Academics, brace yourself

Still fanning the flames?

Chances are that you, Dear Reader, are a student of international affairs, that you aspire to be one, that you occasionally read academic journals. And you, I’m sure, will occasionally have wondered, How many people actually read that stuff?

You just got an answer to your question, it seems.

Taylor & Francis, the academic publishing empire, has made the download statistics for journal articles available. T&F publishes more than 1,ooo journals, among them several leading international affairs and security studies journals, including The Journal of Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Survival, The RUSI Journal, and Terrorism and Political Violence.

You can now find the download numbers for individual articles under “most read,” then “Citations,“* but I think only for those articles that are listed there.

Here’s what it adds up to in our field (click to enlarge): 

A few caveats. First, downloads don’t reflect actual readers. People may download several versions from different machines and then not read them. Second, downloads don’t refect academic impact. Citations continue to be a more important measure. Third, the stats are probably biased. The RUSI Journal readership, for instance, is understated because content is available elsewhere as well, although the majority of readers get content from T&F, the editors tell me. Fourth, we don’t know when T&F started counting (and they won’t give this information out, as it is covered by confidentiality agreements with the proprietors of the journals, their marketing team told us). Finally some articles are overrated by downloads: for instance a recent article by your blogger, “Cyber War Will Not Take Place,” was downloaded so many times that on its own, it would outrank all combined top-ten downloads of all individual journals on the list — obviously such a disproportional amount of attention cannot be deserved: perhaps it says more about hype and the quality of the cyber security debate than about the article itself; the article is also not behind a paywall and available for free.

So what does all this mean?

Several things. One is that you can now compare. Between journals, at least between T&F’s periodicals, but also to other outlets. And of course we at KoW could not resist comparing the stats to our own page views. And here’s what that means: blogs matter for academics.

It’s been a while that some of us have contributed on these pages. The workload is cruel. Blog posts have a short shelf-life. And do my colleagues — those on the relevant committees — really read an academic blog with a funny name? In fact just last week I considered calling it a day and stopping blogging altogether. But, well, have a look at that grey bar in the graph. The numbers pretty much speak for themselves. Yes, it’s a blog, it’s free, it’s shorter, it’s crisper, and we’re comparing apples and oranges. But still: note, again, that we don’t know when T&F started counting, but if they started two or even one year ago, then most of KoW’s accumulated views are more recent (and the blog’s stats don’t even include views by more than 1,700 RSS-feed-subscribers).

T&F’s logo once played on academic publishing’s function of fueling debates. The flames, some will no doubt conclude, are increasingly fanned by specialized blogs, not by obscure journals behind a pay-wall. But be careful. I wouldn’t draw this conclusion that quickly. Flaming yes, but the quality-debate is mostly still happening in serious journals. That is unlikely to change any time soon.

Yet one thing is certain: if you’re a scholar, blogging can be a win-win: you’re doing a public service, contributing to the wider debate, getting more eyeballs to read your article, and you’d be boosting the broader impact of scholarship.

* UPDATE: T&F, for unknown reasons, has stopped publishing these statistics for all its journals a few days after this post was out (probably no relation). Therefore I’m linking to my PDF printout of the stats.


15 thoughts on “Academics, brace yourself

  1. Kenneth Payne says:

    A related issue is where the value in the journal lies. Subscriptions are notoriously expensive, and yet the articles are written, reviewed and edited for ‘free’ – or rather as part of our academic job spec.

    The big publishing companies essentially provide aggregation/branding and distribution. And, as with other media industries, technology has dramatically changed the ability of new actors to do that.

    KoW, in its small way, is an example of the aggregation and distribution of security related academic ‘content’. We’re not in it for the money, since our writing is effectively paid for by our employer. The gain is, as Thomas notes, reputational. Other models are possible too, I’m sure –, for example.

    Universities, departments, and research collectives might themselves just as easily provide the distribution infrastructure and brand recognition to provide content, and retain value.

    The Economist had this recently:

    • Given Tom and Kenneth’s very good points above, the question appears to be for how long companies such as T&F can maintain their monopoly on ‘proper academic publications’. Seems to be this privilege will grow increasingly tenuous as bottom-up ventures gain greater credibility.

  2. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    There are several important factors that distinguish between the relative ‘value’ of blogging and publishing in journals. I am sure that Drs Rid and Payne are well aware of them, but I think they are worth repeating before anybody ‘braces themselves’ quite yet.

    1. Within the halls of academe, the very fact that one is published in a journal is ‘valuable’ for the author. In order to be hired, given tenure, and/or promoted, publishing in scholarly journals is an essential requirement. Newspaper articles, TV appearances, publication of ‘popular’ (read: readable and profitable) non-fiction, blogs, acting as a host on a themed cruise ship ‘seminar afloat’ (not to mention other frivolities, such as, say, course development, teaching, supervision, service, etc.) are all equally nice to have, but they are only the icing on a cake made up of ‘scholarly’ output. This cements the need for scholarly journals (and scholarly presses more broadly). For most academic positions, getting published is more important than being read. Top flight schools may give more weight (according to a system that would make a Justinian courtier smile and Kafka weep) to ‘better’ journals, with higher impact (and, therefore, higher levels of readers and citations), but on the whole ‘getting there’ (being published) via any journal is much more than half the fun.

    2. The reason for this is the ‘quality control’ function that journals presumably play. The idea of ‘peer review’ (whereby other experts in a particular field read each submission and judge its worthiness based on its ‘scholarly’ merit, not merely its fashionableness or the status of its author). Now, of course, this is the Weberian ideal, rather than the reality in 100% of the cases, but this is function that journals play. Blogs, on the other hand, can be outlets of equally ‘worthy’ material, but can also be host to plain old rubbish, derivative echoes of the latest fad, silliness, and half-thought-out brainstorming. In the current model, this unfiltered content is, therefore, worth less than the content which has been already judged before publication.

    Popular presses may check facts and copyedit, but they do not look at the actual content of the material presented in the same way. They work on ‘what sells’ rather than ‘contributions to knowledge’. Take the case of the wildly popular, very influential, but flawed Freakonomics book/sequel/movie:,y.0,no.,content.true,page.3,css.print/issue.aspx.

    And then just look at KOW itself. Great ideas are floated here by my colleagues, many of which are hotly debated, a few of which, we like to think, are influential, some of which go on to be fleshed out and later become journal articles or pieces of other scholarly work. But, at the same time, our most ‘popular’ posts (the ones with the highest number of views) are about llamas and running shoes with toes. Review of International Studies we ain’t.

    That is the reason academic presses survive: the current rules of the game make them indispensible. Plain and simple. Please note that I am not saying the current system is a) fair/nice/effective or b) permanent. I am simply stating that it is the system in place, and therefore has a certain inescapable reality that cannot be wished away or ignored. Call it Bourdieuian ‘field effect’ or Foucauldian ‘governmentality’ if it you want, but for those of us ‘in the game’, we must do the most with what we have within the restraints and constraints in place.

    Now, because I can enjoy the freedom of the blog, I will make a counter argument to everything I have just said.

    1. Some people believe peer review is a poorer cousin to ‘crowd review’. Some people believe the ‘wiki’ model to be more accurate than the current scholarly one. (See this interview for a version of that in the hard sciences:

    2. There are those who believe that most scholarly output is nothing more than intellectual onanism and that the current system of publications is ineffective. (See this powerful indictment for details:

    To me, blogs and journals are different channels, with different functions. Blogs are great for immediacy, for interactivity, for ‘flying things up the flagpole’, and for promoting things, such as one’s scholarly work (some peope on KOW are the Grand Masters of this!). Journals serve a different purpose, one that blogs are not likely to steal anytime soon.

    • I agree with pretty much everything you say, but at the same time, I think that free to view online journals are the way forwards. After all, a journal is worth the combination of its editorial board and the weight of its history. Consider that an online journal could put together an editorial board of academic heavyweights to weed out pointless articles and find decent peer-reviewers, and then it becomes a straight fight between the journal nameplate and the free internet. As a starting academic, I’d much rather publish through an online journal which is likely to acquire a far wider readership than academia, as long as the academic standards aren’t lowered. I would imagine being able to say “My peer-reviewed article downloaded more times than the entire content of X journal” would look pretty good on an RAE “impact assessment” or whatever they call such things.

      In the end, as long as the editorial board/peer review system is maintained, anything that integrates academic research into the public discourse happening on the internet is a good thing.

  3. Chirality says:

    Excellent analysis of the state as it is and it will be interesting to see how Jack’s example of strong editorial/academic boards, á la infinity journal will develop.

    However, this data is on downloads, not including the old fashioned print readers. How might print subscription numbers skew the figures? Are they significant in comparison?

    From my own experience with the internet and subsequent information overload, I rely on print journals to filter through to what is relevant to me – especially in medical journals. By this I mean the physical ritual of opening the post, running through the journal contents and mentally honing in to articles of interest. It’s hard to avoid the post on the floor, far too easy to ignore the laptop! I know several people who do the same.

  4. Francis Grice says:

    It seems to be me like we are beginning to see the first cracks in the ‘publish or perish’ model for academia. Here’s why:

    Under the current norms:
    – In order to gain/retain academic status, researchers have to publish in peer reviewed journals.
    – This creates a demand for opportunities to publish, which in turn drives a growth in the number of peer reviewed journals that exist. The sophistication of modern computers, combined with the wide reach of the internet, makes the creation and maintenance of these new journals feasible.
    – As these new journals grow in size and number, they themselves add an impetus for more publishing by researchers, in order to sustain and grow themselves, further fueling the cycle.

    This has created something of a spiral in terms of the number of peer reviewed journals that exist, as well as the sheer volume of articles that get published in them, and it will continue to do so in the immediate future. That’s all well and good, but only to a point. Several major problems become quickly apparent.

    1 – The number of readers of articles is increasing, but not at the same exponential rate as the number of journals and articles. That’s what’s keeping those readership figures that Thomas posted up so low.
    2 – The huge range of articles means that readers can feel overwhelmed by their choices (try typing ‘insurgency’ into Google scholar and see how many articles come up…). Many articles are published into a complete vacuum – adding no real value to the work and, frankly, becoming useless data fat that just sort of hangs there in the void. Someone (I think Kenneth or Thomas) told me that the average number of reads that an article these days is just seven (hopefully they can correct me if I have quoted them wrongly here!).
    3 – The relative profile gained by a researcher publishing in peer reviewed journals will eventually begin to drop accordingly. Yes, researchers will still be able to place each publication they do on their CV, but the chances of an academic publishing a ‘holy grail’ article that catapults them to prominence will become ever slimmer.
    4 – The fact that academics now publish so regularly means that it must be becoming more difficult to differentiate between candidates for academic roles. How as a university employer do you choose between candidates who both have 8 or 9 publications in various journals to their name?
    5 – People are increasingly accessing knowledge through alternative means. If a public servant wants information about a historical figure – say Field Marshal Montgomery – odds are they’ll track it down from wikipedia or another online source. It’s unlikely that they’ll wade through academic journals to find it. Even scholars (particularly those born during the internet age) are increasingly gaining their knowledge from blogs, twitter posts, short news stories and other online resources, rather than from academic journals. This dramatically reduces the chances of academic research published in traditional outlets such as journals and books having a profound and profile raising impact.

    All this draws me to believe that, eventually, ‘publish or perish’ will become less important as the driving factor behind academic status. Yes, it’ll still be important to publish in peer reviewed journals for a long time to come, but I think that other methods of profile raising, network building, practice influencing and research dissemination will gradually supplant it as the driving model.

    That’s just my two cents for a Friday morning though!

    • A Johnson says:

      I’d say you are right about scholars increasingly drawing *information* from blogs, twitter posts, etc etc, rather than academic journals. But let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees; I would hold information distinct from knowledge, and it is the latter scholars are tasked with producing.

      The big problem with Wikipedia, for instance, is that because anyone can really have their say (and because of their questionable model of “truth” essentially being “that which you can link to by a free, English-language URL”), it is difficult for me to have confidence in it as a serious resource.

      Sure, it’s handy if I need to know when Montgomery assumed command of 21st Army Group, because that’s a rather non-controversial piece of knowledge. But if I need an expert account of whether he was overly conservative or rather operating within the societal constraints of an army at the edge of its manpower, I’m afraid I still need to go to the books. Likewise when I nose into Wikipedia for information on the Balkan conflicts, all I see is a glorified edit war between the various ex-Yugoslav diaspora sitting in Toronto, Chicago and Melbourne.

      I agree that the Internet provides an exciting new model for distributing content. But as the chaff is ever more easily circulated, I would contend there is increasing value in branded distribution mechanisms that imply some sort of minimum bar of quality. When the signal to noise ratio is ever-worsening, that filter starts to look more and more appealing.

    • Francis Grice says:

      Absolutely, I agree. I think that peer reviewed journals will continue to play an important role in terms of knowledge dissemination, not least because of the quality provided by the peer-review process, which – as you rightly indicate – ensures that they provide knowledge, not just information.

      I think, though, that publishing may begin to become one of a selection of areas of excellence that are needed by an academic to advance in their career, rather than the primary one. Yes, publishing in peer reviewed journals both will (and should) remain important, but as the methods available for raising profile and disseminating both knowledge and information continue to increase, so too may the ‘publish or perish’ culture begin to gradually morph into more of a ‘raise your profile and achieve good dissemination through multiple means, including publishing’ kind of system (although hopefully with a better name than that…)

  5. Will says:

    Staying anonymous as I’m quoting business sensitive figures that I don’t want linked to my title.

    As an outsider to academic publishing, but a professional B2B editor, I’m surprised by those numbers. I really would have imagined few titles hitting anywhere near that. 20,000 is really quite good for a specialist audience: a niche B2B title can expect ad and classified revenues breaking into six figures (GBP) based on a controlled circulation run of that amount. Even 5,000-10,000 readers will get you in the range of £40,000 an issue.

    That makes me wonder about the academic publishing model. If you can get (and audit) a readership of defence and foreign policy professionals, you should be able to make substantially more than you would on a title in my field. I guess you would have some extra costs (maybe audits of your controls on maintaining editorial independance, academic editors rather than the travel costs of an international title).

    But, if you can make even that much money from ad revenues on a free-to-read title, why pay Elsevier levels of subcription fees, or (on the other hand) PLoS pay-to-publish fees? Surely a group of credible titles could make a good profit just on ad sales, and disseminate its research more widely?

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