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Academics Turn the Page on Old-Style Scholarly Journals

As a PhD student, Alison Wood attended a conference with other young academics looking for insight into how to land a highly competitive undergraduate teaching job. “The speaker advised us to not even try to do any interesting work until after we had tenure,” she remembers.

Wood reeled at the prospect of spending so much of her career struggling to find both institutional acceptance and outlets for the kind of research she wanted to pursue: interdisciplinary engineering-based work that could lead to socially relevant results. “I almost quit then and there,” she says.

Wood would hardly have been alone had she been deterred and left academia, or chosen to publish instead of perish—even if that meant having to change her research focus in order to produce results deemed publishable by scholarly journals and to get promoted. But she stuck with it. Now an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Olin, Wood jumped at the opportunity to join an existing group of peers across the country experimenting with an academic publishing model that turns the traditional model on its head. 

This group recently launched the first issue of a new kind of online academic journal called Murmurations. It embodies a potentially controversial form of publishing, one that draws on—and pushes beyond—the freedoms offered through the burgeoning open model of scholarly publishing, which broadens access to a publication’s content. 

“We’re experimenting with an open system in which more voices can be heard,” says Linda Vanasupa, a member of the journal’s Catalyst Board and Olin visiting professor of materials engineering. The journal features original works that could inform changes in education, especially works by those who are underrepresented in academic publishing. By including non-traditional contributors and marginalized viewpoints, the group hopes to redefine what’s considered to be “scholarship” and “expertise,” thereby enabling those in the education system to hear unexpected, normally hidden perspectives.

“Journals tend not to listen to people without PhDs, but we’ll consider anything from anyone who has something to say,” says Wood. “It would be great to publish, for example, students’ first-person critiques of their educational experiences.” 

They’ve also set out to enliven what is oftentimes a dense, hard-to-follow scientific publication format. Whereas academic journals are usually limited to original research, literature reviews and editorials, Murmurations also accepts personal essays, videos—even comic strips—as long as the submissions align with the journal’s scope. In this way, they hope to both engage a wider audience and create a platform conducive to more a meaningful and self-reflective discourse about the educational system, warts and all. 

Everything about Murmurations is designed to keep publishers’ traditional gate-keeping role to a minimum. In the usual blind review process, the back-and-forth between authors and reviewers, as well as their identities, are seen only by the editor. Murmurations uses an open peer review to share the creative process around submissions. On its InReflection page, anyone can look in on the pre-publication dialogues between content creators and reviewers (who are called “reflectors”). 

The submission/rejection process is also made transparently. Taken together, this makes for a phenomenon that Vanasupa expects could fundamentally change the nature of the communication in what would normally be a hidden—and sometimes hurtful—process in which those criticizing the work have anonymity.

Transparency is also what drives a novel approach to disclosing information about the authors. “There’s a myth of neutrality that people try to put forward in publishing their works,” says Wood. “We feel it’s important to recognize that even “purely scientific research” is influenced by the fact that we are human beings, and our education and experiences.” Rather than attempting to explain away authors’ identities, personal values and biases, the authors are actually asked to call them out in introductions.

It’s too soon to see how this effort to loosen the reigns on what’s historically been a tightly controlled publication model works out. But so far, reception from scholars has been positive. “Generally, we’ve been hearing that this is an answer to their prayers,” says Vanasupa. But she’s looking at Murmurations as making waves, rather than a sea change. “It’s authentically an experiment,” she says. “We’re simply trying to grow something new.”