Impact, quality and editing – where next for academic publishing?

Fionn Stevenson comments on Richard Lorch’s End of an Era article. 

The sudden and unexpected loss of the editor for this leading academic journal was a body blow. Literally. I felt physically sick. Should I have been surprised? Probably not, given the endless marketization of academia, which now leaves little time for reflection, given the need to ‘consume’ more and more published research.

Building Research and Information has been unique as an interdisciplinary international journal for the built environment that reached out to policy makers, practitioners and academics alike. Over the decades it has established an enviable reputation for attracting top authors and publishing cutting edge Special Issues which have often set the agenda in critical areas of research and knowledge exchange.

The editor in question belonged to the old school – taking precious time to craft a paper with the authors and the reviewers, delicately pondering on wider issues during the process, and surfacing deeper insights through careful questioning. He was in pursuit of research excellence, rather than turning around as many papers as possible in as short a time as possible. He was certainly not anonymous – he was a friend at hand, when things went wrong, and celebrated success when things worked. He also nurtured and developed a world class Editorial Board.  It takes years to develop relationships like these. It was ‘slow’, and more than ever, under capitalism’s increasingly rapid consumption of irreplaceable resources and values, we need to resist with ‘slowness’.

The cold new wind blowing through academic publishing is stripping away these priceless values in the relentless pursuit of profit, which induces a rapid turnover and a flurry of new editorships. This is in order to ‘spread’ the expertise quickly, and generally speed up and expand research journals for the sake of creating quick ‘impact’ ratings to justify their  existence. I am not against rotating editorships in principle, but this should not be done lightly, particularly when a journal is flourishing, and it should certainly be done with due care.

So, where next?

I am excited by new ideas of publishing which challenge the growing hegemony of academic publishing corporations. There are excellent examples of collaborative and open publishing in academia which by-pass these commercial publishers, including the annual ‘Field’ journal within my own School of Architecture in Sheffield. Within academic, research and professional institutions, we can take a lead on this and encourage the development of ‘slow’ journals and other media which focus on quality academic and practice-based research publications. The dividends from this type of work are enormous. It takes time and money. When this resource demand is shared between many as a collaborative concern, with a shared vision and shared research values, then perhaps a new process can be born. One which celebrates ‘slow’ editing – and the resulting quality of publication.



Fionn Stevenson, Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Sheffield

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