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Can Journal Publishing Be Democratised?

By Abdulrahman Al Lily

An experiment in academic publishing has tested journal practices and questioned whether the autocratic power of editorial boards needs to be returned to researchers.

Academic intelligence is socially distributed, spread throughout the minds of academics of all nations, races and ages. Yet the dissemination of knowledge generated by academics is entrusted to a powerful few – the editors and editorial boards of academic journals.

The current publishing system places a considerable amount of power in the hands of editors, many of whom have presided over their journals for so long that they have developed, in effect, a monopoly over ideas in their field of expertise. In accepting or rejecting manuscripts submitted to their journals, these editorial autocrats act as gatekeepers that decide which ideas will be shared and which will be shunned.

Some academic journals do not allow authors to question and appeal the rejection of their manuscripts by editors and peer reviewers. Some editors will even reject manuscripts without consulting peer reviewers.

These practices encouraged me to undertake an experiment that sought to:

  • democratise authorship by inviting a large number of authors to compose and submit a paper for publication in an academic journal; and
  • democratise publishing by encouraging the authors and readers of a particular journal to elect its editor and constitute its policies.

I began by emailing invitations to academics from all over the world, encouraging them to come together to crowd-author a manuscript. One hundred academics accepted this invitation, and the manuscript we crowd-authored was submitted to three journals. The manuscript lay at the intersection of education and technology, and the journals to which it was submitted have an explicit interest in this domain.

However, the three journals rejected the paper without sending it out for review. They informed me of this rejection using a standardised email that offered almost no customised feedback outlining the specific reasons for rejection. When I emailed the editors of the journals to ask them for such feedback, they ignored my request.

I then submitted the manuscript to a fourth journal. A few months later the editor of this journal emailed me to explain that the journal was rejecting the manuscript based on the recommendations of four peer reviewers.

While two of these peer reviewers had recommended acceptance of the manuscript with minor corrections, the third and fourth peer reviewers recommended rejection. The third peer reviewer felt that the manuscript failed to make any substantial contribution to knowledge. The fourth peer reviewer was concerned about the technical and administrative complexity that the journal would have to face as a result of the large number of authors. S/he was likewise concerned about the hierarchical structure of scholarship, complaining that many “senior” academics were missing from the list of authors.

The editor followed the recommendations to reject our manuscript, and asked me not to share the peer reviewers’ feedback even if the journal and peer-reviewers remained anonymous. What gives a journal this right? Indeed, how are a journal’s editorial policies formulated, and should authors and readers be able to participate in the constitution of these policies?

Journal policies are not the property of editors; they are common goods. Hence there is a need for an approach in which authors and readers of any journal contribute to the constitution of its policies, and by doing so every author or reader has a sense of joint ownership of the journal’s policies.

I forwarded the peer reviewers’ comments to the crowd-authors and asked them to share their critical thoughts as I planned to compile and send them to the journal. Although some crowd-authors did not support the idea of sending any feedback on the peer reviewers’ comments because they were concerned about future consequences for their reputation, the decision was eventually made to submit a letter of feedback to the editor that detailed how some crowd-authors perceived the reviewers’ comments.

A few weeks after receiving this feedback letter, the editor responded. Some crowd-authors were delighted by this, as if the editor had done them a favour by responding to their concerns. Isn’t it the editor’s responsibility to address such complaints and justify decisions made about manuscripts accepted or rejected?

Generally speaking, editors appear to be unresponsive to authors’ concerns. While they may point out that the large number of submissions they receive makes it difficult for them to reply to every single author, it could also be argued that more submissions requires the employment of more editors. However, the commercial reality is that if there are more submissions, every single submission will be given less attention and taken less seriously – leading to standardised rejection letters.

This brings us to the question of how a journal can straddle the competing demands of commercial profitability while adequately fulfilling its altruistic role of evaluating and disseminating new knowledge.

If academic journals are ultimately concerned with what sells and how to maximise profits, it does not make sense to elect a chief executive – in this case, the editor. Instead, the owner of the organisation would do better to employ whoever brings more profit for the organisation – in this case, whoever attracts better articles to the journal and increases its impact factor.

Alternatively, if academic journals are more like non-profit organisations acting for a particular cause – in this case knowledge dissemination – then its editors and editorial boards should be democratically elected to ensure that the journal makes editorial decisions based on a broad base of expertise.

Having now completed this 2-year experiment in crowd-authoring (http://goo.gl/ZTWWFp), which developed a mechanism for finding a crowd of scholars, analysing their input and conceptualising software to automate the process of crowd-authoring, I suggest four ideas that would help democratise academic publishing:

  • the editor of a journal should be elected by its readers, authors and other stakeholders;
  • the authors and readers of a journal should be granted the right to participate in the constitution of its policies;
  • for each journal there should be a public web-based forum where authors and readers express concerns and negotiate interests with editors; and
  • a public web-based discussion board should be created that acts as a permanent and official communication channel between the authors of each article and its readers.

Given the connected nature of the modern world, the widely distributed status of academic intelligence and the increasing value of collective and democratic participation, large-scale multi-authored publications are the way forward for academia in the 21st century.


Abdulrahman Al Lily is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technologies at King Faisal University.