Academic publishing practices in universities in England

Members of the ESRC-funded ‘Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics’ writing practices in the contemporary university workplace’, research project team have posted here before about different aspects of the project. The project set out to investigate how academics’ writing practices across three disciplines were changing in response to wider changes in higher education.

One of the latest outputs from the project is an article called Hobson’s choice: the effects of research evaluation on academics’ writing practices in England, which is available via open access here. As the name suggests, the article examines the influence of research evaluation policies, namely the REF, and institutions’ interpretations of this on academics’ writing practices across three disciplines.

One of the key findings reported in this article is that academics’ ability to succeed in their career is closely tied to their ability to meet quantitative and qualitative targets driven by research evaluation systems. For example, early career academics on probation are often required to produce a specified number of scholarly publications within a certain period. Academics often talked about these requirements in terms that echoed the nomenclature of the REF, saying, for instance, “I have to publish two papers at three-star”. Similarly, one head of department told us that the minimum requirement for academics in her department was to publish “one good publication a year”. She explained that this meant a single-authored paper in a good journal. This obviously may constrain the type of collaborations academics feel free to enter into since sole-authored papers are preferred. It also promotes the notion that journal articles are valued over and above, say, monographs. This was a point of contention for many of the historians we interviewed, since it clashes with their traditional view of the scholarly monograph as the gold standard for publication.

Another finding discussed in the Hobson’s choice article is that the effects of research evaluation regimes were unevenly distributed across institutions and age groups. Academics in research-intensive universities experienced extreme pressure to maintain a high level of performance year-in, year-out, with little acknowledgement by institutions of the learning curve that is part and parcel of writing for publication. Those in teaching-focused institutions, on the other hand, were under less immediate pressure because research was often not made a priority. However, one effect of this is that career mobility for academics at these institutions may be curtailed since they are not enabled to fully participate in the scholarly activity that would allow them to move to higher-ranking, research-intensive universities. This is a particular issue for younger academics who may start their careers in less research-intensive institutions with the hope of establishing a research trajectory over time.

The full article can be found here without the need for institutional log in or payment.

by Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University