Journals, Counting, Value & Knowledge

Lemme just say that the recent news that College English and Composition Studies are taking a short hiatus from accepting publications has set the academic writing studies world all a flutter.  I can’t say that I feel as though the sky is falling, but it is somewhat symbolic of some of the larger structural problems plaguing higher education and publishing specifically.

Part of the discussion on twitter had to do with what “counts” and about which journals count. And those conversations are ones I am deeply invested in. Different fields count things differently, but for good or bad, they definitely count them. That’s the first problem, and that’s a huge, big complex problem. And it’s a problem that I’d like us to move toward doing something about it to make all of Writing Studies and TPC better.

Without doubt, structures and how we count and promote, etc. needs to change. But that doesn’t happen overnight. Those of us who are “senior” have to start arguing for that, and part of that arguing is gathering data that can help make more informed decisions. I’m doing that currently in my little neck of the world, which has involved (and is still involving so if I call for an interview please call me back and agree!) talking to people in TPC but also in their departments and colleges. From that work, I can tell you that most places have official lists and also unofficial lists, and most often external review people also have lists. These lists do limit what folks can do, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing (see below).

So while we’re trying to change the world, we have to figure out what to do with the publishing world we live in.

So, yes, it is probably true that in composition there are not enough “recognized” journals that “count” for people. There are quite a few journals out there that are doing some good work but they fall into a different sort of category because they have either not been around very long, are not backed by a nationally recognized organization, not backed by a large publisher or university, and were started by a handful of people who felt there was a need (when there may or may not have been one). Without some sort of something that gives them some immediate recognition these are the hardest ships to turn into something that is “countable.” A senior composition scholar told me that “there’s no way to judge quality. who are they having review? their grad school buddies?” This statement can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, but its telling.One of the biggest things for me is that even when “reviewers” or an “editorial board” is listed there isn’t enough information to determine whether it’s worth my time to submit there. The current landscape is so diffuse and it’s difficult to know who is in charge and why and how and without that information it’s hard to make cases to anyone as why this publication or that one should count in certain ways.

Existing journals across writing studies have to look at supply and demand and those that count need to figure out a way to open the gates. For example, Health Communication started as a twice a year & next will happen in upcoming new year 2017. Now it publishes every month. Journals attached to organizations need to be open to accept the increased demand. Lesser journals can probably follow the same pattern, but we all know that one of the fundamental problems with journal publishing is labor. Finding good people to review, finding people to help with posting content (for instance in an online journal), finding people to market and develop content with authors, finding people for copyediting. If a large organization or publisher isn’t doing the publishing all of these things, they take enormous time and energy and most of us are already strapped for time. And there’s the problem of when some large entities try things (like CCCs online) and then they don’t have the follow through to make them work and aren’t transparent about what happened and why; thus ruining goodwill and reducing the potential to try this sort of innovative elsewhere.

Part of the conversation last night on Twitter was about metrics and gathering data to make things more transparent. To my  mind, that’s not useful, helpful, or sustainable (particularly when that energy could be better spent helping existing publications flourish). Why not you ask? Well, much of it we already know. I can tell you based on my own research that what the time to publication is at the TPC journals and I can tell you estimated number of submissions for each. Finding out this information isn’t really that hard, but the point about being more transparent and understanding publishing more is one that is useful and needed. So for example, an important point is to know how an “in press” article counts. Online first has also helped at the larger journals, but again, it’s situational as to whether appearing there is useful for certain types of cases.

There’s also the issue of reviews and having editors who can solicit reviews that are useful and moreover, knowing that not every idea is a publishable idea. This latter one is really, really hard for folks to handle. But limiting the number of R&Rs is important for two reasons. One, you truly are publishing the best ideas and two, you’re not clogging up the pipeline and asking for work that doesn’t need to be done.

And as someone said on Facebook, part of the publishing space has been taken up by edited collected. Please stop. {addendum added after a conversation online: There is still a place for them, but we’re over-doing them and many of them don’t have a cohesive form, which limits their usefulness. In TPC, we’ve had a number of important collections. The key is to be thoughtful and not just do one with your friends out of some perceived “gap” or frustration.} I used to love them for what they could add, particularly to classroom teaching, but I’ve grown to hate them because of their uneven quality. Not only that, many places consider them as something less than an article and are unsure how to determine whether it was truly peer reviewed. It’s almost a sure fire way not to get a lot of folks to read your work because the books are so expensive (among other things).

Publishing is about knowledge creation, and one of the issues that I think gets lost in these type of discussions is the fact that we should be building on knowledge. One of the reasons for maintaining a series of journals that are recognized and valued is because it’s a starting place for finding the most relevant knowledge and allows you to build on that knowledge. In a time when reading is a problem, both TPC and composition/rhetoric have been around long enough that we need to be relying on our work more to build arguments. That’s hard to do if you don’t know where to find it, and it also leads to a distorted sense of the field because grad students are trained in the image of those at their programs, which can limit the way they are trained to find knowledge. Not to mention, it helps us to push our work to related fields because right now few people outside of Writing Studies (writ large) are reading anything we write. That’s problematic too, especially for those of in TPC.  So for me, this publishing issue is tied to larger concerns about research and research quality (which happens to be one of the things I’ve been whining about for years!)

So how do we solve this journal problem? From where I sit, it’ll take a multi-stage approach.

  1. large organizations that host/own certain journals need to consider adding issues per year, which are arguments editors and editorial board members need to make
  2. gather together editors of other publications (those independent entities) to get more specific information about their histories and practices and seriously consider collapsing some of them as to streamline effort and potentially increase impact
  3. continue to educate our graduate students (and each other) on publishing through additional roundtables at conferences that have all sorts of editors (we do this all the time at CPTSC). This also serves the dual function of providing spaces to talk about these sorts of things and to understand the best places to send certain ideas.
  4. senior people need to actively get together and work toward crafting position statements (even with all of their baggage and thoughts about no one uses them)
  5. senior people also need to work collaboratively toward helping one another make changes. This requires data. Hard data. Not anecdotes. And then gathering those stories where change has happened.
  6. train people on how to review and help educate everyone on what makes an idea publishable

These are the big ones and for those people that know me, you know that I would never bring up any sort of problem without offering to implement solutions. As folks may use this initial surge of energy to begin making plans, I would encourage us all to be inclusive to ensure that voices from all segments of Writing Studies are involved.

You won’t see me say start a new journal here because anything new needs to fit with what is existing and we don’t really have a good handle on the existing. And starting anything new has to take into consideration all of these complicated issues. Ask me, I’m in the process of starting a journal for a specific area with a true demand, and so I’ve given a ton of thought to these issues and researched it (as one would) as well.

But I welcome these sorts of conversations and am interested in seeing what happens next.