Some Thoughts on the Academic Peer Review Process

Like most research-intensive faculty members, I receive regular requests to review papers for legitimate scholarly journals. (My spam e-mail folder is also full of requests to join editorial boards for phony journals, but that’s another topic for another day.) Earlier this week, I was working on reviewing a paper submitted to The Review of Higher Education, one of the three main higher education field journals in the United States (Journal of Higher Education and Research in Higher Education are the other two). I went to check one of the submission guidelines on the journal’s website and was surprised to see that the journal is temporarily closed for new manuscript submissions to help clear a backlog of submissions.

After I shared news of the journal’s decision on Twitter, I received a response from one of the associate editors of the journal. Her statement astonished me:

This sets off all kinds of alarms. How can a well-respected journal struggle so much to get qualified reviewers, pushing the length of the initial peer review process to six months or beyond? As someone who both submits to and reviews for a wide range of journals, here are some of my thoughts on how to potentially streamline the academic peer review process.

(1) Editors should ‘desk reject’ a higher percentage of submissions. Since it can be difficult to find qualified reviewers and most respectable journals accept less than 20% of all submissions, there is no reason to send all papers out to multiple external reviewers. If a member of the editorial board glances through the paper and can easily determine that it has a very low chance of publication, the paper should be immediately ‘desk rejected’ and quickly returned to the author with a brief note about why it was not sent out for full review. Journals in some fields, such as economics, already do this and it is sorely needed in education to help manage workloads. It is also humane to authors, as they are not waiting several months to hear back on a paper that will end up being rejected. I have been desk rejected several times during my career, and it allowed me to keep moving papers through the publication pipeline as a tenure-track faculty member.

(2) Journals should consider rejecting submissions from serial free riders. The typical academic paper is reviewed by two or three external scholars in the peer review process, with more people potentially getting involved if the paper goes through multiple revise and resubmit rounds. This means that for every sole-authored paper that someone submits, that person should be prepared to review two or three other papers in order to maintain balance. But in practice, since journals prefer reviewers with doctoral degrees and graduate students need to submit papers in order to be eligible for academic jobs, those of us with doctoral degrees should probably plan on reviewing 3-4 papers for each sole-authored paper we submit. (Divide that number accordingly based on the number of co-authors on your submissions.) It’s okay to decline review invitations if the paper is outside your scope of knowledge, but otherwise scholars need to accept most invitations. Declining because we are too busy doing our own research—and thus further jamming the publication pipeline—is not acceptable, particularly for tenured faculty members. If journals publicly commit to rejecting submissions from serial free riders, there may be fewer difficulties finding reviewers.

(3) There needs to be some incentive for reviewers to submit in a timely manner. Right now, journals can only beg and plead to get reviewers to submit their reviews within a reasonable time period (usually 3-6 weeks). But in my conversations with journal editors, reviewers often fail to meet that timeline. In an ideal world, journal reviewers would actually get paid for their work like many foundations and scholarly presses pay a few hundred dollars for thorough reviews. Absent that incentive, it may be worth establishing some sort of priority structure that rewards those who review quickly with quick reviews on their own submissions.

(4) In some cases, there needs to be better vetting of reviews before they are sent to authors. Most reputable academic journals have relatively few problems with this, as this is the job of the editorial board. Reviews generally come with a letter from the editor explaining discrepancies among reviewers and which comments can potentially be ignored. But the peer review process at academic conferences has more quality control issues, potentially due to the large number of reviews that are requested (ten 2,000-2,500 word proposals is not uncommon). It seems like reviewers rush through these proposals and often lack knowledge in the subject matter. Limiting the number of submissions that any individual can make and carefully vetting conference reviewers could help with this concern.

By helping to restrict the number of items that go out for peer review and providing incentives for people to fulfill their professional reviewing obligations, it should be possible to bring the peer review timeline down to a more humane 2-3 months rather than the 4-8 months that seems to be the norm in much of education. This is crucial for junior scholars trying to meet tenure requirements, but it will also help get peer-reviewed research out to the public and policymakers more quickly. Journals such as AERA Open, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Economics of Education Review are models in quick and thorough peer review processes that the rest of the field can emulate.

Is Administrative Bloat Really a Big Problem?

I usually begin talks on my book Higher Education Accountability with a discussion of why accountability pressures now are stronger than ever for much of nonprofit higher education. Not surprisingly, one of the key reasons that I discuss is the rising price tag of a college education. I usually get at least one question from audience members in every talk about the extent to which administrative bloat in higher education is driving up college prices. I have written before about how difficult it is to pin the rising cost of providing a college education on any given factor, but I am diving in deeper on the administrative bloat concern in this post.

First, let’s take a look at trends in administrative expenditures and staffing over the last decade or two. Here are charts on inflation-adjusted per-FTE expenditures for instruction, academic support, institutional support, and student services between 2003 and 2013 (courtesy of Delta Cost Project analyses). The charts show that spending on student services and academic support increased faster than both inflation and instructional expenditures, while institutional support expenditures (the IPEDS expenditure category most closely associated with administration) increased about as fast as instructional expenditures.

Turning to staffing trends, I again use Delta Cost Project data to look at the ratios of full-time faculty, part-time faculty, administrators, and staff per 1,000 FTE students. In general, the ratio of full-time faculty and administrators per 1,000 students held fairly constant across time in most sections of higher education. However, the ratio of part-time faculty and professional staff members (lower-level administrators) increased markedly across higher education.

The data suggest that there has not been a massive explosion of high-level administrators, but there has been substantial growth in low- to mid-level academic support and student services staff members. What might be behind that growth in professional staff members? I offer two potential explanations below.

Explanation 1: Students need/want more services than in the past. As most colleges have enrolled increasingly diverse student bodies and institutions respond to pressures to graduate more students, it’s not surprising that colleges have hired additional staff members to assist with academic and social engagement. Students have also demanded additional services, such as more staff members to support campus diversity initiatives. (Lazy rivers and climbing walls could factor in here, but there are limited to such a small segment of higher education that they’re likely to be a rounding error in the grand scheme of things.)

Explanation 2: Staff members are doing tasks that faculty members used to do, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. A good example here is academic advising. Decades ago, it was far more common for faculty members to advise undergraduate students from their first year on. But over the years, professional academic advisers have taken on these responsibilities at many campuses, leaving faculty members to advise juniors and seniors within a major. To me, it seems logical to allow lower-paid professional advisers to work with first-year and second-year students, freeing up the time of higher-paid faculty members to do something else such as teach or do research. (I also have a strong hunch that professional advisers are better at helping students through general education requirements than faculty members, but I’d love to see more research on that point.)

In summary, there are lots of gripes coming from both faculty members and the public about the number of assistant and associate deans on college campuses. But most of the growth in non-faculty employees is among lower-level student and academic affairs staff members, not among highly-paid deans. There is still room for a robust debate about the right number of staff members and administrators, but claims of massive administrative bloat are not well-supported across all of higher education.

It’s hard to believe that a faculty member is writing this, but I do feel that most administrators do serve a useful purpose. As I told The Chronicle of Higher Education in a recent interview (conducted via e-mail while I was waiting for a meeting with an associate dean—I kid you not!), “Faculty do complain about all of the assistant and associate deans out there, but this workload would otherwise fall on faculty. And given the research, teaching, and service expectations that we face, we can’t take on those roles.”

Will The K-12 Teacher Walkouts Affect Public Higher Education?

Perhaps the most interesting education policy development to this point in 2018 has been the walkouts by public school teachers in three states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) that have resulted in thousands of schools being closed as teachers descended on statehouses to demand better pay. These job actions (which are technically not strikes in some states due to labor laws, but operate in the same way) have been fairly successful for teachers to this point. West Virginia teachers received a five percent pay increase to end their walkout, while Oklahoma teachers received a pay increase of about $6,000. Kentucky teachers had rather limited success, while Arizona is on the verge of a teacher walkout later this week.

Given the success of these walkouts in politically conservative states, it is reasonable to expect K-12 public school teachers in other states to adopt the same tactics to increase their salaries or education funding in general. But what might these walkouts mean for public higher education? I present four possible scenarios below.

Scenario 1: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are ineffective. It’s probably safe to say that legislators in other states are strategizing about how to respond to a potential walkout in their state. If legislators do not want to increase K-12 education spending and can maintain a unified front, it’s possible that protests die out amid concerns that closing schools for days at a time hurts students. In that case, expect no implications for public higher education.

Scenario 2: Public college employees join the walkout movement. Seeing the victories that K-12 teachers have scored, faculty and staff walk out at public colleges in an effort to secure more higher education funding. While this could theoretically work, public support is likely to be much weaker for colleges and universities than K-12 teachers. Republicans in particular now view college professors far more skeptically than Democrats, while the two parties view K-12 public schools similarly. So this probably won’t work too well in conservative states.

Scenario 3: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are effective—and paid for by tax increases. Oklahoma paid for its increase in teacher salaries by increasing taxes in a number of different areas, although teachers wanted a capital gains tax exemption to be eliminated. This probably reduces states’ ability to raise additional revenue in the future—which could affect public colleges—but the immediate effects on public colleges should be pretty modest.

Scenario 4: Future K-12 teacher walkouts are effective—and paid for by reducing state spending in other areas. This is the nightmare scenario for public higher education. Higher education has traditionally been used as the balancing wheel in state budgets, with the sector being the first to experience budget cuts due to the presence of tuition-paying students. Therefore, in a zero-sum budget game without tax increases, more K-12 spending may come at the expense of higher education spending. West Virginia paid for its teacher pay increase this year in part by cutting Medicaid spending, but don’t expect most states to take that path in the longer term.

To sum up, the higher education community should be watching the K-12 walkouts very closely, as they could affect postsecondary students and faculty. And there may end up being some difficult battles in tax-averse states between K-12 and higher education advocates about how to divide a fixed amount of funds among themselves.

What Does a Professor Do During the Summer?

It’s safe to say that full-time faculty members at American colleges and universities have work schedules and expectations that are often not well understood by the general public. I often get two kinds of questions from people who are trying to figure out how I spend my time:

(1) You only teach two evenings per week. What do you do the rest of the time?

(2) You really have a three-month summer vacation? How do you fill up all of that free time?

I just finished my fourth year as an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, so right now I hear that second question quite a bit. In this post, I share some insights into what my summer looks like as a tenure-track faculty member at a university with substantial (but not extreme) research expectations. (And yes, I will take some time off this summer, as well.)

You don’t have a 12-month contract?

Like our colleagues in K-12 education, most faculty members are paid to work 9-10 months per year. This means that at least in theory, two or three months per year are completely ours. But although it’s common to say that the best three things about being a teacher are June, July, and August, faculty still have to do work outside the contract window in order to do their job well. My nine-month contract ended May 15, and there is absolutely no way I would meet the research or teaching expectations for tenure without using the summer as a way to get ahead. (Similarly, it’s hard for K-12 teachers to do course preps just within their contract period.) But service expectations grind to a halt during the summer, which does provide more time to do other work.

So what does your summer look like?

My biggest project this summer is to work on a paper looking at whether law, medical, and business schools responded to substantially increased Grad PLUS loan limits after 2006 by raising tuition or living allowances. (This is a new look at the Bennett Hypothesis—and I’ve summarized the existing research here.) I received a grant from the AccessLex Institute and the Association for Institutional Research to support this work, which provides me with a month and a half of additional salary and a grad student to help me with data work for 20 hours per week this summer as well as funds to buy out a course in the fall semester. This is my first successful external grant application after eight failed attempts, so it’s good to have some additional support for the summer.

My other important project on the research front is to put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book on higher education accountability, which should be out in early 2018 through Johns Hopkins University Press. I will spend several weeks working on copy editing, putting together an index, and checking page proofs. While I will get a portion of the book’s sales when it comes out, I can safely say that writing a book isn’t a great get-rich-quick scheme. (But journal articles rarely pay any money.)

I am in a fortunate position in which I can supplement my income as a faculty member with consulting or contract work. Each year since 2012, I have compiled Washington Monthly magazine’s college rankings, which comes with a small stipend along with the more important benefit of building connections with the higher education policy community. I also have the opportunity to write occasional policy briefs or white papers on a contract basis; different organizations ask me to explore a topic of interest to them while leaving me with complete editorial freedom to approach the topic as desired. Some of these turn into well-cited papers or articles, such as a paper I wrote at the request of the American Enterprise Institute in 2015 on the landscape of competency-based education.

While I will not teach any formal classes this summer, I will work with my group of dissertation students over the summer (as they pay tuition to work with me over the summer and I get a small stipend from the university). Based on some of the experiences I had in graduate school, I am getting my students together as a group six times over the course of the summer to share their progress and workshop draft chapters. The first meeting was yesterday, and it was a lot of fun. I will also work to update my higher education finance class for the fall semester, as quite a bit has changed since the last time I taught the class (the spring 2016 syllabus is here). I have a folder of 63 potential new readings to incorporate into the class, so it’ll take me a while to narrow this down to 20-30 articles to use in place of what was the state of the art in late 2015.

Academic summers are a wonderful thing—and the flexibility these summers offer are one of the reasons why many of us like this job so much. But even though we have a lot of flexibility about when we do the work, it still needs to get done. I hope this post provides some insights into what June, July, and August look like for at least a certain type of faculty member, and I’d love to hear what summers look like for other academics in the comments section below.

Are Academics Public Intellectuals? (And What Can We Do?)

The Sunday New York Times included an editorial piece by Nicholas Kristof with the title, “Professors, We Need You!” In this piece, Kristof argued that the vast majority of faculty do not do a good job connecting with media and policymakers and thus do not get the importance of their work communicated beyond the proverbial ivory tower. Perhaps the most damning statement in the piece is Kristof’s assertion that “there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

Some of Kristof’s statements about the disincentives toward public engagements are certainly true, at least for some faculty at some institutions. Tenure-track faculty are often judged by the number of peer-reviewed publications in top journals, at the expense of public service and publishing in open-access journals. The increased specialization of many faculty members also makes communicating with the public more difficult due to the often technical nature of our work. Faculty who are not on the tenure track face an additional set of concerns in engaging with the public due to their often unstable employment situations.

With those concerns being noted, I think that Kristof is providing a somewhat misguided view of faculty engagement. Some (but not enough) academics, regardless of their employment situation, do make the extra effort to be public as well as private intellectuals. (If you’re reading this blog post, I’ve succeeded to at least some extent.) The Internet lit up with complaints from academics about Kristof’s take, which are well-summarized in a blog post by Chuck Pearson, an associate professor at Virginia Intermont College. He also created the #engagedacademics hashtag on Twitter, which is worth a look.

While I would love to see elite media outlets like the New York Times reach out beyond their usual list of sources at the most prestigious institutions, I don’t see that as tremendously likely to happen. So what can academics do in order to get their work out to policymakers and the media? Here are a few suggestions based on my experiences, which have included a decent amount of media coverage for a first-year assistant professor:

1. Work on cultivating a public presence. Academics who are serious about being public intellectuals should work to develop a strong public presence. If your institution supports a professional website under the faculty directory, be sure to do that. Otherwise, use Twitter, Facebook, or blogging to help create connections with other academics and the general public. One word of caution: if you have strong opinions on other topics, consider a personal and a professional account.

2. Try to reach out to journalists. Most journalists are available via social media, and some of them are more than willing to engage with academics doing work of interest to their readers. Providing useful information to journalists and responding to their tweets can result in being their source for articles. Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which sends out regular e-mails about journalists seeking sources on certain topics, is a good resources for academics in some disciplines. I have used HARO to get several interviews in various media outlets regarding financial aid questions.

3. Work through professional associations and groups. Academics who belong to professional associations can potentially use the association’s connections to advance their work. I am encouraged by associations like the American Educational Research Association, which highlights particularly relevant papers through its media outreach efforts. Another option is to connect with other academics with similar goals. An example of this is the Scholars Strategy Network, a network of “progressive-minded citizens” working to get their research out to the public.

4. Don’t forget your campus resources. If your college or university has a media relations person or staff, make sure to reach out to them as soon as possible. This may not be appropriate for all research topics, but colleges tend to like to highlight faculty members’ research—particularly at smaller institutions. The media relations staff can potentially help with messaging and making connections.

While Kristof’s piece overstates the problem that faculty face in being viewed as public intellectuals, it is a worthwhile wakeup call for us to step up for efforts for public engagement. Perhaps Kristof will turn his op-ed column over to some academics who are engaged with the public to highlight some successful examples?

[UPDATE: Thanks to The Chronicle of Higher Education for linking to this piece. Readers, I would love to get your comments on my post and your suggestions on how to engage the media and public!]