The problem is the publishing system, not the scholars

Jenny J Lee and Alma Maldonado-Maldonado, in their response to our University World News article on academic publishing, misunderstand our key points, and as a result introduce important but unrelated issues.

We are arguing essentially that the publishing system is out of control and at this point in a deep crisis because of the amount of material seeking publication and being published. The volume has overwhelmed the publishing system and has introduced over-commercialisation and corruption.

Our argument and proposal for a solution to the problem is to reduce the amount being published, not by interfering with the freedom of academics or concentrating power in the hands of the traditional academic power-brokers. We propose simply recognising that most universities, and most academics, globally focus on teaching and that the large majority of universities recognise their important roles as teaching-focused and do not seek to become research-intensive institutions.

Similarly, academics at these institutions should be rewarded for quality teaching and service to society and industry – and not be forced to produce publications in order to keep their jobs or be promoted.

We are not saying that they should be prohibited from doing research and publishing it in quality academic journals. We only argue that it should not be demanded of them. They should be first and foremost rewarded for what they are doing and good at: teaching, applied sciences and service to society.

Towards greater diversity

We are not arguing that research-intensive universities be concentrated in the rich countries. Indeed, we advocate differentiated academic systems for each country in which research universities can flourish – but at the same time most academic institutions will necessarily focus on teaching.

This is not ‘academic colonialism’ since each country will have its own research universities – indeed smaller and emerging nations will be better placed to produce top quality research because they will identify specific research universities and devote appropriate resources to them. Countries will not be wasting scarce resources by permitting or even encouraging isomorphism.

We agree with Lee and Maldonado-Maldonado that much more attention be paid to diversity of viewpoints, methodologies and subject matter in the established journals.

The traditional monopolies of the research paradigms and subject areas evident in most prestigious publications need to be broken with more representation of quality scholars and authors from developing and emerging economies, as well as gender and other forms of diversity – but this is not what we discussed or implied in our original article.

Quality with control

As we argued, in order to restore rationality to the publishing system, the sheer volume of articles and books must be reduced. We do not advocate that knowledge production be concentrated in the rich countries, but rather that knowledge production be concentrated mainly in research universities in all countries.

It is simply wasteful to have such a large proportion of academic institutions focusing on research when the institutions cannot afford it and the academics themselves often are not committed to the research enterprise but rather are forced by pressures of competition to produce marginal publications.

We call for quality but also for control of what is quality by the academic community instead of non-academic rankers, publishers and citation and impact measurers. The solution is not to produce more research of poor quality.

But we are the first to acknowledge and disseminate quality research produced by academics from developing and emerging countries, as well as from those from other than the top-ranked institutions.

Quality and not quantity should be the objective, in combination with a need to bring quality control back to the academic community, and at the same time make sure that that control is not dominated by small groups in the research universities in the rich countries. We addressed the first two dimensions, and it is useful that Jenny Lee and Alma Maldonado-Maldonado address the third aspect.

In summary: the problem in academic publishing is a system overwhelmed by numbers as well as its lack of autonomy and diversity. And part of the solution is to recognise that most universities worldwide focus mainly on teaching – and should be rewarded and respected for that.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director and Hans de Wit is professor and director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.