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.


It’s fall, which means that my fourth year undergraduate planning studio at Dalhousie University’s School of Planning is working on another complex project. As some of you know, last year my students worked on improving the social and open spaces in Mulgrave Park. This year, students are developing a proposal for affordable rental housing on Quinpool Road.

Students work on an in-class exercise

For students in the fourth year honours program in planning, it’s the first time they have worked in a studio setting. I’ve designed the course so that they can develop skills in drawing and design to help bring them up to similar levels (some of them have taken drawing classes and some have not). For example, in-class exercises teach them how to draw floor plans, axonometric drawings, and site analysis diagrams.

But because it’s a planning studio, and combines students from urban design and environmental planning, the course also incorporates financial aspects of development, demographics and policy aspects, and sustainability. Our partner on the project, Jeffry Haggett, is a planner at WSP. He helped determine the site for the project, a now-vacant lot on Quinpool Road where St. Patrick’s High School once stood, accompanied the students on a site visit, and has provided them with technical information such as GIS data. Neil Lovitt, a planner specializing in financial considerations at Turner Drake, taught them how to do a pro forma to determine whether their proposal is feasible. Both Jeffry and Neil are alumni of our planning program, the Bachelor of Community Design.

Councillor Lindell Smith (center) brought his own experiences of living in social and affordable housing to the class

Yesterday, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Councillor Lindell Smith came in to discuss his experiences living in social and affordable housing in North Halifax. Smith grew up in the Uniacke Square public housing and the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, where he still lives. Just 26 years old when he was elected last fall, he is the first African Nova Scotian elected to city council in 20 years. He encouraged the students to think about the needs of the demographic groups near their site, and everyday considerations of people living in mid-rise and high-rise developments (e.g. access to open space, services for the community). For the mid-term review next week, Bob Bjerke is our guest critic. In addition to working as the chief planner in both HRM and the City of Regina, Bjerke was Director of Housing for the City of Edmonton, which is doing innovative policy work on integrating affordable housing and community supports.

Students are working in groups on their proposals, which must include:

  • a site plan and landscape plan
  • floor plans for the proposed buildings
  • information on their target demographic groups and relevant policies (e.g. land use, funding programs)
  • financial feasibility (pro forma)
  • a sustainability framework (e.g. financial, social, and environmental characteristics)

Groups will continue to refine and redesign their proposals until the end of this term. They developed group contracts the beginning of the term and will have a chance to evaluate each other at the mid-term and end of term. This helps keep group members accountable to each other and identifies uneven participation. Their individual grades on the in-class exercises also help evaluate their skill development and performance. In this way, the course also blends structured (time-limited assignments) and unstructured learning (group dialogue, consensus building and decision-making).


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.

When I received an offer from the University of Oregon to become a visiting assistant professor this fall, I decided to try and find out as much as possible about what it meant to be in this role. Although sessional, adjunct, and visiting professor positions have become much more common in recent years (in what some call the “adjunctification of academia“) I really couldn’t find many articles out there on what it was actually like to be a visiting prof, and those I did find were on the negative side.

I should preface this by saying that in community and regional planning, it is common for adjuncts teach many of our courses, as practical experience in planning is considered a major strength to bring to the teaching environment. We aren’t “ivory tower” academics in planning–for the most part, anyway. At UBC, where I did my Ph.D., courses such as cost benefit analysis, regional planning, and housing policy were routinely taught by planners working at local municipalities or in private practice. Often these were well-known planners like Ann McAfee, Larry Beasley, Mark Holland, and Michael Gordon. Although the Planning Accreditation Board sometimes frowns on the practice, the reality is that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of incorporating adjunct teaching into planning degrees. Here at the University of Oregon, non-tenure track faculty regularly teach courses such as land use planning, professional development, environmental impact assessment. They also lead the Sustainable City Year Program, Community Planning Workshop, and Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) certificate, three hands-on opportunities for students to work on real projects with community partners. One of the reasons UO hired me was because I have a lot of practical experience, including consulting, working for non-profits, provincial and federal governments, and private practice.

This is not to discount the very real problem of universities taking advantage of young scholars, particularly since the Great Recession, but really since the mid-1980s, as full-time tenure-track positions have given way to part-time, temporary, adjunct positions. But, as planning is perhaps “more practical” than many other degrees out there, it means that our PhDs are often able to find jobs in government, non-profits, private practice, or in research organizations. I can think of two colleagues from UBC: one works at a very successful development firm and the other worked in government for several years and recently started a non-profit organization. It’s also very common to have years of work experience before starting a Ph.D. in planning. So we aren’t as hard pressed to shoehorn our academic skills into “real world” jobs if academia doesn’t provide us wtih opportunities, as I found when I attended meetings of the Versatile PhD in Toronto. Young people in PhD programs such as history, english, and sociology who were thinking about non-academic (or alt-ac) careers were having a particularly hard time transitioning from cv’s to resumes, research to practice, and scholarly work to client-based work. Even those in the hard sciences were facing a transition from lab work to industry professions.


Getting used to the UOregon campus, this is me in front of the Dads’ Gates

Since I had a hard time trying to make the experiences of visiting profs in non-planning fields apply to my own situation, I’d like to describe what things are like so far. I think it’s important that other potential visiting profs out there know more about this option. First, it’s important to note that I am fully accepted as a member of the UO faculty, including attending faculty meetings, having an office where students can come during office hours, attending the annual faculty retreat and orientation for new Masters students. I’ve read other articles where the authors noted their peripheral status as a faculty member, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case at UO, where I was whole-heartedly accepted and introduced to everyone from department staff to faculty in allied departments to students that I will be advising this year. Second, I’ve been given the opportunity to attend new faculty orientation, benefits orientation, and Canvas training (as the UO is switching from Blackboard to Canvas this year), all of which I’ve done in my first few weeks on campus. There are lots of other training opportunities through the Teaching and Learning Centre and the university library as well. Third, my colleagues have been exceptionally welcoming and excited about me becoming a part of their team for the coming year. They’ve helped get me used to the administrative structure of the department and university and answered lots of questions on teaching responsibilities, assignments, grading, and advising Masters students. The staff has also been exceptional in helping me adjust to life in PPPM (Planning, Public Policy and Management).

I am in a teaching-only position, as it only lasts from September to June, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to apply for/receive research funding. I am replacing two faculty members who are on sabbatical, and teach two courses per term for three terms. I have so far had ample time to plan the courses for the Fall term, which are familiar to me: a seminar in sustainable transportation and the masters research methods course on research design, very similar to the two courses I taught at the University of Amsterdam. The Winter term includes housing policy and an introduction to planning, which will require more work to prepare, and in the Spring term I will repeat the intro with a larger class (with TAs) and add land use planning as well. The schedule means that I start out easy (with courses I have taught before and smaller class sizes) and gradually need to put in more time (developing new courses and teaching larger classes), another clue that my fellow faculty members really thought about how to transition me into teaching this year.

The obvious downside is that I had to relocate from Toronto to Eugene, and an international move is not the easiest thing to do with just a couple of months notice. The administrative adjustment is not quick or easy, nor is finding an apartment and furnishing it for nine months–I was super lucky that a staff member in the department helped out with these tasks. Luckily, Eugene is a college town and everything from rental leases to internet service is based on nine-month contracts! There is also no guarantee that this position will lead to other positions in academia, tenure-track or otherwise. For those of you keeping track, I have been searching for a more permanent position in academia since 2010, but have been able to secure a two-year research gig, a ten-month government contract, and start up my own consulting practice in the meantime. I chose to see this gig as a nine-month contract similar to the one I recently completed in the provincial government in Ontario, and to accept the fact that the world is moving away from permanent employment and that there is a lot to be gained from learning new perspectives and teaching in a new context. Because UO’s focus is on integrating research and practice in sustainability, I will be able to take this experience into future teaching either as a tenure-track or adjunct professor. I’ve come to accept that in the future I’ll be doing some research, some writing, and some teaching–whether it’s as a consultant or as a tenure-track faculty member.

Classes start this week, and I’ll be updating you on how the term goes. But so far, this visiting prof gig is pretty sweet, and for those of you who are on the academic market, it may be a good option for you if you’re willing/able to relocate for a mere nine months, you are able to work in a supportive work environment and are well compensated. If you have small children or family to support in your current town, a partner with a location-dependent job, or if the salary you’re offered is not enough to compensate your relocation for a short term (e.g. for planners, it is less than you would make in a practical planning or consulting position in your own town), then you might want to forgo these types of opportunities. Also, if you have your heart set on a career in academia and can’t accept the fact that this type of position may not lead you there, you might want to skip it. There is no right or wrong path, only the one that makes the most sense for your life and situation.

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.

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.

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

Researchers are often accused of working in “ivory towers” separated from the real world. Perhaps planning suffers less from this syndrome since it is firmly rooted in practice. But most universities still retain strong boundaries between academic teaching and learning units. Even in an interdisciplinary field like planning, efforts must be made to exchange ideas and achieve some sort of synergy between different groups. While the Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development at the University of Amsterdam seems to have these internal boundaries between groups, several key efforts have been made to link our work to that of others.

Last week several researchers from our transport planning group joined researchers at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen for a unique exchange. A few years ago, our professors Luca Bertolini and Jos Arts discovered that the two departments had a lot in common, and they decided it would be a great idea for the researchers and students to meet up and discuss their ideas. This week’s exchange was the seventh such workshop between the two groups of transport planners. The workshops are organized by two students, one from each school, twice a year.

From Groningen, Assistant Professor Eva Heinen presented her latest research proposal to study cycling in the Netherlands. PhD student Ori Rubin discussed travel trends among family members visiting each other, concentrating on parents visiting their children, children visiting their parents, and siblings visiting each other. PhD student Niels Heeres encouraged discussion on what makes a focus group or a workshop: is one a data collection technique and the other a learning opportunity? Or are both research methods, one centred on a particular issue and the other seeking to develop knowledge or skills? Masters student Marije Hamersma presented some fascinating insights from her study of people living near highways at two Dutch sites–a surprising 80% of people she surveyed had no problem living in these areas, and about 20% chose the location for proximity to the highway.

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

From Amsterdam, PhD student Els Beukers discussed her research on cost benefit analysis as a tool that is problematic for many planners. Her research sought to bring together planners and evaluators to discuss some of the problems they had with cost benefit analysis; the Dutch government requires cost benefit analysis as the final step in approving land use-transport plans for federal funding. Els, Luca, and several other researchers at the University of Amsterdam are attempting to change the policy planning process through these types of projects: bringing together planners, policy makers and members of other professions to hear about innovative practices, reflect on them and try to develop their own policy and plans in focus group sessions. Can planners stage workshops that act in the same way as public health introduces interventions? Andrew Switzer, who is studying transitions to car use in Zurich and Munich for his PhD, hopes to use insights on this historical shift to learn how to shift current trends towards alternative transport modes. Postdoctoral researcher Lucas Harms has been mining data to explore demographic patterns in cycling in the Netherlands, including what percentages are due to population growth, increased distances, or increased trips. Although cycling has increased in the Netherlands in general, it has changed more rapidly in certain age groups and certain regions of the country.

This exchanged offered us the opportunity to hear what others are working on in planning and mobility issues, discuss methods and approaches, and our connection to planners. While Groningen researchers seem more linked to national agencies and organizations, at Amsterdam we tend to meet with local and regional stakeholders. The mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore these issues was also interesting, so much that we decided to devote our next meeting to mixed methods approaches. I only wish we had annual exchanges of this type within our own department–I’d love to know what the economic geographers and international development researchers are working on. But we’ll stick to interuniversity exchanges for now: in January we’ll host researchers from the University of Alborg, Denmark in a similar exchange.