The journal as a problem space

Most of us think of an academic journal as a platform that provides access to scholarly work. We understand that the journal includes people (editors, reviewers, etc.) who mediate the process of research dissemination but how often do we look critically at the idea of the journal itself?

When the journal – and its associated structures, processes and underlying values – is regarded as a de facto standard for scholarly dissemination, it recedes into the background, becomes invisible to the reader, and bears no responsibility for how it shapes academic discourse. But the act of reading an article is mediated by the journal itself and so it becomes an active component in how we understand research. In other words, the journal is not a neutral, objective space for research dissemination because of the way it requires both researcher and reader to follow rules that influence how they engage with the outcomes of the research. When we understand the journal as a mediating technology we are forced to confront not only the process of academic publishing, but the nature of research itself.

Revolutions are not linear, inevitable progressions that build incrementally but rather occur when the observations within an established paradigm can no longer be explained by the discourse within it. Scientific progress is usually made through small, iterative changes within the dominant paradigm, where those changes are explained by the language, norms and values of the paradigm. But when we start noticing things that cannot be explained by the paradigm (for example, when publishers are making billions of dollars in a system where publication is supposedly very expensive) the observers start wondering if there are new ways of thinking. Ways that would allow us to explain the new observations but which push against the boundaries of the established paradigm.

What if we used the journal itself as a problem space to think more carefully about how research is conducted, evaluated, discussed, and shared? OpenPhysio is not only an attempt to ask critical questions as part of the theorising of physiotherapy education but also as a practical space to engage directly with a critical practice around how the academic project is conceptualised. When we created OpenPhysio it was not only to share critical research conducted in the context of physiotherapy education, but as an example of praxis where value-free assumptions about scholarly publishing are confronted and challenged.

The dominant design of academic publication isn’t necessarily the best design; it’s simply the one we grew up with. Perhaps it used to be the best option in a print-only world but in an internet-enabled, digital and connected world, we are increasingly seeing that traditional publication is inefficient, slow, expensive and not well suited for sharing knowledge in the 21st century. We all know what the default configuration of a journal is and we accept it because we’re working within a paradigm that makes the alternatives difficult to see. This is why paradigms are so powerful; they constrain the limits of what we think is possible. The only way to escape from the thinking that keeps us captive is to change our point of view. To change the paradigm.


Thank you to Dave Nicholls of the Critical Physiotherapy Network for reviewing and commenting on an earlier version of this piece.

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