The challenges of academic publishing

Professor Sergio Altomonte responds to Richard Lorch’s End of an era editorial in Building Research & Information:

Academic publishing lives in challenging times. Besides the old cliché of “publish or perish”, coined by Coolidge almost a century ago [1], several pressures today are potentially threatening the quality and rigour of the new science being disseminated. Without attempting to present a comprehensive list of the burdens impending upon the processes and products of academic publishing, below is an account of factors that might be familiar to those working in research settings. These are presented following the framework of the “Five Ws (and one H)”:

Why? The “golden rule” should be that one should publish when there is something relevant to say. Yet, academic competition, performance reviews and career progressions linked to number of outputs, citation indices, and impact factors might severely impinge on this rule.

Who? The list of authors of a paper should theoretically correspond to those that have actively contributed to its completion. However, common ill-practice at Universities suggests that this might not always be the case.

What? The quality of a study should be based first and foremost on sound literature review, rigorous and detailed methodology, replicable results, and conclusions that are relevant to the discipline. This should also imply access to collected data to support meta-analysis founded on estimation of comparable standardised indicators (e.g., effects size of influences detected). Nevertheless, conclusions are frequently based uniquely on preliminary inferences (e.g., mean differences and null hypothesis significance testing), hindering results’ verification and the utilisation of acquired knowledge to inform further studies (e.g., with the application of Bayesian analysis methods).

When? The relevance of publication “speed” clearly differs based on discipline. But, certainly, the time required by processes such as ethical approval, data gathering and examination and, above all, rigorous peer-reviewing and editorial procedures represent a challenge that researchers should always consider for the timely dissemination of their new findings.

Where? In addition to the mentioned criteria linked to impact factors and citation indices, before selecting a journal where a study is submitted, a question should be raised whether its publishers are effectively serving the needs of their audience. More and more, financial aspects seem to prevail over scientific integrity, with a “plethora” of new journals appearing, almost daily, under the pledge of short-term publishing and straightforward reviewing. Although this might deceptively meet some of the challenges listed above, it is only on editorial independence, consistency and continuity towards the aims and scope of a publication, and, most importantly, a serious review process that constructively challenges the study contents, that the advancement of knowledge can be effectively guaranteed.

How? Increasingly, Universities and founding bodies require for new science to be widely and freely disseminated, under the banner of “gold” open access. Although this principle is commendable, this demand also often implies exorbitant fees imposed by publishers that are very frequently inaccessible by young scholars, or those performing fundamental research in less affluent academic contexts. Together with the others, this is a challenge that the entire research community should urgently consider to avoid “perishing” under the pressures of publication.

[1] Coolidge HJ, Lord RH. 1932. Archibald Cary Coolidge: Life and Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, p. 308.

Sergio_Altomonte

 

Sergio Altomonte, Professor of Architectural Physics, Architecture et Climat, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-neuve (Belgium)

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