Democratizing Academic Publishing?: An Update

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As I near the end of my tenure as editor of TQ for the past five years, people ask me if I succeeded in achieving the goals I set for my editorship. As some of them remember, I came to the editorship after publishing a critical book and many articles on the exclusivist nature of academic publishing (see for example Geopolitics of Academic Writing). The TESOL association and the selection committee knew about my biases when they chose me to be the editor of their flagship journal. Interviewed by TESOL when I assumed duties as the editor, I listed the following as my vision for the journal:


I intend to help TQ keep up with changes in scholarly research practices. In many disciplines, research has become more participatory, reflexive, critical, and local. The research approaches in TESOL still largely follow the controlled, impersonal, and positivistic mode of traditional modernist inquiry. TQ has to present a wider range of research approaches.

I intend to help the journal negotiate more boldly the diverse modes of representing research findings. In many journals, introspective or narrative writing sits side by side with the more impersonal articles reflecting the traditional introduction, methodology, results, discussion (IMRD) structure. I would like TQ to be more open to atypical forms of scholarly rhetoric.

I want especially to increase the representation of qualitative research. In its 2003 report, the TESOL Serial Publications Committee (SPC) makes the following observation:

There is an increasing shift in the TQ towards experimental research and away from other types of research. While we do not take a stand on what type of research is "better," the field as a whole has experienced a shift towards more case studies, ethnographies, classroom observations and discourse analyses in recognition of the complex nature of language, language learning, and language teaching that may be difficult to capture through experimental research. (Goldstein & Jourdenais, 2003, p. 3)

I agree.

I would like TQ to cover research in more diverse teaching contexts. The SPC also notes "how much more frequently higher education settings (including higher education and in-service teacher education) are represented in comparison to pre-K-12, pre-university, and adult settings" (Goldstein & Jourdenais, 2004, p. 3). In addition to teaching contexts outside higher education, I would also like to cover more geographically diverse locations (i.e., classrooms outside Europe and North America) and the educational concerns of marginalized social groups (i.e., relating to race, gender, and regional issues).

I also want to facilitate a more inclusive international conversation on mutual disciplinary interests. Linguists and teachers in places such as India, Singapore, South Africa, and the Middle East are developing interesting new orientations that fall outside the current paradigms in the profession. Their work gets published locally, if it gets published at all. I intend to be more proactive in accommodating the work of nontraditional researchers. I want to explore ways to mentor new authors, encourage referees to provide more constructive commentary to help these authors in the revision process, and increase TQ's readership outside elite research and academic institutions.


Most people who ask for an update assume that the editor can ram through these changes as he wills. However, peer-reviewed journals work differently. Since articles are not solicited, I cannot request my preferred authors to send me articles on subjects and methods I like. We publish articles that are submitted to us. Also, the decision to publish articles is collaborative and negotiated. The articles go through a double-blind review and they are published based on peer assessment of their value. For these reasons, the changes outlined above cannot be implemented in a direct or quick way.


However, the editor can create the enabling conditions that can make these changes happen. In other words, the editor can establish the infrastructure, policies, and procedures that are conducive to change. With that realization in mind, I have made the following changes during my editorship:

·         inviting editorial board members from a wider range of international professional communities: While the editorial board in the past has been dominated by scholars from North America, I have managed to create a better balance. We have had scholars from Mexico, Kenya, Tenerife, South Korea, China, Taiwan, South Africa, and Malaysia, for example, in recent years. These editorial board members make sure that we assess the quality of the submissions from these regions fairly. They also give more publicity to the journal in their countries, create a wider readership, and help attract more submissions from there.

·         providing electronic access to the journal through JSTOR: if we are to receive submissions from a wider range of scholarly communities, the journal should be available to all of them freely. Part of the reason why the journal failed to publish articles from a wider range of communities was because it didn't receive submissions from them. It didn't receive such submissions because many teachers and scholars outside North America, Europe and other privileged communities didn't have the opportunity to read the journal. Even when TQ did receive articles from non-traditional communities, the articles didn't have a chance of getting published because they were not written in a manner that was suitable to our readers and publishing conventions. This happened because these authors had not had a chance to read the journal. The relatively more open access given to the journal through JSTOR (I say "relatively" because currently there is a five year moving wall, which means that the issues become available only on the fifth year after being published) has increased our readership and encouraged our new readers around the world to send us more submissions. We have seen a significant increase in the number of submissions from countries outside the northern hemisphere.

·         providing qualified mentorship to promising articles from nontraditional settings: This was something I indicated in my vision statement at the beginning. However, it has been difficult to formally establish a system of mentoring. We have faced some tough dilemmas: how do we decide whom to mentor without making the decision unfair to non-mentored authors? How do we mentor all the authors we would like to, while juggling our other responsibilities to the journal (i.e., reviewing other articles), to our institutions (i.e., teaching, research, service), and our families! Finally we decided that we will give this option to only the most promising articles. If the study is already flawed or the author needs to read more to develop a suitable theoretical framework, there is very little we can do to help them shape the final product for publication. Moreover, we can provide only advice on the article, not on how to conduct the study or how to understand the scholarly literature they read. We also decided that we should give this opportunity to not only authors from periphery communities, but also those from the center who lack mentoring help (i.e., novice authors, those from non-research institutions, from under-resourced backgrounds etc.). After the mentoring help is provided, we made sure to send the article for a fresh double-blind review before we made a publishing decision. We set up a small group of scholars from within the editorial board to judge the suitability of mentoring and then take over the role of mentoring after the editor forwarded to them promising articles from nontraditional contexts. So far, we have published two articles that benefitted from such mentoring help. The biggest challenge was that most novice authors treated publishing as a one shot deal, and didn't want to go through the protracted process of mentoring to see their articles in print.

·         establishing new sections such as Research Digest and Symposium to disseminate knowledge on emergent topics of interest to practitioners: Symposium enables the editor to draw attention to topics that require attention in the profession. It enables the editor to be more proactive in publishing articles that meet the vision he has set up for the journal. However, since the articles are not peer-reviewed, the authors don't earn the same credit or cachet as the authors of articles in the main section. Similarly, the Research Digest helps keep our readers aware of the wider conversations taking place in our sister disciplines. It increases the multidisciplinary and scholarly ethos of the journal.  In some of the other sections in the journal, such as the Teaching Issues section and Research Issues section, the section editors enjoy the advantage of soliciting articles from any author and on any topic they like. These sections too help diversify the themes addressed and authors published in TQ.

·         and transitioning to a web-based system to facilitate submissions from diverse international settings and to make the review process more efficient: we find that the web makes submission easier for many periphery professionals. Much against the notion of the digital divide, the web appears to be a great equalizer at least for the purpose of article submission. Mailing three copies of the article for publication requires some additional resources: good printing facilities; good copying machines; money for postage; a reliable postal system that ensures smooth and fast delivery. However, these cannot be taken for granted in the case of periphery scholars. They find the web submission more convenient. Hearing good testimonies from other journals that their web based system has enabled them to receive more diverse submissions, TQ has recently adopted this system.

In addition to all this, the editor can quietly nudge articles from nontraditional settings and on significant new themes. The editor wields some soft power to encourage certain authors and submissions for publication. Through all these efforts, we are beginning to see some interesting changes in TQ. We are managing to see authors from more diverse settings entering the conversation. We see educational and social developments from more diverse contexts represented in the journal. We have had some bold genres of research entering the conversation (narratives, critical research, ethnographies, etc.). There was a time when potential authors used to write to me and ask if they can send qualitative studies to TQ. They were under the impression that TQ publishes only quantitative studies. But I have received less of these inquiries now, suggesting that the ethos of the journal is changing. 

All this is not to say that my mission has been accomplished or that things are perfect. We have only initiated a set of changes (admittedly minor) that can pave the way for more radical changes in the future. We have changed the tenor of the conversation in the journal and the ethos of the publication that augurs well for future submissions and publications. In the final analysis, an editor can say only this: that he or she has initiated a set of policies and procedures that change the direction of the journal. Whether these changes can serve to democratize publishing in the journal and pluralize the academic conversation, only time will tell.


PS: Though I am no longer the editor of TQ from January 2010, I hope to continue this blog as the ex-editor of TQ. The politics of publishing will continue to interest me as long as I remain in academia. I hope to post an entry on the blog by the 15th of each month (and that's a New Year resolution).


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This page contains a single entry by SURESH CANAGARAJAH published on December 30, 2009 3:06 PM.

Negotiating Publishing Practices was the previous entry in this blog.

The Tyranny of the New Referee is the next entry in this blog.

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