least 5 years, but then these are the operations research folks (former ORSA/TIMS) and thus would be expected to be more efficient.

The president of the Academy for 2000-2001 was across the hall from my Ph.D. student desk, so I asked her then if there was going to be an electronic-only option for the journals. (I can’t remember the answer). Two years ago, I e-mailed the AoM executive director and she said that investigating this would be a priority in 2006.

This morning I got an e-mail indicating that the Academy is now supporting electronic-only delivery, and on the website this option is marked “new”. However, unlike INFORMS, they will not pass the savings on to members who go electronic:

Will I Receive A Discount In My Membership Dues If I Select One Of These Options?

No. This is the case for three primary reasons.

  1. While the costs for mailing are reduced, the costs to produce the content remain (i.e., editorial offices, copyediting, page layout, managing editor salaries, etc.) And, electronic services are not without their own costs. They require IT staff, equipment, file preparation and conversion, and the like. Costs for mailing are being replaced by the costs for bringing this new type of value-added, convenient service to members.
  2. Dues are not the Academy's sole revenue source. The majority of the Academy's revenue comes from non-dues sources that are critical to the ongoing operation and provision of member service. A reduction in dues, which are already subsidized, means heightened reliance on non-dues revenue sources.
  3. We have no history providing members with electronic journals and it is premature to assume wide scale cost savings. Any cost savings realized would be reinvested in other member services.
I’m not convinced by any of the arguments, particularly the last one (we know better what to do with your money than you do). Still, this is progress — not fast progress, but progress nonetheless. I suspect if it didn’t have to do with killing trees (or saving money) it might have taken another five years.

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