Lost in CV limbo

Sarah Crook reflects on what it costs early career researchers to wait years to hear whether journals want to publish their articles

October 6, 2016
Cars in traffic jam with 'Long delays, find alternative route' sign
Source: Alamy

“Publish or perish” makes sense only in a world where academics get a chance to publish before they perish.

The sometimes protracted delay between submitting an article and receiving a decision can put early career researchers in CV limbo. Since hiring committees for postdoctoral positions increasingly expect to see a publication record, waiting a year for a decision on an article (as I have done) is untenable. It is par for the course, almost an academic hobby, to complain about the failings of the current publishing model. Yet the problems can be particularly acute for early career researchers.

I assumed that the silence that greeted my submission suggested that it had fallen through the cracks, but many other early career researchers have similar (or worse) stories to tell. As the months pass, it becomes increasingly clear that what is demanded of us is out of sync with the structures we work within.

This, of course, arises at least in part from the invisible and unpaid labour that academics put into critiquing and improving one another’s work for academic journals. With schedules full of teaching, research and marking, as well as their own publication pressures, it is understandable that journal editors and reviewers take a while to come to a decision on a particular piece of work. The silence does not arise from a lack of compassion or professional commitment.

There are, however, important implications of this delay for early career scholars. First, when employers want to see a proven track record of publications, the wait for a response can render some postdoctoral jobs out of reach. Such researchers are already the most vulnerable in the current competitive job market and, while extended silences from journals are not to blame for this, they certainly contribute to a dispiriting climate.

Second, the delays between delivery and acceptance, and then between acceptance and publication, create a lack of dynamism in peer-reviewed scholarly conversations. If the overarching goal of research is to further human knowledge and understanding, it is disappointing that we are unable to contribute in a timely way. This is one of the reasons why so many early career academics have taken up blogging and social media with such enthusiasm. Frustration with journals has led to the creation of alternative intellectual spaces. Yet because peer-reviewed journals (and monographs) continue to be the gold standard, these are not yet realistic substitutes.

There is no easy fix for the time lag between submission, decision and publication, but several ideas have been suggested about how to cushion early career researchers from the vicissitudes of the current model. These range from a fast-track service for new researchers (although this would make peer review more difficult) to near monthly email prompts to journals or pressuring all journals to publish data about their acceptance and publication times. Some disciplines have already produced data about the journals relevant to their field, and this sounds like a good idea. If journals function like a market, more information would enable early career academics to make strategic decisions about where we want to place our work.

In the longer term, it bodes well that we are having conversations about what a better model of research dissemination would look like. It should not be possible for research to gather dust and for academics to be met with a wall of silence. This is disrespectful to both the scholar and the product of their labour. Until we come up with a better model, though: [redacted journal name], call me?

Sarah Crook is a Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford

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Reader's comments (1)

Yes, it's acute for ECRs, and potentially damaging. It's also frustrating for old geezers like me. In that frustration, I have turned to self-publication and OpenAccess, using LyX (with a freely-downloadable .pdf) and a short-run print version (via my local printer). That alternative is not available to ECRs or mid-career people. Here, I will enter into hot water: reviewers are not unpaid; it is an integral part of being an academic for which your institution pays you a salary. It is equally incumbent not to eke out to the very end of the time allowed to assess the paper. It is impolite - and perhaps a reflection of lack of organization if the paper is pushed under a pile and forgotten.