Academic affiliation should not be a requirement to publish

The strict rule discourages article submissions from a variety of authors, including displaced scholars, argues Paul Ostwald

December 13, 2019
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One of the most commonly required qualifications to publish in a scholarly journal is an academic affiliation. There is a good reason for this. Anyone can add “independent scholar” to their business card or, the modern-day equivalent, their Twitter biography. 

In contrast, an academic affiliation signals that the author knows the ins and outs of research and works in a scientific context, surrounded by peers who provide feedback. 

Faced with hundreds of submitted journal papers, editors want reasons not to tediously review every single paper that crosses their desk – and the lack of affiliation with a creditable institution is a convenient one. Dozens of apparently low-potential submissions can be removed at a stroke, saving time and energy.

However, the world is changing. In recent years, significant numbers of displaced scholars have lost their formal university affiliations owing to war and government oppression; this requirement is increasingly looking like a further bureaucratic block on disenfranchised scholars. 

Academics may have cut institutional ties for many reasons, often highly admirable. In Turkey, academics deemed to be critical of the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been purged from universities since July 2016 after a failed coup attempt. The New York Times reports that at least 6,000 academics lost their jobs – with some even jailed on the flimsiest of charges. 

It is impossible to estimate comparable statistics regarding Syrian scholars and others fleeing from war zones. In most cases, these scholars’ affiliations are lost and, in many cases, become untraceable as universities cease to exist.

By rejecting submissions from these researchers, journals will exclude valuable perspectives that are already marginalised. Academia needs to find a solution. 

Fortunately, editors seem increasingly aware of the problem. According to Scopus, the share of articles by unaffiliated researchers in the social sciences grew from 0.004 per cent in 2009 to 0.046 per cent in 2018 – a tenfold increase. This indicates that access is increasingly a concern for academics and publishers alike. 

Open access publications, which make research available to those without university journal subscriptions, has bolstered this trend. Not only do they enable displaced scholars to read current publications, but these journals also appear to be more tolerant regarding academic affiliation. The share of unaffiliated articles published under an open access licence grew threefold from 7 per cent in 2009 to 21 per cent in 2018. 

Yet, the numbers are still meagre and most unaffiliated researchers are from the US, UK or Australia. The voices of those fleeing from war and persecution are rarely heard, meaning noteworthy research remains lost or silenced. Young scholars without prior connections to journals are particularly affected. 

In the short term, editors could create more leeway for selection on a case-by-case basis, rather than rejecting articles for the lack of institutional connection. Publishers will also have to be part of that conversation. A further – and very simple – step would be to update the guidelines on journal websites. In many cases, they offer scholars a choice between one or two affiliations. Authors who have lost their affiliation are not addressed. 

Finally, universities can assist displaced scholars directly. If they cannot grant an academic position, as approximately 60 UK universities already do, institutions can help by inviting displaced scholars to present research among peers or by liaising between researchers and editors. 

Widening access is a concern that affects journals, publishers and universities alike.  

Unfortunately, tolerance will not be enough in the long term. Editors must reconsider the requirement of academic affiliation altogether. The current rules discourage article submissions from displaced academics. If we are to take the notion of a liberal academy seriously, this is an issue that should deeply concern us. 

While a long-term solution would require only minor changes to editorial processes, a lot remains at stake – especially for those whose academic careers are endangered by war or political persecution. There is also much valuable research to be gained. As the diversity of informed perspectives grows, academic discourse can only win.

Paul Ostwald is a political science researcher at Nuffield College, Oxford, and editor of The Journal of Interrupted Studies, which publishes the work of displaced scholars.

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Reader's comments (3)

Scholarly journals will consider publishing submissions only from writers who hold academic positions? That's outrageous!
Good point. Another work around is to gain an honorary affiliation with a university or college.
There is absolutely NOTHING mandating institutional affiliation to publish. I have published when unaffiliated. I know Michael MacRoberts and his spouse have published proficiently when unaffiliated. Chris McAllister did as well, those are off top of my head. The idea is utter nonsense.