Journal with two-year publication backlog refuses submissions

Review of Higher Education says it cannot cope with significant increase in number of articles offered

August 20, 2018

Those looking to submit an article to Review of Higher Education this summer probably saw this message on the journal’s website: “Due to the large number of high-quality manuscripts received to date, and with a commitment to ensuring a reasonable publication timeline for authors, RHE is temporarily closed for manuscript submissions. Manuscripts already in process are unaffected.”

The missive has proven jarring, given that Review is one of the field’s most prestigious publications and the official journal for the Association for the Study of Higher Education. It has also led to interesting discussions among scholars about what it means when a top journal is too swamped to take on more papers – and is willing to admit it.

“We’re victims of our own success, a little bit,” said Gary Pike, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor of Review. “We’ve had a significant increase in numbers of submissions in the last four years, and an increase in the quality of submissions. What’s happened is we’ve developed a substantial backlog of accepted articles.”

A two-year backlog, to be exact. And telling scholars going up for tenure soon that their articles would be published in 2020 wasn’t a big help to them, Professor Pike said. So the tentative plan – that ASHE must still approve – is to suspend submissions until mid-2019, and begin to publish 10 articles per quarterly issue instead of the current five.

Once the initial backlog is cleared, seven articles per issue might be a more sustainable count, Professor Pike said, noting that every editor wants some reserve of articles (just not two years’ worth). Professor Pike also said that he is talking to Johns Hopkins University Press, the journal’s publisher, about expanding the use of its online-first platform for accepted articles, to make them publicly available sooner.

Still, for the time being, a major journal going offline is a big deal for higher education scholars.

“This is one of the top five journals in our field,” Kevin McClure, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said. “And it’s the expectation at some bigger research universities that scholars will not just be publishing in one of these journals but all of them.”

Put another way, “people have struggled to get anything in these journals to begin with,” Dr McClure said. “[Review] accepts less than 10 per cent of submissions, so now something that was hard to do is impossible. That affects people’s ability to advance in their careers.”

It was not Dr McClure’s intention to condone academia’s emphasis on publishing in a tiny share of elite journals, merely to describe it. And many other scholars have urged disciplines beyond education to value publication in a more diverse set of quality journals, especially with respect to tenure and promotion.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University who has blogged about Review, said that while members of one’s own department might recognise and reward publication in a broader set of journals, college-wide committees from different disciplines might not. So in his own tenure application, he said, he’s including information about the impact factors of journals that might not have instant name recognition outside his field.

“I think it’s up to people applying for tenure to teach and showcase that there are other journals that are selective and impactful,” he said.

Professor Pike said that Review now publishes 5 to 7 per cent of submitted manuscripts. Asked if he agreed with Dr McClure, Dr Kelchen and others who say that there’s too much emphasis in academia on getting published in a small fraction of journals, Professor Pike laughed and said, “Now you’re asking me to go against my own economic interests.”

Turning serious, Professor Pike said that he is currently shopping papers on the impact of high school training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics on college STEM performance with engineering journals. So “there is merit in counting publications from a diverse set of high-quality journals,” he said. “Of course I would like to see everyone have at least one publication in our journal.”

In discussions on social media, some have attributed Review’s backlog to a common problem in academic publishing: trouble finding reviewers. And many journal editors report that finding reviewers for papers is getting harder, given increasing submission rates, more demands on faculty members’ time at work and the fact that reviewing is not compensated beyond a karmic notion of “review and be reviewed”.

Dr McClure put it thus: “It is weird that the entire academic publishing industry rests on this volunteer service, so of course complications are going to arise.”

Jenny Lee, professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and an associate editor at the journal, said on Twitter that more than 25 scholars “rejected/ignored my request to review a single manuscript. Each takes weeks and some never respond. Not a challenging piece just ‘busy.’”

Professor Lee also raised questions about the role of journals’ editorial boards, suggesting that members should be expected to do more, presumably reviewing. It is not the first time that the role of editorial boards has been called into question. Last year, for example, half the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigned, asking why they had not been asked to weigh in on a controversial piece on colonialism.

Robert Toutkoushian, professor of higher education at the University of Georgia and editor of another similarly named journal, Research in Higher Education, said that the publication has a consulting editorial board of 40 academics who have agreed to review between four and eight manuscripts per year, or about two-thirds of all reviews. Still, he said, he often has to go beyond the board to find reviewers with particular expertise. And his success rate there is not high. 

“Often I never hear back from the person I invited to review,” he said, noting it can take weeks or months to find someone with the right qualifications.

At the same time, Professor Toutkoushian added, “there are individuals in our field who go above and beyond the call of duty to review manuscripts. I am amazed – and deeply appreciative – of the efforts that they make to not only conduct reviews, but provide thoughtful and constructive feedback to authors.”

In Professor Pike’s own experience, a very bad day recruiting reviewers means approaching nine and getting two to say yes. But Review typically does not have such a hard time finding reviewers, and the current crisis is about placement in the journal, he said.

For reference, four years ago the journals received 250 to 275 manuscripts over the course of a year. This year, the journal was projecting about 350 submissions. Professor Toutkoushian said his journal received 672 submissions last year and published about 40 articles.

Similar increases in other fields have been attributed, in part, to increasing pressure for graduate students to publish. Last year, J. David Velleman, professor of philosophy at New York University, even suggested that graduate students should not be published, to free up the review and publication pipeline. Professor Velleman also alleged that the quality of publications was declining as a result of the overall pressure to publish.

But that is not what Professor Pike says is happening at Review, where submission quality remains high. The journal receives very few single-authored papers from graduate students, anyway, he said. 

Brendan Cantwell, associate professor of higher at Michigan State University and coordinating editor of Higher Education, an international journal, said that it publishes two volumes and 12 issues per year. It got 1,100 submissions in 2017, but it has more space than some other publications. And its impact metrics are competitive with top journals in the field, Dr Cantwell said. 

In contrast to journals that believe exclusivity or “restricting access” signals “status or quality”, he said, “our approach is to publish a higher volume of good peer-reviewed work”.

Lori Patton Davis, professor of urban education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and president of ASHE, said that the Review backlog “actually reflects an increased volume of high-quality scholarship, coupled with the desire to have one’s work featured in the premier journal for higher education research. With high volume comes significant requests for more reviewers and a speedier review process.”

ASHE’s goal is to reopen the submission portal “as soon as possible, while also being responsible about addressing the backlog. We certainly value the work of scholars who view [Review] as the publication venue of choice,” she said.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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