February 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM1

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On Line and In Touch: Meeting the Challenges of Communication for Extension Professionals

Ten years ago the Journal of Extension moved to an electronic format to better serve Extension professionals. A survey of recent JOE authors showed strong support for the Web-based format of the journal. Authors lauded the searchability of the database, the ease of the manuscript submission process, and their ability to reach their field-based audience through the electronic format. Some authors raised concerns about the credibility of Web publications like the Journal of Extension and about slow manuscript review turn-around times. The Journal of Extension has instituted changes to address these concerns.

Harriet Shaklee
Extension Family Development Specialist
University of Idaho
Boise, Idaho

Tom Archer
Leader, Program Development and Evaluation
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio

J. Benton Glaze, Jr.
Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
University of Idaho
Twin Falls, Idaho

Journals form the backbone of the communication network for academic professionals. The peer review process ensures high standards of scholarship for published work. Colleagues within a discipline consult journals as they are released to keep abreast of current developments. Professionals on university campuses can relatively easily access the printed body of work through the university library system. A stroll across a well-groomed campus allows them to peruse an extensive collection of published work.

Library journal collections may work well for campus professionals, but it's a long trip to the university library for Extension faculty working in Salmon, Idaho, Wauseon, Ohio, or White River Junction, Vermont. However, effective communication is just as important for Extension field faculty as it is for faculty on campus. Fortunately, progress in recent years offers a new communication tool better suited to field-based work--the World Wide Web. The Web offers universal access, whether you are at a lone Western ranch, a small Southern community, or an isolated workstation in Africa or Asia. Web-based publication allows Extension professionals to extend their reach well beyond campus boundaries and into the field where the Extension audience is located.

Going Electronic

Ten years ago, the Board of Directors of the Journal of Extension (JOE) made the decision to move to an electronic publication format to better serve their readers and authors. While maintaining rigor through the peer review process, the Board of Directors determined that the communication function of a journal for Extension professionals would be best served in an electronic format.

Evidence for the success of the move to the Web is shown in the Journal of Extension's steady rate of growth. Readership has grown substantially over the years, with less than a quarter of a million page views in 1999 and nearly 1.7 million by 2003. In 2003, readers from 162 countries accessed the journal, up from 100 countries in 1999. Journal submissions have been on the rise as well, more than doubling in the past 5 years. There were 256 submissions in 2003 alone, a 20%-increase over the previous record high set in 2001.

Ask the Authors

In recognition of the 10-year anniversary of the Journal of Extension's move to an electronic format, the Board of Directors conducted a survey of authors who had published in the Journal of Extension in the last 5 years. Authors were invited to respond to a set of questions about their experience with the Journal of Extension and its electronic format. The survey was administered electronically, using Zoomerang, a commercial, paid subscription service (http://www.zoomerang.com/). Of the 283 authors reached, 212 replied to the survey, a 74.9% response rate. Survey respondents included field-based and campus professionals, educators, specialists, and administrators. Forty-five percent of the respondents had been in Extension for over 10 years, and 72% were in tenure track positions.

The survey respondents strongly supported the Web format of the Journal of Extension, with 76% agreeing that the electronic format of the journal helped them reach their target audience and 87% agreeing that the Web-based search capabilities expanded access to their work. Additionally, 56% indicated that they read JOE regularly to keep up in their field.

Responses to open-ended questions about the pros and cons of the electronic format of the Journal of Extension tell the story behind the ratings. Frequently cited was the ease of the electronic format. Authors reported that it was easy to search, access, and share archived articles. It was also easy to reach Extension professionals who authored articles. Respondents thought it was easy to submit their work to the Journal of Extension, with several positive responses about the speed of the submission and review process, the ease of feedback from reviewers, and the short time to publication.

Authors also commented on the role of JOE in their careers, with 87% agreement that Journal of Extension publication was helpful to their career progress. Authors stated that publication in JOE gave them the opportunity for professional development, assisted in their tenure/promotion, enhanced their professional reputation, legitimized their scholarship, and gave them a positive sense of accomplishment. Respondents also appreciated JOE's role as a vehicle for professional communication, increasing their ability to reach their target audience. Many authors reported receiving feedback about their work, including professional dialogue and requests for further information.

Some Concerns

Results of the survey of Journal of Extension authors show that the journal has served its authors well, but some comments merit concern. Though many authors cited quick turnaround in the submission and review process, others felt the process was too slow, especially considering the electronic format. Suggestions for improvement included increasing the pool of reviewers, tightening the reviewing timeline, and eliminating consistently tardy reviewers. These comments indicate that the volume of journal submissions has expanded to the point of overburdening the reviewer pool.

The JOE Board of Directors has taken action on this concern, doubling the size of the reviewer pool through recent recruitment of reviewers. The Journal of Extension depends on quality reviews from experts in the field and is grateful for the willingness of Extension professionals to serve in this role. The journal's shift to a fully electronic submission and review process should further increase efficiency.

Also of concern were authors' comments about the level of regard for electronic journals in critical decisions such as promotion and tenure. Although 66% of the authors agreed that publication in JOE is well regarded by their department, others commented that their department and/or college valued electronic publications less than comparable work published in a print journal. University faculty may need to be educated about the challenges of scholarly communication in a field-based profession and the ability of Web-based publication to meet that need for university Extension programs.

The concern about the value of Web publication could also reflect old habits and traditions that die hard. Many professionals, including those on primary committees, like to see something printed on higher quality paper, bound, and available to toss into a briefcase. Then, too, it could be the result of the range of quality in the material that can be found on the Web, where anyone can put thoughts in print for the world to read. Alternatively, some may doubt the permanence of information published electronically. Will it be accessible in the future?

As those who grew up using electronic technology begin to dominate the ranks of Extension professionals, bound volumes of printed material are likely to be less in demand, and users of electronic media will become better at filtering out low-quality material. The Board of Directors of the Journal of Extension has adopted a policy on permanence that states, "The Journal of Extension is a professional, refereed journal, and, as such, its back issues are preserved in their entirety. The intent of Extension Journal, Inc. is to maintain all issues of the Journal of Extension in a readily available form. Multiple archives are maintained to ensure content security, information integrity, and long-term access."

The Future

The present evidence indicates that the transition to electronic publication has enhanced the viability of the Journal of Extension as a venue of professional communication. The story begins with the readers who turn to the journal for information--page views have grown by a factor of 7 in the past 5 years, including readers from over 160 countries. The growth in journal submissions suggests that authors also find the Journal of Extension to be an effective tool for professional communication. The survey responses complete the picture on the effectiveness of the electronic format. Authors' comments lauded the ability to reach Extension professionals, the ease of journal submissions, and the searchability of the database.

A final survey question asked Journal of Extension authors about their view of the role of an electronic journal in today's academic environment. Authors said electronic journals were useful, essential, and excellent. Others said they were accessible, timely, and speedy. Many respondents summed it up simply: It is the future.