Three-D Issue 19: Publishing problems

Larry Gross
University of Southern California
President of ICA

Anyone who has been paying attention will be aware that there is a crisis in scholarly publishing. In fact, there has been a crisis for some time, certainly since commercial publishers began jacking up the prices of science and math journals, setting off a domino effect that collapsed university library budgets for almost everything else. As university libraries strained to keep up with the cost of science journals they had to cut back, for example, on purchases of university press monographs, thus choking off the flow of the one form of publication most crucial to the careers of junior academics in the humanities and some social sciences. There are other dimensions to this crisis, all in some way related to the steadily increased pressure on [especially junior] faculty to publish. While not in the same straits as some other fields, Communication has not been insulated from the crisis. Several corners of this landscape have been illuminated in front of me recently, and I will briefly touch on them.

As most academics know, the reputation of a journal, and thus by implication the value of the work published in it, is measured in part by the number of citations of work in that journal; this is what’s known as the journal’s impact factor. Of course, there are problems with this measurement system, as with any measurement system. For example, most citation counts are limited to the previous few years. Possibly the most influential of these, Thomson ISI’s Journal Citation Report, works as follows: “The impact factor for a journal is calculated based on a three-year period, and can be considered to be the average number of times published papers are cited up to two years after publication.”

This might make sense in some fast-moving sciences, but in communication it is nonsense. Some of the most influential work can take years to show its influence, and this influence may last far beyond 2 years. To take one easy example, Mark Granovetter’s article on “The Strength of Weak Ties” was hardly cited at all in the 30 years following its 1973 publication, but its visibility exploded around 2003 and it has now been cited nearly 20,000 times.

But even if we overlook such weaknesses in the “standard” impact measure used by many academics and by promotion and tenure committees, there is another problem. Just like any other rating system – whether it’s the U.S. News rankings in the US or the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK or the Bologna Process in the EU – rating systems give rise to efforts to game the system and influence the results. How could this not be the case?

Two business professors in the US, Allen Wilhite and Eric Fong, analyzed 6,672 responses from a survey of researchers in the fields of economics, sociology, psychology, and business, and “determined that many journal editors engage in the practice of coercion, requiring authors to add citations to the journal that is considering publishing the work. They require additional citation of articles in the journal that will publish the work – without (1) indicating that the article was actually deficient in attribution, 2) suggesting particular articles, authors, or bodies of work, or 3) guiding authors to add citations from the other journals.”

It gets worse: “many journal editors appear to even strategically target certain authors, such as assistant and associate professors, rather than full professors, relying on the fact that lower ranking authors may be more willing to add the unnecessary citations. They also found that while the majority of authors disapprove of the practice, most acquiesce and add citations when coerced.” http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-02/uoai-ufm020212.php

Sociologist Gaye Tuchman recently wrote about academic self-commoditization, noting in particular the impact of impact measurement on individuals, institutions, and fields [http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/02/06/essay-gaming-citation-index-measures#ixzz1lcJNaGpt]. She cited an e-mail from the editor of a special issue she had contributed to: “There is one thing I want to encourage you to consider doing, namely have a look at a couple of preliminary and relevant articles from other contributors to the special issue. If you acknowledge each other’s work it will clearly add to the feeling of having a special issue that is relatively well-integrated, plus add to the impact factor of each other’s work.”

As Tuchman points out, he had dared to request out loud that we game the system, a practice generally discussed in whispers. She goes on to note: “Impact scores also affect whole universities. Several years ago, top administrators at the University of Chile advised some professors to help improve the institution’s international ranking by publishing in ‘ISI journals.’ (This is also an instruction to publish in English, since the Web of Knowledge is more likely to include English-language journals in their calculations than journals in other languages.)”

Of course, such practices would never occur in communication journals; or would they? I certainly have no data to present, although I have heard of instances in which authors were told that adding citations from the journal reviewing their work would certainly improve their chances of acceptance.

A second troubling development in the publishing arena is the emergence of new and even more exploitative business models. The basic business model of scholarly publishing is bad enough, one of the few remaining vestiges of colonialism in the modern world, one might say. In this instance, the natives of a particular country, i.e., an academic discipline, produce quantities of the natural resource of their domain, i.e., scholarship. They then turn over the fruits of their labor to outside commercial interests, i.e., academic publishers, who take advantage of the nearly free labor of other natives to “process” the raw materials, and the finished products are sold back to the natives’ countries at exorbitant prices. Nice work if you can get it.

Increasingly, especially in STEM fields, where the exploitation is especially egregious, are starting to rebel, although the rebellion is still slow and uneven. Look at http://thecostofknowledge.com/ for an example of mathematicians rising up against Elsevier.

I hasten to add that ICA’s publishing partners, Wiley-Blackwell, have been generous collaborators with the field and the organization, a situation that probably also speaks to the negotiating skills of my predecessors and the ICA staff.

The coming of online publishing, which seemed to offer attractive solutions to the challenge of making scholarly publishing affordable, has only muddied the waters. Several years ago, my colleague Manuel Castells and I agreed that we were tired of being told by commercial publishers that there was no viable business model for online publishing, despite the elimination of the cost of printing, warehousing, and mailing, and the drastic reduction in the cost of typesetting (basically outsourced to authors and their word processing programs). We decided that we wouldn’t wait for publishers to do it and that we’d do it ourselves. We reasoned that the key ingredient of a scholarly journal’s credibility and quality was contributed by the makeup of the editorial board, the rigor of its peer review process, and the strength of the articles submitted. These, we knew, were not generated by the publishers, and we figured that we could put these together with our own resources. Frankly, we were also able to utilize the resources of the USC Annenberg School, but that seemed an appropriate contribution by a relatively affluent institution to support the field. Fortunately, two deans of the school have supported our project and I believe the International Journal of Communication has justified the optimism of our enterprise.

Commercial publishers, however, have other priorities, and I am not as pleased with some of their efforts. As a case in point, I will cite a request recently received by a junior colleague at another university, who found the request surprising and somewhat disturbing. Telling the story requires identifying the publisher and the project: SAGE’s new SAGEOpen.com, but I don’t believe I am violating any confidences here, and I invite SAGE to respond in a future issue of the Newsletter. My colleague, a second-year assistant professor, was asked to serve as “Article Editor” on a SAGE Open Manuscript. The e-mail continued: “SAGE has contacted you because of your strong reputation in your field. We seek your participation in launching an endeavor that we hope will help change the way scholars think about social science publishing. We are inviting you to serve on a team of Article Editors for a new SAGE publication that launched on January 1. SAGE Open (www.sageopen.com) is an open-access journal that publishes articles from across the social sciences, behavioral sciences, and humanities.”

“As you know, the open-access movement in academic and scholarly publishing has grown steadily over the last few years, gaining particular prominence in medical publishing. Government and university open-access mandates, however, have increasingly spread interest in open access to social scientists. Additional incentives to consider open access include authors’ desires for quicker peer review, shorter time-to-publication, and greater distribution of their published work. As the preeminent social science publisher in the world, SAGE is in a unique position to provide an open-access outlet for social science authors who want or need one.”

So far so good, if we leave aside for the moment that fact that there is no editorial body listed anywhere on the SageOpen website, neither overall nor in the communication section. The email continues:

“I mentioned at the beginning of this letter that SAGE anticipates that SAGE Open will spark a new way to approach academic publishing. Underlying the open-access premise will be a speedy peer-review process and a publication outlet not limited by annual page budgets or issue size. During peer review, papers will merit acceptance solely on the basis of the research methodology, meaning that, if the research is conducted properly, the discussion accurately summarizes the research, and the conclusion follows logically from the research, the paper will be accepted. This serves to promote the authors of each article, create an inclusive community, and allow the wider public to judge each paper. Financially, SAGE Open will run on author publication charges instead of subscriptions, that is, authors will pay a publication fee after their paper is accepted [Emphasis added].”

I will leave aside the matter of editorial standards that avoid such details as whether an article is addressing a question of any theoretical or practical importance. Perhaps raising such concerns would reduce the number of articles published and thus the revenues produced. But I am very disturbed, as was the colleague who received the email, by the introduction of a “pay to play” system in which authors pay to have their work published. You will be wondering what the cost would be, and the website obliges: “Authors will pay a publication fee of $695 (discounted to an introductory price of $395) after acceptance to cover the cost of production.” Now, in many scientific fields, where these fees have become more common, the costs of publications are built into the government-funded grants that support the research being reported on in the article. In other words, publishers have outsourced the costs of much scientific publishing onto to the taxpayers. But of course, few communication scholars are funded by NIH or NSF, and few have grants that include publishing fees. In some instances, institutions might be able to cover the costs of publication by their faculty, but all of this is merely another way for publishers to shift the costs of scholarly publishing onto others, while continuing to reap the rewards. Ask SAGE about this, and I expect you will be told that means will be provided to subsidize these costs for students, junior faculty, and those in certain countries. But that, as political candidates in the US liked to say a few years ago, is putting lipstick on a pig.

My final example of a publishing problem will be unfortunately familiar to most readers, although possibly in a new form. In recent months I have learned of several alleged instances of plagiarism in communication journals. No surprise, I suppose, given that the age of the Internet has taught us all to be wary of plagiarism to an unprecedented degree. I should say that the instances I have encountered have varied in form and severity, from carelessness (this was in the case of an article submitted to my journal) to more serious allegations, one involving possible plagiarism by a reviewer of an article that reviewer had rejected. In discussing these incidents with the ICA Executive Committee, the Publications Committee, and the staff it became apparent that we are not sufficiently equipped with policies to guide editors or the association officers when such allegations arise and especially if they are confirmed. To take two examples from among many, in a confirmed instance of plagiarism should we “retract” a published article – this seems obvious – and do we have any obligation to inform the field or the colleagues of the offender of what we’ve found – not so obvious. Fortunately, there are groups that have explored these issues, and codes of conduct that have been articulated, that we can benefit from. No surprise, again, there is a publishing analogue to “turnitin.com” – CrossCheck – that we might utilize for screening articles.

I don’t think anyone will miss or underestimate the seriousness of this issue. I have appointed an Ad Hoc Committee made up of former journal editors, chaired by Jake Harwood, that will be assisted by our new Communication Director, JP Gutierrez, who has considerable experience in academic publishing. We are asking the committee to offer at least a preliminary report for the Board and the Publications Committee in May. If anyone wishes to comment or advice I invite them to send their comments to JP at ICA headquarters.

This article was originally published in the ICA Newsletter Vol. 20 No. 2, March 2012. Available online: http://www.icahdq.org/MembersNewsletter/MAR12_ART0002.asp

Posted by Einar Thorsen