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Last September, I took a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. Even though the position was only for nine months, and required me relocating across the continent to the US, I decided it was worth it. For those of you in a PhD or postdoc, you probably understand this decision–we are all taught that academic jobs are scarce and that we should jump at the chance to take whatever we get. Private sector professionals in urban planning often balance local and international contracts–the larger firms regularly bid on jobs in the US, South America, Europe, and Asia. For those of you working in the public sector, one of the last bastions of job stability, my decision may make less sense.
Contract, temporary, and precarious work has hit virtually every sector and industry. You would be hard pressed to find an office environment, trade, or career option that does not begin with unpaid internships, years of job insecurity, and/or lack of employee benefits. I know people in fields as diverse as nursing, education, and accounting who have had difficulty securing permanent or even long-term employment in their fields. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for a seasoned professional with over twenty years’ experience in their field to go out on their own as a consultant. Academic job scarcity has been intensified during the era of “adjunctification”, which began back in the late 1980s and has reached epic proportions in the US and Canada. For every three retirements, a planning department may be able to hire one new assistant professor. Limited-term teaching-only contracts are now all the rage.
I worked short-term contracts in landscape architecture and public sector research before returning to graduate school, then kept at it during the six years it took to get my Masters and Ph.D. I decided to apply to the Ph.D. because I wanted to do research–not necessarily academic research, but I wanted to apply the methods I had learned in graduate school to help solve real world problems. With that end in sight, I tried to maintain my connection to the practice of planning by attending events hosted by the Planning Institute of British Columbia and met local planners at events hosted by the School of Community and Regional Planning. I also published three peer-reviewed publications, a book review, a couple of freelance articles, and hundreds of blog posts here.
During the final year of my Ph.D. I began looking for research contract work–it was 2010 and the US recession was in full swing. I knew that it could be some time before I found an academic position and in the meantime I wanted to keep doing research. I soon found a contract with a local non-profit working on a housing program evaluation, then another similar evaluation, and then a contract for a study on social enterprises in affordable housing. By this time I had finished my Ph.D. and was on the job market for the second time.
In the spring of 2012 I had a number of job interviews and that May I received three job offers within two weeks. The best of these was a two-year research position at the University of Amsterdam studying transit-oriented development. After careful consideration (it involved an international move, visas, and putting my possessions into storage while I was away), I decided to take the position.
During the two years in Amsterdam I taught a metropolitan transportation planning course and the masters research colloquium, conducted research on the iTOD project, met regularly with the project team from two other Dutch universities, organized a monthly meeting of transportation researchers in the department, and helped plan an international housing conference. I signed a contract with Oxford University Press for my first book, published three articles, an encyclopedia entry, a book review, and two freelance articles. I had five interviews with universities for tenure-track positions.
But despite all this, I found myself without a position at the end of my postdoc in the summer of 2014. I decided to regroup and focus my energies into planning practice–by then I had spent four years on the academic job search and I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I returned to Toronto, where I’d lived during my undergraduate degree, and started a contract position at the provincial government. I had finished my required years of experience to become a professional planner, so I took the next step towards becoming a full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Planning faculty and friends (especially those who were now postdocs) kept encouraging me to apply to tenure-track positions, so I did. I had an interview in the spring of 2015, and after it was unsuccessful I got reckless. I applied to a couple of one-year positions. I was tired of interviewing–bone tired. I was tired of trying to downplay my academic expertise in public-sector interviews, and tired of downplaying my consulting expertise in academic interviews. I felt a surge of anger when anyone asked “But what do you want to do–be a professor or be a consultant?”, as if I had a choice in the matter.
Finally, the University of Oregon bit. The contract was in a planning program with a stellar reputation for experiential learning–the students work on real world projects, so my consulting experience was as valuable as my academic training. Spending nine months teaching, including designing a course where students worked with a municipality on their affordable housing plan, was valuable in so many ways. Not only did I hone my teaching skills with some of the best instructors I’ve ever met, but working at an American school somehow made me viable on the academic market.
Even as I decided, in the fall of 2015, to give it “one more go”, I knew that I’d likely be unsuccessful. In fact, a consultation with Kellee Weinhold from The Professor Is In reinforced that as a candidate who has been on the market for five years, my chances of getting a tenure-track job were next to nothing. She told me that schools prefer the linear career path: finish the PhD, get a tenure-track position where you will continue research on the same question(s). There is no tolerance for postdocs that diverge from the path or time spent working outside of academia, even though the market has basically eliminated the linear career trajectory. But despite her foreboding, I was offered six campus visit interviews across the US and Canada. I spent a total of 24 days travelling over three months, while teaching two courses. A few days after my last interview, I received the print copies of the book I’d begun working on back in 2012. A few weeks later, at the end of April 2016, I had two tenure-track job offers. I’m happy to announce that I will be starting at Dalhousie University in the School of Planning, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, on July 1st.
It’s the end of a five-year road that involved working in three countries, gambling on three short-term contracts, and buying/selling household goods innumerable times. Filing taxes in the US, Canada, and The Netherlands. Making lifelong friends who are now working in London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Groningen, and Brisbane, and overjoyed to begin collaborating on research. It’s been a long road, and I certainly wouldn’t advise others to “keep applying” in perpetuity. People mean well, but there has to be a better solution than this. Not everyone can sacrifice this much–some of the best candidates out there may not be able to pick up and move to another country for a one- or two-year contract. At some point, most of us decide we want stable, well-paying jobs–we have to give up the endless annual cycle of applying and interviewing. We ask too much of our aspiring academics, and also our aspiring teachers, nurses, and accountants–much more than was ever demanded of the generations that came before. Eliminating the majority of long-term and permanent contracts, devaluing our skilled workforces, and discriminating against those whose career paths have been more erratic than linear (yet somehow stayed employed during one of the worst recessions in history) are not the answers to economic efficiency. We need to restore those long-term and permanent jobs that help guarantee more equitable workplaces, more productive employees, and more satisfied “clients”, whoever they may be. The University of Oregon, under new President Michael Schill, recently decided to hire 80 new tenure-track professors in the next five years to bring us up to a higher ratio of permanent to non-permanent faculty. I’d love to see other schools take similar approaches to fixing a problem that has strained the higher education system to the breaking point.
I’m thrilled to announce that my edited book, Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach, is ready for pre-order through Amazon and Oxford University Press. This has been the labour of three years for me and the 41 authors involved in the development of 34 case studies based in the Canadian context. We hope that it will be implemented as a course textbook for undergraduate students in planning, geography, urban studies, and more. It is also our intent that practitioners and anyone with an interest in urban issues, social and community development, or sustainable cities will find the cases compelling.
Many of us in the discipline feel that Canadian planning issues are unique and deserve to be examined and taught in our universities, in addition to the many international examples that are available. For too long, instructors in Canadian urban planning have relied upon texts from the US. But as most of us know, there are critical differences in history, culture, legal systems, and planning regulations between the two countries–and in planning, context matters. Case studies are interesting in their own right, but if they are to serve as potential sources of policy ideas, it is easier if that context barrier is removed. This makes it easier for us to apply ideas from the cases to our own cities and regions.
I hope that in time this book will join the likes of Planning Canadian Communities (Gerald Hodge and David Gordon) and Reader in Canadian Planning: Linking Theory and Practice (Jill Grant), which have already been used extensively in the discipline.
When I received an offer from the University of Oregon to become a visiting assistant professor this fall, I decided to try and find out as much as possible about what it meant to be in this role. Although sessional, adjunct, and visiting professor positions have become much more common in recent years (in what some call the “adjunctification of academia“) I really couldn’t find many articles out there on what it was actually like to be a visiting prof, and those I did find were on the negative side.
I should preface this by saying that in community and regional planning, it is common for adjuncts teach many of our courses, as practical experience in planning is considered a major strength to bring to the teaching environment. We aren’t “ivory tower” academics in planning–for the most part, anyway. At UBC, where I did my Ph.D., courses such as cost benefit analysis, regional planning, and housing policy were routinely taught by planners working at local municipalities or in private practice. Often these were well-known planners like Ann McAfee, Larry Beasley, Mark Holland, and Michael Gordon. Although the Planning Accreditation Board sometimes frowns on the practice, the reality is that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of incorporating adjunct teaching into planning degrees. Here at the University of Oregon, non-tenure track faculty regularly teach courses such as land use planning, professional development, environmental impact assessment. They also lead the Sustainable City Year Program, Community Planning Workshop, and Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) certificate, three hands-on opportunities for students to work on real projects with community partners. One of the reasons UO hired me was because I have a lot of practical experience, including consulting, working for non-profits, provincial and federal governments, and private practice.
This is not to discount the very real problem of universities taking advantage of young scholars, particularly since the Great Recession, but really since the mid-1980s, as full-time tenure-track positions have given way to part-time, temporary, adjunct positions. But, as planning is perhaps “more practical” than many other degrees out there, it means that our PhDs are often able to find jobs in government, non-profits, private practice, or in research organizations. I can think of two colleagues from UBC: one works at a very successful development firm and the other worked in government for several years and recently started a non-profit organization. It’s also very common to have years of work experience before starting a Ph.D. in planning. So we aren’t as hard pressed to shoehorn our academic skills into “real world” jobs if academia doesn’t provide us wtih opportunities, as I found when I attended meetings of the Versatile PhD in Toronto. Young people in PhD programs such as history, english, and sociology who were thinking about non-academic (or alt-ac) careers were having a particularly hard time transitioning from cv’s to resumes, research to practice, and scholarly work to client-based work. Even those in the hard sciences were facing a transition from lab work to industry professions.
Since I had a hard time trying to make the experiences of visiting profs in non-planning fields apply to my own situation, I’d like to describe what things are like so far. I think it’s important that other potential visiting profs out there know more about this option. First, it’s important to note that I am fully accepted as a member of the UO faculty, including attending faculty meetings, having an office where students can come during office hours, attending the annual faculty retreat and orientation for new Masters students. I’ve read other articles where the authors noted their peripheral status as a faculty member, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case at UO, where I was whole-heartedly accepted and introduced to everyone from department staff to faculty in allied departments to students that I will be advising this year. Second, I’ve been given the opportunity to attend new faculty orientation, benefits orientation, and Canvas training (as the UO is switching from Blackboard to Canvas this year), all of which I’ve done in my first few weeks on campus. There are lots of other training opportunities through the Teaching and Learning Centre and the university library as well. Third, my colleagues have been exceptionally welcoming and excited about me becoming a part of their team for the coming year. They’ve helped get me used to the administrative structure of the department and university and answered lots of questions on teaching responsibilities, assignments, grading, and advising Masters students. The staff has also been exceptional in helping me adjust to life in PPPM (Planning, Public Policy and Management).
I am in a teaching-only position, as it only lasts from September to June, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to apply for/receive research funding. I am replacing two faculty members who are on sabbatical, and teach two courses per term for three terms. I have so far had ample time to plan the courses for the Fall term, which are familiar to me: a seminar in sustainable transportation and the masters research methods course on research design, very similar to the two courses I taught at the University of Amsterdam. The Winter term includes housing policy and an introduction to planning, which will require more work to prepare, and in the Spring term I will repeat the intro with a larger class (with TAs) and add land use planning as well. The schedule means that I start out easy (with courses I have taught before and smaller class sizes) and gradually need to put in more time (developing new courses and teaching larger classes), another clue that my fellow faculty members really thought about how to transition me into teaching this year.
The obvious downside is that I had to relocate from Toronto to Eugene, and an international move is not the easiest thing to do with just a couple of months notice. The administrative adjustment is not quick or easy, nor is finding an apartment and furnishing it for nine months–I was super lucky that a staff member in the department helped out with these tasks. Luckily, Eugene is a college town and everything from rental leases to internet service is based on nine-month contracts! There is also no guarantee that this position will lead to other positions in academia, tenure-track or otherwise. For those of you keeping track, I have been searching for a more permanent position in academia since 2010, but have been able to secure a two-year research gig, a ten-month government contract, and start up my own consulting practice in the meantime. I chose to see this gig as a nine-month contract similar to the one I recently completed in the provincial government in Ontario, and to accept the fact that the world is moving away from permanent employment and that there is a lot to be gained from learning new perspectives and teaching in a new context. Because UO’s focus is on integrating research and practice in sustainability, I will be able to take this experience into future teaching either as a tenure-track or adjunct professor. I’ve come to accept that in the future I’ll be doing some research, some writing, and some teaching–whether it’s as a consultant or as a tenure-track faculty member.
Classes start this week, and I’ll be updating you on how the term goes. But so far, this visiting prof gig is pretty sweet, and for those of you who are on the academic market, it may be a good option for you if you’re willing/able to relocate for a mere nine months, you are able to work in a supportive work environment and are well compensated. If you have small children or family to support in your current town, a partner with a location-dependent job, or if the salary you’re offered is not enough to compensate your relocation for a short term (e.g. for planners, it is less than you would make in a practical planning or consulting position in your own town), then you might want to forgo these types of opportunities. Also, if you have your heart set on a career in academia and can’t accept the fact that this type of position may not lead you there, you might want to skip it. There is no right or wrong path, only the one that makes the most sense for your life and situation.
I wanted to post an update to let all my regular readers know that I’m now a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I’ll be teaching research methods/research design, sustainable transportation, intro to planning, housing policy, and land use policy this year, as well as advising Masters students in the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. I’ll be in Eugene until June 2016.
Expect to see some posts about Eugene’s EmX rapid bus system, high rate of cycling, and small town charm in the near future!
Academic publishers have had a stranglehold on university libraries, faculty members and graduate students for decades: though many have high rejection rates and slow response times, publishing in academic journals remains an important component of tenure review processes and obtaining grant funding for future research. A number of recent developments are sure to have big impacts on the world of academic publishing–and surprisingly, these changes are all about costs rather than the accelerating digital exchange of information.
In the past, many academic journals were developed and housed within university departments, like the Canadian Journal of Urban Research operating out of the University of Winnipeg. Now Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley own most of the more than 20,000 journals and account for about 42% of all journal articles published. Published articles are only available to those with subscriptions–typically university libraries and some of the larger public libraries. In recent years, open access options have increased, but most publishers charge authors publication fees to guarantee open access–retaining the standard option (publishing an article that can only be accessed to those who pay for the extremely expensive subscriptions) at no cost to authors. Many researchers working within universities support their work through public grants and other funding sources, which means that the output of publicly funded research is often locked behind a firewall of elitism and capitalism. A number of individuals have rallied against this practice, notably internet crusader Aaron Swartz, who pushed to make publicly-funded documents freely available and was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 for downloading nearly all of JSTOR’s catalogue of publications. Since Swartz’ suicide in 2013, many of the mega-publishers have allowed short-term public access to their articles.
Faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and Ph.D.s act as reviewers and editors as well as authors, as part of their salaried/funded work. Publishing articles, that is going through the tedious cycle of writing and revising to address reviewers’ concerns, takes up a significant amount of time–a recent article in The Guardian stated that researchers waste an estimated 15 million person hours annually on unpublished submissions to scientific journals. As I’ve written before, there are all sorts of other issues with spending a year or two to publish research findings that can now be shared instantly online.
As early as 2003, the first glimmerings of change in the centuries-old academic publishing practice began to appear: universities, who initiated the peer-reviewed publishing process in the first place, began to opt out of the system. Several announced that they would be cancelling subscriptions to these mega-publishers, beginning with Cornell University (2003) and the University of Illinois (2004). In 2012, Harvard University announced that it could no longer afford the increases in already high subscription fees charged by major journal publishers–which cost the university an average of $3.5 million per year. Harvard’s advisory council noted that many journals make profits of 35% or more, and prices for online access to articles increased 145% from 2006-2012 with some journals costing $40,000 or more. In an article in The Guardian, Ian Sample wrote that Harvard would be encouraging other universities to abandon their subscriptions, encourage their professional associations to take charge of publishing, consider submitting their work to open access journals, and consider resigning from editorial boards of journals that are not open access. The article quoted Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a US-based international library membership organization: “Other universities are likely to follow Harvard’s example on this. If it starts at a university with the stature of Harvard, they will take a long hard look at whether this is something that makes sense for them to do as well. People watch Harvard. There’s no grey area there.”
The same year, more than 14,000 academics joined a boycott of Dutch mega-publisher Elsevier in protest at its journal pricing and access policies. The website The Cost of Knowledge, prompted by frustrated mathematics professor Tim Gowers at Cambridge University, allows researchers to register their protest against the publisher. In a 2012 blog post, Gowers wrote that he would no longer submit or review articles for any journal published by Elsevier. Like the Harvard action against mega-publishers, Gowers’ stature as a Fields Medal winner and that of his institution had an important impact on the boycott.
In Canada, Brock University announced that it would cancel its subscription to its package of 1,363 journals published by Wiley-Blackwell on December 31, 2014. Brock stated that the cumulative effects of annual price increases and the higher American dollar are forcing them to make this decision. Students will still be able to access back issues from 2002-2014, and can get access to new articles through free interlibrary loans.
Can universities–faculties, students, and administration–adapt to new forms of publishing, such as open access? Will publishers be willing to trim down the costs of subscriptions to these journals? Universities have already moved to non-traditional forms of teaching and seem to be slowly replacing tenure-track positions with precarious, lower-paid adjunct positions. Is publishing in peer-reviewed journals, one of the last bastions of academia, finally crumbling?
In July 2010, the decision to scrap the long-form Census was made quickly and with very little time to mount collective action. The long-form Census was distributed to every fifth household, giving researchers, policy makers, banks, non-profit organizations, and community groups access to a 20% sample of the population for questions such as commute mode, housing type, and ethnocultural background. This may not interest you–but it does impact your daily life.
Municipalities used the long-form Census to help plan future schools, community centres, and water and sewer services; non-profits used the data to determine the number of low-income or target populations used their services; and researchers used the data to conduct studies that aimed to expose patterns such as income disparity among immigrants, transportation patterns among young people compared to older groups, and access to affordable housing. My own Ph.D. work relied heavily upon the long-form Census, because I wanted to study how Filipino immigrants’ housing and transportation choices had changed over time. I was able to use Census data from 1986-2006, because the variables on the long-form Census had changed very little during that time period. In the absence of a national transportation study–which Canada also does not have–the Census is a treasure-trove of information for researchers looking at sustainable transportation.
By the way, Canada is the only developed country that does not collect such data–and countries such as the Netherlands, with a much smaller population, collect much more detailed information on issues such as transportation mode, commute distance, and employment characteristics. Every time I present my work at a conference, researchers from other countries are astounded that Canadians don’t have access to detailed statistical data on such important issues–so we just can’t conduct the research we want to, like comparing transportation trends across cities, or among ethnocultural groups.
The National Household Survey, a voluntary survey aimed at replacing the long-term Census, has been judged to be inaccurate and invalid by many statistical experts; the head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned over the issue in 2010. Many economic organizations, such as TD Bank, have mourned the loss of the long-form Census. The public sector, including municipalities and provincial ministries, had long relied on the data to predict population and employment growth. The new NHS is just not statistically accurate–many groups such as Aboriginals, immigrants, and youth are underrepresented–and cannot be compared to earlier data, making it difficult for anyone to understand long-term trends. And this is what needs to happen if policymakers, non-profit organizations, and community groups want to change those trends and improve living and working conditions for everyone. The Canadian Institute of Planners has spoken out on the issue and urged its members to support reinstatement of the Census.
Recently, MP Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands) introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-626, to reintroduce the mandatory long-form Census. As many of you know, a private member’s bill is precarious at best–this was particularly the case when we had minority governments. You can track the progress of the bill on Legisinfo here. If you can, please take one or more of the following actions:
Thank you for all that you do.
The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has recently published a report on the state of the estimated 9,000 postdocs in the country. The report highlights postdocs as yet another highly-skilled but low-paid profession in a polarized labour market.
Their survey of 1,830 individuals at 130 universities showed an equal breakdown of men (53%) and women (46%) with an average age of 34. Over half of the postdocs in Canada are permanent residents (15%) or on work visas (38%). In the survey, 46% of respondents worked in the Life Sciences, 32.4% in Physical Sciences/Engineering, 13.7% in Social Sciences/Humanities and 8% in an Interdisciplinary field. Most postdocs were between 2-3 years in length.
Key concerns of Canadian postdocs are administrative ambiguity, low compensation and benefits, and insufficient training. These concerns arise from the unclear employment status of postdocs, who often exist in a hazy mid-ground between student and employee status, missing out on the benefits of both. With an average income of $40,000-45,000, less than half are satisfied with their salaries and only 29% are satisfied with their benefits. This has to do with the fact that postdocs are often paid through tax-exempt research fellowships, and therefore do not have access to Employment Insurance, maternity leave, or the Canadian Pension Plan. Although several universities, such as the University of Toronto, have now reclassified their postdocs as employees, others classify their postdocs as mere trainees, which contradicts the years of graduate school required to do research. This is very different from the situation in The Netherlands, where Ph.D.s and postdocs alike are classified as employees with corresponding salary scales and benefits. Foreigners are even able to apply for a lower tax status (the 30% tax rule) as postdocs.
While postdocs used to be viewed as short-term stepping stones to full-time academic positions, this is no longer the case. Nearly one-quarter of the survey respondents said their career goals had changed since starting their position, with the most common explanation being the unfavourable job market. As most postdocs will not obtain faculty positions (unless there’s a significant increase in the number of positions for new faculty), postdocs have identified the need for training that will help them succeed in non-academic settings. This includes grant/proposal writing, project management, group or lab management, and negotiating skills, among others.
The survey was supported by MITACS, a national not-for-profit organization that supports national innovation by coordinating collaborative industry-university research projects involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To download the survey, click here.
My last two posts have presented some of the problems with the peer-reviewed publishing process that young researchers in urban planning face, as well as some lessons that could be learned from the Dutch publishing process. In this final part of the three-part series, I explore non-traditional publishing options which are providing a more timely peer-reviewed outlet for research.
As I’ve discussed in the past two posts, the peer-review process for planning researchers in North America is fraught with problems, including slow review processes, the pressure to publish in highly-ranked journals which have become extremely competitive in recent years, and the narrow scope of some planning journals. I also presented the recently-developed Dutch model as possessing more structure, a much shorter review process, and much more targeted approach to journals. But all of this is supposing that the academic journal is, and should remain, the main place where we share our research with our peers. In today’s wired world, it’s reasonable to ask whether this is still true; the online environment has revolutionalized communication in every sense, so much that we’re using Wikipedia to get students to write and cell phones to gauge their understanding of our lectures.
Technological developments of the past decade have dealt some serious blows to the academic journal: why spend months or years in the review process when you can publish online instantly? The web allows anyone to read your work–not just the faculty and students of university programs in planning. Should we still prioritize exchanging our research findings with our fellow researchers, or should we have more output for the general public?
I admit that one of the reasons I started this blog was to be able to write in a less formal style so that a wider, non-academic, public could learn about planning issues; it also serves as a respite from the rigid, lengthy peer-review process. Many professors, including Martin Krieger and Tanya Golash-Boza, have blogs where they discuss preliminary research ideas, current developments in the field, and research methods. Structural biologist Steven Curry writes about the benefits of going public with his blog, which he initially proposed to satisfy a grant application’s question on how he might engage a broader audience. In addition to getting instant feedback from readers and spreading scientific ideas more broadly, Curry found his blog to be an easy way to mobilize support for issues he believed in, such as stronger libel protection for scientists in the UK. The blog also enabled him to become a called-upon media expert comment on issues he researched. We can certainly see the impact of this in planning, where municipal planners are always trying to engage more with the public in new ways including Twitter and Facebook.
While these blogs have succeeding in spreading research ideas to broader audiences, they are not peer-reviewed writing, which tenure applications require for promotion. Young academics may be discouraged to write in blogs or online publications since it’s not “acceptable” enough for academic institutions; Curry only started his blog after he got tenure. At best, these outputs serve to publicize the “real” work: peer-reviewed articles in journals.
Open Access options and journals have broadened the audience for scholarly writing. Curry calls open access “an obvious innovation in a web-connected world that enables the taxpayer to access the research that they have paid for.” Online, open access journals such as PLOS ONE aim to accelerate the peer-review and publishing process:
Too often a journal’s decision to publish a paper is dominated by what the Editor/s think is interesting and will gain greater readership — both of which are subjective judgments and lead to decisions which are frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership (who are the most qualified to determine what is of interest to them). –PLOS ONE website
PLOS ONE has an International Review Board of 3,000 and on average publishes 69% of papers it receives. In the sciences, Faculty of 1000 aims to publish results quickly so that researchers don’t get scooped by others working on the same topic. They publish before the peer-review process starts (in about a week), then referee reports are published on the same page as the paper along with the names of the referees. When the paper receives two approvals from referees, it’s considered to have passed the peer-review process and becomes searchable in external databases.
In a recent article on Inside Higher Ed, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck discuss their approach to researching and publishing about the 2012 US election. As associate professors in political science, they sought a more timely way to publish their research so that it could have a more immediate impact than a traditional academic book. In collaboration with their publisher, Princeton University Press, they published e-chapters of their book using data provided to them by firms and colleagues. They wrote during the campaign using blogs. The publishers got reviewers to give comments on chapters on a tight timeline as each was written, rather waiting for the entire manuscript.
The press showed how to take the existing model of scholarly publishing–one centred on peer review–and modify that model to produce a book that was still rigorous but also timely and, we hope, lively. –John Sides and Lynn Vavreck
With all of these new options available, I wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of the end for the traditional, and often lengthy, peer-reviewed process. Blogs have allowed researchers to spread their ideas more broadly and engage the public in planning ideas. Open Access journals have developed much quicker peer-review processes so that research can get out there almost immediately but still have the grounding of experts’ approval. While we have open access journals in planning (e.g. Urban Planning and Transport Research) these rapid review processes still haven’t made their way into our discipline. Considering our interaction with the public and desire to engage a variety of stakeholders, this is long overdue.
In my last post, I discussed some of the problems with the North American publishing model as it applies to urban planning, specifically the lengthy peer-review process, the expectation for Ph.D. candidates to publish in well-ranked and overly competitive journals, and the narrow scope of some planning journals. Many graduates from Ph.D. programs also haven’t learned how to structure their research to produce articles or which journals to target. In Part 2 of this three-part series, I discuss some lessons learned from European planning scholars.
As most of you know, I’ve been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning and International Development since July 2012. During my time in The Netherlands, I’ve learned a lot about a very different model of peer-reviewed publishing, one that I think offers solutions to some of the above-mentioned problems. It doesn’t solve all the problems, however, which is why I’ll continue with the final installment of this series to discuss non-traditional publishing options.
Recent developments in the publishing process in The Netherlands have resulted in a much more streamlined model of producing peer-reviewed work. It starts from the very beginning of a Ph.D.: according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement for Dutch Universities, Ph.D.’s here are in fact not students, but employees. Regular employees at the university with a salary scale, pension, benefits, and vacation time: but be assured that the rates of pay aren’t any more than a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship used to pay (you can see the Dutch gross salary scale here, Appendix A Table 2.3, low end of Scale 10). Ph.D. students do not engage on an independent course of study which they must fund themselves, but are paid to do research for which their supervisor has gotten a four-year grant. In some cases a research institute (e.g. the Kennis Instituut Mobiliteit (Institute for Transport Policy) in The Netherlands) or a foreign university has funded the research.
This means that Ph.D.’s work within an existing structure, and it includes a projected research output: a certain number of reports, presentations at key conferences, and scientific articles. Ph.D.’s in the Netherlands are required to produce four articles for their dissertation: two must already be accepted and two submitted to scientific journals. The dissertation itself consists of the four articles, with an introduction and conclusion added; the latter two sections are typically written in the last few months of the four years. The text is put together into a book, which is self-published at the cost of the university: typically students print 150 copies of their books (which look like large-format paperbacks) and distribute them to colleagues in the department and elsewhere. This is a finished product: the Dutch Ph.D. has already had their entire dissertation peer-reviewed, and all required changes from the supervisors have already been addressed. It’s a big day in the office when “the books arrive” and are placed in staff mailboxes.
When I discussed this process with my Canadian colleagues during the recent Association of European Planning Schools/Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference, some of them found the Dutch process “ridiculously productive.” Others were horrified at the pressure Ph.D.’s must face in getting four articles published in order to graduate. But it’s a completely different way of structuring research.
When a researcher applies for a major grant with the goal of hiring a Ph.D., the project has already been conceived as separate pieces of work and is often part of a larger research project. Typically, each research question or sub-question has a specific data-gathering or data-analysis method and output, e.g. there would be a literature or policy review, survey results, interview results, and workshop results. This model holds for postdoctoral research as well. In my postdoc, the goal was to do comparative research of international case studies in transit-oriented development, with the goal of reducing barriers to TOD in The Netherlands. I’ve produced two articles that are now in the peer-review process: one on the first stage of the meta-analysis (meta-matrices and critical success factors) and another on stage two (rough set analysis). A third article will summarize the results of workshops that we’re holding this winter with Dutch planners. This rate of publication would be unthinkable within the North American publishing model for several reasons.
First, because here Ph.D.’s enter straight into a well-defined project, within which they can develop their research questions, sub-questions, and methodology. This minimizes the soul-searching (and often soul-destroying) process of finding out “what you want to do and how you want to do it” that often characterizes the North American Ph.D. in planning. There are scheduled meetings with stakeholders or partner institutions who are working on the project, and you will become a part of deciding on the goals and outcomes of the next meetings, workshops, etc.
Second, because of the much shorter peer-review processes. Dutch scholars consider four months to be a long review process, and six months to be reasonable ground for withdrawing the article from consideration. I recently received a revise-and-resubmit from a European journal after five months, and the editor apologized profusely for the delay (when it was revised and resubmitted, the editor accepted it within 24 hours). My colleagues in Amsterdam know which journals have long review processes, and they avoid these; their main goal is to publish in ISI-ranked journals, regardless of the actual ranking. They know because they have been carefully mentored: supervisors suggest a list of possible journals where they can submit, review each draft in detail and propose changes, and only let the article be submitted when it’s in its best possible form. After all, it’s the supervisor’s research grant and he/she is the principal researcher. Ph.D.’s will write to journal editors to ask about the progress of their article after three months, and if they don’t get a satisfactory response the supervisor will intervene.
Third, because the Dutch use social networks. Supervisors who are on editorial boards, or have colleagues who are editors, will suggest that their students try these journals first. They will introduce their Ph.D.’s to these people at conferences. When an article is ready, they will suggest that the Ph.D. e-mail the editor first to check if it’s the right fit for the journal. Their participation in the review processes are likewise quite robust. My Dutch colleagues, whether they’re Ph.D.’s or professors, review several articles per year and typically finish their reviews within a few weeks.
In short, the Dutch model to peer-reviewed publishing in urban planning is much more successful than the North American model: Ph.D.’s produce four articles within four years (or shortly thereafter) compared to one or two within five or six years for a North American Ph.D. They receive careful editing and comments on drafts of their articles. They expect (and receive) far shorter review times and are encouraged to publish in a range of journals–not just the “top” ones. These are already lessons to be learned in improving the North American publishing model in urban planning, if we agree that peer-reviewed publishing is a major goal of the Ph.D.
But there are still some interesting publishing options that the planning researcher can use to address publishing dilemmas: these will be addressed in Part 3.