Academic journals play an important role in knowledge dissemination. No one knows how many journals there actually are, but several estimates point to around 30,000, with close to 2 million articles published each year. A sizable proportion of these articles will never be read and others will never be cited. Of course, all of the authors will have argued that their research makes a unique and original contribution and advances knowledge in their field.
Many journals have a rejection rate of between 80-90%. Their peer reviewers spend much valuable time, providing critical comments and making suggestions for improvement, not only for the articles that are finally published, but also for thousands that never are. Thus, faculty spend precious hours reviewing articles that will have little or no impact and that represent only a narrow range of national and cultural perspectives.
This situation is not sustainable. The system requires recalibration based on some fundamental, but hitherto overlooked principles. These principles capture core ideas, guide practice, and accommodate a variety of different contexts. They are valuable in guiding the response to the current crisis in academic publishing.
Principle 1: Academic excellence is not solely dependent on the publication of disciplinary research
Ernest L. Boyer mounted a case in his 1990 book, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate, that the evaluation of academic work should include all aspects of the responsibilities of the academic profession, not only, or even primarily research. In the State University of New York system, he established the position of Distinguished Teaching Professor, to reward faculty members for educational distinction. Boyer also argued that equal recognition be afforded to the research, teaching and service activities of academic staff and for stronger connections between teaching and research. His work resulted in a strong focus on the scholarship of practice in teaching and learning.
Largely as a result of his work, the evaluation of teaching excellence has become much more sophisticated since 1990. Nevertheless, the scholarship of teaching and learning continues to be undervalued and overlooked. Most promotion and tenure systems continue to emphasize research performance in the sciences, including publication in a relatively small number of journals. Governments emphasize research excellence in determining funding allocations to universities to the detriment of teaching excellence. This has driven behavior in universities and academic communities that has contributed to the crisis in academic publishing we see today. Faculty recognize that their advancement depends to a large extent on their success in publishing.
Principle 2: Academic excellence thrives on diversity
Academic excellence, diversity and educational quality are intertwined. Nationally and internationally we need to ensure that universities and systems take into account the students and communities they serve. This requires differentiated academic missions that demonstrate excellence in different ways. University missions are too often driven by external pressures such as rankings. This trend can only be reversed by government agencies and other bodies such as research grant councils and accreditation agencies, working together to value and support diverse academic communities.
Likewise, academic publishing requires diversification. The field remains dominated by a small number of publishing companies in the developed world—mainly in the United States, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Germany. Editors and editorial board members are predominantly from the US, European countries and Australia. Diversity is largely ignored.
Open access and open science have not solved problems of access and affordability. The costs of publication has too often been transferred from subscriptions to submissions—from readers to authors. This has led to even greater inequity in publishing, by largely excluding young academics from developing countries who lack access to research grants that might cover submission costs. We need greater clarity around the funding of many open access publications to better understand potential and unintended perverse effects of their financial model.
Blind peer review is at the heart of excellence and quality control in academic publishing and it is important that peers represent diverse scholarly perspectives, including those from the global south. Peer review is too often dominated by scholars in the global north. Journals must pay more attention to diversity on their editorial advisory boards and in their selection of peer reviewers.
Principle 3: Academic publishing requires greater oversight and regulation
The academic publishing system has become corrupted. Top journals in all fields have daunting backlogs of articles awaiting review. Hence new commercial publishers have emerged, seeking to capitalize on the situation with little understanding of, or concern for, the quality of what they publish. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in predatory journals claiming to be publish peer-reviewed content when they do not.
Between this rapidly growing group of predatory journals and the small group of elite quality academic journals is a new group of serious journals seeking to establish themselves with blind peer review as their quality control mechanism. However, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish new, but good journals, from predatory journals. Editors, editorial board members and their academic affiliations are no longer reliable measures as there have been reported cases of high-profile academics being named to boards without their knowledge. Regulation and control mechanisms are required to ensure peer reviewers and authors are not exploited by a growing corrupt and commercial system and so that the academic publishing system supports rather than undermines academic excellence.
The principles described here provide a way forward. Academic excellence requires excellent research and excellent teaching—research-led as well as research-informed teaching. We must find ways to ensure that equal respect, recognition and reward is given to excellence in teaching, research and service by institutional leaders, governments, publishers, university ranking and accreditation schemes.
Quality control can be moved away from publishers and other commercial parties back to the academic community. Predatory journals and publishers will need to be weeded out. The extortionate prices charged by private-sector publishers respected for quality (that was achieved through the free labor of academics) need to be reduced to broaden access. The peer review system, the life-blood of the academic quality assurance system, needs to be strengthened through diversity and inclusion. Journal editors need to implement diversity measures to expand participation on boards and peer review teams. The broader academic community needs to hold serious journals accountable for that task.
Professional and academic societies also have an important role to play in ensuring quality in academic publishing. They might encourage the producers of rankings and other influential entities to recognize new high-quality journals.
Finally, it is important to find a mechanism by which systematic training in peer review can be provided to young academics from diverse backgrounds to support a new generation of reviewers.
Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He was the founding Editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education, and is Consulting Editor of Policy Reviews in Higher Education.
Philip Altbach is a research professor and was founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He served as editor of the Comparative Education Review and later of the Review of Higher Education.
Betty Leask is Emeritus Professor in the Internationalization of Higher Education at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia and a Visiting Professor at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in 2018-2019. She is also Chief-Editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education.