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David Kaplan, the editor-in-chief of Geographical review / Q&A: The nature and state of academic publishing field

Versus interviewed the editor-in-chief of Geographical Review David Kaplan about the state of academic publishing and potential developments in the field.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges and trends in the market-driven academic publishing at the moment?

Well, I think one trend of course is that there are fewer publishing houses that control larger percentages of the market. So a lot of a little houses that I remember from when I was younger are gone — for example National Identities journal that used to be published by Carfax was taken over by Taylor & Francis, which is one of the big houses. So I think that’s becoming more and more of a thing.

In addition, journals no longer sell any institutional subscriptions or personal subscriptions which used to be the way they were distributed. They are sold in a bundle. So in terms of a journal you can be placed in a bundle at university library which is probably the biggest consumer of journals. Bundle is like a cable TV package. That means that you have less control in an individual journal about how your material is distributed. You want make sure that you’re part as many bundles as possible.

People used to read through journals. Now I think it is more like that they grab a particular article and they may find it in somewhere like in a search engine. This almost decenters the journal. The journal becomes less important in some ways than it used to be when people get journals and say oh yeah I’m in this journal issue with these other great articles. Now it doesn’t really matter that much anymore and I think that’s going to continue as well. So those are some trends.

Do you see some challenges or solutions in the future regarding this?

Well, yeah the challenge is that the journals are expensive. And they still are a big part of overall cost for university libraries, that’s a problem.

I think the other challenge is that we have so many journals that it is sometimes hard to sort them out. There are just so many different things and so many different ways to evaluate journals. The expansion of the number of journal titles is a good thing in many ways but also creates a more complicated view. Again, I hate to do any analog with television but there is an old saying in the United States that there’s 500 channels but nothing is on. And I wonder if you have thousands of journal titles, it is hard to make sense of all of them because they all become very murky and you don’t know how many of them are really legitimate because they keep popping up.

The way we seem to determine the metric of an impact factor is I think a fairly flawed metric. But it’s the one that is out there that people want to you know talk about because it’s there and I think that creates a lot of desire to go for journals that maybe people don’t really have a reason to go for. Also journals themselves try to kind of gain form the system and try to increase the impact factor. Thirty or twenty years ago impact factor just wasn’t an important thing. So I think that’s a challenge as well. How do you actually evaluate journals and how do you try to get people to publish in a right publication for them.

Our project Julkea! tries to develop the field of academic publishing and communication. Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share on this subject?

Yeah, I think the project is really important. I am a big proponent of trying to translate your research into something that people can understand. I think scholars have to be willing to do things that they are maybe uncomfortable doing. They have to know how to write in maybe more broader strokes, be willing to do maybe more generalizations and not to worry so much. So much academic writing feels a little bit cramped just because there is that worry that oh well you don’t want to think that I am saying this. So much of this is just drawing these little fences around what you are saying just to make sure that people don’t get the wrong interpretation. Well that makes for a really boring writing.

In my opinion you got to have a willingness to be less defensive and be willing to say things in a way that maybe violate some of the nuances and some of the subtleties but you are more compelling to people. And I think there’s got to be a willingness to bring up more interesting cases and also to write better. Sometimes people have this view that the more unclear somebody is the more intelligent or more scholarly they are and it drives me crazy. I think that readability is the most important aspect of a journal article.

Do you think there is some kind of contradiction in the way some journals are giving instructions to authors about how to write their articles? I have heard that some journals are complaining about too simple language.

K: To use big words when small words would do? Well I think that is a shame. When you read some good writing you’ll see how a writer is able to use simpler words to convey their meaning very well. Unfortunately there is not that much good academic writing. When I read academic writing I keep on thinking about terms that are used which I think are just crazy like positionality. There are all these sorts of things that just drive me nuts! Intersectionality, the intersection of this and that. These terms are used to sort of say Oh well I’m a little bit pretentious… people think that it is really important to have these terms. It drives me crazy to have these! But it is part of the academic discourse.

But do you believe that there are some editors in chief that are requiring this kind of language?

K: Language is always coded. There’s what you say and what sorts of meaning it send forward and I think that there are certain types of languages that says to you to and other people that you are part of the club. This is a particular thought-process to an editor or to the reviewers; with certain language they are more favorably inclined to look at your paper.

I think that most editors that I know of are good solid people that want to just have some good material out there. But the same time I think there are some people who you know, they themselves talk in a certain way and they maybe are going to be more favorable to other pieces. I think there is a lot over elevation of language and not in a good way, in a fairly high and somewhere pretentious way. The authors will learn that and think oh this is a way I’ll have to talk.

Do you think that there is some divide in language between the academic elite and the common people in the United States?

Yeah, I think so. I my view a lot of academics say they are writing in a way that sort of valorize the common people but in reality the common people would not understand their writing. So it almost becomes one of these situations where people write in such a way that is inscrutable. Now, there can be cases where it is necessary to do that. Obviously, if you are writing about something scientific or you are writing about some kind of methodology you have to know a certain language to understand it but I think sometimes we have to step back and say things in a more simple way. Some may say I don’t have to write in a simpler way because this research is referring to so and so’s work on this area –but I think you can still use to their work but you don’t have to use their language. You found one of my dilatations (?); academic language. That is a real problem and I think it is learned behavior.

Like “know your audience”

Right. Because the problem with a lot of academic articles is that they are not read. The articles are communicated in a way that people can’t understand them.

If you could decide how the academic (publishing) system would work, would something be different compared to today’s reality and do you have some kind of goal or big dream related to this?

Do I have big dreams… I think my dreams are smaller dreams. I mean I have dreams for the journals I edit – There are things I don’t like about in the academic publishing system and I think that there is a focus on certain metrics that can become dangerous. The impact factor is the one that I mentioned because it has become so popular in the United States. Impact factors are based on medical journals and the way in which they evaluate thigs has to do with what they evaluate in medical journal. But how does that work for a history journal? I always thought that it was interesting that almost all the history journals have very low impact factors because they use books and stuff like that.

So I don’t like anything that involves trying to put a number on something that just separates journals and I want there to be a greater feeling for what is going to be the best journal for an author to publish in. And I think one of the positive things about these days is that now people do have access to more articles and more journals. So when you write in a journal your article is going to be around, it is going to be accessible in a number of different places. So I would say journals need to be taken in their own merits because they are useful to you.

I understand how some people feel much more comfortable in some journals than others. So for example there are some journals that I would never submit to because I just feel as if they fight with my own personal way of thinking and the criticism I would get from them would be criticisms that I would feel wouldn’t really help me in conveying my story. I know what those are and I think that is worth of research for everyone to know what they are for you.

But I think that the more people sort have a feeling that they are free to publish in different places, they don’t have to worry about this sort of you know oh this is the kind of metrics we are worried about, you know? That would be true to Fennia where you don’t have an impact factor. People might say that wow, why should I publish there?! This isn’t going to be the kind of journal that’s going to give me the visibility that I want or the credibility I want. But I think visibility is now a thing that you can contain in lot of different places because journals are accessible.

I know that in Finland people try open access. Well, open access is going to cost a lot of money. So if I do research that doesn’t involve getting a big grant I should be still able to do that research and I shouldn’t have to worry about paying 3000 dollars to make my journal or my article published(?).

Would you like to expand on that, what are your views on open access policies?

Well I think open access is fine; publishers love them because it gives them a much bigger chunk of money than you are going to get. And they are always encouraging to that, my publisher does. I think it is expensive for most people, so if I think of my students, I wouldn’t be able to provide open access. Even if you have got grant money for it, grants are not going to provide open access funding. I know they do more in Finland but that is not necessarily available in United States.

I would hate to have a situation where everybody’s expected to publish in open access but they don’t have the money to pay for it. I think we need a model where if people want open access they can get it. If they don’t they can still publish and not have to worry about paying too much money for it. So I guess that would be my dream…of overall academic journals.. But that is a good question, I haven’t thought as broadly that. I guess I have thought about my own journal, where I want to position that.

Could you to tell more about that?

Well one thing in Geographical review is that we are trying to do is we are trying to bring into more credibility. It is the oldest Geography journal in the United States, at one point it was easily the top journal in United States. And it has head fallen on into some harder times. The impact factor model doesn’t really work so well for our journal because it gets so much material from books and from others things. My dream is it for to really be again the first or second journal that people think about when they think about publishing, especially when they are interested in publishing in a place that is going to go to a large segment of geographers.

I noticed from your slides that you will end today’s presentation with the sentence you will never get your paper out unless you take a risk. Could you expand on this, what do you exactly mean by taking a risk?

I guess taking a risk means being willing to put yourself out there, you are willing to actually expose yourself. You expose your writing and people get very nervous about that. You are exposing yourself to potential humiliation and ridicule; you are exposing yourself to rejection. That is the risk. People don’t like getting rejected, it is not a good feeling at all. Even if you have been at this for a long time like me, I don’t like getting rejected. And I think there is always defensiveness, well I’m not going to put myself out there because if I do I’m going to get rejected or I might get rejected and then I’m going to feel pretty bad. I still feel that way. Writing for a journal is hard, you are putting that risk in what you do.

Is this feeling of rejection something similar to applying for a job and not getting it, but working for around two years to get to apply for it?

Well yeah, the feeling is that people begin to doubt the worth of what they do. And the trick for rejection is to see if there’s anything in the comments from the reviewers or from the editors that helps. When I reject I always write a paragraph and say these are the reasons your paper got rejected, so you can learn from those. But then there’s also knowing what the fit is. Some of my best work has been rejected and then I just send it right away to another place and it gets accepted. That just shows you something right? A lot of it is about fit, a lot of it is about the mix of reviewers… Just like you can apply for a job and a job and a job… Finally you just get job because somebody likes you.

I think one of the reasons why it is very important for journal editors to be speedy is that, one of the rules of journals is that you can’t send it elsewhere until your piece has been decided on and so you are locking it up. So if I hear about an editor who’s taking a year or more to decide I am thinking that really is a nasty thing that you are doing to the author. Because you are basically locking up their work, they can’t send it anywhere else.

See also Kaplan’s lecture Reinventing The Geographical Review from Versus.

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Anna Pulkka

Anna Pulkka is a development coordinator at Versus