Monday, 24 October 2011

Do we still need academic journals?

As we in the UK higher education sector approach the next round of our periodic national research assessment exercise (this time hubristically called the 'Research Excellence Framework') the pressure to publish in 'high-impact' journals intensifies. One of my colleagues has, in fact, this minute sent round some advice on identifying high impact journals, and a couple of useful websites, e.g. the Journal Citation Reports Website:

Impact in journals, as we all know, is calculated on the average number of citations each paper published in the journal gets. Citations are regarded as measure of the extent that papers are read, indicating their contribution to a particular field, but they may also be a measure of the overlap between readership and authorship in a particular journal. If a group of authors frequently publish in a particular journal and frequently cite their own and each other's work in their papers, the impact factor for that journal goes up.

Reviewing my own case,  I've put myself at a disadvantage (I only just managed to scrape into the previous two research assessment exercises) as I haven't tended to pay much attention the impact factors of the journals I publish in. This is because since I stopped being part of a particular scholarly community writing about computer-assisted language learning, in the late 1990s, I  haven't tended to pay much attention to journals for reading purposes at all.  Almost everything I read I find in the reference lists of papers and articles, or through keyword searching in databases and through Google.  Yes, these sources are usually organised into journals, and I'll sometimes find myself downloading two or three papers from the same journal, especially if there has been a special edition in in an area I'm interested in, but my point is that I don't go to the journals first,  I find them incidentally while I search for papers on topics.

I think my 'topic-driven' behaviour is a consequence of the fact that there aren't any journals   dedicated to 'literacy and technology in higher education', which is how I define my interests.    Not only does this mean that I don't have a natural home to publish in, but it also means there are no obvious other authors whose work I can follow consistently - or who are likely to follow mine - as most other authors sensibly associate themselves with particular fields and journals.

As I look through my CV I realise that, not only do I not publish consistently in a single journal, but I haven't published in the same journal twice in the last 10 years!   Here are some of the journals where I've published one paper in the last 10 years:

Distance Education
Language and Education
Journal of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education
Education communication and information
International Journal of Educational Research
Teaching in Higher Education 

With this range it's not surprising my citation count isn't very impressive. I've managed to maintain a research profile within educational technology by writing and editing books and book chapters, although this would probably serve me in better stead as far as citations are concerned in the Humanities than it does in the social sciences.

 ...and more recently I've been exploring avenues of digital scholarship such as with this blog (although if comments are the equivalent of citations there's not much progress here either).

For myself, and I think quite a lot of other academics in interdisciplinary fields, the identity and the impact factor of a journal is not the main consideration, rather whether some of the people whose work we are citing have published there, giving us an idea of who we are writing for. As  I tend to read quite eclectically, and very seldom from some of the journals with high impact factors in what is supposed to be my official REF-oriented field - educational technology - I find myself wandering from subfield to subfield around the topics  of literacy, language, pedagogy, e-learning, social theory, culture, higher education practice, teaching and learning, etc etc . Not very scholarly I admit,  and not very efficient either.  No way to have an impact but still rather satisfying all the same.

To answer my own question - yes I think we do still need journals, to help us organise our thinking and to ensure that we think about how we write for different audiences. (This only really works, of course, if we write for lots of them, which brings this argument full circle!).

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