I didn’t want to run an academic journal.

I mean, I left journalism two years ago, and I didn’t want to go back. Also, I was pretty sure that academic publishing was radically different than the newspaper business. So when the president of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) asked me to take on the project of running a GSA graduate journal because the founding editor had stepped down and the project was stalled and in crisis…I might have laughed.

I don’t usually agree to try to right sinking ships, especially in fields I know nothing about, and without compensation. “I’m not your man,” I said.

But one thing led to another,  and so I took it on.

This is the story of that journal, compiled for your benefit and mine. It is not a story of great heroics or brilliant achievements, but it does provide an interesting window into the struggles of a former journalist trying to build a “peer review” process from the ground up with a bunch of stressed out over-committed peers and a wild-haired Digital Humanist mentor/professor.

  1. Abstract

Most academic institutions across Canada have graduate-level academic journals in one discipline or another. They provide a useful space for student publication, in the same way that graduate conferences provide a training ground for student presentation.  Obviously, getting published in a graduate journal is not as prestigious as getting published in a professional journal, but they a chance to learn the ropes of the writing/editing/publishing process. My university, up until mid-2015, had neither a graduate journal nor any aspiration of birthing one. That changed when a friend of mine, Lucia, decided to create one as a side-project to her role running the annual university graduate conference.

Lucia did a phenomenal job running the conference. Unfortunately, doing so monopolized so much of her time that she fell behind on her thesis and had to scrap any aspirations regarding the journal. So the project reverted back to the GSA, who were left with a list of emails from interested graduate students wanting to join the editorial board, and one lonely submission from a student who was about to graduate.

The GSA had just undergone its annual transition (enter Yours Truly as a lowly Humanities Representative), and therefore had neither the institutional memory nor residual loyalty to continue the project Lucia had begun. That is until they discovered I had a background in journalism, which created a rush of enthusiasm to get me installed as managing editor as soon as possible. There is no human being as complimentary as a manager sensing the opportunity to unload a risky project onto a subordinate, whether in academia or the crueler, realer, world.

Still, projects die half-realized in academia all the time, and I wasn’t entirely eager to have my name associated with a journal that seemed halfway in the grave already. The initial call had attracted exactly one submission, and although a respectable number of graduate students had volunteered to serve on the board, they needed actual material to edit. So it was only when Dan (formerly known as wild-haired Digital Humanities professor) mentioned that he was looking to hire a student for his journal incubator that I sensed an opportunity in the making.

Volunteering with the GSA journal would mean working with Dan, which would give me a chance to prove myself. It also meant I needed to turn the GSA journal into a respectable publication.

During a series of conversations between myself, Lucia, and Dan, we’d confirmed that the critical problem with the journal was the lack of submissions, which suggested a general hesitation to submit articles to an unproven publication of low prestige. After all, why submit to an institutional graduate journal when one has the last possibility of getting published in a “real” journal somewhere else? This problem was compounded by the fact that my university is primarily science-oriented (most grad students are also in the sciences), and most sciences require grad students to both work on the supervisors’ projects and collaborate on their publications. This means that most conventional material produced by a graduate student in the sciences is controlled by their supervisors. The student may become one of several authors on the eventual publication, but he/she has little say over where the article is submitted and published.

In summary, Dan, Lucia, and I decided we needed to create something a little unconventional if we wanted any response from the community. What form that unconventionality would take was left up to myself and the potential editorial board, since Lucia was exiting stage right for a PhD program.

  1. Literature Review

The thing about academic publishing is that it is sort of a scam. In the latter half of the 20th century the field was turned into an monopoly by five major commercial publishers (Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and Sage), who now enjoy profit margins of around 30 percent.* These five publishers maintain their profits by extracting heavy subscriptions fees from university libraries and other academic repositories, while reinforcing a publication hierarchy which privileges their own journals.

In essence, the university pays twice for the same content: once for the researcher’s time and expenses while writing the piece, and then annually to maintain access to the research in one of Elsevier’s (or another publisher’s) journals. In the bigger picture (since the university is mostly supported by public funding), this means that the public is directly supporting 30 percent profit margins in an incredibly lucrative niche market. The publishers do offer a robust peer-review process and database construction, but each offering has a secondary purpose as a re-entrenchment of the big five’s hold on the market.**

Less than 20 percent of academic publications every year are what’s known as open access (not behind some sort of prohibitive paywall), although there is increasing awareness that the academy needs to move towards open access as a way to democratize access to research.  To continue to lock away more and more research behind ever increasing subscription costs, doesn’t seem like a feasible option.

Of course, this is all peripheral to the GSA journal project, except that our journal was obviously going to be open access. This in turn meant that it was going to need to be an entirely digital publication, since we would have zero revenue flow through subscriptions, and no time or possibility of ramming through some kind of annual student levy to support our production.

If this project had been a journalistic endeavor, it would have had minimal chance of success, and I wouldn’t have taken it on.  I’ve seen multiple publications run entirely by volunteers rush through an initial burst of enthusiasm, then fade and die as the founders move on or realize the meaning of “unsustainable.” The key difference with an academic journal is (at least at the graduate level) the publication is the key, rather than the circulation/readership. A graduate journal only needs to put out 10-15 articles a year, and the organizational goal is to get everyone involved relevant experience and a CV line. Whether the article ever makes an impact (in terms of citations or popular reference) doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s of reasonable quality and readily available online.

Bottom line: the GSA journal wasn’t concerned with readership, profitability, or timeliness (all things I’d be concerned about in conventional journalism), instead, it was primarily concerned with article quality, publication permanence, and editorial process.

After I wrangled together the editorial board volunteers, we met in mid-summer to decide what our journal was going to be. Lucia and I had previously decided to pursue submissions that wouldn’t do well in conventional publications, things like extended abstracts, white papers, cross-disciplinary projects, and “popular” explanations of esoteric research. The board agreed, but also decided to add a second tier option for publications that would be more “bloggy.” In summary, the journal would accept submissions formatted as academic articles, as well as shorter, more conversational pieces meant to inspire online comments and discussion. I wasn’t sure about this second tier, especially considering that many top news producers were in the process of closing their comment sections at the time, but I liked the abstract concept. Like many others, I run a blog that I wish more people read, and I didn’t mind the idea of getting a piece or two “syndicated” by the GSA journal.

Another big question was how to set up the journal’s digital presence. Because one of the big concerns for an academic journal is permanence, the ephemerality of the web presents a significant problem. If a graduate student is going to put a publication in the GSA journal on their CV, that publication needs to exist in the same form and with the same URL years down the road. The best way to accomplish that is to first make sure the article has a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), which aren’t as dynamic as URLs, and second, to store it in a database that isn’t dependent on any one person or organization remembering to pay an annual fee for the hosting and domain name.

So WordPress was out, as were all the usual website builders. We needed an electronic bastion, a digital fortress, something that could be set up once and would require zero critical maintenance from future GSA representatives. I thought we were chasing a chimera until Dan introduced us to Zenodo, which is basically a data repository built into the back-end of CERN’s seemingly endless server space (the front end is running the particle accelerator on the French-Swiss border – the one that’s going to create a black hole and destroy the world).

Zenodo is free, secure, and permanent. It provided the perfect place to store our journal articles. We also decided to use WordPress to create a more attractive landing page, and as a home for our blog (since Zenodo is butt-ugly).

That being decided, we got our resident philosophy student to write up a Call for Submissions that was about 500 words too long (typical philosophers), mocked up a couple slides for social media, and blasted it all out over a couple of networks. We themed the issue “Publishing the Unpublishable,” which Dan loved, but made us profoundly unpopular among science students (who interpreted the theme literally).

Then we crossed our fingers and waited.

  1. Methodology

In the end we got eight submissions.  Four of them were from myself and three other people who I’d directly threatened. In October we gathered the editorial board, assigned each submission to a member of the board as an “editorial manager” and set out upon the great experiment of peer review.

The peer review process is the arcane ritual upon which the authority and mystique of academic publishing is based. In fact, the phrase “peer review” gets thrown around in non-academic circles with a reverence usually reserved for Michael Jordan or the Blitzkrieg. Dan has co-written a couple articles essentially claiming that peer review is largely useless (it only proves that the author has claimed to have jumped through the proper academic hoops), but it’s still the best tool used in the business.

The editorial board had decided that a peer review process performed entirely by students didn’t provide the learning context we wanted, especially since certain disciplines had a very limited number of grad students to choose from as reviewers. We also didn’t want to have all the input come from faculty, since we weren’t sure that a fledgling graduate journal could convince faculty members to review articles without additional incentive. Also, we didn’t want faculty rejecting articles outright, since the point of our process was to mentor authors towards a better publication, not tell them how terrible their work currently was.

I proposed the idea of combining the two options by having each article reviewed by a faculty member working in cooperation with two grad students. I figured this would provide additional value to the process for the faculty members (by providing them the opportunity to mentor student reviewers), provide additional feedback to the authors (by ensuring each article was given three separate perspectives), and provide an opportunity for grad students to learn reviewing etiquette and best practice from faculty.

The editorial board bought it, but the idea proved better in theory than in practice. Trying to get a faculty remember to review anything is difficult, and trying to get them to coordinate their review with grad students was nigh impossible except in the best circumstances. Still, I think it’s a possibility to strive for in future issues since it provides multiple avenues of involvement for students, and consequently multiple sites for learning and experimentation.

I’d made the mistake initially of thinking of the journal only as a vector for publication. In reality, the process, properly exploited, might be much more valuable as an educational experience.

  1. Conclusions

It’s now January, and we haven’t published our first article. Seven have gone through peer review (one was rejected by its editorial manager as being too “unpublishable,” even for our journal. Authors have been given a chance to submit revisions for five of the seven, and we’ll probably be looking to “publish” (upload to Zenodo) our best articles within days.

We’ve run into a number of interesting problems along the way. In December a couple of our editorial managers dropped the ball and didn’t lock in faculty reviewers, delaying their articles. Additionally, one of our editors pointed out that a graduate journal down in the U.S. shared our name, which meant we might be in danger of title infringement. Some faculty members bailed on their commitments to us, while others reviewed interdisciplinary articles by demanding the conventions and structures of their specific disciplines.

Having looked around at other journals, I’ve learned a couple of things. First of all, most graduate journals are discipline-specific, whereas the GSA Journal takes submissions from the entire student body. This causes problems because different disciplines have different publication and citation standards, but also provides some unusual possibilities for inter-disciplinary cooperation and work on academia itself. This flexibility has potential.

Second, our attempt to turn the review process into a mentorship process that invited faculty and student reviewers to collaborate could be unique. It’s ambitious, and was only realized for a few articles in our first issue, but it elicited some very positive feedback. I’m excited to fine-tune this process going into our second issue.

Yes, there will be a second issue, and yes, I will be running it. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing after all, and I’m trying to get as many CV lines as possible. And sometimes…sometimes I miss journalism, ya know? The late nights, the crabby editors, the red pen, and the desperate end-of-the-road bourbon.

Dang GSA. They knew they had me at “Managing Editor.”

*This article was co-written by Dan about the journal incubator that I currently work for. He gives a brief introduction to the world of scholarly publishing for those who are interested.

** “Capitalist ideologues and neo-liberal types often recite stirring mantras about the market as universal solution to most, if not all human, problems; but they forget that deep in the heart of real capitalistic practice lies the quest for monopoly situations. Bill Gates has never been interested in a perfect market, i.e., a competitive one, a point the U.S. Department of Justice has taken some care to document and prosecute. Exploiting inelastic markets wherever they exist (or may be created) is the real name of the capitalist game. Commercial publishers, predictably enough, were not about to ignore such appealingly lucrative entreaties emerging from the unlikely quarter of scientific journals.”




I'm a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a sports writer/church intern/LOTR nerd.

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