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The problems with academic publishing: Part 2

In my last post, I discussed some of the problems with the North American publishing model as it applies to urban planning, specifically the lengthy peer-review process, the expectation for Ph.D. candidates to publish in well-ranked and overly competitive journals, and the narrow scope of some planning journals. Many graduates from Ph.D. programs also haven’t learned how to structure their research to produce articles or which journals to target. In Part 2 of this three-part series, I discuss some lessons learned from European planning scholars.

The Dutch social science model

As most of you know, I’ve been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning and International Development since July 2012. During my time in The Netherlands, I’ve learned a lot about a very different model of peer-reviewed publishing, one that I think offers solutions to some of the above-mentioned problems. It doesn’t solve all the problems, however, which is why I’ll continue with the final installment of this series to discuss non-traditional publishing options.

Recent developments in the publishing process in The Netherlands have resulted in a much more streamlined model of producing peer-reviewed work. It starts from the very beginning of a Ph.D.: according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement for Dutch Universities, Ph.D.’s here are in fact not students, but employees. Regular employees at the university with a salary scale, pension, benefits, and vacation time: but be assured that the rates of pay aren’t any more than a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship used to pay (you can see the Dutch gross salary scale here, Appendix A Table 2.3, low end of Scale 10). Ph.D. students do not engage on an independent course of study which they must fund themselves, but are paid to do research for which their supervisor has gotten a four-year grant. In some cases a research institute (e.g. the Kennis Instituut Mobiliteit (Institute for Transport Policy) in The Netherlands) or a foreign university has funded the research.

This means that Ph.D.’s work within an existing structure, and it includes a projected research output: a certain number of reports, presentations at key conferences, and scientific articles. Ph.D.’s in the Netherlands are required to produce four articles for their dissertation: two must already be accepted and two submitted to scientific journals. The dissertation itself consists of the four articles, with an introduction and conclusion added; the latter two sections are typically written in the last few months of the four years. The text is put together into a book, which is self-published at the cost of the university: typically students print 150 copies of their books (which look like large-format paperbacks) and distribute them to colleagues in the department and elsewhere. This is a finished product: the Dutch Ph.D. has already had their entire dissertation peer-reviewed, and all required changes from the supervisors have already been addressed. It’s a big day in the office when “the books arrive” and are placed in staff mailboxes.

When I discussed this process with my Canadian colleagues during the recent Association of European Planning Schools/Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference, some of them found the Dutch process “ridiculously productive.” Others were horrified at the pressure Ph.D.’s must face in getting four articles published in order to graduate. But it’s a completely different way of structuring research.

When a researcher applies for a major grant with the goal of hiring a Ph.D., the project has already been conceived as separate pieces of work and is often part of a larger research project. Typically, each research question or sub-question has a specific data-gathering or data-analysis method and output, e.g. there would be a literature or policy review, survey results, interview results, and workshop results. This model holds for postdoctoral research as well. In my postdoc, the goal was to do comparative research of international case studies in transit-oriented development, with the goal of reducing barriers to TOD in The Netherlands. I’ve produced two articles that are now in the peer-review process: one on the first stage of the meta-analysis (meta-matrices and critical success factors) and another on stage two (rough set analysis). A third article will summarize the results of workshops that we’re holding this winter with Dutch planners. This rate of publication would be unthinkable within the North American publishing model for several reasons.

First, because here Ph.D.’s enter straight into a well-defined project, within which they can develop their research questions, sub-questions, and methodology. This minimizes the soul-searching (and often soul-destroying) process of finding out “what you want to do and how you want to do it” that often characterizes the North American Ph.D. in planning. There are scheduled meetings with stakeholders or partner institutions who are working on the project, and you will become a part of deciding on the goals and outcomes of the next meetings, workshops, etc.

Second, because of the much shorter peer-review processes. Dutch scholars consider four months to be a long review process, and six months to be reasonable ground for withdrawing the article from consideration. I recently received a revise-and-resubmit from a European journal after five months, and the editor apologized profusely for the delay (when it was revised and resubmitted, the editor accepted it within 24 hours). My colleagues in Amsterdam know which journals have long review processes, and they avoid these; their main goal is to publish in ISI-ranked journals, regardless of the actual ranking. They know because they have been carefully mentored: supervisors suggest a list of possible journals where they can submit, review each draft in detail and propose changes, and only let the article be submitted when it’s in its best possible form. After all, it’s the supervisor’s research grant and he/she is the principal researcher. Ph.D.’s will write to journal editors to ask about the progress of their article after three months, and if they don’t get a satisfactory response the supervisor will intervene.

Third, because the Dutch use social networks. Supervisors who are on editorial boards, or have colleagues who are editors, will suggest that their students try these journals first. They will introduce their Ph.D.’s to these people at conferences. When an article is ready, they will suggest that the Ph.D. e-mail the editor first to check if it’s the right fit for the journal. Their participation in the review processes are likewise quite robust. My Dutch colleagues, whether they’re Ph.D.’s or professors, review several articles per year and typically finish their reviews within a few weeks.

In short, the Dutch model to peer-reviewed publishing in urban planning is much more successful than the North American model: Ph.D.’s produce four articles within four years (or shortly thereafter) compared to one or two within five or six years for a North American Ph.D. They receive careful editing and comments on drafts of their articles. They expect (and receive) far shorter review times and are encouraged to publish in a range of journals–not just the “top” ones. These are already lessons to be learned in improving the North American publishing model in urban planning, if we agree that peer-reviewed publishing is a major goal of the Ph.D.

But there are still some interesting publishing options that the planning researcher can use to address publishing dilemmas: these will be addressed in Part 3.


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