faculty evaluation · global academy · reform · research · risky writing · turgid institution

Scholarly Publishing is Broken

Scholarly publishing is broken–at least journal publishing, and at least in my experience–and I don’t want to be complicit in this brokenness anymore, just because it serves some of my purposes, some of the time.

Most loftily, we scholars imagine that we are creating new knowledge, and that new knowledge is a good thing, that it can move our collective human project forward, in some small way. It gets moved only once this new knowledge is publicized. Hence, scholarly publishing.

Much less loftily, scholarship is a kind of labour that we exchange for tokens of esteem, power, and reputation, the currency of the academy. The recognized coin of this realm is peer-reviewed, published pages. Hence, scholarly publishing.

I know that I want to create new knowledge, and change the world! And if I can get a full professorship into the bargain, as well as win the disciplinary and institutional pissing contests by which goods are allotted within the Ivory Tower, well, all the better.

These goals can conflict.

And so it is that I find myself in the weird position of having an article scheduled to appear in Women Communication Scholarship (pseudonym) and am ambivalent, even angry, about it. My little story indicates at least one small way that scholarly publication is broken, and how some of it is our own damn fault. Is my fault.

What’s making me angry is that I submitted to this journal because of its high reputation, its high rejection rate, its mass adoption by academic libraries … and it turns out that they have a standing two year delay on publication. Let me be perfectly clear: once you go through the whole year of being reviewed and re-reviewed and your piece is accepted, your publication date will be TWO FURTHER YEARS IN THE FUTURE. I expressed some shock to the editor when she sent me my August 2014 publication date, in April 2012. She is shocked, too, having witnessed the creeping commercialization of this work over a generation of editorship. But this delay is their new standard. They have a perpetual backlog of submissions and accepted papers, because of their impact, and because they are published by a commercial publisher, who will not let them clear this out with some double print issues, they will have a TWO YEAR DELAY FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD.

Now, I work in new media. My article will be about three years old when it finally appears. Older, actually, because it’s based on a survey that took some time to complete. It will be historical by the time it appears. It’s going to be out of the page proofs stage by Labour day of this year, then SIT IN A DIGITAL DRAWER FOR TWO MORE YEARS before it gets printed. As the bemused editor wrote to me, the brave new world of academic editing of commercially-published journals “both requires that we publish scholarship and that we don’t publish scholarship.”

This seems really, really wrong.

I consulted Twitter. My friends and colleagues in digital humanities were appalled. Some suggested pulling the article and submitting it somewhere with a faster turnaround. Some suggested back-door self-publishing–that is, use the citation information from the “forthcoming” journal and put the paper online somewhere so people could read it before it becomes irrelevant. I like this idea of guerrilla self-publishing.

I consulted my chair, who consulted my dean. They, by contrast, congratulated me on having my work “appear” in such a high profile venue, and told me to leave it there. I should not retract the article to publish it elsewhere with a lower impact factor, just to get it into readers’ hands. I could put it on my CV, they said, and it would “count” this year. So I will get a raise for heaving my work into a deep well. I must confess I like this idea, too, of appearing successful and important among my peers, and getting a raise, to boot.

To summarize: I get lots of chest-beating institutional credit for this “publication.” But no one actually gets to read my scholarship. It all leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

This current publishing system is broken. It pits our desires for reputation and stature against a true public good, and removes the whole thing from academic hands to place it into commercial ones who have been quite canny at exploiting our desires for status and our lack of desire for detail work in marketing, bean counting, and publication.

As for me, I’m leaving the article where it is: this is the third journal I’ve submitted it to (it’s interdisciplinary and I have had the misfortune of getting one glowing and one damning review every where else it’s travelled) and I really want this work stamped with approval and circulating, however distant the future in which that happens. As a compromise between my ambitions and my scruples, I asked the editor if I could put a “pre-print” online, and she said it’s technically not allowed but that she understands, informally, that many other people do it. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

I ask you: if an article falls into the Taylor and Francis journal system and no one gets to read it, is any new knowledge created? If we’re all circulating these papers “pre-print” why are we bothering with these commercial publications at all, except for personal professional gain? And what should we do?

14 thoughts on “Scholarly Publishing is Broken

  1. I know this frustration very well … probably my best article took over two years to get refereed, then another two years to appear. Of course, if your web page has the title and “to appear”, people can always write to ask for a copy, and judging by the number of “in press” entries in most bibliographies nobody is shy about sharing stuff before it's officially published.

    Informal circulation of “in press” material is nothing new, nor long printing delays for the best journals. In some ways, it has ever been thus. In my own field for much of the 20th Century by the time key papers were published in the key journals they'd already been circulated through the lunch rooms of Oxford, Cambridge and among the Eastern Seaboard Mafia in the US, and the debate had moved on. Ensuring that everyone else could only enter the debate behind the times was a good way to ensure that everyone else knew that they were in the sticks.

    As for the move away from the paper model … one reason that electronic journals in some fields don't have the prestige of high quality traditional journals is precisely the lack of cost-determined page restrictions … those restrictions are part of what causes that low acceptance rate. So … your paper may be out of date when it hits the press, but it does hit the press with “worth reading” stamped on it. In an electronic journal where because there are no page restrictions the editor doesn't have to make as many hard choices about what to include (or in a print journal with a faster turn-around time but that's easier to get into) it may go unread for different reasons.


  2. I winced while reading this post, but did laugh at the “Taylor and Francis journal system”. In my experience with them, some of their journals do “online first” so it is unfortunate that you cannot make use of that option with your article. Congratulations, anyway, on finding such a prestigious journal for that difficult to place article. If you can find a way of circulating the paper early that does not violate copyright then, yay 😀

    I had the experience, with a co-authored article, of receiving excellent feedback from the editor and reviewers and making revisions for resubmission only to find out that the editorial staff had switched over so our manuscript has to be submitted as a new one, although they will consider it in the context of the original and reviewer and editor statements. Not nearly as frustrating as your situation, but it was a disappointment to say the least; it may effect the outcome of our paper or at the very least slow things down. It cannot be helped, and I remain hopeful; but it seems that there are always new gopher holes I must watch out for in publishing.


  3. I am still learning about all of this (won't enter a PhD program until this fall) but I think it is unfortunate that people solely judge whether an article is worth reading or not based on the journal in which it was published. Some of the higher impact factor journals in some disciplines are very very conservative so good work has to either be supremely good or by a recognizable name to get in there, or it is sent elsewhere and makes its way through to another journal. I may be going about things all wrong, but when doing research I cast a wide net and try to find everything I possibly can about what I want to write on, read them all, and then see what is relevant. I never know if someone who can't write worth beans but has done something interesting (and yet underrated) might have made a valuable contribution to the particular subject on which I am writing. I try to hit the major names, but I want to give credit where it is due. Besides, who gets to decide what is worth being published and what is worth reading? Isn't that just another way of gatekeeping; a way that is potentially detrimental to marginalized areas of study and their practitioners, as is the case with some interdisciplinary papers.


  4. The academic journal publishing system won't endure like this. There are powerful arguments and forces for change (like Open Access). One of the most powerful is for writers to exercise their right of where to publish, and to use multiple channels to connect with their readers. Given the speed with which non-academic media move, I predict it will look very different within 5 years.


  5. Hi Stephanie … You are complete right, there are definitely big downsides to the prestige being attached to the traditional system. (Especially for us out here in the sticks!) And I wouldn't recommend solely judging an article by its venue. But it's also a sad fact of life that there's way, way more stuff published than anyone can read so everyone ends up using filters. And getting past the blind refereeing at a top journal is one modestly effective way of separating good papers from bad. (I'd love to do a study, but my impression is that good work has a higher chance of publication in a good journal than in a weaker one with a higher acceptance rate because the good journals are more likely to have referees who know what's what. As Aimee mentions, good papers sometimes get crazy and incompetent referee reports … my guess is that, in general, that's more often the case with lower tier journals.)

    About filters: I end up looking for authors whose work has impressed me in the past, for instance. I think lots of other people do that, too—hence the advice sometimes given to grad students: “that's probably publishable, but better not to publish it because if it's the first thing others read by you I'm thinking they'll never read anything else you write.” (Of course, the advice is usually phrased a bit more diplomatically.) At lunch yesterday a colleague mentioned something she'd been told as a grad student: you're forbidden to read anything else on your topic until your thesis is done. “Read them all” is a laudable goal, but one most of us end up backing off on eventually. So while Dava may be write that a big shake-up is coming in the academic publishing industry, there will still only be 50-60 hours of work in a week and so we're going to end up with different filters rather than no filters, I think, and it's not obvious to me that they'll be better.


  6. Thank you for your response, ddvd. I am working mainly in a field that is somewhat unfamiliar to me so sometimes I do read more than perhaps is necessary, but only so I do not miss anything important! lol I've noticed a problem of fit, too, but that is a discussion for another post! I received reasonable peer-reviews from a prestigious journal, made all of the changes I could, within reason, and resubmitted the paper. One reviewer loved the changes and recommended publication. Another reviewer hated hated hated (cannot state that enough) everything I had changed about the paper and wanted further revisions. Although they had some useful points for future consideration, I am still slightly bitter about the result: the paper was not accepted so I have to send it out to another journal (one which may be a better fit, but won't be as highly ranked). I'm less upset about it than I was before, but it is still a sore point (but at this stage in my academic career, I have to get used to eating lots of humble pie ;p)

    I think you are right that we will end up with different filters, which may not be better, but I'd like to believe that a change can be beneficial. If you ever do–or find–a study about your journal hypothesis, I'd love to read it!


  7. Thanks for the great post!

    I don't just think the system is broken. It's morally bankrupt. I'm a academic scientist. NIH-funded biomedical research is supposed to translate into new therapies sometime in the future, but instead most of rots behind paywalls.

    I'm tired of bowing down before the false idol of Impact Factor. I'm tired of the relentless hypercompetition. That's why I commissioned a new kind of lab website in the spirit of Open Science, a Web-native, responsive self publishing platform: http://perlsteinlab.com

    Self publish or perish!


  8. How much of this is discipline specific, do you think? I don't think a journal in the basic sciences with this kind of turn around time would survive.


  9. I hear you, Aimée. I, too, have had an article accepted by a T&F publication in fall 2010. Upon inquiry a couple of months ago, I found out it will probably appear in the fall 2013. It's on contemporary literature, so not as time-sensitive as new media, but I'd still like it to register as “contemporary” when it appears, especially since the writer whose novel I'm discussing in the the article has published two new books since.


  10. Can I suggest you place a copy of the paper as accepted (NOT the publisher's own PDF or proof) on your institution's open access e-print site where you will also find guidance on the copyright agreements which make this OK> This has the double benefit of making your work immediately available to readers and speeding up the circulation of knowledge and also making it available to those huge communities OUTSIDE the ivory towers who otherwise could never read it. Ours is at http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/open_access.html


  11. In mathematics it is more liberal, especially in ETH Zurich. You are free to publish any of your work on your own homepage, and if publisher has any legal claims against you, there is special juridical department in ETH that handles all these claims and researchers don't have to bother about it at all.


  12. Great post. In neuroscience, most journals seem to have got pretty good at putting up “Fast Forward” uncorrected PDF within a couple of weeks of acceptance. 2 weeks is not bad.

    Then the print copy appears about 2 years later, which is a waste of paper and money, because by that point no-one cares (I'm sure some of my papers have literally never been read in printed form… not even by me!)


  13. I recently had an article published in a T&F journal and it came out very quickly–accepted late fall, published “Online First” in January, and in actual print by July. So this problem you're experiencing may partly be in the journal's own court.

    That said, I completely understand the question of prestige vs. timeliness in scholarly publishing. Which is why I was completely gobsmacked by my own institution's response to a publication dilemma I had about six months ago. I was invited to submit to a special issue of an online-only journal edited largely by graduate students. I had a project ready to go, the special issue had the potential to be very cool, and I did want to get that particular piece out quickly. But, as a new assistant professor, I was worried about my tenure case, so I asked my departmental colleagues and chair about what I should do–go ahead and publish now in this smaller journal or send it to a more prestigious journal, which would take longer. To my surprise, they all encouraged me to get it out there, while it might have the chance to have a decent life before its moment passed, and then either flesh out the argument in another piece or move on to something else.

    My university is a bit of an anomaly, in that it seems genuinely to care about producing and sharing knowledge. But it is also an up-and-coming, underdog university, so perhaps its attitude is a sign of a shift? Fingers crossed.


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