Good Reads from 2021: Our NIDL Top 10 Journal Articles – Part 2

This is the second blog post in a series of three introducing our NIDL top 10 “good reads” for 2021. We will also be sharing next early week a separate list of “good reads” in the area of digital learning that have a specific COVID-related focus. In our first blog post, we established why professional reading matters, the value of taking time to do more slow or critical reading, and why it’s important to more intentionally think about who, what, where, when, why and how we read. 

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In this post, we explain why we originally chose to focus on open access journal articles, how the publication landscape is evolving and the process we follow in selecting our annual list of top 10 “good reads”. 

Why Open Access?

The original decision to limit article selections to open access journal publications was primarily a reflection of our commitment to openness and more specifically Open Science. Another consideration was to help profile the growing number of open access journals, which at the time Perkins and Lowenthal (2016) claimed were around one-third of an estimated 270 journals in the field of Educational Technology.

Given that no one person could be expected to read all of these journals, a secondary intention was to help people to recognise and better understand which open access journals are worthy of following and most likely to publish quality articles.

A related goal was to model and help to make more explicit the critical searching and reading strategies that experienced educators and researcher use to interrogate the literature. Copyright constraints and accessibility issues were also factors around our ability to share links to restricted journal publications that people at other institutions may not have been able to access. Hence, we chose to focus only on articles available in open access publications.

However, over the years our original definition of openness has become more challenging to apply and manage as traditionally closed journals increasingly adopt a hybrid publication model – that is, there has been a growing trend towards including a mix of open and closed articles in each issue. In some cases, early release articles are available in an open format before being restricted in a published issue and/or authors are given the rights to share a limited number of open copies.

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Thus, the openness boundaries have become blurred making our selection process far more demanding and time-consuming to ensure that we do justice to the exercise.

How are open access journals evolving?

The open access publishing ecology is continuing to evolve. We are discovering that open is not forever, as Laakso, et al. (2021) illustrate in their study of vanished open access journals. Notably, they found 174 open access journals that disappeared from the Internet between 2000 and 2019, across all major disciplines and geographic regions.

Three recent examples from the field of Educational Technology further illustrate this point. In 2017, the Journal of Learning Design closed after being launched back in 2005. After 16 years of publication, the Journal of Interactive Online Learning closed in 2018. And first launched in 1999, the most recent issue of the Malaysian Journal of Distance Education was back in 2019. On a related point, wherever possible, we endeavour to provide a link to the archives of closed journals on our comprehensive NIDL list of scholarly journals in the field. 

On a more positive note, new journals continue to emerge in response to new areas of development.

For example, in 2019 the International Journal of Open Educational Resources was launched in response to the growth of the OER movement. Also in the 2019, the inaugural issue of Postdigital Science and Education was published to help move the current thinking ‘beyond digital’. This new journal has already made a significant contribution to the field and once again features in our selections. Another new open access publication has emerged over recent months with the OTESSA Journal welcoming papers on all aspects of educational technology, with a strong Canadian focus.

One of the side benefits of producing our annual list of “good reads” is that it helps us to keep up to date with journal developments and refresh our webpage of online journals.

Lastly, we would like to congratulate Open Praxis and the European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning for major upgrades to their host platforms in 2021, which greatly enhance the ‘look and feel’ of each publication.

Bibliometrics data for AJET

Another trend we have noticed over the past six-years accompanying platform enhancements is increased sharing of journal metrics, with most of the better-known open access publications displaying the number and frequency of views and downloads. In some cases, Editors identify the most popular articles and publish more detailed analytics providing comparative data with previous years. For example, the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology regularly shares this information, as contained in the latest Editorial which reports bibliometrics in terms of submissions, readership interest, views and download numbers, and review statistics by year. 

This is a practice that we strongly encourage and adopt in our association with the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, which the NIDL formally supports as one of four institutional partners. We greatly value our role in helping to increase the profile and impact of this Springer journal, which is now ranked in 11th place out of a total of over 1,500 journals in the Scopus database of international scientific publications for the Education and Computer Science categories.

The journal is now the number 1 ranked open access publication in the field. Notably, in 2021, over 1.6 million articles were downloaded from the journal website, up from 1.088 million in 2020.

This level of usage illustrates how open access publications have grown in status and credibility over the past decade. Onwards and upwards for open access but there is still the question of whether we are doing enough slow reading as we increasingly download all of this new literature.

How do we select our top reads?

Before we get to the business end of sharing our “good reads” for 2021, it is useful to revisit the selection process and several methodological points. Our selection of top 10 articles for 2016201720182019 and 2020 has generally followed the same selection process. This five-step process remains largely unchanged for 2021 using the same selection criteria.

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To recap, these criteria privilege major literature reviews, think pieces presenting new perspectives, papers reporting new and emerging areas of development, and/or articles addressing important gaps in the literature.

We are always looking for something offering a fresh or different perspective which challenges conventional thinking. 

Diversity is another important criterion. And we automatically exclude anything written by one of our team and are careful to limit the number of articles published in the above mentioned journal that the NIDL formally supports. 

In terms of the selection process, we try to promote an inclusive approach open to all members of the NIDL team. Firstly, a shared Google folder allows colleagues to upload their own nominations at any point during the year. We have a practice of frequently sharing “good reads” through a mailing list to alert people to specific publications of potential interest, which also supports a culture of professional reading. 

Secondly, towards the end of the year several reminders are sent to NIDL colleagues to encourage their nominations, which usually results in a reasonable number of suggested articles. Importantly, at this stage of the process, nothing is rejected until the article has been more thoroughly read and critically reviewed by one of the three members of the core selection panel. 

Thirdly, in the latter part of December, the list of journals appearing on the NIDL website is systematically reviewed to ensure that nothing has been missed from the initial long list of publications.

This process can take several days and usually throws up some overlooked articles and interesting reads from lesser-known journals. It also helps to identify open articles published in traditionally closed or restricted access journals.

Over the years we have found that many journals do not publish their final issue until December and so this final ‘casting of the net’ allows us to accommodate late nominations in the selection process. In terms of meeting the criteria of openness, as a rule, if the article is freely available at the time of publication and can still be downloaded at no cost or with no restrictions by the end of December, then it is deemed eligible for inclusion.

Fourthly, the long list of articles, which this year excluding COVID-related publications totalled 85 papers, is reviewed by at least one member of the core selection panel and evaluated against the criteria to generate a short list. Usually, around 25 articles make it to this stage of the process.

This is a time-consuming process as it usually takes a minimum of one hour to slow read and write notes on each article. 

Finally, after closer reading and analysis, and often debate and even disagreement, the short-list is refined to identify the final top 10 “good reads” along with an additional five highly recommended articles. The latter is a relatively new feature as we have found it increasingly difficult to reduce the list to just 10 articles.

Also, it is important to note that not everyone’s “pet” read makes the final cut.

Ultimately, to ensure our selections are finalised and ready to share early in the New Year, the NIDL Director has executive privilege to make the final decision of what is included in the list. For this, and reasons previously mentioned in our first blog post in this series, we do not claim that our NIDL top 10 articles are unequivocally the best “good reads” in the area of digital learning over 2021. 

What constitutes a “good read” remains open to debate. However, we are willing to standby and defend this year’s selections that we reveal in the third and final blog post in this series. They reflect a great deal of thinking based on a explicit criteria, a robust methodology, systematic interrogation of the literature and lots of close reading to find what we believe is worthy of read irrespective of whether you have a policy, research, professional and/or practitioner interest in the field. 


Laakso, M., Matthias, L., & Jahn, N. (2021). Open is not forever: a study of vanished open access journals. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 1-14.

Perkins, R., & Lowenthal, P. (2016). Open access journals in educational technology: Results of a survey of experienced users. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (3). 18-37.