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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Why education research needs working papers

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 29 May 2018

Alice Sullivan. 
British education journals often object to the early publication of research findings in the form of working papers (also known as preprints. But would greater use of working papers be beneficial for the health of education research in the UK?
Working papers allow authors to get early feedback on their work from their peers. They also allow us to share our findings with both academic and wider audiences quickly. Education researchers are expected to achieve ‘impact’ – or, at the very least, to communicate our findings to policymakers, practitioners and parents. These audiences need timely access to research findings. Research is publicly funded, and it is therefore reasonable to expect it to be publicly available. Yet years can elapse between the first submission of a paper and its final publication, even without allowing for rejections along the way. The growth in submissions to journals, combined with increased unwillingness on the part of overstretched academics to carry out peer reviews, has seen a crisis in both the quality of the peer-review system and its speed.
Working papers enable researchers to lay claim to their results, avoiding the possibility of being pipped to the post by another researcher during the often interminable peer review process. This advantage of working papers is particularly keenly felt by researchers who are engaged in secondary data analysis using publicly available data. The risk that someone will produce a paper that is similar to yours, and get it published sooner than you, is very real. This is especially nerve-wracking for junior researchers and PhD students, for whom each paper could make or break their job prospects.
There is a strong and long-established tradition of pre-prints in the hard sciences, and mathematicians and physicists have routinely posted their pre-publication papers in ‘the archive’ since the early 1990s. Working paper archives are also widely used in economics and sociology and the Social Science Research Network has recently launched an archive for education research. The fact that education is a multidisciplinary field makes it particularly puzzling that UK education journals often seem unable to accommodate working papers, despite the fact that they are taken for granted in many of the disciplines that contribute to education research.
US education journals do not typically treat pre-prints as a barrier to publication. Why then do many UK education journals, including those of the British Educational Research Association (BERA), look unfavourably on papers that have been published as working papers? While journal policies on this matter are not always clear and explicit, in practice there seems to have been a drift among UK education journals towards cracking down on working papers, just as they are becoming a more widely accepted part of the culture of the wider disciplines linked to education research. Plagiarism software, originally designed to root out cheats, has come to be used by some journals to spot online working paper versions of submissions, the authors of which are deemed to be self-plagiarists. This creates a barrier for UK education researchers who would like to publish early versions of their papers as working papers.
Practices which discourage the publication of working papers may be driven by publishers rather than by journals’ editorial teams, but academic publishing relies on the free labour of academics in education just as it does on that of their colleagues in other fields. Therefore, the education research community should be able to exert an influence.
Working paper archives are an asset to the research cultures of the hard sciences and the social sciences. It’s high time for UK education research to reap the benefits too, and for our journals to drop their anti-archiving practices.

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4 Responses to “Why education research needs working papers”

  • 1
    garyrjones wrote on 29 May 2018:

    There’s a relatively easy way around this i.e. make greater use of blogposts. Either during the writing process or once the paper has been completed – elements of the paper could be shared in order to test out ’emergent thinking’ on the topic.

  • 2
    Huw Humphreys wrote on 29 May 2018:

    I agree. As a teacher-leader of other teachers trying to integrate research findings into daily practice, blogposts might be the answer. But the issue will remain thorny until we acquire a greater sense of the shared knowledge commons and our responsibility to that too. For those of us in schools who are only peripherally in touch with the research world because of the demands of the job, blogs can be a real asset.

  • 3
    Some mysteriously anonymous person wrote on 30 May 2018:

    Interesting views!
    But anyone can publish anything in a working paper – the research could be good but it could be bad! Seems quite a risk!
    Open Access publication ensures that peer-reviewed research findings and outputs can be publicly and freely available to everyone. Publishing Open Access articles after peer-review could avoid the need for publishing working papers before peer-review.
    Public-funded research often includes funding to make peer-reviewed articles completely Open Access.
    Some journals are also entirely Open Access (such as PLOS ONE) and aim to undertake swift peer-review, only taking weeks or months, rather than years.
    Publishers and journals are not necessarily ‘anti-archive’, as they allow material to be stored in institutional repositories and/or material can be made available after an embargo once it’s been published.
    The wider issues perhaps involve avoiding ‘double-publishing’ and ‘getting credit for the same thing twice’ – which is a bit different than ‘self-plagiarism’. Some peer-reviewed journals clearly state that submissions shouldn’t have been published before – and working papers are a form of publishing. (For example, it seems strange if someone was to make an explicit choice to self-publish a working paper, get media attention via a press release, and gain benefits to esteem and impact – but then they complain that a journal says that they can’t accept the research because it’s already been published and disseminated.)
    I’m not sure how working papers can feasibly be a way to get feedback from other researchers while also being a way to disseminate findings. Other researchers can’t feasibly give feedback and suggest changes if findings are disseminated to the media, as it becomes far too late; if any findings might change and working papers are really ‘works in progress’, then it seems a bit risky to disseminate them to the media.
    I’m not sure how working papers would necessarily help fairness or equality – working papers perhaps rely on the esteem of the authors in order to be taken seriously, so that work by a tenured professor might always appear ‘better’ than work by an early-career researcher. At least anonymous peer-review allows an early career researcher and a tenured professor to be considered (somewhat) more equally.
    I’m wary that working papers could be exploited by the advantaged (again reducing fairness or equality), as some people could use their circumstances to quickly push out working papers sooner than others. For example, perhaps there’s a tenured team involved with your cohort studies – they would presumably always have early access to the data, and be able to quickly publish, while anyone outside of that already-advantaged team would always be at a disadvantage.
    And if working papers are published by tenured people or professors, then this might inadvertently under-cut doctoral students and early-career researchers (they get “pipped to the post”) – so that working papers inadvertently become a means for the advantaged to maintain their advantage. (But those with tenure are the ones with the secure jobs and the time to push things through peer-review!)

  • 4
    Public health vs. social science: Do publication lags matter? | R&E Search for Evidence wrote on 18 December 2019:

    […] papers. Alice Sullivan of the University College London Institute of Education lists the many advantages of working papers. She starts by lauding the opportunity for authors to get feedback on their work before submitting […]