Online Research Journals Taking Off
In the mid-1990s, when Gary J. Natriello was debating whether to publish an online version of the journal Teachers College Record, some of the scholars on his editorial board voiced misgivings. With so much bad research available on the Internet, they told the new editor, the century-old journal could risk its reputation by jumping into the fray.
Besides, they said, who would want to read an electronic research journal, anyway?
The answer, it turned out, was about 75,000 registered users—more by a long shot than the number of people who subscribe to most of the top print journals in the field.
The Record's jump in readership was no anomaly. Education researchers who have taken the plunge into Internet publishing say the Web has been a boon for their publications as well. They credit the medium with broadening their readership, boosting the number of times articles from their journals appear in other publications, attracting more article submissions and reviewers, and sowing dozens of start-up journals in the field.
"This opens a whole new set of opportunities for connecting scholars to audiences that we have yet to even think about," said Mr. Natriello, who, when not editing Teachers College Record, is a professor of sociology in education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Currently, about 100 educational journals either publish electronic alternatives or are published entirely online, according to the American Educational Research Association, which lists them on its Web site. That's a small number, however, in a field that, by one count, publishes more than 1,000 journals a year.
Of the five journals published by AERA, for instance, only one, Educational Researcher, is available online. The rest, though, are "intensively engaged" in expanding their publishing presence into the electronic world, according to Felice J. Levine, the group's executive director.
"Organizations in education are now belatedly toying with the idea of electronic publication," said Gene V Glass, whose journal, Education Policy Analysis Archives, is probably the oldest and best- known online-only journal in the field. Glass, a professor of education policy studies and psychology in education at Arizona State University in Tempe, said his own research suggests that education researchers trail behind researchers in biology, physics, and other "hard sciences" in moving to the Internet.
Doubts and Dividends
About 2,000 visitors a day download the peer-reviewed articles published on Mr. Glass' Web site, which is available free to anyone with Internet access. Some individual articles have been downloaded as many as 83,000 times in the few years since they were published.
In comparison, experts contend that articles published via the traditional route can expect to have 5,000 readers over the course of their shelf life, a stretch of about 20 years.
Yet, Mr. Glass still gets calls from education deans and junior researchers who wonder if publishing in his peer-reviewed journal "counts" when academic committees make tenure decisions.
Mr. Glass launched his journal after an ill-fated venture at hosting an Internet discussion forum on education research. He pulled the plug on the site because the discussions deteriorated into "flaming" and other kinds of personal attacks. "I realized academics were only comfortable conversing with each other in a very traditional way," he said.
Like Mr. Natriello, Mr. Glass found that electronic publishing did more than boost readership of education research. It also broadened the reading audience for scholarly studies. Journalists, teachers, parents, and others are visiting his Web site, as well as the researchers and graduate students who have always been the mainstays of more traditional academic journals.
"About 30 percent of our readers on any given day don't have .edu after their [e-mail] addresses," said Mr. Glass. His journal, which also publishes articles in Spanish and Portuguese on a regular basis, also draws visitors from as far away as Malaysia and Belarus.
With the growth in readership have come increases in the numbers of citations journal articles get in other publications. Studies published in Teachers College Record, for example, are receiving four times as many citations now as they did before the journal expanded onto the Internet.
Plus, editors pointed out, the Internet allows them to provide readers with easy links to their authors' data sets and to archives of past articles.
In the process, though, the Record also found itself evolving. It developed from an electronic look-alike of its print sibling to a Web site with its own, distinct style. Always focused on being more reader-friendly than traditional academic journals, the Record sought to become even more so in its electronic incarnation. Editors added two-sentence descriptions, abstracts, and executive summaries to give readers "a little ladder they could use to climb into the article," Mr. Natriello said.
The site now also offers research notes; shorter commentary pieces; links to other research centers, other journals, and education sites; and a mechanism for authors to check on the status of the articles under review.
The editors mined the Record's 100 years of print archives to produce a "Deweyfest" featuring the writings of John Dewey and a "Thorndikepalooza'' with articles by Edward Thorndike, the noted educational psychologist.
Mr. Natriello said the speed of the Internet allows him to publish more timely articles. After the U.S. Supreme Court last year produced a landmark ruling on school vouchers, the Record published responding essays within two weeks—an unheard-of turnaround in a field where the wait from submission to publication sometimes lasts more than a year.
Frustration with the long turnaround time in traditional academic publishing also prompted John R. Cannon, an associate education professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, to launch his own online journal in 1996.
"I had one piece out for review, and 18 months later I got the letter that said, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' " Mr. Cannon said.
His Journal of Science Education is one of dozens of electronic-only research journals that have sprung up over the past decade. Some are student- driven enterprises that allow junior researchers to share works in progress. Others, like Mr. Cannon's, employ the same kinds of peer-review processes that traditional print journals use.
"Electronic publication is gaining more and more acceptance as a reputable form of publication," said Mr. Cannon. "But it's still a 'buyer beware' market out there."
His Web site, in fact, posts a disclaimer warning younger, prospective authors to make sure their university's tenure committee will give them credit for publishing in his journal.
The warning hasn't scared off many authors, though. The journal, essentially a mom and pop publishing operation, is getting flooded with more submissions than it can handle, a common occurrence for many electronic journals. And, in an ironic twist, the deluge has made it hard for Mr. Cannon to keep to the 14-day time frame he set for himself for giving authors a formal thumbs up or thumbs down.
The Washington-based American Psychological Association takes yet a different tack when it comes to electronic publishing. Rather than produce online versions of its print journals, it makes the contents of those publications available to members through databases that bridge all of its journals. (The AERA now provides a similar service to members in CD-ROM form.)
'Open Access' Debates
"The traditional print journal as the primary vehicle for delivery of research is dead," said Gary R. VandenBos, the publisher of the association's academic journals. "We're an article-based science now. The purpose and function of peer-reviewed journals has changed to provide that quality check through peer review."
Mr. VandenBos offered his remarks last month during a meeting of the Committee on Research in Education. The group was formed last year by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Sciences, to explore ways to improve research in education—a process in which it sees academic journals playing a key role.
Yet all the easy electronic access to information is creating new debates about who pays. At one end of the debate are proponents of a growing "open access" movement, who argue for making academic knowledge widely available, for free, to the general public. At the other end are the keepers of traditional print journals and some of the learned societies that stand to lose some of the revenue that they count on.
"In our case, I have a responsibility for making sure that the journal pays its way," said Mr. Natriello of Teachers College Record, which makes its Web site available for free but charges for the print version. (Print articles are available online 18 months after publication.) He said the print journal helps pay for the online version, even though the Web site, in turn, has boosted circulation for the original publication.
Still, he said, "I just can't turn it off in print and turn it on online. It might actually be easier for people to start from scratch, where there's no revenue base they're trying to protect."
Circulation, in fact, has slipped in recent years for most traditional print journals—apart from those whose readerships are tied to association memberships, according to Mr. Natriello, who checked on 10 of the most prominent ones in education.
Mr. Glass of Arizona State said those publications would do well to read the handwriting on the wall and find a way to give the public free Internet access to the knowledge they gather.
"Education research has such a low profile," he said. "If you're going to charge people for access, they're just not going to be interested."
Coverage of research is under-written in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
Vol. 23, Issue 15, Pages 1, 13Published in Print: December 10, 2003, as Online Research Journals Taking Off