In this blog post, UTP author Brian S. Mitchell discusses the prevalence of the peer-reviewed journal article in STEM fields while also talking about his decision to write a book that contextualizes the current research on graduate education.
The peer-reviewed journal article is the coin of the realm for most academic scientists and engineers. Journal impact factors, citations rates, and the h-index quantify how good we are at our jobs. Along with the number and size of extramural grants they determine whether we get tenure, promoted, or the elusive endowed chair. Imagine my surprise, then, when one of my colleagues at the National Science Foundation (NSF) suggested I write a book on graduate education. I was searching for a project as the recently appointed Dean-in-Residence from the Council of Graduate Schools to the Division of Graduate Education at NSF in 2015. Naivete suggested that my experience as a graduate dean along with my engineering background could help NSF identify groundbreaking research on STEM graduate education in the United States. What my colleague made clear to me, however, was that unlike the grand challenges of science and engineering that could be identified, enumerated, and debated, there were no clear goals for graduate education. There were calls for change; there were emerging practices. But there were no road maps that could help them distinguish between transformational and incremental research. They didn’t even know what all the problems were. Contextualization of the current research on graduate education would be most helpful to them. A report would do, but we agreed that distribution to a wider audience would be more impactful – a book. Even though I had previously published a technical textbook, a monograph seemed intimidating to me, especially on a topic typically addressed by educational psychologists and sociologists. What was an engineer accustomed to writing journal articles to do?
I took advantage of the retrospective and prospective opportunities a book has to offer to emphasize the importance of journal articles in graduate education. In my book A Research Agenda for Graduate Education I argue that what the graduate education community needs is more foundational research by teams of investigators that is published in the emergent, peer-reviewed journal literature. One reviewer of my manuscript capitalized on this irony and suggested that the monograph be published as two journal articles rather than a book. After all, the interstitial space between journal articles and monographs is filled by the review article. These expanded analyses enjoy many of the benefits of both formats. They are published often in the same disciplinary journals as original research articles yet are provided additional space to be thorough in their literature review and longitudinal in their analysis of a specific topic. There are even disciplinary journals devoted specifically to review articles. What the reviewer did not know is that I had already tried this route; it did not go well. Perhaps it was my own failing, but I contend that there is no appropriate trans-disciplinary venue for a review article on graduate education. The journals that come to your mind came to mine as well. If those journals were read equally by the faculty who advise PhD students in sciences and engineering as the scholars who study learning theory, then a review article might be appropriate. But I wanted the practitioners of graduate education to form multi-disciplinary teams and report their findings in a timely manner. The dissemination of specific research results that focus on methodology and results rather than assimilation and comparative analysis is best executed through a journal article. I hold this belief for two important reasons.
First, the path to publication is more rapid for journal articles. The monograph in which I make this statement was six years in the making, from the first time I put electronic pen to paper in the fall of 2015 to final publication in the fall of 2021. That publication path was especially tortuous (perhaps the subject of a future blog) but not entirely uncommon in the realm of academic publishing. Peer review of a book manuscript takes enormous amounts of time and effort. Contrast that with a recent article I published in the Journal of International Engineering Education which took less than a year from completion of data analysis to issuance of the electronic article (and there were some unnecessary delays). Apples and oranges, you say. Length, subject, audience, and publication platform are all different. But journal articles and books are both academic fruits. The simple fact that the information in journal articles has been on the shelf for less time makes it distinct.
Second, journal articles are more widely accessible in electronic form. There are certainly very important caveats to this statement, such as the need for expensive institutional licenses to access groups of journals and the increasing availability of ebooks. But try finding a full copy of two important reference books in my monograph: The Formation of Scholars by George Walker and co-authors, and Inside Graduate Admissions by Julie Posselt. Of course, your library may have them in hard or electronic copy, and you may have the ability to buy them yourself with just a few mouse clicks, but neither of these options lend themselves well to a dedicated link such as a DOI (digital object identifier) that accompanies most modern journal articles. The electronic availability of books is rapidly evolving, but as a researcher I am much more likely to sit at my computer and read ten journal article abstracts in one sitting than an entire book.
So, who will publish these journal articles on graduate education? I don’t know. As I mention in A Research Agenda for Graduate Education, there is a chasm between articles in disciplinary journals that are mostly anecdotal or offer descriptive statistics of small data sets, and highly theoretical works that are decades in the making and may not accurately reflect the current state of graduate education. Perhaps this is a call for a new multi-disciplinary journal on mixed-methods research in specific categories of graduate education, especially the PhD. Perhaps it is a call for current journals to expand their offerings on graduate education beyond their traditional definition. In either case, both the manuscript reviewer and my NSF colleague were right. We need more journal articles on graduate education as well as the perspectives that books can offer. Only through writing both did I find the inherent value in each.