I’ve written before about conversations that count — those written artifacts that will count toward tenure or promotion — and I’ve complained that non-traditional writing (e.g. blog posts) doesn’t count for much (or for anything, according to the latest TRIP report on the state of my field). But of course, I still have to play by the rules, such as they are, and I continue to work toward submitting articles to journals and hope for publication.
And then I prepare to wait. And to wait a painfully long time as my work gets stale.
For a journal article to “count,” it must be peer-reviewed. Our academic standards hold that an academic work should and must be subject to scrutiny by our peers, improved by their input and ultimately add to the academic conversation. I agree with that whole-heartedly. The pursuit of knowledge is a social affair and should be respected as such.
But what happens in practice leads to quite different results. The bulk of what we read in journals was written long ago. I am a political scientist (and a news junkie), so I am interested in theory, history and current applications. I want to understand my “now” world within the vast context of the literature. I want to write that way, as well, and have my work be applicable to others’ “now” worlds. Most of all, academics want to be relevant. But that is impossible in the current structure of academic journals.
Let’s talk about the mechanisms of journal publication.
You work on an article for a few months (and if your work is dependent upon field work, as mine is, one article might be the result of several months of work in the field before writing even begins). You send it to a few friends or colleagues, you present it at a conference and perhaps you sit on it for a week or two. So you’re already a year into the initial problem/issue you hoped to address.
You send it to a journal. The journal’s editorial board may take a few weeks to decide whether or not to send it to the reviewers. If they do, that may take another three months. Then, if your article hasn’t been roundly rejected—but needs work—you might get a “revise and resubmit” based on the reviewers’ comments. (I personally enjoy that part, because it’s a refreshing way to look at your work, once you get past your ego.) You have other work to do, so perhaps you don’t return revisions for another 3-4 weeks. The editorial board then sends it out again for the reviewers’ comments. You wait another three months.
During this entire process, you must agree that you will not send the article anywhere else. You are trapped by one journal’s editorial process, without the benefit of “shopping it around,” thus, they have no incentive to move more quickly on reviewing your work. “Under Review” remains on your CV for months.
If you are unlucky, the extra work and time you put into a piece will still not merit its publication. You’ve just lost a year trying to get the piece out. However, if you responded well to the reviewers’ comments and made the required revisions, the editors may decide to publish your piece. Great news! It will come out in the fall edition! The fall of next year.
By this point, the information in the article is well over a year old, perhaps two. The article itself was written a year ago. By the time it will be published, it may be two or three years old.
The “top journals” are the worst in this regard. They tend to be quite conservative when it comes to new literature, and, in the case of my field (International Relations), very little outside the mainstream is considered or published. Many of the articles in these journals are rehashed debates of articles originally written ten years ago. If you were to peruse only those journals, you’d think my field was quite narrow, when, in fact, there is a wide variety of interesting, lively, engaging work being done. But it’s not being published in the places that have the high “impact factors” (which is based on how often a journal or article is cited—of course, if those are the only journals we turn to, there’s a bit of a selection bias, but no matter…)
I rarely look at the top journals these days. I canceled my subscriptions to all but the most relevant—Foreign Policy, for example, is one I will continue to read. Why? I read it because it comes out every month, and it’s timely and interesting. When I want to read what my esteemed colleagues have to say about theory or current events, I turn to the Foreign Policy website, which includes some of the best blogs by the top names in my field. They are talking to each other, and others are leaving important and interesting comments—in effect, “peer reviewing” is happening in real time, and in a transparent way. Intellectual discourse is moving forward at a rapid pace, not in the glacial quarterly publishing of journals.
I still read books when I want deep, thoughtful engagement with a topic. But the process of publishing journal articles is archaic, and provides a false sense of “weightiness” to our work. As long as publishing in the “top journals” is a requirement for tenure or promotion, we will be trapped in this cycle. Our approach to our work will be vastly improved when we can share the immediacy and the excitement of fresh thinking—and recognize that this is a legitimate way of sharing knowledge.
Boston, Massachusetts in the US
Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus . She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization  (Routledge 2010) and the forthcoming book Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2012).