Erik Mellander

Further reasons why educational research needs working papers

Erik Mellander Uppsala University, Sweden Friday 6 July 2018

In a recent, very well-written blog, Professor Alice Sullivan argues that it is high time for UK education journals to abandon the practice of viewing the fact that a paper has been circulated as a working paper as an impediment to publication in a scientific journal. Specifically, Sullivan points out that working papers have the following advantages.

  1. They allow authors to get early feedback on their work from their peers.
  2. They ensure that results are quickly made publicly available.
  3. They enable researchers to lay claim to their results (before someone else does).

I agree entirely with these arguments. My intention here is merely to add to and extend them.

A first thing to note is that a large part of the problem derives from a misconception (evident among some UK education journals) that working papers are final publications, when, in fact, they should be viewed as intermediate publications, as the name suggests. When this latter view is adopted, the issue of self-plagiarism, when finally publishing a former working paper, ceases to be relevant.

‘Distributing a working paper prior to formal submission to journals will increase the efficiency of the deteriorating peer review process.’

Secondly, as Sullivan notes, the current peer-review system is not improving but deteriorating in terms of both quality and speed. The practice of distributing a working paper prior to formal submission to journal editors will mitigate this by increasing the efficiency of the peer review process. It will ensure some kind of assessment and consistency-checking, and weed out the most blatant shortcomings. I am an economist, and this is standard procedure within my discipline. In some cases – the institute where I work, the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy (IFAU), being an example – the procedure is quite extensive and rigorous, thereby relieving the regular peer review system of some of its burden and, furthermore, sharply reducing the time it takes to be published.

Thirdly, the refusal to publish former working papers obstructs the (potentially very fruitful) interaction with other disciplines, and may also impair the quality of the contributions that actually do get published. I have, myself, very recent experience of this problem. When submitting a previously distributed working paper to a BERA journal, it was first rejected on grounds of self-plagiarism because the software used by the publishers detected similarities with the working paper published on the IFAU website. Fortunately, the editors were willing to listen to my arguments and to reconsider theirs. However, they felt bound by the ‘system’, and required that I rewrite my paper so that, on resubmission, the software would report a lower share of overlapping text. That is to say, they wanted me to change the wording just to make it look different. Changing carefully formulated expressions, without changing their meaning and interpretation, can be quite difficult. Thus, I had to go through a time-consuming process that did not change the paper for the better, but possibly for the worse. In the end, however, the paper was published.

Hopefully these additional arguments strengthen the case for working papers in education research even further. It should also be noted that most of Sullivan’s arguments as well as my own will become increasingly important over time. For example, as Sullivan notes, secondary data analysis is rapidly becoming more important – and, thus, argument 3 above. Similarly, the undermining of the peer review system is escalating. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer.

Erik Mellander is associate professor of economics at Uppsala University, Sweden, and researcher and deputy director at the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy (IFAU), in Uppsala. He is also chairman of the Swedish Expert group for the OECD survey PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies), and a former member of the Swedish Research Council’s Educational Science Committee. Erik’s research is quantitatively oriented and focussed on issues related to education and training, labour economics, and productivity and efficiency. Most of his work is based on secondary data, especially longitudinal register (population) data and data from international surveys like PISA, TIMSS and PIAAC. He has published on evaluations of the effects of teacher support programs, the use of register data in education research, returns to education, efficiency of Swedish public employments service offices and the effects of labour subsidies on employment.