Going with the mainstream academic flow? (Alexandra Zbuchea)

We observe in universities around the world a general practice to focus professors’ evaluation on the performance of research, despite various critics related to a narrowing of the research interests, increased control of the system by the elite researchers, avoidance of high-risk research topics and projects, or a decreased diversity of research topics and geographic coverage (Tusting, 2018, pp. 479-480). There is pressure for professors to produce “publications in the ‘right’ places and of the ‘right’ kinds” as a basis for academic reputation and career enhancement (Tusting, 2018, p. 485). This approach to evaluating academic performance has led to increased pressure on academics to disseminate their research findings in the “main academic” outlets. This means that “academic” CVs should consider mostly contributions in highly indexed journals, either by Web of Science / Clarivate Analytics (former ISI Thomson Reuters) or Scopus in most cases. Many universities worldwide evaluate research/academic performance by including research results on these platforms: the more such papers published, the more chances of educational advancement and higher wages. As a result, also considering the limited time for research and publication that academics have besides the pedagogical or administrative responsibilities, many researchers in universities focus exclusively on journals in these databases.

In the past few years, I observed two phenomena. I noticed, first, an increase in the number of highly indexed publications, recorded in the central academic databases, and, second, an increase in the number of articles included in each “indexed” academic journal (this observation is validated for tourism studies by Ertaş & Kozak, 2020). The two phenomena are probably connected due to the increased demand for the inclusion of research and the possibility of using academic research to obtain increased profits. These profits are not of the researchers themselves, quite the contrary. The publishers of scholarly journals mainly benefit financially. A new category of academic journals emerged in the past decade – the so-called “predatory journals,” which are sometimes highly indexed.

Various studies identify the following factors influencing academic publishing: curiosity and enjoyment, personal research interests, university incentive schemes, evaluation practices, research funding, etc. (for instance, check the studies of Anderson & Tressler, 2014; Mathies et al., 2019; or Yassinova, 2019). We are wondering if extrinsic factors, such as the pecuniary ones, have become more relevant than the inner ones – aspects suggested by some formal studies (Muller, 2019). This might be problematic, considering that financial incentives lead to a quantitative increase rather than a qualitative one (Jenkins et al., 1998). Regarding the evaluation requirements, a qualitative study on the Chinese academic environment shows a variety of reactions of the academic staff, ranging from rebelling and rejecting to reconciling and reforming. It proves that the relationships between incentives and outcomes are complex (Xu, 2020). The adequate institutional support to adhere/comply with specific regulations might be a positive influence factor.

In this context, researchers should ask themselves the role of academic research besides adhering/complying with university regulations? I guess that most academics would first question the relationship between their teaching and research responsibilities. Many of my acquaintances say that the primary dedication of a professor should be towards the students. Thus, academic performance should be first measured in relation to teaching activities. Or, in some countries/universities, these activities are not considered in the evaluation of the performance of their academic staff. Even if there should be no contradiction between teaching and research, many academics see them in opposition. A longitudinal survey of the higher education institutions in Hong King (Jung & Chan, 2017) reveals that there is a pressure to spend more time on research than on teaching, which has increased in the past two decades, thus putting a question mark in relation to the quality of teaching processes.

A second question that researchers would ask themselves would be to include their findings in “mainstream” journals, with a more general focus, or in lower-ranked journals which are more relevant to their specific research. Choosing the “pragmatic” path to enhance the academic CV from a formal perspective might diminish the intrinsic motivations for study and even frustrations related to loosening research value systems. Thus, both personal and institutional concerns and mediations mechanisms should be considered by higher education managers.

The third concern, and in my view the most relevant from a broader perspective, is related to the impact of the academic research outside the academic field, the effect on “society.” The first academic journals were established in the second half of the 17th century, and the first peer-reviewed journals were published almost a century later. They were meant not only to keep informed people with a particular interest in those topics (i.e., researchers/academics) but also “the people” connecting the general public with science. Maybe the most visible example of the broad impact an academic journal might have is National Geographic or Nature. These two cases are also relevant, considering their development paths towards non-academic popularity and academic popularity. As a researcher in a higher education institution, I am sensitive to positive institutional and academic evaluation. As a researcher and a person, I would like that my research has a “real” impact, be relevant to professionals and society, contribute to actual developments outside the “academia”. A study developed with Monica Bîră documented, in the case of museums studies, the relevance of practice-oriented journals, suggesting that professionals are looking for actual guidance in their work in low-ranked or no-ranked local accessible journals rather than the mainstream journals (Bira & Zbuchea, 2021). Similar approaches are probably, considered by professionals in other fields, too, at least in humanities and social sciences. Therefore, I am inclined to think of low-ranked or unranked journals if, in this way, I would reach professionals interested in my research, hoping for a real impact in the field.

The good news for both governments and researchers is that academic research in all domains contributes to economic growth (Pinto & Teixeira, 2020). Therefore, academics should research their best, while governments, universities, and other stakeholders should support it. Nevertheless, an academic researcher is under continuous pressure to answer this challenge:

To publish or not to publish in mainstream academic journals, highly indexed, which could have less visibility and relevance considering the actual impact of the research, aiming a wider – societal and professional – coverage instead?

About the author

Alexandra Zbuchea is Professor, Vice-dean of the Faculty of Management – SNSPA, Manager of the Center for the Study of Responsible Organizations. Alexandra has over 20 years of experience in the field of research and academia, but also as trainer and consultant. Her teaching focus is on marketing communication and branding. Her research interests include topics such as creative and social economy, marketing of cultural organizations and responsible business practices. She also was involved in many projects, both as a coordinator and a team member. A significant number of these projects have been focusing on professional development of various target groups or capacity building for different types of organizations. She also is part of various academic networks. The most recent initiative that materialized in the field of research, with a clear focus of bridging the gap between academia and professionals, is the publication of the periodical Culture. Society. Economy. Politics, for which she acts as editor-in-chief. More information on the academic profile is available here: Publons / OrcidID / ResearchGate


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