Thursday, May 04, 2006

Academic Publishing Model Is Broken

Update (May 7, 2006): Read the BYU PDF here:

I make a living doing research. I also teach courses -- and I try to do it well. But make no mistake: I would not have been hired at Texas Tech University without a strong research record.

At present, I have four research pieces in press. One of those is a chapter in an edited book, the ugly stepchild of academic research. The other three are in top academic journals in my field. In order to be published, they went through blind peer review.

That means that the editor took the authors' names off of the paper and sent it to (usually) three knowledgeable professors in the field. Those reviewers then picked the piece apart and sent their reviews to the editor, who passed them along to me with the reviewers' names removed.

Obviously, the criticism was not especially bad, or I would not have gotten the sought after "revise and resubmit." If the piece is not rejected, the author(s) has/have the chance to fix all of the things that the reviewers say are wrong with the piece and send it back. In each of these three cases I/we did that, and it was enough (after being sent back to the reviewers).

The problem is that the process is broken at every level. First of all, the reviews are rarely truly blind. At least one of the reviewers likely has an idea of who the authors are. In addition, medium-sized incestuous circles develop within an academic community where a group of cronies cite, review, and rubber stamp each others' work.

I admit that review is necessary, but this system hardly accomplishes its goals. Bad work easily gets by if it is popular bad work, and groundbreaking work is needlessly held up because by definition if it is groundbreaking, few people are doing it, so editors have a difficult time identifying qualified reviewers. And -- in my experience -- when a reviewer does not understand a piece, the reviewer is especially critical.

But there is another, more immediate flaw in the system. The system allows power to concentrate with few checks. This was highlighted to me today by a posting sent from my future dean at Texas Tech, Jerry Hudson. The piece outlines the massive increase in journal prices in recent years.

Titled, "Scholarly communication in crisis," this Brigham Young University publication is chilling. In the field of psychology, for example, journal costs have risen 43.53% from 1999 to 2003. That is crazy. Thus, libraries are forced "to cancel journal subscriptions, purchase fewer books, and rely more heavily on interlibrary loan."

Did I mention that neither I nor my university will make a single cent for those three journal publications? Nada. Zip. Zilch. I beg them to accept my work (so to speak), and then I give it to them for free. Starting in September, the taxpayers of the state of Texas will be paying me to do research. And not only will no one get paid back for those copyright rights, the university library will then be extorted in order to actually have copies of the journal available for students.

I have to admit that mass communications is relatively immune from this problem (to date), but our day is surely coming. And we junior faculty are largely powerless to do anything about it.

You see, we have to earn tenure (see a great positing here by Indiana University assistant professor, Dr. Robert F. Potter). And to do that we have to demonstrate an active, promising, independent research program. And we do that (largely) by publishing in "top" journals.

Once a journal becomes a "top" journal in the field, that inertia is almost impossible to stop. Assistant professors at almost every top program in the field will be fighting and clawing to "give" their work to those journals. Those journals can then pick only the best pieces. They can define the field. And as long as someone on our tenure and promotion committee views them as "top," we are slaves.

So we can watch the prices escalate. We can watch the rejection rates escalate. And then we have to choose to do meaningful work or easily publishable work. In a very view cases do these overlap to the degree that they should.

Returning to the BYU piece, they make specific recommendations for faculty. Almost all of them are in the direct disinterest of tenure.

1) Foster alliances

Sure, we can fight together. But I don't really have the time to "unionize" my field. I need to be doing research to give away.

2) Protect personal copyrights

This is possible. My colleague Edward Palazzolo negotiated a more favorable copyright agreement with a premiere journal in our field. But it takes time, and what will we do if they say "no"? On the tenure track, an acceptance is golden. Will you give it up over a copyright battle?

3) Exercise influence

We have none. BYU urges us to submit our work to online journals. Har! The tenure and promotion committee at OSU would belly laugh if I tried to get tenure here with a bunch of online publications. Sure, if we all did it, we would change the world. But this is like a game of Prisoner's dilemma. If some people defect, then those of us who publish online are left serving burgers.

4) Use electronic resources

Again, because of the extreme prejudice against online journals, a relatively smaller amount of good work is published there. In most of the cases I know -- but certainly not all -- pieces end up in online journals only after they were rejected by mainstream journals. So, it is hard to take these pieces too seriously. We get less credit for publishing in these journals, reviewing for these journals, or for serving on the editorial board of these journals.

From the top to the bottom, the system is broken. I have no profound solution. I believe in peer review. If all scientist publish everything, it will be almost impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff. And communication is lucky. Our journals are still reasonable. Here, for your amusement, are some Institutional Subscription prices (print and online) from the journals I have on my desk today:

Journal Price
Communication Research $724
Communication Theory $850 (for all three)
Human Communication Research
Journal of Communication
Journal of Advertising $135
Journal of Broadcasting/Electronic Media $170
Journal of Consumer Psychology $555
Journalism & Mass Comm. Quarterly $120
Media Psychology $400
Psychology & Marketing $255
Psychophysiology $426


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:33 AM  

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