Kinder publishing practices should become the new normal


The impact on teaching of the forced closure of university campuses around the world has understandably dominated institutional and press attention, with lecturers scrambling to learn new technologies and pedagogies so that disruption is minimised.

But the implications of the coronavirus-related shutdown on research is also huge. Limited or no access to labs and research participants combined with the need to share home workspaces with other family members present considerable challenges to productivity.

Moreover, many academics are overwhelmed by worry. Some have family members who are unwell, or are unwell themselves. Some have had to take over the primary care of loved ones. Many are also having to home-school their children. These caring roles mostly fall to women.

Such issues have raised questions about whether academic publishing should continue as if nothing has changed. For many, publishing and peer review are the first things that should be cast aside in such times. Indeed, a focus on publishing is seen by some as irrelevant in the face of wider social problems; someone on my Twitter feed likened it to fiddling while Rome burns.

As such, the journal and online magazine Society and Space announced last month that it had “made the decision to ‘press pause’ on our normal working practices”, prompting similar moves by a number of other journals. “We believe that to continue as usual right now would be untenable and unethical,” the journal explained.

In practice, this means that although it continues to process already submitted papers, albeit at a slower rate, new papers – other than those on Covid-19 – will not be sent for review until after 15 April, and the journal will stop sending reminders to reviewers and authors.

While I agree that to “continue as usual” is untenable, my own feeling is that pressing pause is not necessarily the right move for everyone involved.

Part of my rationale is practical. Particularly in the medical sciences – where paper submissions seem to have spiked – academic journals are crucial to the communication of research into the coronavirus. Similarly, I would question the practicalities of restarting a journal that has been on pause, and I wonder how the additional workload will be managed and distributed at that time – particularly when the peak of the outbreak is predicted to be after mid-April in many countries.

There are also more sentimental reasons for avoiding a pause. My sense from those I have spoken to over the past week is that many people are deriving some comfort and welcome distraction from continuing with the work they routinely do for journals: one of the few remaining “normal” tasks they have. Moreover, non-tenured academics and postgraduates are likely to be most seriously affected by the uncertainties around future deadlines and funding opportunities within the sector. The papers they are submitting now might be crucial for their ability to graduate or to secure a job. Providing a level of certainty that these will be processed (even if more slowly) can only help them.

But, of course, I accept that not everyone feels this way, or is able to take on this kind of work at the moment. So while I do think publishing should carry on in some form, “business as usual” cannot be our mantra.

Instead, I would suggest following many others’ recent calls to be kinder and more caring in our practices. We should be offering increased levels of understanding and flexibility to help those who want to engage with academic publishing to do so, while also ensuring that those who do not want – or are unable – to engage do not feel pressured to do so.

Nor should we see this new approach as merely for the short term. Instead, we should use this moment to establish a “new normal” in academic publishing: one that is more attentive to the variety of circumstances faced by editors, authors and reviewers, and that is able to accommodate these in a manner that is fair to everyone.

We must also be hyper-attentive to the ways in which structural inequalities in the publishing process play out – whether they be old or new – and find effective ways to alleviate these, particularly as academia and publishing return to normal (whatever that might look like).

It’s much too early for me to even guess what these measures might look like. But I do know that if we work hard to get this right now, then after the crisis we will be left with a publishing system that is kinder, fairer and more open than the one that we started with. And that can only be a good thing.

Author Bio: Phil Emmerson is the managing editor for academic publications at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). He writes here in a personal capacity.