Scholarly Journal Participation: How Much and How Not to Suck at it?

Professional scholarly journals have become a source of controversy in the academic world. There are a host of issues concerning the appropriateness and quality of peer review, decision-making in publishing, exorbitant profit margins by publishing companies, exploitation of free labor, varying metrics of the status and importance of each journal, and endless efforts to quantify contributions to research. Many scholars believe that scholarly journals are no longer an effective method of disseminating research findings. All of these are legitimate concerns, but until we have an adequate replacement, scholarly journals will continue to be the primary method for dissemination for research to international audiences. Publications in scholarly journals will continue to be the currency by which funding, promotion, tenure, and status are granted. All scholars need to decide for themselves exactly how much and how to participate in supporting and maintaining scholarly journals.

I am just finishing a seven-year editorship of a journal, am an associate editor of a second journal, and am on the editorial review board of seven international journals. I try to be mindful about the tasks I accept, decline, and how this work assists me in meeting my scholarly and professional goals. I spend too much time thinking about the process and value of reviewing, editing, and supporting scholarly journals. Here are some of my musings about the topic.

Development

Participating in the editorial process for scholarly journals is a leadership activity. There has to be a mastery of a breath of methodologies, theory, and understanding of the purpose of the specific scholarly journal in order to provide this level of leadership. As such, the skills need to be developed over time.

As a graduate student and post-doc there is rapid development in the understanding and application of research methods, learning about the publication process from an author perspective, and establishing a reputation in the field. Hopefully, PIs allow students to receive supervised experience in writing reviews of submitted manuscripts. Often PIs simply delegate their reviewing activities to students and often without credit. This scenario seems to have crossed the fine line between a productive learning activity and exploiting labour. Allowing students to assist the writing of manuscript reviews with increasing levels of autonomy is a helpful activity. Eventually, the PI contacts the editor in order to give credit for the work of the graduate student in preparing the manuscript review. Some journals go so far as to have student editorial boards in which the editor provides mentorship in the preparation of reviews. These are exciting opportunities for students to begin to understand the opaque and insider nature of the publication and scholarly journal production process.

As an assistant professor there is also a learning curve in determining how to spend your time and shape your career. No matter how well prepared you are for a tenure-track position, learning the expectations and culture of your new department takes time. There are many departments in which contributions to scholarly journals earn no credit and are not valued professionally. In other departments, reviewing papers and contributing to the editorial process of scholarly journals is considered a fundamental component of your job and a professional expectation. Many assistant professors obsess on how they should be spending their time. If reviewing papers and contributing to the editorial process is a valued part of your department culture, then find the time to review papers. Investigate journals to determine the norms for expected turnaround times for articles and how many articles you will receive for review per year. Being invited to serve on an editorial review board is an outstanding recognition of your professional status, but your decision on whether to accept the position depends largely on the details and expectations of that role.

As a tenured professor your contributions to science have changed. You are now an established leader, who helps to set the tone and agenda for your field of study. Reviewing manuscripts and contributing to the editorial direction of scholarly journals is now something that you are well qualified to do. The biggest risks for tenured professors is that often reviews and editorial decisions reflect protection of status quo, maintenance of the same voices within the field, and reifying the same assumptions that you have made in your own research. Keeping an open mind and welcoming new voices into the field is one of the challenges for experienced professors in the editorial process.

Review as Scholarship

Reviewing articles for professional journals is a form of scholarship. At the very least, reviewing new papers allows you to keep up on the latest issues and research that are involved in your field. I have read on Twitter that some scholars have as their goal to read one scholarly paper per day. As an editor and frequent reviewer, plus the work that I read in my own field of study, I have read 512 papers in 2016 (94 as editor, 12 as associate editor, 31 as reviewer, and the remainder to keep up on my own research). This is somewhat less than my productivity mantra of reading 100 pages and writing 1000 words per day. But serving as a reviewer enhances the depth and breadth of my professional reading.

Reviewing articles and making editorial decisions also is a contribution to your field of study. Most reviews focus entirely on the rigour and scholarship of submitted articles. If methodology is sound and internal consistency of the logic of the paper is adequate, then many papers are recommended for publication. To a large degree this is because methodology is something on which many reviewers can agree and for which there is a standard. A more important decision-making criterion is whether the article makes a significant contribution or advancement to that field of research. Because rigour is often valued more than contribution; many journals are filled with papers that are extremely well done, but are mostly minutia and of minimal importance to the profession. The appropriate use of post hoc tests is necessary for an effective evaluation of a paper, but whether that paper makes substantial theoretical, clinical, methodological, or instructional contributions are even more important criteria.

As an editor, there are three things that I value in a reviewer manuscript evaluation: timeliness, the mindset of assisting authors to make the manuscript and their overall work better, and accountability. Timeliness is obvious. About 55% of reviews for my journal were received past the deadline date. This is not only inconvenient for authors, but reflects poorly on the quality of the journal overall. The sooner the better. Rather than the mindset of a reviewer rejecting a paper because it is inadequate, a better approach is to provide information that will help authors improve the paper. Some articles have fatal flaws. In those cases, make suggestions as to how these papers can be redesigned to become effective communicators of important scholarly contributions to the field. This takes time, but it is part of the article review-as-scholarship approach. As editor, I frequently gave comments to reviewers on the quality of their review. Not simply the scholarship, but also the tone. Reviewers are instructed to be constructive and rigorous. As a reviewer, one method to increase accountability is that I always place my name on the bottom of reviews for the authors to view. There is no reason to be anonymous and I should be accountable for all of my scholarship, including manuscript evaluations. Some editors remove my name from the reviews in order to be consistent with the double-blind review procedure of the journal, but reviewers are accountable to the editors and to the authors. If reviewers cannot meet the criteria of review-as-scholarship and address timeliness, assist authors, and accountability, then it is not a problem to decline the review. However, if you must decline the review, then decline as quickly as possible so that another reviewer can be solicited for the evaluation.

Editorship

Should you be an associate editor or editor of a journal? Requirements of your time range widely from 5 to 20 hours per week as an editor of the Journal. This is a major cost. My criteria for whether to accept such costs are: Do I have the time to meet the duties of editor? Would editing this journal be consistent with my goals for professional leadership? And can I make a contribution to the editorial direction of the journal beyond serving as a caretaker and administrator? Journal editorship is a manifestation of professional leadership and assisting to develop a research direction for your field. There is an awesome responsibility to this task. My recommendation is that becoming an associate editor is ideal for a beginning associate professor (with tenure) establishing leadership in the profession. This position allows you to get a taste of what being an editor in chief looks like. Becoming an editor is an excellent task for an associate professor, who is preparing to advance to full professor, or a full professor.

Conclusions

Whatever one thinks about scholarly journals and the future of scholarly journals, the emphasis is on academics to ensure that the evaluation and publication of professional science and dissemination of science in journals is a productive and rigorous process. Rather than a task of drudgery and thankless service, involvement in professional journals is a form of scholarship. I strongly encourage my colleagues to take leadership roles in the dissemination of the highest quality scholarly research in all of its forms.

SR Shaw

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