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The problems with academic publishing: Part 1

The main purpose of a scholarly journal is to report on original research or experimentation in order to make such information available to the rest of the scholarly world. —Cornell University Library

In recent years, the purpose of academic publishing has been challenged by lagging review processes, the pressure to open up high-priced academic publications to the general public, and web publishing options. This three-part series of posts explores these issues as they relate to publishing in urban planning. Part 1 will present some of the problems with the current North American social science model, the second part will discuss some benefits of the European model, and the third will address non-traditional publishing options.

The North American social science model

When you’re a Ph.D. student, you learn quickly that if you’re heading for an academic career, you need to publish peer-reviewed articles in academic journals. Seasoned professors will tell you that the pressure to “publish or perish” is still true of academia. Universities are pressuring their planning academics to produce more articles, and competition at the most highly-ranked journals has increased to the point where even well-established professors have their work routinely rejected.

But many of us are never mentored or coached to produce academic articles. I speak from the social sciences perspective, and also from the North American perspective here (I’ll discuss the view from Europe in Part 2). Most of my UBC colleagues entered their Ph.D. with a very loose proposal for their work–a very different beginning from students in the natural sciences, who usually already have a topic shaped by their supervisor’s successful funding applications. During their first two years, students in planning (which is usually a social science in North America) try to hone their topic down to an operationalizable research question, while also learning the basics of research design and methods and applying for funding. At this point they don’t have much to publish; perhaps a literature review. The third and fourth years are usually devoted to fieldwork, the time-consuming stage of finding and obtaining permission to use quantitative datasets, and data analysis. At this point, they may be ready to submit a methodological piece. Only in the final year of the Ph.D. (whether that is their fourth, fifth, or sixth year) is there really much to publish, and then most candidates focus on producing their dissertation.

Some supervisors co-publish with their students, although it’s certainly not the norm among my colleagues in urban planning. This leaves most Ph.D. students on their own in terms of writing articles, choosing journals to submit their work to, and trying to tailor their work to fit the needs or perspectives of those journals. Most will have published one, or maybe two, articles by the end of their Ph.D. Until recently, this was what potential employers expected when they interviewed potential candidates for an Assistant Professor position.

In some cases, a Ph.D. candidate may have been encouraged to develop the chapters as individual papers–my alma mater UBC introduced this option a few years ago, though it remains more popular in the natural sciences. Otherwise, they will face the difficulty of translating their dissertation (whether it’s 150 or 400 pages) into a series of articles that somehow work on their own. Many colleagues from my Ph.D., even years after finishing, have published one to three articles from their Ph.D. In terms of producing peer-reviewed work, this is not a very successful model: spend five to seven years on the research and dissertation, and maybe another two to three years on articles, and end up with just a few published pieces. In the meantime, the market for planning academics has been slow since 2008, so competition has increased for potential positions. Potential employers now expect a significant publishing record–it’s not enough to show that you have the potential to publish. Despite the fact that there are new journals starting all the time, it’s not enough to submit to these; potential employers expect you to have published in the most-established and highly-ranked journals in the field. The same journals that receive so many submissions that even their own work is often rejected.

To give my readers a picture of the process that young scholars face, I’ll use my own peer-reviewed publishing results. Since the year I started my Ph.D. (2007), I have submitted 18 articles: seven were accepted, seven rejected, and four are still in the review process. There has been a ramp-up in my submittal activity over the years: seven of these articles have been submitted in 2012 and 2013. The average length of time of the review process has been 5.2 months, but the range has been between one and 18 months. Submitting articles to special issues, book reviews which I was asked to write, etc. had the lowest review times: usually less than two months. We’ve all heard of recent upheavals at highly-ranked journals who have tried to revamp and reduce their review times: at one of these journals, my article spent 16 months in the review process. This is simply unacceptable: if the goal of academic publishing is to share work with other researchers, it must be done fairly quickly to remain current. To present our work at conferences, where it’s shared with our peers, and be published two years later is ridiculous. Yet, whenever I asked a planning researcher whether I should contact the editors about an article that had been in the review process for over six months, I’d hear, “Oh no, you don’t want to do that.” Even in the cases that took well over a year, I was advised to just wait it out.

In addition to lengthy review processes which make it difficult for a Ph.D. candidate to publish more than one or two articles before finishing, journals seem to prefer certain subjects over others. Two editors of planning journals have told me that housing, transportation, and urban growth “fall outside of their usual areas of expertise”. This means that they have trouble finding reviewers for articles in these areas. I find this difficult to believe considering that every major planning conference has streams dedicated to housing and transportation; urban growth is also a major area of research. Editors always complain that they can’t find enough reviewers. However, a third editor confessed to me that, “We typically use the same reviewers over and over again,” and that he wouldn’t allow Ph.D. candidates to review articles. There’s something a bit off about a system that insists on peer review but shuns capable reviewers: as a postdoc, I’m currently on the reviewer list for four journals but only review about two articles per year. I review them within two weeks, which makes me wonder why review processes often take around 8 months; granted, given the fact that I’m not a professor, I’m probably at the bottom of the reviewer list.

So, university planning departments, these are just some of the reasons why a candidate for the Assistant Professor position may not have a stellar publishing record. Publishing is incredibly slow, it’s much more competitive than when you were on the job market, and the highest-ranked planning journals can be narrow in scope. Unless their supervisors made co-publishing a goal, Ph.D.s have often not learned how to structure their research to produce articles or which journals to target to avoid lengthy review processes. For some possible solutions to these problems, check out my next post.


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