The contemporary academic publishing ecosystem is a juggernaut upheld by centuries of tradition and relied upon by academics, institutions, funders and communities to vet and confer quality upon research and scientific discovery. In the academy, publishing plays a particularly central role by functioning as a seemingly impartial and objective measure through which scholarly outputs can be judged and circulated.
For those who have decided to pursue a career in academia, they are likely already aware of the importance that their publishing decisions can have on their ability to secure research funding, obtain promotion and elevate their profile within their discipline.
Although research assessment and scholarly communication are not the same thing, they are often conflated. One potential result of this is an over-reliance on quantitative metrics that prioritizes measures and rankings over science and can lead to the “gaming” of the publishing system.
Publish or Perish?
As the quantification of research impact and a “publish or perish” mentality become more prevalent it becomes increasingly important for scholars to understand the complexities of the current academic publishing landscape and, in particular, to recognize the forces at play that make it difficult to affect changes that would serve to create a more equitable publishing environment and academic rewards system.
Scenario – Publish or Perish
Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, wrote a total of 10 papers over the course of his academic career. He is quoted in the Guardian as stating that he believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.
- How is productivity measured in your discipline?
- What pressure do you feel to quantify your research output in order to advance your career?
- How do you understand the relationship between quantity and quality when it comes to assessment of your academic career?
Tradition vs. Innovation
If we begin by looking at the history of the academic publishing system as a way to understand the power it wields, it is interesting to note that relatively little has changed in the centuries since the first academic journals were established. Aside from a shift to digital publishing and the formalization of peer review, the systems and formats established by early journals persist to this day.
There are of course many benefits to this system. It has proven to be a reliable model of disseminating science and established peer review practices, backed by well-know publishers, continue to be the benchmark of credible science.
However, this system has also proven inflexible and resistant to change, even in the face of new technology and dissemination methods that make greater and faster communication possible. Established publisher “brands” have come to dominate science and growing consolidation has granted the publishers left standing with increased influence and control over science. As this influence has grown over time particular journals and publishers have become increasingly synonymous with quality and prestige. At the same time, other stakeholders operating within academia including universities and funders have begun to look to these publishers to confer quality and value. Due to an increased focus on the importance of metrics including the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) and author H-Indexes in tenure and review processes, for example, many scholars are strongly encouraged, if not required, to publish in specific high quality or prestigious journals in their field. This makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to make independent decisions about where and how they publish and may discourage many from choosing to publish in non-traditional venues.
To learn more about the modern academic publishing ecosystem, review: Fyfe, A., et al. (2017), Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research. Licensed under CC-BY 4.0.
Image Credit: 1665 journal des scavans title by Unknown. Public Domain.