Publish or Perish mantra in the tourism field: Key issues in an age of information war and alternative facts

Recently, I  read three very interesting articles in a newsletter received from The Source – run by Cabells: a) The role of predatory journals in an age of ‘information war’ b) the process of peer review including news on Elsevier’s moves in this direction, and c) the value of ‘B’ journals. While I would suggest you look at them, allow me to make a few comments which I believe may be of great interest to those who are doing research, editorial work, teaching, learning or overseeing scientific writing and writing skills.

As a scholar in a world full of falsifications, alternative facts, fake news (no reference to Donald J. Trump´s assertions) and even fake research, it bothers me greatly that facts don’t count anymore. How do I teach my students to write when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a claim grounded in fact? How do we guarantee quality in knowledge creation and dissemination?  First, our undergraduate and postgraduate programs need to make information literacy and writing skills a cornerstone of the curriculum. As put by Peter Wayne Moe, an assistant professor of English and director of campus writing at Seattle Pacific University, “Students need to learn the difference between Google and a library database, between BuzzFeed and Politico, between a blog and fact-checked reporting. Whatever our students are reading, we must couch that reading within larger discussions of information literacy” (See full article ¨Teaching writing in a post-truth era¨ published by The Seatlle Times).

A recent report prepared by researchers at Stanford shows that that 80 percent of middle-school students cannot distinguish between real and fake news and are clueless as to what “sponsored content” means on a news website. The problem of information literacy is not exceptional, it reaches beyond the middle school and is part of a wider global problem in our institutions of higer education – the tendency to disregard quality of publications in favour of quantity. There are institutions where academics are encouraged (indirectly) to publish as much as possible, regardless of the quality of the outlet, due to the mad rush for points (which, basically, determine how much money the government allocates to the institution). I may be wrong on this point, but most fields of research emphasize quality over quantity, when it comes to getting postdocs and competitive research positions. This does not mean quantity is irrelevant, but we have to acknowledge that ones growth as an academic in most of the respected instititutions of higher education is mainly based on his or her promise as a researcher. To that end, I have a small advise for grad and postdoc students: One truly excellent paper may be enough to land you an excellent faculty position (along with good references), because it suggests you have the potential to produce more excellent papers. On the other hand, 10 truly mediocre papers may actually reduce your chances of geting such opportunity.

Publish or perish

Image source: Institute of Infection and Global Health (IGH), University of Liverpool, 2016

The writing and publication quagmire in tourism research seems to be a generational issue, articles written by the older generation (when they were young scholars) covered implicit debates about serious research issues in tourism, these authors are currently senior and well-published gurus whose research work is recognized at an international level. They include, Dimitrios Buhalis, Richard Butler, Nelson Graburn, Brian King, Chris Ryan, David Airey, Larry Dwyer, Jafar Jafari, Sara Dolnicar, Pauline Sheldon, Geoffrey Crouch, David Simmons, Bob McKercher, Christian Laesser, Tom Baum among others. I review for one of the top tourism research journals and I can authoritatively argue that articles submited for publication by the current generation of young scholars are shallow in all aspects, most of the ideas and arguments presented are idiosyncratic, under-referenced and generally not well-organized.

Unfortunately, chances of learning from past writing mistakes are limited, why? Because new authors have no access to review comments related to published articles. At various conferences, Prof. Chris Ryan, the Editor of Tourism Management has been proposing that in our field there should be a willingness to publish data sets to accompany articles, and this suggestion has generally met resistance  for understood, but I think misplaced, reasons. One concern is that others will purloin the data in order to  gain publications in this ‘publish or perish’ age. My own view is that we do research to disseminate findings and knowledge, and if others find things that the original authors omitted, then good on them. And if they fail to acknowledge the original authors then in this age of the internet they will be quickly found out. Of course there are some considerations or ethical issues to think about in the case of qualitative research when republishing a data set, especially, where the data may consist of interview transcripts. Ethics approval in some Universities require the transcripts to be stored securely and only accessed by the research team and the person who provided the interview; publishing them online would need to be factored into the ethics approval process. Probably, the underlying concern is that a complete transcript, even where de-identified, might suggest the identity of the interviewee, whereas individual quotes or vignettes taken out of context make it less likely that this would occur.

Some colleagues in tourism research (minority) find the particular idea of publishing review comments interesting, they wouldn’t mind it as long as their identity remained anonymous. According to them, it may help readers to see the evolution of an article and the common mistakes in preparing a manuscript. Additionally, reviewers may be more measured in how they approach a review. However, the majority, think it is a bad idea. In one particular opinion, it was questioned whether people would  actualy read reviews – given the amount of reading we are all doing and the things we are juggling, the argument is that someone would rather spend that time reading another journal article. To demosntrate the level of disagreement o the issue, another colleague had the following to say:

I have refereed for a journal where the referees and reports were transparent – it did not make too much difference, I do have my doubts about the openness generally – it would mean that writing a review would take more time if you knew it was going to be made public or shared, simply because you would write it in a more scholarly fashion rather than say bullet points.  That would mean turning it into more of a discussion/comment on the article. We do not have time for that and so I would probably not be prepared to review for a journal that wanted to publish reviews.

If you read the following example of a review report, that I recently wrote for an article submited to Tourism Management Perspectives, you will understand why I am now asking this question – would the community involved in tourism research welcome the publication of the referees’ reviews along with the actual article?

General comments: I think the subject matter of the paper is of great importance, the topic is of interest and relevance to tourism research. The objective of the study is clearly stated, however, I think that the methodology chosen is not adequate; some paragraphs are not well written, see page 2 for example…. The objective is to manage the impacts (economic, social or environmental) in such a way that the attraction will be sustained and available for future generations to enjoy it in the same manner as the present. I don´t think that this content is sufficient to be considered a substantial contribution in its current form, the authors must work on gramatical and theoretical rigour before resubmitting for publication. The concept of tourism sustainability is well researched, however literature in the present article is inadequate and outdated (most of the sources are from 10 to over 20 years!), this is a hot area of research and one that needs to be constantly updated. Literature review is inadequate. For a stronger theoretical foundation, I suggest that you look at sustainable tourism indicators proposed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), available at https://www.gstcouncil.org/en/. The results section is well presented, it contains a number of assertions which detracts from an understanding of the results of this study versus others. Can these be organized and elaborated in a better manner.

Theoretical Foundation: I also think that the theoretical contribution of the study is very limited. The goal of any kind of research is to contribute to the existing body of knowledge or simply put- theory development. It is unclear how the findings of this study bring theory forward. Nothing is suggested for future research. It is only stated that…. data will be useful to other researchers who want to compare their data to determine the environmental performance of the case studies they investigate….It is unclear how the findings can be empirically tested in future research. The introduction lacks focus and direction, the literature review is short and doesn’t clearly and systematically unpack and orientate key ideas in a focused manner towards the research agenda and methods. I suggest the formulation of a strong and pertinent theoretical framework that provides the necessary foundation on which to base and ground the findings of the study.

Methods: The methods section is not detailed, what is the meaning of this statement… The main research design for the study is a secondary data analysis. .. Again, the methodology doesn’t reference any similar, or broadly relevant, studies. Do not make the wording so complicated that the reader doesn’t understand what you are trying to say.

Analysis and Results: The analysis and findings are clear and well presented. How do your results compare with those from other studies? This section needs more careful construction. Sentence improvements are necessary. The simpler language you use here the better. The results need better link with the literature, unless we see how the present results compare with results from previous studies, the research does not achieve the objective of knowledge contribution.

Conclusion: Overal, I think that the conclusion is very brief and rather limited by what has gone before. This is a very rich topic – think about what your study really means and what you found out – and how you found it out. And, why it is important. Where does this work fit into the existing body of knowledge. Additionally, limitations and directions for future research need to be explicitly discussed. I do hope this helps the author. I think that this is a very worthwhile subject area and with more work would result in a vastly improved paper. I encourage you to continue working on it.

Tourism Management, a leading journal in our field made a similar move a few years ago to disseminate back to reviewers the reviews of others as part of the review process and the world did not collapse. Arguably it may have improved the review process at least a little, because reviewers appreciate receiving comments made by their colleagues and find it instructive to see different approaches in reviewing the same article. Can we achieve further gains if referee comments become publishable? If you favour this, how important to you would be the right to remain anonymous as a referee? Would you still be willing to act as a referee if you knew your review might be published?

Review considerations, ethics issues and successful cientific writing Hints

I have commented on the lack of writing and information-filtering skills before in this article, but I reckon it really is time for undergraduate – and perhaps graduate – tourism programmes to require a writing and research paper – even a short course, if not a full semester or trimester before.  Some reasons? (a) Increasing number of pleas by editors and reviewers for correct referencing (b) To make students aware that there are several different referencing/citation forms and that they need to be aware of the differences (c) To introduce ethics into the study of tourism – which includes, accurate and non-plagiarising referencing; an appreciation of applicable privacy laws (as well as university ethics requirements), ethical issues applicable to field research, etc. (d) To learn how to research – and filter information. We can’t expect newly rising graduates to know “how to” and to appreciate the full ramifications without training them, and training them would benefit both them and the publishers of their future works. I spend some time with colleagues in law and legal publishing, and referencing to them is not the issue that it is in tourism (and other social sciences) today. I can highlight the reason: in law school (at least in the US and many law schools outside the US), legal writing and research is a required subject, additionally, there is one accepted legal citation form – with no variations permitted, so, you either get it right or wrong. In my experience as a journal reviewer and – I may get flamed for it, I think pure laziness of the current generation of grad students and early career researchers is the main reason for low quality articles submited for publication, they simply don’t pay attention to specific details and formalities, from proper referencing to formatting, and everything in between. My plea to young academics out there, please, read author guidelines carefully when submitting manuscripts to journals, I am convinced that a large number of you fail to recognise the convention that on menus marked with a plus sign, if you place the cursor over the plus sign, that enables a further drop down menu to occur!

Another review challenge has to do with proper referencing, there are significant numbers of people who fall into what we might call the “Napster and BitTorrent generation” as well as those who identify as libertarians of the “anarcho-capitalist” variety, who essentially dismiss the entire concept of intellectual property. Thus, once something is online, it’s in the public domain and up for grabs. It’s not that they don’t understand the concept of stealing, it’s that they honestly don’t believe it to be theft when applied to ideas rather than things. Similarly, we have students copying from wikipedia, not because they’re trying to cheat but because they actually think it’s OK and that it belongs to them (and everybody else). The logic is severely flawed (as with much Austrian Economics) – but it has also been swallowed whole by, amongst others, the segment of the generation of college students who rallied for Ron Paul a couple of US Presidential elections ago. It doesn’t defy belief or explanation, however much we disagree with it – it’s very much a recognizable phenomenon and disappointingly explainable. So, if you fall into this category of crooked authors, remember the following caveat every time you are tempted to plagiarize: All papers submitted these days to leading journals are initially checked with anti-plagiarism software. Many students cut and paste text and think that giving author and year of publication is sufficient. It is NOT! You must use quotation marks and provide the page number if replicating the original text. It is not that difficult to get right! And it saves time for you and hassle for editors and reviewers! Often, editors have had to write the following type of responses to authors or even set up a standard reply letter on their editorial system:

“As you know, manuscripts submitted to the journal are checked by plagiarism software, and currently your score exceeds that we normally accept. This is primarily due to incorrect referencing. For example, you state:

So, customer satisfaction is a business philosophy that highlights the importance of creating value for customers, anticipating and managing their expectations, and demonstrating the ability and responsibility to satisfy their needs (Dominici & Guzzo, 2010).

In this sentence much of the text is a cut and paste from the cited article. Therefore it needs to be in quotation marks and the page reference also given.

Can you please go through your text and make the necessary changes”

This is time consuming on the part of reviewers and editors, causes delays in the processing of manuscripts – and to be honest, I feel that editors and reviewers shouldn’t be wasting their time on this kind of work. In short – simply citing authors and years of publication is NOT enough if you are replicating the original text. So, I am asking that authors do check for this before submitting papers as I suspect that I am not the only one being exasperated by this practice of incomplete referencing.

Plagiarism

Image source: Tendai Mupaso, TechZim, 2015.

Equally, I must admit that sometimes, it is dificult to distinguish between proper and improper referencing because of the grey zones in plagiarism. Often, editors are faced with the dilema of deciding whether to turn back papers that have certain problematic areas as shown in similarity reports generated by plagiarism detection software like iThenticate and Turnitin for student papers. Recognizing that different journals and institutions treat this topic differently, I posed the following questions to colleagues in an online forum. What are your policies in terms of the percentage of similarity accepted? Do you have different percentages for self-plagiarism? Is this a strict cut-off point or do you take any other factors into consideration? The answers and experiences were varied.

In one of the responses, a colleague recounts a small problem/ experience he ran into recently – one of his PhD students submitted an article to a journal and he got into trouble because the PhD dissertation was available online, the editor of the journal considered it as a case of auto-plagiarism and according to him, the work was already published. What followed was an interesting email dialogue between the student, his University and the journal about how PhDs in New Zealand (and elsewhere) were made available online, but not usually published as books as they are in Europe. The approach adopted by the journal would mean very few New Zealand PhD students would be able to publish from their theses. In a similar experience, a students had his thesis plagiarized by someone else who attempted to defend himself by noting that, because the University of Waterloo puts all theses and dissertation on-line, that constituted publishing and that it was okay for him to copy substantial portions of the original thesis and present it as his own work in a journal article, however, the logic in this last case defies belief or explanation. The problem of plagiarism is a shared responsibility between the authors and in most cases, students and their supervisor, look at the following example: a research student submits a paper with his supervisor as the second author – but the supervisor is not aware of the level of inappropriate/appropriated text – such circumstances tend to be sorted out quite quickly once the senior member of staff is made aware of the situation. My point is that all authors should know the source of every single paragraph in the article and feel comfortable with the text, it is now practice for most journals to write to all authors simultaneously and not jut a corresponding author.

It is interesting to know how major tourism journals and research communities handle ethics issues and the grey zones of plagiarism. The Academy of Management has a formal written Code of Ethics (available online) and this is what their journal editors generally do; they utilize CrossCheck powered by iThenticate for all submissions.  A 30% or lower similarity index across journals is generally used but some journals, notably AMJ utilizes a 20% similarity index threshold.  AMLE utilizes 30% but realistically anything between 20-30% similarity will be flagged.  When an article is flagged the editor will start by reviewing the methods section carefully as it is possible that the overlap is entirely due to the methods as there are only so many ways to write up some parts of that section of a paper.  In general an 18% similarity is low enough to proceed with a review of the submitted manuscripts.  However would that perception of low similarity hold in a case of self-plagiarism?  Each case is reviewed on its own merits as different ethics issues require different interpretations.

The International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management (IJCHM) has been using iThenticate software for the past five years to check all accepted manuscripts before publishing them and it has indeed helped tremendously to reduce cases of plagarism. iThenticate has has its own settings that can be adjusted, so for example, references and direct quotes can be excluded and also, the editor can decide how many words should match. Sometimes running a word document versus a pdf version of the same article may change the similarity index, so IJCHM prefers using the word documents to look at the similarity index and usually excluding references. Their decision on similarity levels dependes on different circumstances and they find it misleading to say a 20% similarity is acceptable and a 50% similarity is too high. Argument? An article with a 20% similarity may have a 10% or 15% similarity with one single source, which can be a major concern. On the other hand, in the case of 50% similarity, the highest similarity to any source/reference may be less than 1% or 2%, which may eventually be okay. In terms of self plagiarism, authors are often trying to publish multiple articles from one dataset. In such cases, some parts of methodology and literature review sections are identical or similar. IJCHM generally requests their authors to reduce the similarity to any single source to 1%. Authors are equally ecouraged to use Turnitin software to check their articles before submitting them, one major challenge is that the software saves and keeps all uploaded documents, which creates major problems when the same documents are run through iThenticate. Conference proceedings and PhD dissertations are sometimes published online, so articles coming from the above mentioned documents can have high similarity index. In such cases, the journal editor has to make a decision. In short, each case is different for articles submitted to the IJCHM. Finally, the journal uploads manually all accepted articles to iTheticate, spends several hours to read reports and communicate with the authors. This may be time consuming for a busy editor, but it is a norm at IJCHM.

At Tourism Management (TM), they have a lower tolerance figure of 15% – but that is usually a signal to the editor to check the actual manuscript – there is no blind adherence to any given number.  Often, the editor will write back to the authors asking for correct citation formats to be used – which is often little more than the addition of inverted commas and a page number to be given in addition to author and year.  Again – each case is different for this journal.

In conclusión, I wish to offer some free advise to all authors (both old and new generation), be careful and honest when writting, don´t take the lazy route and plagiarize. Often we’re confronted with people who are brilliant, absolutely incredible researchers, but that’s not what makes them great scientists. It’s the character. Before embarking on the rigorous task of writing, make a plan and read the previous literature published in your area of study. During the writting and review process: make sure you include all key article components, respect previous publications and apply correct referencing of statements, do not overestimate your contribution, avoid ambiguity and inconsistency, prefer objective over subjective statements, give great care to grammar, spelling, figures and tables and generally, follow author guidelines, as well as, editor and reviewer comments. In 2016, the International Academy for the Study of Tourism developed a set of guidelines, hints and suggestions on what authors need to consider and common mistakes to avoid when preparing a manuscript (see the Academy´s website: http://www.polyu.edu.hk/htm/academy/documents/successful_writing_hints.pdf). This set of suggestions represents the collective thoughts of fellows who are chief editors of leading journals in our field and it is a handy/useful source for academics and doctoral students alike when drafting papers. You may also find George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” interesting.

Authored by Kennedy Obombo Magio, PhD. CONACYT Research Fellow, Tourism and Sustainability Studies in the Mexican Caribbean, Technological Institute of Cancún (México)

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