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.

The social media model

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 and other non-traditional methods

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.

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