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Why education research needs working papers

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.

‘Why do many UK, as opposed to US, education journals look unfavourably on articles that have been published as working papers, which are taken for granted in many other disciplines?’

US education journals do not typically treat pre-prints as a barrier to publication. Why then do many UK education journals, including BERA journals, look unfavourably on articles 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.