Friday, May 28, 2010

We Need Academic Journals and We Also Need Academic Publishing to Change

My colleague, Tony, asks: do we need academic journals anymore? As the "soon to be former" editor of a peer-reviewed, academic journal (Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology), my answer is a resounding YES.   In various editorials for CJLT, I have written about the value and necessity of peer-reviewed forums for the sharing and dissemination of academic research and scholarship. For example, in Winter 2007 CJLT Editorial,  I wrote:  A great deal of hidden volunteer effort supports the scholarly review process of an academic journal. After a paper has been reviewed by the editorial team, it is blinded and sent to three expert peers for their assessment of the manuscript’s quality and potential contribution to the field. Peer reviewers submit comments and a recommendation to the editorial team to aid in the publication decision making process. At least 21 peer reviewers contributed their feedback and expertise to the review of the seven manuscripts in this issue. Peer review, by its very nature and, some would argue, by necessity, is anonymous. A journal maintains its scholarly integrity by employing a valid and reliable peer review process.

In my Winter 2008 CJLT Editorial, I argued, "Academic journals disseminate both new research and the critique of existing research as an important part of the inquiry and knowledge sharing process. Scholars rely on academic, peer-reviewed journals for research on which they can build their own investigations and scholarship. ... Good academic journals tend to publish competing and even contrasting articles about a particular research field, question or topic – this approach to academic debate, combined with disciplined inquiry, is believed to characterize a vigorous, growing and dynamic body of knowledge and reliable research in a discipline. Canadian academics believe it is a right and a responsibility to analyze, synthesize and critically evaluate the current knowledge base and to identify inaccuracies, faulty arguments and claims that are not well supported with evidence".

Academic researchers, scholars, graduate supervisors and graduate students, campus and classroom teachers, journalists and citizens, will continue to need reliable, trustworthy and credible peer-reviewed research on which to build ongoing research and teaching and living efforts. Our current academic journal publishing and peer review models have served us fairly well (with a few notable exceptions -- leaked emails about climate change, anyone?), will continue to serve us well, for the most part, and also have to change and evolve in order to remain relevant and to serve the community well.

Here is my comment on Tony's blog:  "You are asking a few good questions here, Tony. I believe that our academic journal publishing models DO need to evolve and change, and that the type and magnitude of change needed will take no small courage and a great deal of effort on the part of academics, faculties and institutions. As editor, I advocated for CJLT to become fully open-source and online in order to make present and past educational technology research freely and widely available. Going open-source and online is only the first small step for academic journals. Across disciplines, there is an enduring and widespread snobbery about "online" versus "serious, top-tier publishing in a paper journal" - going for tenure or promotion, anyone? I agree with my colleagues, Mark Bullen and Ryan Tracey, that there is a strong need for good academic research, and with Sean Lancaster, that the blind peer review process is vital for credible and trustworthy academic publishing. Peer reviewed academic journals also need to incorporate interactive and participatory social networking models in support of developing active academic research communities online. Key challenges that academic journals face include, but are not limited to: variable institutional support and academic merit for journal editors, heavy workload, quality and quantity of peer review, an enduring culture of snobbery and entitlement, and sustainable funding. Does academia have the appetite to change the status quo in academic journal publishing? We can always hope..."

A blog post by the Speculative Scotsman, Publishing Apocalypse... Now, has a relevant message, and funny bit about a grumpy old man, that I believe we can apply to academic publishing:  "Publishing is assuredly not, as Keillor would have it, dying. It is only changing - as all things do. That it is not what it once was, that the industry has had to adapt to new technology, new media, new modes of communication, is symptomatic not of the end - woe betide us all - but of evolution". 

Academic publishing is evolving, and will continue to evolve, however painful and disruptive this process might be, in the coming decades. I look forward to watching from the sidelines. 

1 comment:

Mark Bullen said...

I think there are two issues here:
1) is the traditional academic peer review process still valuable?
2) is the traditional academic publishing model still appropriate?

To the first question, the answer is clearly yes. Particularly in these times of rapid growth in the use of social media, we need to continue to establish the credibility of research. The peer review process does a pretty good job of this.

To the second question, I think the answer is no. Our publication model is driven by print technology. We no longer need to wait until we have an "issue" before publishing. By moving to continuous publication we can get research disseminated more quickly. At the Journal of Distance Education we have moved to a continuous publication model.

A bigger question that we need to consider is the nature of the research that we are publishing. I pointed out at the recent CNIE panel that most of what we publish seems to have very little practical relevance. Are we researching the wrong things or just not publishing the right research? I think there is a real danger that the scholarly journals in educational technology and distance education will become irrelevant if we don't address this issue.