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Why we need to remove this barrier to publishing in research journals

To involve people with lived experience of mental distress in the publishing of research, simple but vital changes must be made says Dan Robotham

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Dan Robotham

It is no secret that the world of academic publishing is rife with arcane practices and excessive profit margins.

There have been some positive changes in recent years. The growth of the internet and social media platforms like ResearchGate has allowed researchers to upload ‘open access’ versions of papers.

In parallel, many universities have embraced the idea of making their research papers open to the public. This has partly been driven by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), but also reflects the belief in the ‘right’ thing to do. The result is that an increasing proportion of academic articles are freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

However, some of the more mundane, accidental, or incidental forms of elitism remain. These sorts of things are easy to solve in principle but solving them will only happen if they are known and challenged. Practice will follow suit. I was reminded about one of these barriers by a colleague the other day.

The treatment of lived experience contributors

This conversation related to the insensitivities of how people without ‘formal’ education are treated by the peer-reviewed publishing system. This disproportionately affects people who contribute from a lived experience perspective (and who don’t also bring ‘academic’ or ‘clinical’ expertise).

I do not think these insensitivities are deliberate, but they are relics of an elitist system that hasn’t yet embraced the idea that ‘lay’ or untrained people could possibly author academic articles.

The offending process in this case happened after an article had been accepted for publication.

When this happens, all authors on the paper are sent an ‘author information form’. This asks them to confirm their contribution to the paper, list any potential conflicts of interest, and confirm their name and details, such as qualifications and organisational affiliations. 

It is the final detail in that sentence that I want to focus on, and which affected this situation. For context, most people who author peer-reviewed papers have degrees (often PhDs). Academic journals are not always accustomed to processing the details of authors who do not have this level of formal education.

There will not be any explicit policy excluding these authors from publishing in the journal, but there may be a series of minor barriers that may cause embarrassment, self-consciousness or worsen feelings of imposter syndrome.

In this case, all authors were asked to list their “highest degree qualification” as part of the acceptance process. The framing of this question assumes that all authors will have degrees.

Anyone who lists their highest degree as ‘none’ may trigger a ‘computer says no’ response from the journal administrations – probably something like: “Dear authors. We cannot process your article because Mr Smith has not answered the question about his highest degree qualification. Please could Mr Smith give details of his highest degree classification to proceed with publication”.

Upon receiving such a notification, Mr Smith could be aggrieved and upset, particularly if he already felt like an ‘imposter’ in the first place.

Notifications are likely to be copied to the corresponding author (usually an academic), or sometimes to the entire authorship team (as happened in this case). At the very least, this shows how accidental elitism and academic snobbery is baked into the peer-review publishing system.

Removing exclusionary phrasing

This may seem like a relatively trivial detail, and it can be sorted with some back-and-forth emailing. I cannot imagine that any journal would block an author due to lack of degree qualifications.

The problem is the implication. It shows that some academic publishers have still not embraced the ideas of co-production, or even of Patient and Public Involvement.

Fundamentally, people who contribute to academic papers from a lived experience perspective do not need a degree, or any formal education at all. They are contributing lived experience expertise that is as valuable to the authorship team as any technical, clinical, or scientific expertise.

This is especially important because some people who use lived experience expertise in mental health research may have also experienced disruptions to education as a result of their life experiences. The worst thing a journal administration process can do is compound any feelings of educational inadequacy that may have been there since school.

Ultimately, this kind of phrasing and process is exclusionary and can shame people into thinking they are somehow not welcome.

Challenging our assumptions

This issue is a live one for McPin. We never presume that anyone involved in our Lived Experience Advisory Panels (LEAPs) has a degree. LEAP members make valued contributions to research and often appear as authors on peer-reviewed publications.

So how do we solve this? Well, firstly, journals should not assume that all authors have a degree, or any formal education at all.

They should also avoid sending any automated (or manual) emails to authorship teams querying people’s qualifications, even if those people say they have no university degree. If they must clarify details, then sending emails to individual authors is likely to be a better bet.

Working with Lived Experience Advisory Panels

This is 2021. These ideas are not new. We should be moving beyond narrow-minded beliefs about who ‘does’ and ‘does not’ author peer-reviewed papers.

Now more than ever, as multi-disciplinary research becomes more necessary to solve complex problems (like Covid-19, or climate change), we must remove the systemic barriers that exist for people without academic qualifications to do research and be credited for it.

This is a case of fixing internal systems within the publishing companies. If you are a journal editor reading this, please audit your practices and check that you are not doing this kind of thing.

If you are a researcher co-authoring with people in this situation, be aware of the sensitivities and have a plan for manage them and challenge the systemic barriers on sight.

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Dan Robotham is Deputy Research Director at McPin.