Landing : Athabascau University

A Distance Education Grad Student Publishing Primer

Ask any academic, and they will get into a long discourse about the value of publishing scholarly work, the politics of doing it, the challenges and the outlets.  Although you haven’t asked, I’d like to share my own ideas with particular relevance to publishing work related to distance education.

By way of background, I’ve been in the publish or perish business (as a full time academic) for the past 20 years. During that time I’ve published (solely or in collaboration) over 60 articles and have had my share of rejections as well (ouch!). I also have been the editor of IRRODL for the past 10 years, and so have been involved in the review and production of over 500 articles and many more rejections!

Why Publish?  If tenure or a promotion is at stake, the answer to this question is obvious. If not, publishing allows you the opportunity to share your work on an international scale. You’ve worked long and hard on a project and not only does your work warrant celebration and dissemination, the publication begins building your global academic career and increases your social capital, that you can cash in for a whole variety of rewards.  Publication also insures that your work preservers. It is a great treat when you get old (like myself) to revisit some of your earlier work – without having to find a machine that reads 5 ¼ floppy disks! Finally,  a quality review process, will show you how to improve the article and thus directly leads to increased capacity to express yourself in this format.

Where to Publish?  In distance education, about 50% of the dozen or so scholarly journals are published as open access and the remainder by commercial publishers and distributed via subscription or pay per article. A few years I worked with Olaf Zawacki-Richter to see if the open access articles in DE were cited more frequently (a measure of their impact) than articles from commercial journals over the previous 10 years (see Zawacki-Richter, O., Anderson, T., & Tuncay, N. (2010). The growing impact of open access distance education journals  – a bibliometric analysis. Journal of Distance Education, 24(3).  We found that, at that time, there was no significant different in citation rates, but there was a trend towards open access. Open access journals are much more widely read in developing countries and by practitioners who are outside of mainstream universities. Therefore, the chances of your work being recognized and used throughout the DE community, are greater if you publish as open access. The Directory of Open Access Journals currently lists 584 journals under the subject heading of education. The University of Wisconsin maintains an extensive list of journals (open and closed) that are directly related to distance education at

Finally, a word of warning about some open access journals. Some journals charge a per article fee to offset the costs of publication. A few publishers have discovered that online publishing, with minimal review and copy-editing, can be a lucrative business, so be wary of being courted by “vanity presses” that charge high publication fees, but provide minimal editing, review and circulation.

What is a Journal Impact Factor?

If the Journal has been around for some time and meets the quality controls of Thompson Reuters, so as to be listed in their Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) listings, the journal will be assigned an impact factor. This number is based on the average number of citations received by each article published. Unfortunately, only two DE journals (IRRODL and Distance Education) are included in SSCI. Fortunately, Google Scholar can also be used to calculate impact factors on a broad range of journals and the open source tool “Publish or Perish” uses Google Scholar to calculate an impact factor for both journals and for individual authors. Caution, make sure you are sitting down and have a strong drink at hand when punching in your own name – it may be either humiliating or exhilarating!  Obviously, the higher the impact factor of the journal, the more likely it will be read and used by other scholars, but this increased prestige will likely be correlated with a higher paper rejection rate.

What if my article is rejected? In my ten years of editing IRRODL, there has not been a single article that has been published without at least minor revisions, so expect some concrete suggestions back from the reviewers.  You don’t have to do EVERYTHING the reviewers suggest or request, but you do have to follow their recommendations or convince the editor, that the request is unreasonable, undoable or just plain “out to lunch”! My first attempt at being a sole author after my Masters degree, resulted in a number of requests from the reviewers which basically would have required me to do the study all over again. Rather than argue that the request was unreasonable, I packed it in, and the world has suffered ever since from a distinct lack of knowledge J.  It the article is rejected outright, you will have good suggestions for improving the work and submitting it elsewhere. It is quite acceptable to send the same article to a second or third journal – but NEVER acceptable to send it to two journals at the same time – you will be wasting the time of at least one of these journals and this makes editors very cranky.

What about second or third authors? The fewer authors, the more prestige is accrued by each author. However, sometimes it is difficult to know if a teacher, a buddy or your supervisor should be included as a co–author. The first author is the most prestigious and if you did most of the work and writing, you should be the first author. It is quite common to acknowledge the contribution of a supervisor or teacher with a second authorship, but every author must have made a substantive contribution to the work.

Can I submit a term paper?   Term papers take a lot of work and sometimes your teacher makes a comment like “you should get this published.”  Usually those teachers are not editors!!  It isn’t impossible to get a term paper published, but for high prestige journals like IRRODL, the article must meet at least one of three conditions:

  1. it contains original empirical data
  2. it is a systematic review of an important issue and shows evidence that you have methodologically searched for, read and reviewed ALL relevant literature.  No general overviews.
  3. You are an undiscovered genius or a well established name in the field and have theoretical insights that are new, unique and important.

Conclusion: I hope this post is useful to graduate students and encourages them to take the chance and make the effort to publish their work.  The task consumes time and opportunity, but produces opportunity to make a contribution and be reworded for it.