Are neighbourhoods, cities, and regions taking a turn for the worse? Or are they relatively stable?

I’m a co-investigator on a project called Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership (NCRP), a Canada-wide project examining how urban neighbourhoods are changing in places like Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto. The Halifax team includes Howard Ramos and Martha Radice, professors in Sociology and Anthropology, and Jill Grant and myself from the School of Planning. Each of us have hired students as research assistants, collecting and analyzing data for the study as well as using the data for their own projects/theses. Jill’s student Uytae Lee conducted research on rooming houses for his undergraduate thesis, and another student, Janelle Derksen, delved further into the issue for her Masters independent study project. You can read their work on Jill’s website (everything from Bachelors theses to academic articles).

Written work is the typical type of product we use to disseminate academic research, but we’re constantly looking for new ways to do this.Lots of researchers use Twitter to release links to their research results, and it’s common to set up research websites like Generationed City, established by University of Waterloo professor Markus Moos. Colleagues at the University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies created videos to summarize and disseminate their research on the HOUWEL project on international housing trends among young people.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, Uytae and his classmate Byung-Jun Kang founded the non-profit PLANifax. The duo, alumni of the Dalhousie School of Planning, hires students to work on production, produces videos for clients such as municipal governments and non-profit organizations, and uses their work to educate the broader public about planning issues. They’ve done everything from encouraging involvement in the city’s downtown planning process to exposing the details of rejected development applications. In the latest PLANifax video to summarize Uytae’s thesis findings on rooming houses. It had 7,000 views within 24 hours of posting and Uytae will be interviewed on News 94.7 this afternoon.

Halifax’s Kindof Illegal Student Houses

Student apartments in Halifax are very affordable, despite often being messy, sketchy, and crowded. But in some cases, they may be illegal, kindof.

Not only do videos like this give researchers a potentially unlimited avenue for research dissemination (when’s the last time your academic paper had more than 100 views on the journal website?), but PLANifax is a fantastic example of young entrepreneurship: Byung-Jun won Dalhousie University’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year award earlier this year. I plan to partner with them on research grants so that I can have an interesting product to show to community groups, clients, and students, not to mention at research conferences. Much more interesting than the usual PowerPoint.

I’ll be posting more about the NCRP in future posts, specifically on my own sub-project: development and retention of non-profit housing in Halifax.


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.

Book launch postcard-Vancouver

8journalsAcademic 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?

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.

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.

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.

The Dutch social science model

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.

The main purpose of a scholarly journal is to report on original research or experimentation in order to make such information available to the rest of the scholarly world. —Cornell University Library

In recent years, the purpose of academic publishing has been challenged by lagging review processes, the pressure to open up high-priced academic publications to the general public, and web publishing options. This three-part series of posts explores these issues as they relate to publishing in urban planning. Part 1 will present some of the problems with the current North American social science model, the second part will discuss some benefits of the European model, and the third will address non-traditional publishing options.

The North American social science model

When you’re a Ph.D. student, you learn quickly that if you’re heading for an academic career, you need to publish peer-reviewed articles in academic journals. Seasoned professors will tell you that the pressure to “publish or perish” is still true of academia. Universities are pressuring their planning academics to produce more articles, and competition at the most highly-ranked journals has increased to the point where even well-established professors have their work routinely rejected.

But many of us are never mentored or coached to produce academic articles. I speak from the social sciences perspective, and also from the North American perspective here (I’ll discuss the view from Europe in Part 2). Most of my UBC colleagues entered their Ph.D. with a very loose proposal for their work–a very different beginning from students in the natural sciences, who usually already have a topic shaped by their supervisor’s successful funding applications. During their first two years, students in planning (which is usually a social science in North America) try to hone their topic down to an operationalizable research question, while also learning the basics of research design and methods and applying for funding. At this point they don’t have much to publish; perhaps a literature review. The third and fourth years are usually devoted to fieldwork, the time-consuming stage of finding and obtaining permission to use quantitative datasets, and data analysis. At this point, they may be ready to submit a methodological piece. Only in the final year of the Ph.D. (whether that is their fourth, fifth, or sixth year) is there really much to publish, and then most candidates focus on producing their dissertation.

Some supervisors co-publish with their students, although it’s certainly not the norm among my colleagues in urban planning. This leaves most Ph.D. students on their own in terms of writing articles, choosing journals to submit their work to, and trying to tailor their work to fit the needs or perspectives of those journals. Most will have published one, or maybe two, articles by the end of their Ph.D. Until recently, this was what potential employers expected when they interviewed potential candidates for an Assistant Professor position.

In some cases, a Ph.D. candidate may have been encouraged to develop the chapters as individual papers–my alma mater UBC introduced this option a few years ago, though it remains more popular in the natural sciences. Otherwise, they will face the difficulty of translating their dissertation (whether it’s 150 or 400 pages) into a series of articles that somehow work on their own. Many colleagues from my Ph.D., even years after finishing, have published one to three articles from their Ph.D. In terms of producing peer-reviewed work, this is not a very successful model: spend five to seven years on the research and dissertation, and maybe another two to three years on articles, and end up with just a few published pieces. In the meantime, the market for planning academics has been slow since 2008, so competition has increased for potential positions. Potential employers now expect a significant publishing record–it’s not enough to show that you have the potential to publish. Despite the fact that there are new journals starting all the time, it’s not enough to submit to these; potential employers expect you to have published in the most-established and highly-ranked journals in the field. The same journals that receive so many submissions that even their own work is often rejected.

To give my readers a picture of the process that young scholars face, I’ll use my own peer-reviewed publishing results. Since the year I started my Ph.D. (2007), I have submitted 18 articles: seven were accepted, seven rejected, and four are still in the review process. There has been a ramp-up in my submittal activity over the years: seven of these articles have been submitted in 2012 and 2013. The average length of time of the review process has been 5.2 months, but the range has been between one and 18 months. Submitting articles to special issues, book reviews which I was asked to write, etc. had the lowest review times: usually less than two months. We’ve all heard of recent upheavals at highly-ranked journals who have tried to revamp and reduce their review times: at one of these journals, my article spent 16 months in the review process. This is simply unacceptable: if the goal of academic publishing is to share work with other researchers, it must be done fairly quickly to remain current. To present our work at conferences, where it’s shared with our peers, and be published two years later is ridiculous. Yet, whenever I asked a planning researcher whether I should contact the editors about an article that had been in the review process for over six months, I’d hear, “Oh no, you don’t want to do that.” Even in the cases that took well over a year, I was advised to just wait it out.

In addition to lengthy review processes which make it difficult for a Ph.D. candidate to publish more than one or two articles before finishing, journals seem to prefer certain subjects over others. Two editors of planning journals have told me that housing, transportation, and urban growth “fall outside of their usual areas of expertise”. This means that they have trouble finding reviewers for articles in these areas. I find this difficult to believe considering that every major planning conference has streams dedicated to housing and transportation; urban growth is also a major area of research. Editors always complain that they can’t find enough reviewers. However, a third editor confessed to me that, “We typically use the same reviewers over and over again,” and that he wouldn’t allow Ph.D. candidates to review articles. There’s something a bit off about a system that insists on peer review but shuns capable reviewers: as a postdoc, I’m currently on the reviewer list for four journals but only review about two articles per year. I review them within two weeks, which makes me wonder why review processes often take around 8 months; granted, given the fact that I’m not a professor, I’m probably at the bottom of the reviewer list.

So, university planning departments, these are just some of the reasons why a candidate for the Assistant Professor position may not have a stellar publishing record. Publishing is incredibly slow, it’s much more competitive than when you were on the job market, and the highest-ranked planning journals can be narrow in scope. Unless their supervisors made co-publishing a goal, Ph.D.s have often not learned how to structure their research to produce articles or which journals to target to avoid lengthy review processes. For some possible solutions to these problems, check out my next post.

How difficult is it out there for aspiring academics? In the continuing saga of the US recession, dire predictions have been made: a recent article in The Atlantic showed that in 2011, about 38% of PhD graduates in the sciences found jobs after finishing while about 28% found postdocs. The rest were doing “nothing” according to the National Science Foundation. This article, and others like it, have been circulating among the academic community in every field, dashing the hopes of many a PhD student. However, these aggregate American statistics may not be representative of every field of study, nor does it necessarily reflect the Canadian reality. In planning, PhD students often decide from the outset that they would prefer to do work in public, private, or non-profit planning; unlike science PhDs, planning PhDs don’t work in large labs or patent-developing corporations, and they generally don’t work in a series of post-doc positions. Canadian academic institutions have been hit by the economic downturn, but the country generally has not faced such dire conditions as in the US since the mortgage crisis didn’t affect us.

As many of you know, I did my PhD at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning. Recently I got together with a couple of friends who also graduated from the program, and we started comparing notes on SCARP’s PhD alumni. Here is what we concluded: every single person that finished a PhD at SCARP in the last ten years found a job directly related to their PhD work, and some were snapped up well before they graduated. Since they have all been mentioned in my blog posts, I doubt that they’d mind my summarizing their success here. I’m proud to have known and learned from such a fine group of people!

  • Jennie Moore (2013): Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment
  • James White (2013): Lecturer, University of Glasgow Department of Urban Studies
  • Cornelia Sussmann (2012): Postdoctoral Research Associate, Kwantlen Polytechnic University Sustainable Food Systems Research Group
  • Silvia Vilches (2012): Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Simon Fraser University Department of Sociology and Anthropology
  • Josh van Loon (2011): Postdoctoral Fellow, UBC Health and Community Design Lab
  • Ren Thomas (2011): Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning and International Development
  • Ugo Lachapelle (2010): Professeur, Université du Québec à Montréal Département d’études urbaines et touristiques (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at Rutgers University)
  • Danielle Labbé (2010): Professeure adjointe, Université de Montréal Institute d’urbanisme (formerly, Postdoctoral Fellow at York University)
  • Janice Barry (2010): Lecturer, University of Sheffield Department of Town and Regional Planning (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Glasgow)
  • Leslie Shieh (2010): Planner and Community Developer, TakeRoot Properties Inc.
  • Sheng Zhong (2010): Lecturer, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at the National University of Singapore)
  • Laura Tate (2009): Provincial Director, Community Action Initiative (formerly, Manger of Growth Services at the Province of BC Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development)
  • Meidad Kissinger (2008): Lecturer, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Department of Geography and Environmental Development (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at UBC)
  • Matti Siemiatycki (2007): Assistant Professor, University of Toronto Department of Geography and Planning (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Glasgow)
  • Etsuko Yasui (2007): Assistant Professor, Brandon University Applied Science and Emergency Studies
  • Judy Gillespie (2006): Associate Professor, University of British Columbia (Okanagan) School of Social Work
  • Tanja Winkler (2005): Senior Lecturer, University of Cape Town School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics (formerly, Lecturer at University of Sheffield)
  • Maged Senbel (2005): Assistant Professor, University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning (formerly, Assistant Professor at University of Utah)

SCARP grads seem to have weathered the economic storm, which at any rate has not affected jobs in academic planning as much as it may have in other fields. Every graduate who pursued an academic career was able to find a postdoc position 1-2 years in length before finding a permanent academic position, or was hired into a permanent position directly after graduation. Those who chose not to do so pursued rewarding careers in the public and private sector. The geographic dispersion of our graduates is also impressive, from China to Israel to South Africa. Of course a lot of this reflects the diversity of the students themselves; many left their countries to pursue the PhD and eventually returned home.

In earlier decades, SCARP’s PhD program produced such stellar graduates as Ann McAfee (1974), who began working at the City of Vancouver during her PhD and worked as the City’s Co-Director of Planning for many years. David Witty (1998), is currently the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) of Vancouver Island University. The success of the PhD program should be highlighted as SCARP prepares to transition its Masters in Planning degree into two separate research-based and practice-oriented degrees. Lest this have implications for the PhD program in the future, we thought a little reminder was in order!

Many have argued for broader public access to academic research. Few, however, considered it as important as internet activist Aaron Swartz. The 26-year-old programmer pushed to make publications free to the public, including those held in the American repository for judicial documents (PACER, Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and JSTOR, which distributes scientific and literary journals on a subscription basis. Swartz was found dead in his apartment on Friday January 11th.

Traditional academic journals hold a prestigious position: faculty members are required to “publish or perish” and universities alone can pay their high subscription fees. In the internet era of free and widespread information, journals remain an almost impenetrable fortress with access granted to a small percentage of the population. Yet, academic research is in many cases funded by national governments and public agencies–in Canada, two main source of funding are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Is it fair to publish the results of publicly funded research in journals to which only current university students and faculty have access? In fields like planning, which stress public participation and community dialogue, this is a major concern. Open Access journals have begun to address this, but with faculty tenure decisions hinging upon journal impact factors, publishing in traditional journals is still the desired option for most faculty members and graduate students.

Fighting against these restricted databases was Aaron Swartz, who used his programming skills as a weapon in the fight for public access to information. In 2008, believing that the PACER legal documents should be free to the public since they’re produced with public funds, he created a program to download millions of documents from free library accounts. The government did not press charges in that case, but it did three years later. Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 after an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR. He had downloaded nearly its entire library of publications–4.8 million documents in total. He faced a potential penalty of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would increase public access to its journal articles, giving limited free access to its over 1200 journals. Now anyone can sign up for an account and access up to three articles for free every two weeks. It’s an improvement on JSTOR’s Register and Read program, which saw 150,000 people register for free access to 76 journals during its 10-month pilot test. This month, JSTOR began allowing subscription-holding universities to give alumni access to their journals, following Sage Publications. The top 100 editors of Wikipedia will now also receive free access to JSTOR’s collection.

Is JSTOR’s recent–although limited–move toward public access the result of Swartz’s actions? Or was such a move inevitable in the internet era? Years from now, those of us in academia may well remember Swartz as an internet crusader who offered the public its first glimpse through the cracks in the armour surrounding academic journals.