Thursday, 22 August 2019

Is it Possible to Keep Up with the Literature?

I am the founding editor of the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction (IJDRR), which began publishing in August 2012 with just four papers. Seven years later, the submission rate is equivalent to about 1,500 manuscripts per year (although the rejection rate is over 80 per cent). Two years ago, the journal published its first issue to contain 100 papers.

In 2011, when I was approached by Elsevier about establishing the IJDRR, the first question was, "Is there a need for a new journal in this field?" I replied that, as there are more than 80 dedicated journals in the disasters, risks and hazards fields, and more than 500 others that occasionally publish papers on such themes, no such need existed. However, there was a need for a journal that competed well, that outclassed its competitors in terms of being a reliable, authoritative source of knowledge. On this basis, we went ahead to establish and develop the IJDRR.

The reason for mentioning this example is part of my response to an article that appeared in Times Higher Education (THE 2019). In it, eight academics explained their strategies for keeping up with the literature. The problem can be explained in the following syllogism:
  • In this globalised, digital age, academic publishing has ballooned.
  • All over the world, academics are under great pressure to teach more, do more research, advise students more, apply for more grants, cope with more bureaucracy and participate in more initiatives. Where is the time to read the literature? Where, indeed, is the incentive?
  • It is impossible to keep up with the literature in any given field. Don't even think about it: trying to do it could damage your health, or at least your eyesight.
Fortunately, there are some mitigating factors, for example, the lack of innovation in most published research. How many times has one been asked to review a manuscript for a journal, only to find that one learns nothing new from it? I suggest we (a) make sure we know our field thoroughly (yes, more reading!), and (b) assign an innovation quotient to each new paper with which we come into contact. This could be extend from zero to ten, with one decimal place, so that a highly innovative paper is, perhaps, a 9.2 or an 8.7. The number would symbolise the answer to the question "what did I learn from reading this?" The trouble with this approach is that there might be a paper that contains only one new idea, but that idea is pricelessly good. Unfortunately, searching for such information is very much like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Prior to submitting a work for publication, one must make sure that one has read all the truly pertinent literature. I am amazed at how many authors submit work and do not even seem to have spent those vital two minutes putting the basic key words into Google Scholar. This makes it all the more likely that earlier work will unknowingly be repeated.

When I was a student, it was possible to keep abreast of the literature by reading the major sources, most of which were leading research journals. What one needed was a well-equipped library, perhaps a photocopy machine, and a free afternoon once a week. Even then, there was the lurking sensation that something vital might slip under the radar, but the risks were much smaller.

Nowadays, the technique has to be a very different one. The first part of it is awareness of trends in research, which comes from conducting a broad survey of what is coming out - titles, abstracts and provenance only. The second part is using experience and judgement to know what is worth reading. It can lead one astray, but this is not a frequent occurrence. The third and final part is highly targeted reading. It also helps to speed-read one's way through some of the less important detail in order to get to the fundamental message of a published work. The biggest risk is superficiality in one's understanding of the research and the new developments in one's field. However, the sheer volume of publication makes that risk inevitable, and there are no simple remedies.

Academic publishing continues to mutate at a bewildering rate. The key to managing change is adaptability. However, it is not yet clear how one will have to adapt in order to absorb and cope with the changes that are on the horizon. In the meantime, we need to keep up the campaign to create a core curriculum in disaster studies (see my earlier posts) and not ignore the messages of the fundamental literature of the past 100 years.


THE 2019. How can academics keep up with the literature? Times Higher Education, 22 August 2019, by Verity Archer, Oliver A. H. Jones, Danielle Sands, Rivka Isaacson, Helen Sword, David Sanders, Saikat Majumdar and Christopher H. Hendon.