How healthy is academic publishing?


Does anyone find it surprising that, at the start of 2022, academic publishing is in such rude health? It may seem strange for the new Chair of the Society’s Publication Committee to admit it, but I am surprised if not astounded by this situation.

As we are all too painfully aware, the world has been gripped by a pandemic for more than two years now. Despite this grim situation, the Society’s publications, like many academic journals, appear to be flourishing. Submissions to all six of the Society’s journals were higher in 2020 than in 2019, the last year unaffected by Covid, and they remained above pre-pandemic levels in 2021. Acceptance rates have changed little during this period, suggesting that, as the number of submissions has increased, the quality of submissions has been maintained.

Faced with an increased workload, the editorial teams and referees have responded magnificently. The statistics show that the median time taken to provide authors with a decision on a manuscript has actually fallen during the pandemic. Production at Taylor & Francis has also stepped up to the challenge, preparing proofs, publishing papers online and printing and distributing issues according to the schedule expected.

Everyone involved in the process deserves our admiration and thanks. This is why I was excited to hear of the Society’s decision to introduce awards to recognise the vital contribution of referees across all of its journals.

Anyone who has ever been an editor of a journal will tell you that the most time consuming aspect of the role is identifying referees who are: (1) qualified to review, (2) willing to review, and (3) able to deliver a considered review in a timely manner.

Acknowledging the quality of the work of referees is a great idea at any time, but it seems especially important during a pandemic, when people must have even more reasons than normal to decline an invitation to review. Congratulations if you were a recipient of one of the first awards which were distributed in December via email.

Returning to my original point and the confusion surrounding it: how is it possible for academic journals to be thriving during a pandemic? Some people have argued that researchers have had more time during lockdowns to devote to writing, editing and reviewing papers. However, I am not sure that the reality of living through lockdown supports this conclusion. While it is true that lockdown eliminated distractions such as socialising and holidays, it also introduced many new and unfamiliar challenges.

Remember how long it took us to learn how to use Zoom and all those other tools to collaborate effectively with colleagues?

Those of us with teaching responsibilities invested considerable time to develop material suitable for online delivery. We also have to acknowledge the time people spent queuing for essential shopping, home schooling, caring for vulnerable friends and family, and the list goes on. All of this is before we even start to think about the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic on health and well-being. I have to confess that the reasons for the reported increases in research outputs since 2020 remain a total mystery to me.

While admiring the resilience of academic publications during the pandemic, one has to wonder if there is a darker side to all of this. Has the impact of the pandemic on academic research been felt equally by everyone, independent of characteristics such as career-stage, research methodology, application area, sex, race, institution or geographic location?

There is a growing body of work that provides evidence that suggests not. Using the number of papers uploaded to the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) as a proxy for research productivity, Cui et al (2021) argue that productivity increased by over 30 percent after the introduction of lockdown measures.

However, the analysis shows that the growth in productivity was significantly less amongst females. Moreover, this effect, which the authors refer to as 'gender inequality', is more pronounced amongst faculty in highly-ranked institutions and amongst junior faculty. Similar research has been carried out using other preprint repositories, for example, arXiv (King & Frederickson, 2021), with similar results. If it turns out that the findings of these early studies apply in general, it is possible that any progress that has been made in recent years to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in academic publishing could easily be undone by the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Promoting diversity is a priority of the Society’s joint publications strategy for 2022. Analysis of the diversity of the Editorial Boards of the Society’s six journals reveals that the proportions of women range from 20 percent to 40 percent, while the proportions from outside Europe and North America range from 10 percent to 35 percent. Ongoing work seeks opportunities to open up positions on the editorial boards to create more diverse and inclusive communities. During 2022, there are plans to gather further information about the Society’s journals with respect to this issue through an investigation of the diversity of authors and reviewers. Hopefully this will provide useful insights on, amongst other things, the impact of the pandemic on the Society’s publications.

I have recently taken over from Richard Eglese as Chair of the
Society’s Publications Committee and I wanted to finish this
article by acknowledging the tremendous work that he has
done in the role over the past six years. Richard has steered the publications portfolio through many changes and challenges in this time. For example, the switch of publisher to Taylor & Francis, the launch of the Journal of Business Analytics, the emergence of open access and Plan S, the recruitment of new senior editors for JORS and other journals and, not forgetting, the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you to Richard for his service to the Society.

Cui, Ruomeng; Hao Ding; & Feng Zhu (2021), “Gender inequality in research productivity during the COVID-19 Pandemic”. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management. Published online in Articles in Advance 16 Jun 2021.

King, Molly M; & Megan E Frederickson (2021), "The pandemic penalty: The gendered effects of COVID-19 on scientific productivity". Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 7:1–24.