WHAT ARE ACADEMIC JOURNALS GOOD FOR? AN EDITORIAL OUTLOOK ON THE POSSIBILITIES OF CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL RESEARCH

Luciana Alexandra GHICA [a] (ORCID iD : https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7973-7296)


Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series]

Vol. XXIII, Issue 1, pp.3-16

https://doi.org/10.54885/GVOG8437 | Download PDF

[a] Department of Comparative Governance and European Studies, Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest, Romania, luciana.ghica@unibuc.ro

ABSTRACT

The appointment of a new editorial team for an academic journal is an occasion for reflecting not only about the goals of a specific publication, but also about the relevance and intricacies of editorial work within the contemporary scientific landscape. Additionally, the process provided food for thought on the openings and limits of a disciplinary tradition - in this case, political science - within an institution, a country, a region and the larger academic community.

Keywords: editorial, academic journals, political science as a discipline, scientometrics, standards, scientific integrity, open access

FULL TEXT

To be an author is what most scholars may have first imagined about their lives in academia. Irrespective of the field of studies, we have learned to think that “famous researcher with lots of citations” is the dream job description, role model or career goal as members of this club, even if some of us might admit, reluctantly and rarely in public, that we rather prefer teaching or satisfying our scientific curiosities in a less stressful manner, especially without the need to constantly produce new texts. Yet, whether initially for a doctoral degree or later for surviving in the profession, whether alone or part of a team, being an author of original research remains both the minimal condition and the noblest core of how we imagine contemporary academia. At least as an ideal of what scholars are supposed to contribute to society.

In reality, an author in academia cannot exist in the absence of other activities than mere research. We do need training and feedback to recognize, design and conduct original and quality research. To truly innovate we also need to keep learning and constantly check what is new in our field and beyond, even if we already gained our institutional / professional credentials. Despite the myth of the ivory tower, we do need dialogue to generate new ideas and test their feasibility. Sometimes teaching can help us address issues and ask ourselves questions from perspectives that we have not previously considered. Other times, peer meetings and socialization in regular departmental research seminars and study groups, research projects or scientific conferences may offer the right context to advance one’s skills in research and eventually as author. New topics and meaningful results may come to life also due to institutional opportunities and/or constraints such as available funding, calls for contributions, periodic evaluations, career advancement criteria and, as many of us have learned the hard way, deadlines. But once a text is written, what happens in the process of transforming it into a publication is often perceived as an obstacle race that is a nuisance for the authors. And of this race we came to talk largely in roughly two major tropes.

The lighter one is formulated usually as reaction to frustrations around the peer-review process, particularly its length and the potential mistreatments of the manuscripts. As a venting out strategy, this can take the form of ironic pop culture embodiments such as memes and social media debates, for instance about the legendary Reviewer no. 2, i.e. the person who supposedly completely dismisses any text when asked to assess the quality and scientific contribution of an article for an academic journal. More constructively, these frustrations have also generated technical discussions on how to diminish potential biases and reviewing times. Gradually, these conversations have led to increased transparency and clearer procedures within the peer-review processes. For example, we can notice that more scientific journals, as well as some publishing houses started to use standardized reviewing forms and to publish periodically systematic data on their practices such as review times, reviewers’ demographic, and the acceptance rate of manuscripts. However, for the moment, for reasons often related to the availability of human resources and to different institutional cultures, as well as because, despite similar content quality, certain metrics may be meaningless or disadvantageous to smaller or niche journals when compared to larger / more established / richer venues, this does not seem to be a standard for the majority of academic outlets.

The darker trope is related to the emergence of an entire industry of publishing services that promise to cut times and effort in exchange for a fee. The offer is varied and often of dubious legitimacy. For example, vanity presses and predatory journals are particularly attractive, providing almost instant gratification, especially for those who are little interested in or aware of the international quality standards of publishing, such as certain PhD students and scholars from institutional or national contexts with more personalized criteria for career advancement (Frandsen 2017). For those who cheat consciously, there is the additional option of paper mills and similar ghost-writing services, sometimes even integrated to predatory journals’ offers, which thus provide the extra “advantage” of cutting the effort of researching and writing a text in the first place. Unfortunately, although there is increasing public awareness on these practices, including via public lists of predatory journals (https://beallslist.net/; Dony et al. 2020), such practices seem to continue to thrive (Eriksson & Helgesson 2018). And since most often there is no de facto quality check on what it is published through such means, they are particularly harmful to the integrity of science, because, once introduced on the market, it takes significantly disproportionate effort to identify and refute fake data and/or misleading analyses (Beall 2016; Earp 2016). However, there are also more legitimate paying services that contribute to the advancement of science. For instance, proofreading and translation services can help authors make their work more accessible to larger academic audiences, in languages of international circulation. Some newer trends, such as payment for faster peer-review or for open access, are nonetheless rather in a grey zone and many scholars do not perceive them favourably, mostly because business / financial interests may trump scientific integrity, and because they structurally limit the access to the (international) academic market of scholars from poorer areas or institutions (Crawford 2017).

In political science we still have little systematic research on these issues, although, as Thibaud Boncourt argues in this volume, we might soon add such topics to the agenda of studies on our discipline (Boncourt 2021). Yet, irrespective of the field, except for occasional editorials such as this one, we also rarely ask ourselves as scholars whether the process of transforming manuscripts into published pieces may be something more than a nuisance for the authors. Compared to the traditional single-author volume, publishing articles in academic journals may be a faster and more efficient way to present certain research results. In the global market of contemporary science, volumes continue to be perceived as legitimate and prestigious scholarly work when they are published with reputable publishing houses that supposedly perform quality checks. However, articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals have also become increasingly prestigious and a more appealing alternative, especially when periodicals have a reputation of high-quality standards and visibility (Bormann & Mutz 2015; Ki, Pasadeos & Ertem-Eray 2021). In political science, in recent years this also led to an increasing number of studies exploring the bibliometric features of articles and journals (Alter et al. 2020; Wilson & Knutsen 2020; Ghica 2021; Mas-Verdu et al 2021). But what a high-quality standard is in journal publishing proves to be more difficult to define and operationalize.

Since the establishment of metrics aimed to compare the visibility of articles and journals, composite measures such as indexes and various impact factors have become highly popular, as they provide a straightforward and quick way to both assess and promote the potential visibility of a journal. Many initially thought that higher scores also meant higher quality because, based largely on the number of citations, the scores would represent how valuable the respective contribution is for other scholars. This is still the standard interpretation for several national research assessment criteria, where articles in journals are assigned points based on such metrics, especially the ISI Thomson / Clarivate impact factor. In Romania, for instance, the current national standards for granting the titles of associate professor and full professor in the field of political science, as well as in international relations, public administration, communication sciences and sociology, explicitly list the publication of articles in journals that have an ISI impact factor of at least 0.1 as eliminatory criterion ([MEN] 2016). This provision was maintained even after the panel that approves the national standards in political science within the Ministry of Education’s specialized unit (CNATDCU) recently split from the committee on Sociology, administrative sciences and communication sciences, and joined the committee on Security studies, military sciences, intelligence and public order that has more permissive criteria.

By themselves, the scores may be, nonetheless, deceiving. For instance, predatory journals may use various self-citation networks and other strategies to obtain high scores that may make them look legitimate and thus attract more paying clients. At the same time, highly reputable but very niche journals would have inferior scores because the community of scholars interested in the respective area of studies and who could thus cite the articles is much smaller. These challenges have been addressed through different tools such as identifying and excluding predatory journals from international databases, refining the metrics, and presenting more metrics on the journal’s website. While all these may be a technical nuisance to many scholars especially in social sciences and the humanities, the entire process and the accompanying debates also provided editors and the scientific community in general with a more systematic and increasingly refined set of criteria for assessing the quality and improving the performance of academic journals. These criteria are not related primarily to output (i.e. citations) but rather to input (i.e. scientific integrity and ethics). Within this context, a sound peer-review process that diminishes the potential personal bias and may identify faulty research design, problematic data and ethical issues, as well as inconsistent analysis became essential.

Paradoxically, this systematization and professionalization of journal publishing also limited to a certain extent the space for science and scientific dialogue. More specifically, to ensure a higher chance to be published (fast), articles have become increasingly standardized in format, content and research design. Outsourcing some editorial responsibilities to private companies specialized in academic publishing was often the solution to maintain and extend the degree of success of journals that started to receive more submissions. The production costs were then placed on the authors and the users, with subscription/access fees (usually paid by the users) and fees for open access (usually paid by the authors) becoming the norm for many journals published by private companies, even when the journal or the editorial teams are affiliated to universities or professional associations. Sometimes, for efficiency and/or economic reasons, most of the best-known or high-score journals also renounced to all other genres in favour of the research article, occasionally allowing shorter pieces as research notes. Book reviews and review essays also continued to be perceived as an inferior or marginal genre, even when the texts are substantial and even if quality review pieces may take as much research and writing effort as some of the standard research articles.

These were some of the main concerns that the new editorial team of Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] had when we effectively started our mandate in July 2021, while facing additional puzzles related to the journal’s specific history and local context. The institutional reorganization of our publisher (Bucharest University Press) – a process that started in 2019 and ended de facto in late 2021, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the work of the previous editorial team, as well as ours. Most urgently, we had to re-establish smoother editorial flows and diminish delays. Therefore, our top priority was to publish the two issues of the 2021 volume online by December 2021 and in print by February 2022, while setting the calendar and thematic calls for the 2022 and 2023 volumes, and processing newly submitted manuscripts. At the same time, although the current volume represents a transition towards a new editorial agenda, it is also the beginning of a different technical approach aimed to increase the journal’s digital visibility, with contributions assigned unique digital identifiers (DOIs), making thus easier the integration with most of the international databases in which the journal is already indexed.

For the first time in the history of the journal and rather unusual for a publication associated to a Romanian university, the core editorial team also includes members from a different institution (Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj). This core is composed roughly of the same people who created and developed since 2014 the yearly international interdisciplinary conference of political research SCOPE: Science of Politics (www.scienceofpolitics.eu), a project of mostly two research centres of the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Political Science – Centre for International Cooperation and Development Studies (IDC) and Centre for Equal Opportunity Policies (CPES), now both currently part of the faculty’s Department of Comparative Governance and European Studies. Ironically, while it separated us and did not allow us to organize the 2020 edition of SCOPE, COVID-19 also brought us back together as a team. After more than a year of exclusively virtual meetings and a rather difficult administrative reorganization within our institution, many of us missed more substantial academic interaction. This led us to organize in September 2021 the first virtual SCOPE congress, which proved highly successful and stimulated further academic cooperation with colleagues from different countries. A part of the papers presented at that event are published, in revised versions, in the 2nd issue of this volume. At the same time, some of us started to reflect more systematically on our scientific infrastructures, the role that political science has played in democratization processes, and on the way in which political science research and teaching has impacted our preparedness (or lack of it) when faced with a governance challenge such as the current pandemic. Within the particular context, the project of revitalizing one of the oldest and most internationalized Central and Eastern European journals of political science seemed to be a perfect framework for addressing such issues.

Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice was initially established during the communist regime following the creation of a Romanian Political Science Association with the support of the International Political Science Association (IPSA). Although it published articles that occasionally referenced solid academic research from abroad such as works by Maurice Duverger, at that time the content was largely distorted ideologically to conform with the Communist Party doctrine and was far from the standards of a genuine scientific journal (Ghica 2014). After the fall of the communist regime, historian Laurențiu Vlad, who also acted as the journal’s editor-in-chief until July 2021, established the current series in 1999. Around the same time, a couple of other new political science journals were established in Romania by a first generation of younger scholars who, like Vlad, trained abroad in the early 1990s and then started to become better known both nationally and internationally. Founded by historian and theologian Daniel Barbu in 2001, one of these new journals (Studia Politica. Romanian Political Science Review) was established within the same Faculty of Political Science at the University of Bucharest. This led to some confusions between the two periodicals, the more generalist title of Studia Politica being promoted by the then leadership of the faculty, including Barbu, as more modern, especially in the context in which the concept of Annals started to seem slightly archaic in many different corners of academia. However, by publishing articles in three different languages (Romanian, French and English), being one of the first Romanian journals to be indexed in international databases and to offer the full archive in digital open access form, and by attracting contributions from well-known scholars from both Romania and abroad, these Annals were far from archaic. But they were part of an increasingly crowded landscape of local and regional journals, some of which included Annals in their name and/or had little scientific visibility.

So why would anyone accept the challenges brought by such a legacy? Why not establishing a new journal instead? And, after all, why would anyone get involved in the often-tedious work of editing an academic journal, especially since it is not really rewarding for advancing one’s career based on the current institutional criteria? These were the most frequent questions or implicit comments we have received during the last year. As already mentioned, to a certain extent, our decision is strongly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made us think differently about what we already have and about our responsibility as political scientists. From the French École des Annales to the Annals of the American Academy Political and Social Science (1890-present), the Annals is a perfectly legitimate and relevant scholarly tradition that still generates impact on current knowledge. At the same time, the pandemic context made us realize that being responsible means that eventually we must confront the past if we want a more sustainable future and that escapist strategies such as keeping establishing new outlets in an already crowded market might not be always the most efficient effort for positive and substantial change. Our previous editorial and scholarly experience, both in Romania and abroad, also allowed us to understand the publishing landscape in a more nuanced light and to decide what we would like from a revitalized Annals.

First, and most significantly, we wish to gradually transform it into a platform that stimulates genuine scientific dialogue. Instead of streamlining it as a classic collection of research articles on unrelated topics that allow only for unidirectional input from the author to the specialized reader, we gradually make space for more genres, especially forums and dialogues (i.e. sets of articles around a similar theme), book reviews, review essays and review debates, as well as interviews with scholars that marked the development of our discipline. For this purpose, in the 2nd issue of the current volume, we already started the series of interviews with a Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Bucharest, Italian political scientist and sociologist Donatella Della Porta who discusses the state of corruption studies (Clemente, De Sousa & Ghica 2021). At the same time, we launched the section Academy and civil society which aims to provide a space for dialogue on how political research can benefit from knowledge and skills developed initially via civil society projects and vice versa (Radu & Angi 2021). In 2022 we will also launch a permanent section on Elections and democracy, curated by associated editors Florin Feșnic, Camil Pârvu and Bogdan Mihai Radu. To facilitate international dialogue, the primary language of publication will continue to be English for the next two volumes but texts in French are also welcome.

Second, we would like to start enjoying and being more intellectually stimulated by what we publish. For this goal, once a manuscript passes the desk review phase (which includes an automatic scan for detecting plagiarism), we are looking for reviewers who can provide constructive, substantial and relatively fast feedback that can help shape the manuscript in its best possible form in a reasonable amount of time. For this volume we were extremely lucky to have found such colleagues for all articles that were selected for publication. We thank them all once again for their precious and gracious support, especially since we rely exclusively on pro bono peer expertise. At the same time, we do not expect all articles to have the same structure or research design. While some may be fully completed analyses of new or rarely before seen empirical data such as Lup & Mitrea (2021) and Mihăilă (2021) in this volume, others, such as Hashimoto & Zirgulis (2021), may be incipient but structured argumentations that could open further empirical research programmes or projects. We believe that such work in progress or food for thought items are also relevant for helping colleagues advance with their projects, as making public preliminary results could support others’ research and provide more feedback to the authors. Within this context, we also encourage doctoral and postdoctoral researchers to submit manuscripts based on their ongoing work.

Although the journal will remain committed to a comprehensive definition of political research, including various disciplinary traditions, we would also like to receive more contributions on both core and trending topics for contemporary political science. The submissions of manuscripts on democracy and democratization, liberalism and illiberalism, open vs. closed societies, political doctrines, political parties, parliamentary activities, political discourses, public vs. private interest and public policies, civic education, civic culture, public opinion, international politics and foreign affairs are always for any issue, irrespective of the special thematic forums or dialogues for which we may organize calls. The impact of the pandemic, climate change puzzles, the evolution and effects of conspiracy theories, the role of new technologies in political and social life, at local, national or international level, are also areas of interest for the current editorial team. In addition, we encourage texts on topics less discussed or more sensitive politically in the public arenas of the former communist countries such as gender relations, labour relations, right-left narratives, the role of religious organization in public life, and the relation between politics and knowledge production in post-authoritarian environments.

In short, our current institutional framework allows us a type of freedom and feedback that is rarely possible in journals that focus exclusively on research articles, which have become the dominant model for scientific periodicals. In line with our commitment to open science, which is also supported by recent research that found open access to provide more visibility and impact (Tennant et al. 2016; Mikki 2017), the journal will remain fully open access and we do not ask for any fee for processing or downloading articles. The occasional publication costs, including for the print versions and legal deposit within the National Library of Romania and the Central University Library system, are currently supported from the research funds of the University of Bucharest and of its Faculty of Political Science. We hope that this freedom, as well as the ethical and scientific integrity standards to which we adhere will stimulate and may eventually create a community of scholars that enjoy each other’s company not only via shared research interests but also through the way in which research is approached, appreciated and valued. Within this context, we think that our role as editors should be not only of gate-keepers, i.e. to remind, check and educate on the responsibility and impact of research, but also of joy-keepers, i.e. to help preserve and rediscover the excitement of scientific exploration in written forms that are accessible, timely and meaningful for the academic public.

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THE AUTHOR

Luciana Alexandra GHICA (ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7973-7296) is associate professor within the Department of Comparative Governance and European Studies, Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest, where she also acts as founding director of the Centre for International Cooperation and Development Studies (IDC). She studied political science and international relations at the University of Bucharest, Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) and University of Oxford (UK). She specializes in the analysis of international cooperation processes, including international cooperation for development, with a focus on the institutional and discursive impact of democratization and democratic values on foreign policy and international politics. She edited the first Romanian encyclopaedia of the European Union (three editions), co-edited the first Romanian handbook of security studies, and authored a monograph on the relations between Romania and the European Union, as well as several studies on foreign policy, international cooperation, and the dynamics of political science as a discipline. During the last decade she also served as elected member of the board for the European Confederation of Political Science Associations (ECPSA) and the Research Committee 33 (The Study of Political Science as a Discipline) of the International Political Science Association (IPSA). luciana.ghica@unibuc.ro

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

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The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

FUNDING

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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CITE THIS ARTICLE

GHICA, Luciana Alexandra. 2021. What are academic journals good for? An editorial outlook on the possibilities of contemporary political research. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] 23(1): 3-16. https://doi.org/10.54885/GVOG8437