Why not writing journal articles might increase the quality of academic publications

I’m writing this blog post from a teaching position in China (although it will be published when I get back to Australia – thanks a lot ‘Great Firewall of China’!). The opportunity to teach in China has been amazing – I’m experiencing a different way of life, a different academic culture and (hopefully) getting students excited about their future move to an Australia university.

But at the same time I’ve found the experience difficult. I really had no idea what to expect and what I should be teaching the students.  This process has made me think about the transnational student experience.  I’ve taught Chinese students in Australia, recognised their frustration at not having the English required to succeed at university and also the frustration of their classmates who have to do more in group work because the Chinese students don’t have the same English capacity.  Here I get to see the other side – wonderful, bright students, some of whom are worried about whether they have the skills to succeed in Australia and some who just want to get over there already! It’s made me feel like I should write a paper about my experiences.

Then I stop myself short. Why should I write a paper? What would the purpose of the paper be?  Of course, I would hope the purpose would be to educate others about my experience so that they might be more prepared. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t seek out any papers to help me prepare so why should I expect others to? And what value can I really add to the discussion?  My experience isn’t informed by any strong pedagogical knowledge on international students, nor is it informed by a fundamental understanding of the purpose of these exchange programs.  In essence, my intention to publish an article about my experiences is a reflection of my arrogant belief that my experiences mean something.  And perhaps this is a growing problem with the academic literature.

If all of my papers currently in press are published I will finish my PhD with 11 publications.  If you were to ask me how many of these I honestly felt contributed something meaningful to the research literature I would probably say it was four of them.  So why are there 11? Because I write quickly and I thought of something to say.  Peer reviewers (in most cases) thought my papers were sufficiently well written and supported to be published. But that doesn’t really mean they are worth publishing.  The ‘novel’ in journal articles is now often tangential.  And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, with journal articles providing evidence to support an existing theory worthwhile. But, let’s face it, there is also a whole lot of rubbish out there that no one cares to read.  A few recent experiences have made me face this reality. I submitted a paper to a conference proceeding, only to be told that the 40 best papers would be published by an Open Access journal, with the conference paying the open access fees!  The journal has been in operation for two years and the editor was also one of the conference organisers.  In this one move he gets to double the number of papers in his journal and we get a paper published. Whether these 40 ‘best papers’ represent papers actually worth publishing in a journal is another matter.  I also recently submitted a paper to a journal that was subsequently ‘unsubmitted’.  Apparently ‘unsubmission’ is different from ‘rejection’, with the editors requesting I ‘engage with discussions in the journal’ before resubmitting.  I.e. that I reference a few articles from the journal before the paper is considered publishable.

All these steps help to boost metrics for academics, editors and journals. But none do anything to improve the quality of research available.  If anything, they reduce the quality because it makes it more difficult to wade through all of the mountains of rubbish papers out there to find the quality ones.  And this is before even considering the problems associated with the peer review process! So instead of having an idea and deciding to write a journal article about it, I’ve decided to have an idea and discuss it with a colleague, write a blog post or just keep the thought to myself.  I will reserve writing papers for findings that I think are genuinely novel and might be of use to the academic community.  This saves me time and effort and has the potential to increase the quality of the literature available in the public sphere (assuming that any contribution that I had made would be below average standard).

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