Academic publishing – ours is not to reason why

Why do researchers publish their work in academic journals? The answers might seem obvious: to present and explain findings, contribute to debate, establish a reputation. But if these answers are obvious, then why is academic journal publishing so ill-equipped to meet these needs?
Academic journal publishing has been called the ‘market that digital disruption forgot’. In the Summer, George Monbiot wrote powerfully about the inability of the general public to access the published findings of (often) publicly funded research, thanks to the ‘economic parasitism’ of academic journal publishers. He was undoubtedly right to focus on the segregation at the heart of the system, which means that only a small elite with the right pass keys can access this cutting-edge knowledge economy.
But while Monbiot’s main concern was with readers and exploitative economics, having submitted three articles in as many weeks to as many social science journals, I’ve been reminded yet again of how poorly this system serves would-be writers.
These three articles are now sitting in various inboxes across Europe. And there, I suspect, they shall sit for some time. In fact, there’s a fourth article I submitted somewhere else again, six months ago. I haven’t heard anything about it since, despite repeatedly emailing for an update. That’s no record: I am now reliably informed that another piece will be published in early 2013. It was accepted for publication in 2008. While there’s a certain comic value in these endless delays, there’s a serious consequence. By the time material is published it is – far from being cutting-edge – out of date. Ideas have moved on, but the written repository lags behind. In a digital age, this delay is surely inexcusable.
Unpaid reviewing and editing – so manuscripts sit on desks (mine included) for months – are only part of the problem. The endless delays have been exacerbated by the push to publish in time for the dreaded  Research Excellence Framework (REF), at the end of 2013. Awash with submissions, even those articles that do get accepted are now looking in some journals at a 2014 publication date.
I’d argue these trends have both been complicated by and contributed to the rise of the “Special Issue”: effectively an outsourced journal which includes a selection of articles from a workshop, seminar series or conference. The bonus is that acceptance is both swift and (usually) a sure thing. Yet it means academic networks become an even more important part of the publication process, even before peer-review starts, arguable making it even harder for young, unknown and unconnected researchers to find an outlet for their work.
These problems become even more acute when you work, as I do, in a field where the value of your research can be measured in terms of its policy and political impacts, not just its pure academic value. If you’re a researcher seeking to combat human suffering, poverty, disease, injustice, you can’t wait three years for “peer” validation. This is where working papers come into their own – usually free and instantly available online, normally vetted by reputable institutions.  Where comment is of the moment, and when many of those most concerned with your research will not be working in a university, a working paper like these offers an opportunity for discussion that goes far beyond any exchange I’ve ever had as a result of a journal publication.
Yet choosing to engage with working paper audiences comes at a price. Increasingly, the publication of a working paper is cited as justification for rejecting a submission in an overcrowded market, even when the paper isn’t a mere replica but builds substantially on earlier materials, or offers a far more refined conceptual and theoretical argument. So it becomes a choice: academic reputation or policy audience? Given the insistence that research should be evaluated in terms of its social “impact”, this trend in academic publishing is particularly frustrating.
So why publish in an academic journal at all? Here, I think we have not the publishers but the universities – and their grey-haired guardians – to blame. It’s all about prestige. Professors continue to insist that print is best – worth more than an online publication – despite in the same breath recognising the system’s failure and the dubious nature of “impact factors”. Peer-review? Oh yes, it can be immensely valuable, but it’s also wildly variable – and sometimes hugely prejudiced. In a world where a single post-doc post can see 700 applications the young can’t risk rocking the boat.
Most of you who are reading this are probably researchers of one form or other. But while this may seem a narrow set of concerns, it should matter to everyone, because a broken academic publishing system exacerbates inequalities in higher education – not just among the students, but also among the staff. Patience is a luxury that many newly qualified PhD graduates can’t afford: I know dozens of my peers who – faced with a 200:1 shot at a junior lectureship – are burdened by enormous temporary teaching commitments or have left research altogether. Their research disappears with them, while for others patronage (never absent from the academic job market) takes the place of publications. But I’m not sure indentured labour is the best way to be hiring in twenty-first century universities.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in 2011. I got a great job; I’ve walked the tightrope between policy working papers and free-thinking conceptual academic work without falling off. But just because you’ve benefitted from a system doesn’t mean it doesn’t need fixing. And a great way to start in 2012 would be to rethink the sacred cow of academic journal publishing.