Leader: Can we have quantity and quality?

I recently found myself forced to defend the state of academic publishing during a conversation with non-academics at a social event. So many articles get published in academic journals these days and so few of these are ever read they argued. If the number of academic papers published appears to be growing year-on-year, is this necessarily bad? I think that the last two winters in Scotland have seen heavier and more frequent rain than previously, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest that this rain is less wet than before! Just as climate change might explain changing weather patterns, there are several factors that might explain the growth in academic publishing. For one thing, advances in technology have vastly increased the data and computational power available to researchers. It is also the case that the growth in the university sector means that there are many more people now engaged in academic research. In this environment, it should not be surprising that the number of articles published is increasing. Nor should it be assumed that interest in this output is diminishing. In fact, I believe that interest in academic research is also growing. In addition to a greater number of academics searching the literature for “gaps”, the recent focus on research impact, in the UK and many other countries, means that articles in academic journals often explain the practical relevance of the research more clearly than before. It follows that the pool of potential readers, both academics and practitioners, is increasing. Not only that, it is much more likely that these potential readers will be able to find articles on topics that are of interest to them. Technology has transformed the way people search for academic papers. When I started out as a researcher, locating articles on a topic of interest would involve at least a day’s work. Time spent searching the multiple volumes of the Science Citation Index, visiting various libraries, browsing shelves of bound periodicals and, finally, photocopying papers. Today, the same task takes minutes from anywhere using any device connected to the internet. Finally, the gradual shift towards open access means that potential readers are more likely to be able to get access to relevant articles.

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Tom Archibald

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Figure 1

My defence of the academic record was based on intuition rather than data. Afterwards, I started to wonder whether the data would support my initial arguments. Research examining the academic literature over the period 1965 to 2012 (Pan et al, 2018) has found that the number of papers grew by an average rate of 4% per year while the proportion of papers uncited after 5 years fell from about 30% in 1980 to around 10% by 2005. Indeed there does seem to be evidence that more academic articles are being published and these articles are being read more often. What of the Society’s portfolio of publications? Figure 1 shows the number of articles published per year between 2012 and 2021 in each of the Society’s six journals. While JORS follows a somewhat erratic profile, there is little evidence of an upward trend. The number of papers published in the other journals in the portfolio have been remarkably steady over the period. The only growth evident in Figure 1 is due to the launch of the Journal of Business Analytics (JBA) in 2018. This picture is not uncommon among subscription-based journals where the price is generally directly related to the number of pages in a volume. Increasing the number of papers published results in a higher subscription price which may not be desirable. Instead, as the number of submissions has grown with the general upward trend in academic output, these journals have tended to become even more selective. However, the publishing landscape is changing. Transformative agreements are in place with the aim of shifting journals from subscription-based models towards open access. Under these agreements, often referred to as read and- publish deals, a publisher’s revenue depends more on the number of papers published than on the readership, which may create an incentive to accept a higher proportion of submissions.

Focusing on the influence of the Society’s journals, data from Web of Science reveals that 97% of papers published by the Society in 2018 have been cited at least once, while 88% of papers published in 2021 have already been cited. The average number of citations per paper published is 12 for 2018 and 8 for 2021. While citations are most often used to measure the influence of academic papers, there are other ways to look at the issue. The annual number of article downloads from the Society’s portfolio, which was approximately 150,000 in 2018, topped 1 million for the first time in 2022. Social media is becoming more important in the promotion and dissemination of academic research. In this area, the annual number of mentions of the Society’s journals on Twitter has increased from 462 in 2018 to more than 1500 in 2022. All of this data indicates that the Society’s journals continue to have a strong influence on the operational research community.

I think it is fitting to close this article by acknowledging the enormous effort that goes on behind the scenes to keep the publications show on the road. During 2022, the Society’s journals received 2531 submissions and accepted 349 manuscripts for publication, leading to an acceptance rate of 13.8%. Submissions are first assessed for fit with journal scope and general quality by Editorial Teams consisting of a total of 20 Editors-in-Chief and about 180 Associate Editors. Approximately 50% of submissions are rejected at this stage. Submissions selected for review are generally considered by 2 or 3 independent referees. Given that only 36% of invitations to review papers are accepted, the Editorial Teams will have sent almost 9000 invitations to potential referees in order to secure over 3000 reports in 2022. All of this activity is supported by teams in the Society’s Office and within Taylor & Francis. On behalf of everyone who has enjoyed reading the journals in the past year, I thank all the authors, Editorial Teams and referees who have contributed their time and expertise, as well as everyone involved from the Society and Taylor & Francis.

‘During 2022, the Society’s journals received 2531 submissions and accepted 349 for publication, leading to an acceptance rate of 13.8%.’

Pan, Raj K; Alexander M. Petersen, Fabio Pammolli & Santo Fortunato (2018), “The memory of science: Inflation, myopia, and the knowledge network”. Journal of Informetrics 12(3):656-678