In honour of National Housing Day, I’m live blogging from the National Housing Conference in Ottawa. One year after the adoption of the country’s first National Housing Strategy, CMHC is hosting housing experts from around the world on topics as diverse as social inequality and innovative financing tools.

Yesterday’s keynote speaker was architect Douglas Cardinal, who spoke about the different worldview between Indigenous and settler cultures. He gave examples of his engagement with communities, learning from their cultural practices and integrating their daily routines into his designs. There was a very interesting plenary session on the increasing commodification of the housing market with Manuel Aalbers (KU Leuven), Michael Oxley (Cambridge University), Leilani Farha (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing), Paul Kershaw (UBC), Susanne Soederberg (Queens), and CMHC President/CEO Evan Siddall. In a session on financial tools, presenters discussed energy-efficient mortgages and guidelines on energy efficiency and enforcement tools for rental buildings in the European Union. A session on alternative housing models featured a mixed-income cooperative model from Winnipeg (Blair Hamilton, Co-operative Housing Federation), tenancy in common ownership from San Francisco (Rosemarie MacGuinness, Sirkin Law), community micro-investments in local businesses from Portland (John Haines, Community Investment Trust), and fractional property investment from Australia (Sibel Buyukbaykal, Brick X).

Today’s keynote is Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. The UK is now the country with highest income inequality in Europe. He commented that in countries where inequality is considered a real issue, like Norway, they’re trying hard to reduce it–in the UK and the US governments prioritized social inequality in the 1950s up until the early 1980s, but now they blame poor families for not trying hard enough. Since 2004, families having to live in the private rental market, where they pay exorbitant rents and can be evicted with only two months notice, have increased dramatically–eviction from private rental units is the most rapidly increasing reason for homelessness. However, income inequality has peaked in all OECD countries. Dorling concluded by saying that after the Grenfell Tower fire, housing has become central to UK politics. He suggested looking at second, third, or fourth homes that are empty and what is done about this in other countries like the Netherlands and Austria (e.g. increased property taxes, empty home taxes); deciding that everyone would pay 30% or lower for their housing by a certain year and then understanding what targets have to be met each year to achieve that; inspecting properties and allowing the state to take them over if they are not well maintained; allowing tenants to report poorly maintained properties and allow them to be taken over by the local housing authority.

The keynote plenary session today featured bankers from the Bank of Canada (Carolyn Wilkins), Reserve Bank of Australia (Carl Schwartz), Finansinspktionen (Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority) (Erik Thedeen), and the Central Bank of Ireland (Roberrt Kelly). In Canada, mortgage rules have been tightened since 2016 and the Bank of Canada raised interest rates, decreasing vulnerability among owner households with new mortgages (those who had borrowed up to 450% of their incomes). In Sweden, strong economic growth has contributed to rising housing costs since 2012. They introduced a loan to value cap and an increase in percent amortization for the loan to income ratio, and have seen a decrease in those vulnerable owner households. Australia introduced investor lending restrictions as well. In Ireland they increased the downpayment amounts to 10%  for first time buyers and capped mortgages at 3.5 times their income; for second and subsequent buyers it was 20% deposit and the same mortgage cap. This helped stabilize the situation, but force first-time buyers to spend longer saving their downpayment, which will maintain pressure on rental housing.

In a session on focused on rental housing, Marika Albert (BC Non-Profit Housing Association) discussed the Canadian Rental Housing Index they created with partners across the country, using data from the 2016 long-form Census. According to Catherine Leviten-Reid (Cape Breton University), Cape Breton Regional Municipality conducted a study on their own, as the secondary rental housing market is not captured by the CMHC Rental Housing reports. They found that 43% of rentals and most new construction is in the secondary market, and that one and two bedroom units are more expensive than purpose-built rental units–three quarters of the secondary market units did not include all utilities. Just over a third of secondary market units were marketed towards seniors, and only 8% towards professionals. Nathanel Lauster (UBC) discussed the growth in condominiums as investment-rental opportunities, but contributes to more fragile tenancies as landlords can more easily claim the property for their own use. Rents are also more expensive than for purpose-built rentals, rented condo units have a higher turnover, and the typical households are couples rather than single parents or two parents with children. Jacob Cosman (Johns Hopkins University) discussed the declining rate of new housing construction in the US since the recession, and how in most cities it’s one or two companies that are building the majority of new units. There are fewer units built in general, less supply in the pipeline, and higher price volatility because of the monopoly. He hasn’t seen this same pattern in Canada as we didn’t see a major decrease in construction after the US housing market collapsed.

Our panel on smart growth: Stu Niebergall (Regina Home Builders Association), Oualid Moussouni (University of Quebec at Montreal), me, Cheryll Case (CP Planning), and Sean Gadon (City of Toronto)

We had an interesting update from Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Status of Women, on the role that women will be playing in the new National Housing Strategy. A Pan-Canadian Symposium on Women’s Housing was held with a range of women across the country directly impacted by women’s housing and homelessness. They produced six calls to action including guaranteed annual income, including women with lived experience in policy development and roundtables, north and Inuit housing, transparency with the National Housing Strategy and National Poverty Strategy, and support for a symposium next year. CMHC President Evan Siddall agreed to many of these, and CMHC will be publishing the report from the symposium within a few weeks.

The final plenary session looked at the impact of private capital on social outcomes. Nancy Neamtan (Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire) forcused on solidarity finance: tools, institutions, actors that are designed for collective initiatives and enterprises (non-profits and co-ops), which are co-built with community actors. In Québec, there has been a 32% growth in this type of financing from 2013-2016. Some examples include Réseau MicroEntreprendre, which has 15 funds in 12 regions, the Chantier de l’économie social Trust in 2007, a $52.8 million fund in patient capital for collective organizations and enterprises, and $66 million invested in 249 projects in the province. There’s a fund for cooperative student housing (FILE) which was initiated and supported by student associations and youth organizations and will allow construction of co-op housing units, and one to assist community housing renovations (FARHC). Major challenges include scaling these efforts up, continuing to attract new categories of investors, and mobilizing private capital in long term (bond type) investments. Shayne Ramsay (BC Housing) discussed the new Housing Investment Corporation, which allows non-profits to access national and international capital–it’s funded partly by a $20 million contribution from CMHC, which allows the HIC to leverage $400 million in loans, and TD and Scotiabank are co-leads on the project. This allows the money to be available regardless of the federal government’s priorities, and enables long-term fixed-rate mortgages (30 years +) for non-profits, because it aggregating non-profits together rather than treating each one like a small, individual borrower. Their first loans will be given in the next few weeks, focused on new housing and meeting the housing innovation fund criteria. Michael Oxley (Cambridge University) mentioned that non-profit housing associations in the UK raise money through selling their own bonds and by borrowing from traditional lenders, as well as the Housing Finance Corporation. Inclusionary zoning is also increasing in importance–it contributed to over 40% of affordable housing starts from 2014-2016. Tax concessions have been granted in other countries (e.g. Germany) to developer who agree to provide rental units at below-market rents to low income households. Tara Vrooman (Vancity).

A great effort from CMHC in bringing together a very diverse group of people to discuss affordable housing, including non-profit staff, people with lived expertise, government officials, and researchers!

Two years ago, writer Simon Oxenham at Big Think broke the story of Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan dubbed the “Robin Hood of Science”. Elbakyan started SciHub, which bypasses journal paywalls to provide illegal free access to anyone who wants them, in 2011. Elsevier, one of the biggest names in academic publishing in the world, has testified that SciHub was harvesting articles at the rate of thousands per day–Elbakyan stated that it was more like hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to more than 19 million users. Oxenham wrote that, with a database of over 48 million articles in 2017, “Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge.”

Many see Elbakyan as a crusader against an industry that has been unfair since large corporations took over academic publishing. Academic authors are not paid for their contributions, yet Elsevier has an annual income of over $1 billion US dollars; most academics have no choice but to publish in journals owned and operated by these international corporations as they are required to do so to obtain tenure. As Oxenham pointed out in a follow-up piece, virtually every step of the academic publishing process is carried out by volunteers, including editing, reviewing, and production. Journal paywalls make it impossible for people working as social workers, nurses, chemists, or planners to access the latest developments in their field–as they are no longer students or researchers at a university that pays hefty journal subscription fees. Many journals have introduced Open Access options in the past two decades, and about 70% of them do not charge authors publication fees to guarantee that readers can access their articles for free. The rest compound the problem by charging authors hundreds or thousands of dollars per article to be published.

Originally created for a very practical reason–universities in Kazakhstan couldn’t afford journals’ high subscription rates, which is no surprise since even Harvard and Cornell have been unable to keep up–SciHub was built upon the practice of sharing final or pre-publication versions of the articles with fellow researchers. Elbakyan was forced to find pirated articles this way as a student, being unable to afford to pay for every single article she needed to read. Having left Kazakhstan to work in computer security in Moscow for a year, she went to the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010 to work on a brain-computer interface project. Returning to Kazakhstan and frustrated with the #icanhazPDF approach researchers had to use to find papers through Twitter, she used her coding and hacking skills to create SciHub, which automated the process and made it much more efficient. The process couldn’t be easier to use–just find the article you want to access and then add SciHub’s complete URL. Elbakyan operates the website from Russia using varying domain names and IP addresses.

As Oxenham pointed out, Elbakyan seems to have picked up the baton from Aaron Swartz, the genius inventor of RSS, Creative Commons and co-founder of Reddit. Swartz met a tragic end through suicide after he downloaded the entire contents of the JSTOR database and was beset upon with 13 wire-fraud felony charges. Though Swartz and Elbakyan never met or were aware of each others’ work, they seemed to share some common goals.

In 2015 Elsevier brought a case against SciHub. After Elbakyan’s story was published on Big Think in February 2016 and several other media outlets jumped onboard, Google blocked SciHub’s access to Google Scholar. John Bohannon at Science called SciHub “an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.” In a default judgement on June 21, 2017, a New York district court awarded Elsevier $15 million for copyright infringement by SciHub and the Library of Genesis (LibGen) project, where Elbakyan was posting content harvested by SciHub. But Elbakyan lives outside the court’s jurisdiction and does not have any US assets, so she can’t be forced to pay even if she could.

Where does that leave our female Robin Hood? Nature named Elbakyan, who calls her mission “scientific communism”, one of the top ten people who matter in science in 2016. As Ian Graber-Stiehl wrote on The Verge a few months ago, the publicity from the case only made SciHub more popular. It is now the biggest Open Access academic resource in the world, with over 64 million articles. Didem Kaya Bayram and Furkan Akyurek at TRT World called SciHub “a game changer for the industry”, arguing that even if it collapses, it shows that the current model of academic publishing is broken and publishers need to change their business model to stay relevant. This victory, shadowed by Swartz’s and her own legal problems, is offset by Elbakyan’s need to stay in hiding–she now studies the history of science at an undisclosed location, and will probably never be able to visit the US. Her role in ushering in a new academic publishing era is firmly established.

 

Since the trend of short-term contracts began in academia in the 1990s and worsened during the Great Recession, there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of academic positions for people with doctoral degrees. Having spent six years on the tenure-track market working in short-term positions before securing the coveted TT, these discussions and media attention have made for interesting reading for me. A recent study illustrates the trend for PhD graduates to find jobs in sectors other than post-secondary institutions, and also illustrates the growing gap between science and engineering disciplines and those in the social science and humanities.

The University of Toronto, regularly ranked as the top university in Canada, recently released its first-ever study of PhD graduates, focusing on those who finished from 2000-2015. Professor Reinhart Reithmeier’s 10,000 PhDs project found that about 60% of the graduates worked in academia and roughly one-third hold tenure-track positions. The percentage of those working in the private sector increased from 13% in 2000 to 23% in 2015. Just 11.6 % of graduates from 2016 found careers in the public sector, which has traditionally been seen as a natural destination for PhDs (and is much more so in Europe, where many work for municipal, regional, and provincial governments).

An interactive tool allows you to explore the data on your own. It reveals other interesting facts, like the increased enrolment in 2005 driven by the perceived need to fill baby boomer retirements (note how flat the humanities and social sciences are here compared to physical and life sciences). This seemed like a good idea at the time, until the Great Recession hit right when this increased cohort was about to hit the job market.

You can view the graduates by gender, immigration status, and field of study. Looking more closely at the employers in each category (e.g. post-secondary institutions, private sector, public sector, charitable organizations, and other) is also eye-opening. For academic employers, U of T was the number one–that is, it hired more of its own graduates than any other academic institution hired. Looking at the private sector employers, the largest group of employers were biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. For public employers, it’s hospitals who employ the most graduates, then government. This illustrates clearly that the options for those in engineering, health, and science degrees, who are considered experts in their field in developing new products and technologies, are far different than for humanities and social science grads. Few private sector employers consider graduates from sociology or urban planning to be experts, or are willing to compensate them for their skills and knowledge to develop new practices or policies. This apparently even holds for public sector employers such as governments. In a recent article claiming that U of T grads are among the most employable in the world, the focus is entirely on those in STEM.

This perception that somehow science and engineering grads are more valuable than those working in social science and humanities begins with marketing to and recruiting undergraduates to funding research to employing graduates of these programs. I just participated in an international call for research proposals with colleagues in Sweden, Norway, Italy, and Germany. The project lead, based in Norway, was astounded to learn that the Canadian funder on this initiative, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), did not consider a proposed project on the role of women in climate change decision making to have an impact on science and engineering. (Note: the grant is meant “to fund research projects that will promote the integration of sex and gender analysis into research at an international level” and “gender dimension in climate behaviour and decision-making” is one of the proposed research topics). I explained to her that in Canada, urban planning is considered a social science or humanities discipline as opposed to a scientific one. The project lead and I used to work together at the University of Amsterdam, where planning was located in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and therefore was considered a science. But here at Dalhousie, planning is located in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning and therefore falls under the realm of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Applications to NSERC grants from Dalhousie have a 71% success rate; for SSHRC, it’s just 31%. It’s pretty ridiculous that the mere placement of your academic unit, as opposed to the actual topic, research questions, or methods you employ, dictates whether you are a science or a social science/humanity. And that impacts whether your research will be funded or not. And that impacts whether the university considers you to be successful or not, or whether or not employers consider graduates of your field to be experts who deserve to be compensated as such. Is there a reason that a researcher studying the use of a certain chemical in the body’s cells is inherently more valuable in the marketplace than one studying discriminatory hiring practices among immigrants’ employers? At the University of Amsterdam, both would be eligible for grants from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Nederlande Organizatie voor Wetenschaapelijk Onderzoek).

Clearly, when just one-third of PhD graduates from a U of T, a university that regularly ranks as one of the best in the world, find jobs in academia, it’s time to reconsider the value of a PhD. For 12% of graduates, their employment was unknown, which means that Reithmeier’s team couldn’t find them using internet searches of official university and company websites. Having participated in many discussions (both online and in-person) with those for whom academic jobs were not an option, I know that many end up in the no-mans-land that is searching for jobs for which they are overqualified, with organizations that do not understand what research is or what skills they bring to the table. Some rebrand themselves, become consultants, or retrain in other disciplines because they’ve learned that a history, english, or sociology expert is not valued in the market today. This needs to change. It starts right at the beginning with recruitment, continues with systematic change in the way we fund research at universities, and ends with better education for employers on the skills and knowledge of PhD graduates.

Figure 5 from The Opportunity Equation in the GTA (Update report). Notice how the middle class has switched places with the low- and very low-income group. Some of the other regions in the GTA show an even more extreme transition

I’m part of a research grant on neighbourhood changes in Canadian cities, the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, which examines the ways in which our cities are changing in areas such as affordable housing, income inequality, and poverty. Our Principal Investigator is Dr. David Hulchanski at the University of Toronto, and there are research teams in Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. As a member of the Halifax team, I presented our research on rooming houses in a previous post.

Last week Dr. Hulchanski’s team and United Way Toronto and York Region released a report, The Opportunity Equation in the Greater Toronto Area: An Update on Neighbourhood Income Inequality and Polarization. Their first report, The Opportunity Equation, proposed a relationship:

Effort + Opportunity = Success

The research found that over half of people living in the Toronto area felt that factors like race and gender were a barrier to success, and that the next generation would be worse off. The researchers believed that increasing income inequality was threatening the Opportunity Equation.

The update to this report, released on November 1, 2017, updates the analysis with data from the 2016 Census and also looks at the trends in Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. The main findings were that income inequality continues to grow in all of these cities, and is geographically dispersed across the Toronto region. A majority of Toronto neighbourhoods are now either high- or low-income, with middle-income neighbourhoods disappearing. In 1970, almost two thirds (64%) of neighbourhoods were middle-income, though only 42% were in 2015. In contrast, low- and very low-income neighbourhoods together made up about one-fifth (21%) of the Toronto CMA’s neighbourhoods in 1980. By 2015, they made up 39% of all neighbourhoods. High- and very high-income neighbourhoods grew from 15 % to 19%. The highest increase in income inequality in the Toronto region were in the City of Toronto and the lowest in Durham Region.

Based on the findings from the first report, the authors called on all partners and sectors to address three issues: providing young people with opportunities, helping develop a more stable, secure labour market, and helping ensure that background and circumstances are not barriers to opportunity. The United Way launched an Anchor Agency investment strategy, ensuring people have a broad range of services available close to their homes, a Youth Success Strategy to connect youth with multiple barriers to meaningful career opportunities, and continues to build on its Building Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy to tackle the lack of economic opportunities in many areas across the city.

The update report builds on this message and encourage more partners across various sectors to address the challenges.

 

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.