Playing the Publishing Trap at the University of Essex: our experiences

Kat Sundsbo, Scholarly Communications and Research Support Manager at the University of Essex

Katrine Sundsbo (Kat) is the Scholarly Communications and Research Support Manager at the University of Essex. Before starting this position she did an 8 month internship as a Research Information Assistant in the Research and Enterprise Office, also at the University of Essex. Kat is currently working on several projects with colleagues from across the university, for example Newcomers (Network for Early Career Researchers) which has its launch in January and the Digital Deep Dive, which has adopted a human-centred design method to explore how digital tools and skills can make a difference to student engagement. Future projects will include research into the daily lives of University of Essex academics and an investigation into researchers’ attitudes about Open Access (the latter will be a collaboration with the founder of SportRxiv, John Mills).

We had an email from Kat last week as she was planning to test out the Publishing Trap with colleagues at the University of Essex and had a few questions for us. We are delighted to publish this guest blog post where she tells us about her experiences of playing the game. Kat says….

I was very excited to try the Publishing Trap with colleagues from the University of Essex Library (to be completely honest I had been talking about this day for months and I was cheering when the game was available to download). We were all curious about how the board game could help us start conversations and increase knowledge about publishing and copyright. However, as we are cautious people we decided it was best to test it on ourselves first. Plus, how often do you get to play an educational board game at work?

We all had expectations and pre-existing knowledge but I think it quickly dawned on us how confusing copyright can be as a researcher, especially if you’re getting mixed advice! The game can seem quite complicated at first because of all the different pieces, but as long as you follow the playbook (and watch the time!) it will all run smoothly. Here’s our step-by-step experience of playing The Publishing Trap.

Round 1 – PhD Round

The Wildcards

Divided into 4 teams, 8 librarians were congratulated for receiving their PhD from the University of Mercia. After celebrating this success with a loud cheer, the teams were given the choice of three ways to gain advice about how to get their research out into the wider world. After getting advice they had to make three different decisions to match real life scenarios. The teams were discussing the possible options. Some wanted to make quick decisions and relied on the advice given, while others wanted to discuss further.

As I was preparing the skills cards for Round 2 I heard the conversation going from copyright to board games and the fact that none of them likes to lose. It started to get a little heated, and I was picturing it ending with someone flipping the board game and yelling “I AM NOT PLAYING ANYMORE!” So I decide to urge them all to move on and discuss their choices in the first round together.

From the first round it became clear that copyright can be kind of confusing, and that the snap decision makers probably should discuss options more before choosing. In addition, we found out that relying on advice alone does not always give you the best solution…

Round 2 – Post-doctoral Round

The players had the chance to ‘skill up’ via asking for advice or attending training courses. The teams made choices based on experiences from the last round, shying away from sources that had turned out to be poor advice. The outcome of the next task was decided by a dice roll combined with previous decisions. One of the librarians pointed out that this game is very much about luck but also about choice – just like life.

The teams are faced with more decisions and the librarians are now slowly turning into criminologists, microbiologists, astrophysicists and Jane Austin researchers. The subject fields were becoming a larger part of their decision making.

“Would a criminologist studying gangs in South East London want to share their research freely? Surely that must be dangerous? What if the gangs read it and come after us?”

I must say I was enjoying the way the game progressed and the librarians were getting quite invested in their characters.

Round 3 – Junior lecturer round

This round was kicked off with a wildcard and most teams were positive about this twist, though one team was hesitant and anticipating a bad outcome… the luck had not been on their side earlier, why should it be now?

The teams then had the opportunity to up their skills by taking on extra responsibilities. The teaching option was immediately rejected by everyone because it would be too much work. I was tempted to remind them that they would not actually have to do any teaching but I was busy watching them develop from librarians into researchers.

Moving on, the fate of our librarians/researchers was decided by rolling the dice and there was a loud cheer every time the outcome was good. It was then time to make some decisions, this time about impact. Previous outcomes and the team’s research areas became a part of the decision making process:

“We published in a low impact journal so we panicked and paid the APC to make it Open Access to increase impact!”

“What we are researching won’t be relevant in two years so we need to make it available to everyone now”

Impact Assessment A

Some of the choices from previous rounds were assessed and teams got impact points based on their decisions. There was also an opportunity to get more points by rolling the dice and let luck decide. Everyone seemed to be happy with their successes, and I was pretty busy giving away impact, knowledge and money tokens. It was all calm before the storm…

Round 4 – Senior Lecturer Round

Misha’s Wildcard

This round started with wildcards. All teams reacted with a big “OH NO!!” to the wildcards. Clearly, there was some turbulence in our characters’ lives. One of the cards picked by the criminologists revealed that this team was accused of having an affair with a PhD student. We are all shocked! Misha Maleovski how could you!? The dice is rolled to determine the outcome which created an even larger discussion as the dice decides that the affair is forgotten because the researcher makes a breakthrough and gets a jointly authored article with the PhD student.

“Does that make it alright?” the librarians discuss. It is mentioned that though the outcome of the situation in the game was not ethical, it is probably closer to what happens in the real world than what should happen. It is a highly relevant and sensitive topic, and I am glad it has been included in the game. (Ed – we are aware that this card is controversial from feedback in a recent review by colleagues at the Ithaka S+R, so will be reviewing the wording in subsequent versions).

Teams then got advice again and were presented with three questions. Some teams were very money focused in this round, others were interested in impact. The teams could not shake their underlying nature, so the inner librarians emerged to make cautious decisions about copyright – better safe than sorry!

Professor Round – Final Choices

In this round the teams were back in character and the librarians, I mean, the researchers were focused on their reputation (which they had spent a lot of effort building the last hour and 30 minutes). This focus led to a lot of similar choices, and they were all cautious about their decisions. They wanted control and to follow ethical principles to protect their reputation as renowned professors. “We already have enough money, we need to think about our reputation” one team said, but did this cautiousness pay off? Play it yourself and you’ll find out!

Impact Assessment B

The choices were again evaluated and the teams had a final shot at gaining some more impact, knowledge and money tokens.

The final analysis

Our total knowledge tokens were above 42 (which happens to be the answer to life, the universe and everything) so collectively the game was won! To my surprise there were no sore losers when announcing the rankings, instead everyone was talking about how fun it had been to play – phew! One of our players said he actually did not like board games AT ALL, but this one had been quite entertaining and he had enjoyed it though he originally did not want to play. Sadly, it is not a game that you can play again, my researchers/librarians now know too much (I will not reveal how you win the game).

Final thoughts

All in all, we had a very positive experience playing the game. It sparked a lot of interesting discussions and I think many of us had some realisations about the pressures researchers are under, and how sometimes they want to make quick and easy decisions because there is too much going on. Other times they might want to be cautious and protect their reputation. In addition, priorities change during depending on where you are in your career.

We highly recommend the Publishing Trap. It is a game you can play with librarians, researchers and/or PhD students and we are looking forward to using it as a learning resource in the future!

My top tips if you’re presenting the game:

  • Pretend that you are the host of a game show; it makes it a lot more fun.
  • Come prepared! (Meaning: read the instructions, read the playbook twice and make sure you have all the pieces you need)
  • Sometimes you have to interrupt a conversation to make the game move forward, because people do get distracted and lost in conversation.
  • If teams get off topic during a discussion (for example talking about board games in general instead of copyright) lead them back to the topic with a question, e.g. “what made you decide to choose x?”
  • Make sure you know what restrictions and recommendations your institution has, there will be questions about this.
  • Bring cookies or something to nibble on!


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