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Reflections on geosynthetic technical publication outlets

August 1st, 2013 / By: / Updates

As a graduate student back in the 1960s, we were informed by our Duke University advisor (the world-renowned Prof. Alexander S. Vesić) that the hierarchy of research and development (R & D) technical publications was as follows:

Journal papers—for archival studies that have been brought to a degree of finality and had been rigorously peer reviewed by others, thus representing the state of the art (SOTA).

Conference proceedings papers—for ongoing studies or incremental parts of a larger project that also have been peer reviewed but generally less rigorously than with journal papers.

Magazine papers and technical reports—for focused and/or proprietary audiences, which are often not reviewed, at least externally.

Technical books—for the assembly and systematic organization of the body of knowledge as presented in the journals, proceedings, magazines, and reports mentioned previously, thus representing the state of the practice (SOTP).

In this regard, journal papers and technical books form the two extremes between the SOTA and the SOTP in most technical topic areas such as geosynthetics. To clarify this terminology, everyone in the specific technical area should know the SOTP, but only a small percentage venture into the uncertainty of research and development ultimately leading toward the SOTA.

For example, in a court case lawyers expect a defendant to know the SOTP but not necessarily the SOTA, the latter being the purview of expert witnesses. Over time, I think that the above ordering of publication outlets somewhat remains the same, but the impact of costs and profits have been engendering change. Whether such changes are for the better or worse is left to the reader, but some personal opinions follow.

Regarding journals, there are many that currently exist and the current “buzz” suggests that more are on the horizon. The impetus seems to be sales by the publishers to university libraries since journal papers are the academic drivers for faculty tenure and promotion. Of course, there is also the prestige of the publication itself to the author(s) and his or her university, organization, or company.

Regarding proceedings, the cost of hard copy in a printed version for most conferences appears to be prohibitive. At best, one leaves a conference with a CD of the papers, most of which do not have a rigorous keyword section or search engine for future retrieval purposes. Even more troublesome is the tendency for many conferences to not have written papers at all and the CD contains only the presenters’ PowerPoint slides.

Regarding reports by governmental agencies, professional associations, and larger consultancies, the cost of preparation, printing, and distribution seems to be insurmountable. At best, a website might be available but the consistency in maintaining a publication activity seems to be overwhelming, at least in a sustainable format.

Regarding books covering a comprehensive overview of a specific area from A to Z, most often we have a compilation by multiple authors where an editor(s) makes an attempt to have consistency and uniformity throughout. Having done this often, it’s really like pulling teeth! In the end, such efforts are of value to professionals but, academically, are difficult particularly for a faculty member (and his or her students) if a multi-edited book is used in a classroom setting as the textbook; they are also extremely expensive.

So … change is not only coming, it is with us for all four categories of technical publication outlets, geosynthetics included. My fears in this regard are the following:

  • Peer review is becoming more sparse and casual in its approach, which might be
    heightened with new geosynthetic journals on the horizon.
  • Rejected articles are shopped around until eventually accepted and published.
    > Repeat articles by the same author or group, albeit modified slightly, are appearing regularly.
    > Topics that have been researched in the past are revisited with little or no regard to relevant existing publications.
    > Literature searches of past work in the topic area are becoming more cavalier and often appropriate references are simply not cited.
  • Attribution with regard to republication of figures, tables, and photographs is being omitted.

In summary, this column will likely have no effect on the present or future status of technical publications but at least it will provide a recognition of perceived and ongoing changes which might be revealing to some of you.

P.S., Of course I’m guilty of some of the above dicey items but thought I’d get if off my chest anyway!

Bob Koerner, Ph.D., P.E., NAE, is the director emeritus of Geosynthetic Institute (GSI) and is a member of Geosynthetics magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee. GSI: +1 610 522 8440,

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