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Meet the editor of... Journal of Documentation

An interview with: David Bawden

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Image: Dr David BawdenDr David Bawden is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Science at City University in London. His original academic background is in organic chemistry and information science and he worked in information services for pharmaceutical research for 12 years, before moving to City in 1990.

Journal of Documentation (JDoc) is just that – a journal devoted the study of documentation, encompassing all the academic and professional disciplines which deal with recorded information: library and information science, knowledge management, information policy, records management and archiving, human information behaviour and information in society. It is the leading European research journal in its field and regularly achieves the highest citation rating for comparable titles. It aims to increase understanding of theories and concepts in the information sciences, and welcomes articles on the methodology of research, the results of research projects, reflections on both theory and practice, the evidence-base for practice, the history of documentation, education and training for information use, and studies of information concepts, frameworks and models. 

The journal is now in its 60th year of publication and is celebrating by publishing a series of articles marking "60 years of the best in Information Research". One or more influential articles from each decade have been selected and will be republished in full along with a commentary on the significance of the article(s).

David is Director of the City's Postgraduate Information Studies Scheme, and teaches on Master's degrees in Information Science, Library and Information Studies, and Pharmaceutical Information Management, as well as leading professional development courses for Aslib (the Association for Information Management). He has taught at the Universities of Ljubljana and Zagreb, and has been involved in Summer Schools at the Central European University, Budapest. His teaching and research interests are in information representation and organisation, information seeking and retrieval, and the history and philosophy of the information sciences, and he is co-director of City's Centre for Interactive Systems Research.

Editorial scope and philosophy

First, congratulations on reaching your 60th year of publication!  Briefly, what are some of the most significant changes in information research over that period?

There have been two major changes. One has been brought about by new technologies, particularly the Internet, and the consequent development of many new information products which could not have been conceived when the journal began. The other is the move towards what's termed the cognitive approach to information research, looking at human information behaviour, how people seek information, rather than focusing on information systems. 

How do you think information research benefits from a historical perspective?

It helps us understand technological change. When a new technology such as the Internet comes along, you think that you need a new way of looking at it. But in fact a lot of the things that were said about printing in the 16th and 17th century are similar to what's now being said about the Internet – that it is an isolating force, may provide poor quality and offensive material, and so forth. So a historical perspective reminds us of what is invariant over time, and provides us with a perspective to analyse.

You state your editorial objectives as being "to provide a forum for the dissemination of scholarly articles, research reports and critical reviews in the information sciences", and that your perspective is on "theories, concepts, models, frameworks, and philosophies".  Would it be correct to say that JDoc is principally a research journal?

It is totally a research journal in the sense that we would not publish an article that was not grounded in research to some extent. That's not to exclude practitioners because much research is done in a practitioner setting, and certainly practitioners can benefit from research findings. Just as we are told that health services must be evidence-based, so there's a view that library and information services can also be evidence based, and so should depend on research. But equally, the librarianship and information science are disciplines which are grounded in practice, so that, although we publish material which does not have an immediate demonstrable application, there will be some relevance further down the line.

I've heard the journal described as "the Nature of the information science field"?

It's true to the extent that we are fairly selective, we focus on the basics and we would like to think that much of what is new and important will be published in our pages. Obviously Nature has a much wider field, but yes, that's an interesting analogy.

You also aim to "provide a link between research and scholarship and reflective professional practice".  Do you ever publish, say, case studies of library practice which are descriptive rather than research based but which might have general lessons, a website for example?

In that example, we would look to see if there is anything novel about the site (such as a different kind of information architecture or taxonomy or some form of virtual reality) or the way it was evaluated – to show perhaps the financial or practical benefits that accrue from people using that resource, which is a notoriously difficult thing to determine – those would be the criteria that we would regard as research, with the keys being novelty and general applicability. A descriptive piece using fairly well established techniques on a fairly well established product, or in a particular context, we probably would refer to another journal. 

Would you say that the majority of your submissions were from academics?

Primarily, yes, I think that's inevitable and proper because academics are largely the people who are paid to do research. However we have published and will continue to publish papers by people who aren't academics, in fact the last recipient of a best paper award was Alan Gilchrist, a practitioner who wrote an article clarifying the meaning of ontology, thesaurus, etc. We would also encourage jointly written papers from academics and practitioners if they are investigating and analysing some particular practical and operational environment.

The main competitor to Journal of Documentation is Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, which also looks at research in information science.  How do you see the positioning of the two journals?

Journal editors are increasingly paranoid about ISI [Thomson Scientific] impact factors, and JASIST and JDoc are the top journals as assessed in that way. Interestingly you could also say that if JDoc is Nature, JASIST is Science – that would be a nice analogy. The distinction between the two in terms of content is that JASIST has now added the T word – Technology – and they publish a considerably higher proportion of technology papers than we do. Ours is a much broader approach – we leaven our technology papers with evaluation of systems, philosophy, and many other topics. Their authorship and readership is more American, ours is mainly Western Europe, though both journals are truly international.

So how would you encourage a truly international coverage?

Firstly, we make sure that our editorial board is genuinely international. Of course, we look for people who are active in the field, and who have sufficient expertise and experience to do the job but we also actively look for a world wide spread. Secondly, by going to international conferences. For example I gave an author workshop in Croatia to young researchers, putting across the point that the journal is for them, not just for the English-speaking countries. We also make it plain that we don't necessarily expect initial fluency in English; obviously when material is published it has to be in very good English, but as a starting point we work with the authors to help them.

So, how would you work with authors who had a difficulty with English?

If it's understandable, so that we can tell it's worthwhile but the English is not as it should be, then I would send it to the reviewers. They would comment on its fitness for publication, and probably make some general comments about the sort of improvements that were necessary – phraseology and grammar – and very often authors are able to do something with the English if they think the paper is worthwhile. They don't want to invest time and effort polishing up the English, only for the journal to say that it won't publish. It also depends whether they just need someone to go through and make helpful suggestions or whether they really need a professional proofreader.

What proportion of your articles come from outside information science, or say from an information scientist writing with someone from another discipline?

Probably no more than a couple a years,  from business schools or computer science. More usually it's joint authorship or someone in the information sciences who has an interest in that side of things. 

Do you have any calls or special issues lined up?

We don't tend to have calls, rather, special issues are given to an editor who makes direct approaches to potential authors. We make a fairly definite attempt, from time to time, to attract the attention of a discipline or sub-discipline and say "JDoc is relevant to you",  as we did with the International Society for Knowledge Organizations for whom we produced a small flyer about knowledge organization in JDoc showing how we have published a number of classic papers in the past, and continue to include such topics. We may do something similar for other areas, such as digital libraries and text retrieval. We are doing a special issue on philosophy in information science next year, and will have other special issues in the future.

The publishing cycle

You publish six issues a year, that's how many manuscripts on average?

At the moment we're working with 4 papers in each one, so that would be 24 a year, we have actually experienced a growth in the number of good papers coming in so we would probably increase that to 5 or 6 an issue.

On average, how many submissions do you get a year, what percentage of submissions do you reject outright, what percentage go to reviewers, and what percentage end up being published?

Of the papers we receive, probably 20 per cent are immediately screened out as inappropriate and usually recommended to another journal. The rest go to peer review. Of those maybe another 10 per cent are then rejected – reviewers look at it and say that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. So that's 30 per cent go either because they are rejected or they are screened out at the start. Of the remainder probably about half, that's 35 per cent of the original, are published with some minor revisions, the others would be "there's something good in here but it needs a major change". Of those that go back to the original authors for major revisions probably about half are modified and given back to us and the rest we never see again. In other words, probably 45 per cent don't get published, either because they are screened out or rejected, or the author decides they don't want to make modifications. So, about half don't get published, about half do after some changes. The thing I would say positively to authors is that only 10 per cent are simply rejected.

So, how do you think you've achieved this low rejection rate?

I'm almost tempted to say it's through fear, because many authors think JDoc is ferocious, rejecting most of what is submitted, and so people don't bother sending us stuff. More positively, we try to be very clear in our statement of editorial policy and scope, saying "Send us this, don't send us that" and so people rarely submit things that are just not appropriate. That is good on the whole. The bad side would be if someone felt that they wouldn't be considered as they are not famous, or their institution is not well-known, and we'd like to get over that.

So how do you encourage people to get over the fear factor?

I'd quote the statistics, to show that we don't reject so much. Sometimes people feel that it has to be very academic, very highbrow, almost divorced from practice, but this is not the case. It must be research-based, and complete – not work in progress – certainly. But it doesn't have to be ivory tower academic, long, or mathematical. We do publish that sort of material but that's not all we publish.

Assuming that an article is publishable, how long does it take, on average, between submitting a manuscript and publication?

We aim to get a response to the author within six weeks, although we don't always achieve that. We are then in their hands as to how quickly they are able to look at the paper. We say to them, if you return your paper by such and such a date, it will go in such an issue, so we give them a carrot to hurry up. Once we have the journal together, it takes four to six months to get published. So, something could appear in a journal within six months.

Quality issues

A recently published article, "Serendipity and information seeking: an empirical study" by Allen Foster and Nigel Ford (Vol. 59 No. 3), gained an Emerald Outstanding Paper Award. Reading through it it's certainly a model of clarity and readability.  What else was it about this paper that made it so outstanding?

I think first and foremost it is the topic, which is often informally discussed, but there's relatively little written which approaches it from a methodical viewpoint, which looks at how serendipity happens, how can it be encouraged? It was a very well structured interesting paper on an worthwhile topic.

What advice would you give to authors on dealing with peer review?

Authors often imagine that reviewers are out to attack them, that they will be metaphorically sneering at the work. But this is not the case. The other message I'd want to get across is that authors have to take an unemotional approach, and see the reviewer as helping to make the paper better, rather than get upset or go into denial. And also to make sure they understand what the reviewer means. I have known cases with other journals where someone gave up and never sent in a revised paper because they didn't understand what the reviewer meant, and didn't know what to do. The reviewers don't always express themselves as clearly as they might.

We normally ask here whether there are any abiding quality issues which crop up again and again, such as referencing, but I'm guessing that this isn't the problem with information sciences academics. Am I correct here? Are there any other quality issues?

It's a bit like the roof on the builder's house which is always leaking! People are not always as careful as you might expect them to be, and sometime you have to check them on that. I don't think there are any quality issues other than the very general one of saying to pretty much every author including the most experienced, you are saying something very interesting but you could say it more succinctly.

Dissemination

Getting something published is only the first step in dissemination.  What advice would you give to authors on continuing to ensure that their work becomes known to their peers?

I think if someone gets an article published in JDoc or another major journal, you can assume that it will be noticed and read. However, if the author is from a different part of the world or a different professional community, their peers may not read these journals although that's much less the case then it used to be simply because of e-journals, where articles are found by searching rather than reading the journal cover to cover. One of the things authors should do – very simple, very obvious – is make sure their title and abstract and keywords are full and complete and covers what's important for their work, and can be identified through searches.

General

Journal of Documentation is sponsoring the Emerald/EFMD Outstanding Doctoral Research Award in Information Science. Can you give any hints as to the qualities you are looking for?

Essentially the same as we would look for in papers. Something of fairly general interest, not too local, and some novelty in the methodology for research. Either generating new methodology or using for the first time a methodology from elsewhere.

How do you think Journal of Documentation in particular, and LIS journals in general, contribute to the professional development of librarians and information specialists?

JDoc along with other journals assists in building up the knowledge base of the profession. We are in an environment where professional people of all kinds are supposed to continually upskill themselves. One of the more underrated ways of doing this is by doing some professional reading of academic journals. The sort of things which appear in scholarly journals will probably appear on the desk of a practitioner in a couple of years' time, funnelled through the good offices of a consultancy or training agency and maybe it's no bad thing to acquaint themselves with the real thing.

What advice would you give to a recently qualified, ambitious librarian or information specialist, say educated to masters level, who wished to build a publishing career?

There are two ways of doing this. They may describe what they do, a kind of case study, and there are  journals that will publish that sort of descriptive case study good practice material. Or they may carry out some kind of research as part of day to day work, such as introducing or evaluating a new system, or finding out more about the information needs of the people they are serving. That sort of research is the sort of thing that could be published in JDoc

And finally...

In your recent editorial in which you ask for speculations about the future, you quote various inaccurate predications about communications technology, for example that the telephone would never take on because there were too many messenger boys.  Can you give examples of any equally wild speculations about the future of information sciences?

There is one which keeps cropping up – its starting point was H.G. Wells, and his idea of the World Brain. This is the idea that all information is stored in one place. At present, many people think everything can be found from Google. But it's never as simple as that – there never will be one place where everything can be found.  Another example, of course, is the "death of print", which is usually predicted to happen 10-15 years from the date of the prediction, and has yet to show any sign of coming true.

Do you have a final message to authors and readers?

If they have heard of JDoc they may have an impression that it's somewhat old fashioned, "academic" in the bad sense, and almost totally British. If they look at it, they will see that none of these things are true. If they haven't come across the journal before, they may think that its title suggests something a bit esoteric, old fashioned. We've thought of changing the title, but it's such a strong brand. So they shouldn't be misled by the title. If they are interested in the representation and communication of information, information behaviour, and information systems, they will find something of value.

Visit the information page for: Journal of Documentation