Early careers spent grinding teeth, not cutting them

Young academics are struggling to get work published that can make their name in their field. Chris Bunting takes a look at why it is so hard

February 25, 2005

Charles Oppenheim got a humbling insight into the reality of academic publishing recently. The professor of information science at Loughborough University, a dominant figure in his field, had submitted an article to a respected journal.

"Some time later a very good friend of mine got in touch with me. This friend had been sent my article to referee. He thought that, in all honesty, he could not referee it because we were so close and he telephoned the editor to say that he would have to find someone else. The editor responded: 'Don't be silly, this is Charles Oppenheim. We both know we are going to publish it anyway. This is really just a formal exercise, so could you just go through the motions?'"

Oppenheim chuckles: "The editor had kind of given the game away. Now I know I can send him any old rubbish and get it in."

It is an amusing senior common room anecdote, but in an academic climate in which publishing articles in academic journals has become vital to establishing and maintaining an academic career, some less-established academics might find themselves grinding their teeth rather than laughing.

If Oppenheim can submit "any old rubbish", what do they have to do to get into the resulting reduced journal space, something that may make or break their careers?

Jason Garner, a 36-year-old historian, has left Britain to try to establish the kind of research profile he believes is necessary to get a permanent job. "I was a visiting lecturer, but after a while I started to realise that it was really research work and getting myself published that was vital," he says.

"Unfortunately, my experiences with the journals in the UK were not particularly positive. Submitting involves a lot of work and they take ages to respond. I have sent things to one journal twice and never even got a response. Peer review tends to favour the status quo, so the same old researchers taking the same old line tend to get published. My experience is that there are only about three or four names in my field who get published. If you are not one of them or you are not connected with them, you haven't got much chance. There are not enough journals prepared to publish new academics. They all play very safe."

Garner has just finished a postdoctoral research contract with the University of Barcelona funded by the Anglo-Catalan Society. He was recently awarded a prize by a Catalan journal for the best history article written in Catalan and is now writing articles for journals that are "not strictly academically refereed", for example, Spanish cooperative magazines, "just because I want to get my research read by people, to spark a debate".

He believes that while lax response times and long processes of negotiation between referees and authors on the eventual content of published articles may be OK for senior academics with permanent university positions, they ignore the realities of life for many less-established academics. Young researchers, he points out, often rely on the prompt publication of their research to get their next short-term research contract. Undue delay in publication can mean a loss of livelihood.

"Before, when I was teaching, it just seemed impossible. You have these big teaching loads, substituting for senior people who have been there a long time who are getting sabbaticals for a year to do their research (and submit articles to journals). You think, I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life."

Frustrations such as Garner's are common among a casualised younger generation of academics expected to produce lists of publications often surpassing anything their seniors had to achieve to get their first permanent positions. Many believe they are having to do this through journals that are often, though not always, ponderous in their administration and, in some areas, reluctant to publish anything by a young academic anyway.

A recent discussion by young philosophers on the academic website "Leiter Reports", hosted by the University of Texas academic Brian Leiter, quickly evolved into a small revolutionary movement in November, with young academics from around the world naming and shaming the worst journals they had submitted to and proposing boycotts of the offenders. One contributor reported submitting to a major journal in his field and getting a request for revision and resubmission ten months later. He made the required corrections, but had to wait 12 months for a rejection with a one-paragraph referee's report.

Stephen Read is editor of The Philosophical Quarterly , which got generally good reviews among Leiter's young philosophers. While he accepts that there is frustration among some younger academics at the way some journals are run, he warns that maintaining the standards of a high-quality academic journal is never going to make most of its potential contributors happy most of the time.

"It certainly is tough to get published. You have a rejection rate of about 95 per cent on our journal. But I'm not sure that it is that much tougher than it always was. The submissions have increased but the size of the journal has also increased," he says. This seems to be the general consensus.

Despite recent moves such as the Arts and Humanities Research Board's proposal to create a list of the top ten journals, and the impact on small journals of library cuts caused by big price rises among leading science journals, most academics believe that small journals have always had to battle for survival.

Read's journal has a "double blind" peer-reviewing process, in which both referee and author are ignorant of each other's identity, a common practice among the major humanities journals but not so common in the sciences, lesser arts and social science journals. "My experience is that everything is done to make it a level playing field, but it is tough when the rejection rates are as high as they are. I realise that this is particularly difficult for junior staff because rejection and resubmission is so time-consuming," he says.

On the issue of slow response and publishing times, Read is also sympathetic but stresses that journal editors are often not the cause of the problem. "We get upset when it gets to three months, but we sometimes go longer than that because we are in the hands of referees. When we get a referee to do a paper we say (to return it in) four weeks, but it is unusual when someone does it in four weeks."

Farhan Nizami, director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at Oxford University and editor of the Journal of Islamic Studies , makes a similar point. "We got one article that dealt with medieval writing in a particular language and we knew that there were only two people working in the world in that field. It took four or five months to deal with it. In that case, you are really reliant on particular people being available and being willing to make time for you."

One solution Nizami's journal has come up with is publishing articles on the web as soon as they have been formally accepted. Eventually, growing trust in such internet-based publication may do away with the traditional, laborious process of publishing academic articles in quarterly editions.

Recent internet developments such as "Really Simple Syndication" (RSS) mean that the technology exists for a more streamlined and flexible academic publishing process, in which articles can be published and distributed conveniently to subscribers on a real-time basis once the peer-reviewing process has been successfully negotiated. The spread of reliable technologies for permanently archiving internet sites, a major development on the web over the past two years, is likely to build trust in internet publishing among academics who have been wary of publishing in a medium that has appeared ephemeral and unreliable in the past.

In the meantime, however, Susan Bassnett, professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University, cautions against complacency about the effect of poor practice among some journals on young academics.

"It would be wrong to say that all the journals, especially in the humanities, are terribly efficient. I can say this because I'm often asked to peer review and the whole process is sometimes very poorly defined. I was even sent something once to review that was printed on a proof copy. I was asking myself 'what happens if I reject this'? Some young academics don't even know what the top journals are in their field and yet they are supposed to navigate through this. There is a vagueness and haphazardness around that we have to acknowledge," she says.

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