Meet the editor of... info
An interview with: Colin Blackman
In this interview
Colin Blackman is an editor, writer and consultant, and formerly the editor of Futures and Telecommunications Policy. Since 1991 he has been an independent consultant, specializing in telecommunications and information policy issues, foresight and knowledge transfer. He has recently carried out several assignments for the European Commission’s Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) concerned with the future of the information society, and DG Information Society and Media on future mobile markets and services. In recent years he has produced reports on future regulation for mobile telecommunications for a consortium of mobile operators and investors, been a speechwriter for the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union and advised the World Bank.
Prior to this he was a Senior Consultant specializing in science and technology policy issues and industry-education relationships. Before becoming a consultant, he spent ten years in academic and professional publishing with IPC and Butterworths, during which time he edited a variety of journals (including Futures, Telecommunications Policy, Food Policy, Land Use Policy, and Industry & Higher Education) and managed an editorial department. He has an interdisciplinary background and was awarded his PhD from The University of Aston's Technology Policy Unit in 1981 for his research into strategies for agricultural change and the UK economy.
info is a bi-monthly international journal concerned with the emerging tele-information economy and in particular with its economic, social, political and regulatory aspects. Covering such issues as e-commerce, information access, governance in the digital age, effective competition, self regulation and wired and wireless networks, it acts as a forum for information and debate on business and policy issues generated by the fast-moving telecommunications, information and media industries, looking at these issues from policy and management perspectives. As such it serves a vital information role in a sector where, to quote a recent article: "Wrong evaluation of innovation is likely not only to destroy a company or make it non-competitive, but also to render or make obsolete an entire sector."
What is meant by the "tele-information economy" and what is the journal’s scope?
The term "tele-information economy was probably a bit of a buzz phrase five years ago, rather like "information age", "information society", "knowledge-based economy". There are subtle differences between all of these terms but they are all fairly interchangeable. The intention was to use a term to indicate that it’s a broad-based, interdisciplinary journal, covering all sorts of issues – economic and political, legal and regulatory for example – to do with the information society.
How would you describe the journal’s mission?
I see the journal as an interdisciplinary forum for debate and discussion of information age issues. This is why it involves a wide community comprising those working in academe, business, and policy formulation. These are not just esoteric small questions, but issues of wide significance and all these people have something to contribute.
How long has the journal been going and why was it started?
It was launched in 1999. Behind the launch were a combination of push and pull factors, personal and bigger picture issues. At the time I was the editor of a journal Telecommunications Policy which was published by Elsevier, and which was considered to be the leading journal in its field. Having worked on it as editor and assistant editor for 20 years, understandably I was looking for a new challenge. I decided to start my own publishing company – Camford Publishing – and I launched two journals, info and foresight, both now published by Emerald. But if the push factor was the need to move away from what I was doing, there were also strong "pull" factors, notably the opportunity for a journal that met needs that Telecommunications Policy was no longer fulfilling, that was much more policy-oriented and closer to decision making, that had both academic and business input, and above all that made a difference. The intention was to produce a kind of Foreign Affairs for the information sector.
I don’t actually see info as just an academic journal to be read by academics. In this area, that’s not what’s important. What is important is that the strategies and policies of business and governments are informed. Academics have a role to play here but so does the whole community of people concerned with this area. I felt that Telecommunications Policy was becoming increasingly rarified and that there was a need for a journal which was more relevant to all sectors of life, was more topical and could be part of the policy debate.
So when you say that articles of a very technical nature will not be welcome what you mean is technical in the sense that they are not rarified and academic?
That is absolutely right. My ideal is for a journal that has articles in each issue that an intelligent informed reader would find interesting. Take the field of economics, for example: you will occasionally find an article which has some equations in it but my natural inclination is if it’s got equations in it it’s for a specialist audience.
You have a very wide audience – policy-makers, business executives and academics. Can you profile some typical readers? Do you ever have difficulty in satisfying such a wide range?
Academics would be working in single discipline areas such as economics or communications or law, or in interdisciplinary areas to do with the information economy. Business people would be working in policy or strategy for say a large telecoms or media company; in government you’ve got regulators like Ofcom or ministries of communications where people are working in regulation or forming strategy or economic policy to do with a range of issues, for example innovation, competition law, because telecommunications is so key. This is the kind of mix that I am talking about. I don’t believe in an academy which is isolated from the rest of the world.
Do we have difficulty in satisfying such a wide range? Yes, of course we do, but I take the view that it’s part of my role as an editor to set the journal’s sights high and attempt to do something that’s interesting, challenging and worthwhile. Doing something easy? Where’s the fun in that? So yes, it’s hard and maybe we don’t always succeed, but I hope that we carry a lot of people with us. I am sure that there are some people who find the range a challenge, who may be more comfortable in their niches and I wouldn’t want to denigrate that. But if I have any contribution to make it is to make connections and draw issues and people together and that’s where I see a journal like this as having value.
What value can an academic journal bring in such a fast-moving area, and wherein lies your main competition?
That’s a very hard question, I am not sure I have a satisfactory answer. However, in a society where there is a lot of easy-to-access information, publishers and editors become even more important, because they are the ones who make the selection and say, "If you read nothing else read these things. This will give you a reasonable idea of what is going on". This is the sort of role that the journal can have: selecting and verifying. The problem of accreditation or verification of information is very difficult and not without its cost. While we would all like to see information for free, or cheaper, it’s an expensive business.
As to competition, in the narrow sense there are journals such as Telecommunications Policy and Communications and Strategies, as well as journals in the media area. There are also magazines and newspapers such as The Economist, the Financial Times, and Newsweek, which are also competitors to some extent. Beyond that there’s all that wealth of information on the Web – blogs, daily newsletters, etc.
Are you providing a bridge between the magazines and the more academic journals?
Given the fact that it’s an interdisciplinary area, that we serve a wide audience, and that we need to be relevant, this all means that you are immediately taking a magazine perspective, and that is the constant tension for me personally. My constraint is that I want it to be interesting and readable, as well as serious and rigorous, so I tend to take a magazine approach within the constraints of time and money and the fact that Emerald are predominantly serving an academic market. However, they also see themselves as aiming at practitioners, and at taking research into practice, which is why info – and foresight for that matter – are a good fit with Emerald’s philosophy.
Would you say, then, that info is also a practitioner journal?
It’s not a term that I normally use but, in so far as our community includes people in business and policy, who are practitioners, then yes, we are a practitioner journal.
What sort of editorial mix do you look for in issues, for example do you look for a mix of longer articles based on research and shorter reviews/opinion pieces on topical issues?
Having a magazine approach entails having a broad mix, because you need to please different people – the wide audience we were alluding to earlier. Part of the reason for having shorter pieces and comment pieces is that they are easier to read for a non expert: they draw people in because they are interesting, lively and topical. Research pieces tend to be longer, because often they are dictated by the nature of the research project rather than written specially: for example, the research may have been commissioned as part of a large study, perhaps by a Government department, and those involved may have decided to publish the findings in an academic journal.
Many of your shorter pieces are general reviews or viewpoints. What is the difference between these types of articles and what guidelines would you give to someone who wanted to write this sort of article?
Viewpoints are topical, relevant, and perhaps controversial and provocative. They should be written in a style that is more journalistic than academic. By journalistic I mean well-written and readable, without the need to back up every assertion with references. You can give your opinions with a bit more freedom, you can pose questions without needing to answer them.
In more mainline journals, a good conceptual piece is one which not only summarizes knowledge but which also takes it on to a higher level but positing a new hypothesis or model. In the telecommunications area, the "literature" is not so much in academic articles but rather official statements, R&D white papers and vision documents. What therefore constitutes a good conceptual piece and one which is of relevance to your audience?
I would definitely agree with this definition, and that’s one of the roles that academics play in this area too: most of the conceptual studies come from them. Take for example work on the radio spectrum which is being challenged by the increasing demand for spectrum and new technologies. Traditional ways of managing spectrum is by government allocation, but it’s also possible to have property rights and have licenses (take the fuss over licences for 3G), or you can have a commons approach, where the spectrum can be used by anyone. Top academics write about these topics, and what they write is picked up by government and the regulators and becomes the subject of debate. There are also academics who are very closely involved in the policy/strategy debate with government and business and there are people in government. Take somebody like Professor Martin Cave, who is on the editorial board of info – he’s a top academic, he’s an adviser to Ofcom, he was commissioned by Gordon Brown to do an audit of the radio spectrum, he does consulting, a sort of portfolio academic.
You publish quite a few research papers. Is there a difficulty in doing empirical research in this area, which is such a moving target?
There are always difficulties, but it’s not impossible. One way in which I keep the journal topical is by not having material for months and years ahead. Equally, looking to future policies means that you also need to be well informed about what’s been going on in the recent past. We can still learn from data that are five years old. Things move fast but basic principles don’t change.
As for empirical methods, it’s very hard to give an exhaustive list of methodologies that are used, there is a variety according to author and topic.
Can you say a bit about the role of Peter Curwen, who regularly writes a "Rearview" column?
The idea of the regular column comes from the magazine philosophy: it give some sort of continuity and way of distinguishing the journal, you know that this particular feature is always going to be at the back of the journal whether or not you agree with or want to read a particular piece. You need someone utterly reliable for a regular column, and Peter always delivers his piece in a thoughtful style. You also need a reasonably light touch, it’s not supposed to be deep analysis, but a look at a topic worthy of comment. Peter likes the chance to talk about topics of his choice in a way that he wants, although we do discuss possible topics for the next few issues.
info’s special issue on "Mobile futures – beyond 3G" was highly commended in Emerald’s outstanding Special Issue Award. How did you identify the Guest Editors and how did they go about putting together a special issue which contained authoritative and well researched reports on the future of mobile phone technology and its business applications?
Much of the time special issues arise from work that you know is going on, special studies or workshops perhaps, which you know about because you are part of the community. This particular issue evolved from work commissioned for a study for IPTS, part of the European Commission, involving Erik Bohlin, who is also on the editorial advisory board. We got to hear about it at an early stage and were able to tailor some of the material to a special journal issue. It’s more unusual these days to start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper and work up a special issue, but we still do it sometimes. Mostly it’s a case of being aware of what research is being done and building on other initiatives.
In the forthcoming 18 months, what other special issues do you have coming up?
We’re currently doing something on radio spectrum management and policy, and later in 2006 we’ll publish an issue based around a Nordic or Scandinavian approach to ICT and what we can learn from it, and I’d also like to do an issue on globalization, embracing China and India.
What other general plans do you have for the journal – where would you like to take it in the next few years?
The journal is a very flexible vehicle and is doing very well, and there’s certainly good material out there for us to publish. The next few years will be a period of consolidation, getting the journal better known, steadily improving the quality of the material. So I think it’s more a case of "steady as she goes".
Do you submit all articles to a process of peer review?
We operate a double blind review system, but I also take an intelligent and pragmatic approach. Not all submissions, viewpoint and comment type pieces for instance, are sent for peer review. Main articles would be normally be reviewed but for instance, occasionally an article will come to me recommended by an editorial board member and in some circumstances further refereeing is not appropriate. So I’m pragmatic about peer review, the underlying issue is the need to ensure and improve quality. The forthcoming introduction of online article submission processes may serve to formalize the review process in some cases.
In such a fast-moving area, how do you ensure that you reduce as far as possible any time lag between people submitting articles and their publication?
Speed of response is important to me and key to a journal in this area. So it’s important not to let a backlog of papers build up. I therefore only tend to commission or stimulate material as I need it rather than all the time, to keep the backlog to the minimum. I like to know what I’ve got in the next issue or two, but not in the next four issues.
Also, you try to make sure that the peer review process doesn’t take too long, generally a four to six week turn around time is reasonable. Online submission might make a big difference in terms of automating reminders and keeping the editor on his or her toes!
Your articles vary very much in length. Do you have stipulations on word limit?
We say that articles are ideally 6,000 words in length, but we are quite flexible. If every article comes in way over length you’re in trouble, but you can cope with one or two. Sometimes an article may come in over length and is impossible to cut down or the author is unable to do so. So sometimes the rules have to be bent a little to get the best articles.
As an editor, how do you try and help authors?
We need authors so that we can provide a decent journal, so we have to provide a service to them. Because the producers are also the consumers, you have to treat your authors well if you want to have more subscribers, and if you want them to come back you have to make sure that they have a good experience. I try to be flexible, and to respond to individual needs of that author. Sometimes authors need quite a lot of help especially if English is not their native language. Starting my working life as a sub-editor means that I have to stop myself being the journal’s copy editor. These days it is expected that authors submit their articles in publishable form and to the journal’s guidelines, so Emerald’s editing service is an excellent approach.
What do you like most, and least, about being an editor?
The answer to both is the same: it’s being part of this community, which is so interesting and such a topical field with some of the brightest minds. That’s the best thing about being an editor but it’s also the worst because you are never quite part of it. I haven’t been an academic in the literal sense for 25 years: I am one of those portfolio careers people, doing a bit of consulting and a bit of academic work. So I am part of it but I am also not part of it, which is no bad thing because in order to be a good editor you also need to have some distance. So the good part is being part of this community but the bad part is being a bit on the edge.
Your first issue was in 1999. If you had to review the predictions/comments you made then are there any which now seem vastly inaccurate?
I stand by what I was saying in 1999, despite the dotcom crash the following year which also saw the telecoms sector in great difficulty. We are at the beginning of a journey towards an information society and knowledge based economy, and what we saw in 2000 was a necessary correction, which is what happens in the cycle of innovative development. There is no doubt that we are undergoing tremendously wide-reaching and profound change and I now believe even more strongly that we are at the early stages of a massive change in our economy and society.
Colin Blackman was interviewed in January 2006.
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