Editorial

Mark Atlay, Director of Teaching and Learning

Writing – why bother?

Arif Jinha at the University of Ottawa has estimated that the number of journal articles that have ever been published is around 50 million, with over a million now being published each year (Jinha 2010). Just why is there this seemingly insatiable compunction for people to publish their work? With so much being published, in so many fields, who reads it – and if no one reads it, does it matter?

To start with there's the aspect of publishing that keeps academics in their jobs – it's one of the mechanisms by which we are judged, so publishing adds to job security. Both appointments and promotions hinge on it. I once attended a job interview for a research post in a major multi-national petrochemical company where one of the interview questions was 'what is the primary purpose of this company?', to which my answer was 'to keep all its staff in employment'. I was not successful.

Publishing, and being seen to be published, is important for departments and institutions because it contributes to how they are perceived in formal and informal league tables. Formal mechanisms such as the REF contribute significantly to this, of course, but academics make judgments about other institutions based on less formal assessment of the work of their colleagues in other departments. Making judgments about academic output is fraught with difficulty. Quality or quantity? How do you compare one seminal paper with another that may be twice as long but of much less value? How do you compare an article with a book? A consultancy report with an exhibition? Internally, disciplines may have their own metrics, but comparing across subject boundaries is problematic. Furthermore, in making value judgments about authors, few consider the context in which the work was undertaken. How do you compare the quality and quantity of output of someone with a teaching load of fifteen hours across a year with another who has the same teaching commitment each week?

At an individual level it is very satisfying to see something that you have nurtured and slaved over finally making its way into print. The peer review process is a mechanism by which your work becomes 'validated' in the eyes of colleagues across the sector, adding to one's sense of identity and self-worth. Thus, publishing is part of an academic's identity. Ernest Boyer (1990) identified four aspects to scholarship: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. Discovery is closely aligned with the traditional view of research, which is about creating new knowledge and understanding and is fundamental to what universities do. Integration is about making connections across disciplines. Interesting research often happens at the intersections of different discipline areas. Application is about using the research, taking it out of the laboratory and into production, influencing policy and professional practice. Finally, in the Boyer view, teaching is seen as a core element of scholarship. The scholarship of teaching is itself multi-dimensional. At one level, through publishing discipline-based research, we are effectively engaged in the activity of teaching others. But the scholarship of teaching is also about bringing to bear the same qualities of critical analysis and evaluation that we apply to our discipline-based scholarship to our work with students. Articles in the JPD illustrate this dimension in action.

One final thought on why publishing is important. Articles do not arrive in their final format fully fledged. They go through an internal and often lengthy process in which the author, or authors, consider, review, develop, challenge and refine what they want to say. Often this involves sounding out colleagues and sharing early drafts. Final articles then go to editors or peer-reviewers for further consideration and dialogue. Thus it is in the process of writing for publication that ideas get honed and refined, and where deep and meaningful learning takes place. Writing is often seen as an individual process; in reality it's co-operative, collaborative and collegiate.

If you're not already engaged in writing for publishing then I would encourage you to do so. There are a range of mechanisms in place to help and support this endeavour, which is at the heart of academic practice. As you read the articles in this journal think not only about their content but consider their long journey from original outline to final refined product.

References

  • Arif Jinha (2010). Article 50 million: an estimate of the number of scholarly articles in existence Learned Publishing, 23 (3), 258-263.
  • Ernest Boyer (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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