In defense of scholarly writing

In this blog post, I would like to defend scholarly writing as well as the academic peer review process. I say this while also being very critical of the process and its inaccessibility. However, I don’t believe we should disregard its strengths.

There are two major critiques to academic writing and publishing. The first involves is the seemingly absurd process of publishing academic work. Submitting a journal manuscript for publication can mean a multi-month to multi-year commitment. Not only is time involved with revision as well as rejection, there are countless horror stories associated with the peer review process. In some fields, it is particularly bad. Editors face headaches as well.

However, if publishing was like the job market, my CV would likely be blank. The double-blind peer review is one of few places in which scholars from less recognized institutions are not judged based on affiliation and who they know. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found that single-blind review does have bias toward well-known researchers and institutions. However, they found double-blind review does reduce biased found in the review the process of the journal they examined.

I work at a regional teaching-oriented institution and have a PhD from a middling state institution. I am at a disadvantage not only due to these biases, but I have fewer resources that scholars and doctoral recipients from more well-known schools. Thanks to double blind review in my field, my work has generally received fair evaluations – which includes acceptances and rejections from prestigious journals in my subfield. Certainly, the peer review process can be improved. There are suggestions out there. However, I want to say that the process is not without merits.

The second critique is the inaccessibility of research. On Twitter, I have certainly shared plenty of articles that argue academics need to change the way they communicate their research. This problem is complicated, when academic knowledge is hidden behind expensive paywalls. Many on academic social media have discussed the problem of work that counts (or does not) in promotion and tenure processes and problems with the use of prestige/impact factor. As my colleagues have noted on Twitter, non-academic writing is not valued in tenure and promotion processes. This pushes scholars to put their work in the hands of publishers that are not committed to sharing knowledge.

However, I do not believe it is as simple as saying blogs or other public writing should count. For instance, the American Sociological Association, which I am a part of, released a report called “What Counts? Evaluating Public Communication in Tenure and Promotion.” The report essentially calls for context when evaluating public work (see: discussion in Inside Higher Ed).

For me, this context is engagement with the field. There is value in engaging with your peers, just as there is value in work that is aimed at non-academic audiences.  Academic writing – even at non-research schools – is useful in keeping one’s skills up-to-date. Indeed, it is a highly specialized form of communication. However, that is fundamentally what it means to have a PhD and do academic work.