42

I'm not sure if this question is too broad or opinion-based, but I have been wondering about it for sometime.

In the old days when communication was not as abundant as is today, periodicals were a very effective means of communicating one's research and findings to interested people. Books and personal letters were also available, but were either not suitable for short communications or narrowly accessible. Thus, journals made sense at that time.

Today, however, especially with the widespread use of the internet, I find it hard to justify the existence of journals other than to preserve the status quo from the past. In fact, I can see several disadvantages such as:

  1. Economic burden on institutions and individuals.
  2. Unnecessary delay in publication due to processing and reviewing times.
  3. Subjective editor/peer-review process with many decisions made based on personal and/or journal-specific reasons.

So my question is: are there any real advantages of having journals nowadays? Wouldn't it be better to adopt an open publication method (maybe similar to that here at SX) in which people can rank, cite, and vote on publications instead?

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    Would your suggestion be better... yes of course: IF it could work... - That was the aim (in a way) with OpenAccess and what has it become... yet another money making machine with (in some cases) highly problematic "standards"... - Journals in the form today are really just the lesser evil in many ways... – DetlevCM May 31 '15 at 15:09
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    What is the point of journals nowadays? Same as before: editorial rejection. – Cape Code May 31 '15 at 15:36
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    Arxiv is essentially doing what you are asking. – Superbest Jun 1 '15 at 22:04
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    Arxiv is not doing it! If arxiv had a review/discussion and profiles with reputation system like SE does then the whole problem would be solved! I trust highly voted answer on maths SE and MO more than pretty much anything in most journals! More people looked at it, and had the chance to comment and discuss. I can't see any down side. So many reviewers do a weak job anyway, peer review doesn't really protect us from nonsense getting published I don't feel. – Benjamin Jun 2 '15 at 5:53
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    @Benjamin we should make a proposal in Area 51: ArxivOverflow – Ooker Oct 19 '15 at 8:48
38

The primary reasons for the continuation of academic journals are correlaries to some of the things you've mentioned as negative.

  • Peer review. This a key driver for academic publishing in general. It provides a way to control the quality of published material, and an enforcement of accepted standards, and (for the author) feedback prior to publication.

  • Communication. Journals provide a means of communicating research to a targeted audience. Conventional subscription-based models do so for a fee, while the rapidly growing open-access model (which I highly commend) provides even broader and easier access for researchers, students, and others.

In short, journals serve to curate content to meet the needs of a particular audience, and thus they are unlikely to completely disappear in the near future.

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    But journals as they are today are not the only possible way ever for peer review and targeted communication of research. In fact, current journals are per se a standalone business model. People keep saying there should be someone who pays - well, pays $1350 for typesetting, peer review, and targeted communication of a 10-page article. Really?! – Orion May 31 '15 at 9:31
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    @Orion And also the guarantee of stable web hosting in perpetuity. (Or that's the journals' claim - it's up for debate how perpetuous that perpetuity ends up being, but it is not really an issue for big enough journals.) – E.P. May 31 '15 at 12:03
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    @E.P., good point, but stable web hosting can be effectively done using public fund - e.g. PubMed Central, so no real need for commercial publishers. – Orion May 31 '15 at 13:33
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    @Orion One could argue that a per-journal standard for LaTeX (and a modest understanding of it) coupled with a well-refined online peer-review system for quality control (much like SE has) would be a good alternative to the process that is in place now for publishing. As a computer science student, I am of the strong belief that many archaic systems should be revitalized with software (look at the public housing industry; it's atrocious); I believe that this is one such system that could greatly benefit if done correctly. PS - stable hosting of 1 MB text documents: easy. – Chris Cirefice Jun 1 '15 at 5:18
  • @Orion I don't see the answer defending business models, or claiming that journals are the only answer. But today, there is (as least in some disciplines) no alternative to the journal peer review process. (I'd be the first to say that printing stuff is no longer necessary, but well.) – Raphael Jun 1 '15 at 11:00
17

This is an incomplete answer. I think this is a very pertinent question I too have been considering for some time. I'm eager to read what other people have to say.

One of the reasons why authors seek publication in traditional journals, despite apparent nonsense such as paying an institutional subscription for access to your own work, is that funding agencies, institutions and authors ourselves rely too much on the ranking of a journal to assign a quality/relevance tag to scientific work. In practice, this means that to obtain reputation and credit for your work, secure future funding, etc. you have to publish in prestigious journals.

To give you an idea, Scandinavian countries have a ranking 1, 2, 3 that gives you points depending on where you publish. For instance Nature scores 3, and respectable journals with a lower impact factor, e.g. Physical Review E, score 1. This is regardless of whether the peer-review process was more or less rigorous in each journal.

I think the point of peer review is a non issue because it's voluntary and authors could organize ourselves to solve this in an open access non-for-profit setting.

So to sum up, I think journals are necessary only in the present context of how credit and reputation are assigned, and that both authors and institutions (in that order) will eventually realize and the paradigm of academic publishing will gradually be shifted.

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    I agree, but this is a self-created legacy. Researchers created journals to communicate, then journals were used to rank researchers! – jak123 May 31 '15 at 8:49
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    @jak123 I guess this kind of feedback process is at the core of any culture, not only scientific culture. People initially start doing something for a reason until eventually the reason is forgotten and everybody just carries on and nobody really knows why. – Miguel May 31 '15 at 9:23
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    @Cape Code I was referring to my institution paying a suscription fee to have access to my work. – Miguel May 31 '15 at 17:44
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    @Cape Code Some journals impose embargoes or other restrictions on self archival and institutional archival. – Miguel Jun 1 '15 at 16:41
10

One function is in fact to provide a way to “rank, cite and vote” on publications. Journal publications show that you can publish in journals and are used to identify people who can. It might sound circular and not as valuable or noble as disseminating findings but, for better or worse, it's a very real function nonetheless and one that is not easy to replicate from scratch elsewhere.

Arguably, it's one of the functions of universities too (it's sometimes called “signalling”). Many students don't learn that much that is directly useful to their life or their career or could learn those things in other ways but earning a degree is a way to show you can in fact earn a degree. And people pay a lot of money for that kind of certification, it cannot be dismissed as a mere historical oddity or unwelcome side-effect without fundamentally misunderstanding what's really going on.

That's also why it's so difficult to switch to another model and why the “brand” and reputation of a journal is perhaps more valuable than anything else. It's now easy to put together, print and distribute a new periodical. Conversely, it would be easy to get rid of paper journals entirely. But there would still only be one Nature, one Science, etc.

And I know some scientists who are proud not only of having published a paper in Nature but of having made the cover (let that sink in for a minute: any pretence that this is about communicating the substance of the research or anything like that is gone, it's only about prestige and recognition)…

In fact, on a purely technical level, the transition to another paradigm has already mostly happened, we currently have a myriad of initiatives and platforms, open-access archives, open journal publishers like PLOS and even traditional journals are already mostly read and distributed online anyway. But online subscriptions to these journals are still very expensive and the system has not fully “opened up”, which shows that the medium isn't really the issue.

9

Many journals have asked the same questions that you are asking, and are experimenting with different approaches to shifting the notion of "journal" to better fit our evolving world.

So far as I can see, the key persistent value that journals are serving is one of curation. No matter what call the institutions or how we organize them, it will always be necessary for science to have some means of bringing important information to the fore, winnowing out problematic information, and preserving information over long periods of time.

In most fields, journals are the institutions that have historically served that purpose. Some fields have already radically changed the way in which they interact with journals:

  • In computer science, high-importance peer-reviewed conferences typically remove the problems of long delay and restrictions on number of accepted papers, though they add their own problems, such as travel requirements and single-round review.
  • In mathematics, long circulation of pre-prints on arXiv removes long delay, monetary barriers, and restrictions on number of accepted papers, though it adds its own problems, such as lack of filtering and returning to a "default" word-of-mouth promotion.

Likewise, a number of journals are experimenting with alternate approaches designed to alleviate the problems from how journals are currently organized. For example, PLOS ONE has been fairly successful without any restriction on topic or notability, and has a fairly reliable and decently fast time to publication. Another interesting example is the "Frontiers" journals, which have an interactive review process which invites back-and-forth discussion between authors, reviewer, and editor, followed by publicly identifying the reviewers of accepted papers, which helps mitigate many of the issues of bias in peer review. Neither of these is "periodical" either except in the loosest sense of the word: papers simply go up when they are ready, and then later might be post-facto grouped into collections.

Bottom line: I suspect that "journal" in the traditional sense is an endangered concept, but that the aspects of journals with ongoing value will continue to be promoted and preserved by the scientific community, and that some of them will still be called "journal" as well, no matter how different their model.

9

Well, what does the scientific community need in terms of publications?

  • Somebody who organises some sort of peer review. This does not necesarily have to happen in the currently common form, but some mechanism that avoids total nonsense and ensures quality is needed. This cannot be done (in my opinion) on basis of a voting and commenting system, as people would either not do it (and thus no peer review would happen) or abuse the system (which is not to say that no abuse of peer review is happening now, but this would be worse).

  • Somebody who publishes papers, be it online or in printed form.

  • Somebody who typesets papers or otherwise renders them in a digestable form. While many scientists may be able to do this themselves if provided with a proper LaTeX template or similar, they are still the minority, and at least I do not want to have to read papers set in Word or similar.

Now at least in my opinion, the above points are also the defining properties of a journal,¹ and some journals, e.g., PLoS One do nothing more. So unless you want to propagate a different definition of journal (in which case this question becomes one of definition), we cannot do without journals.

Note that I do not claim that there is nothing wrong with the current publication system – on the contrary: there are a lot of things that need radical improvement. But the mere existence of journals in general is not the problem and cannot really be avoided.


¹ and yes, this means that even conference proceedings, which are the dominant form of publication in computer science, are some variant of a journal

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    @Orion "widely unrecognized among scientific communities" Citation needed. There's a LOT of debate in the scientific community about publishing. – jakebeal May 31 '15 at 14:42
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    @Orion don't mistake sound skepticism of 'new' publishing schemes with ignorance or 'resistance to change'. – Cape Code May 31 '15 at 15:35
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    @Orion You're vastly underestimating how hard it is to change very foundational traditions and culture. Without (and even with) compelling and immediate reasons, it's almost impossible to do so (quickly) in any non-trivial community. – Roger Fan May 31 '15 at 17:25
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    This is what I was going to post, but I wanted to add that it's not just typesetting, but also style. This has an important benefit such as preventing papers from sprawling into 20+ pages, for instance (whether paper length should be limited is a different matter). – Superbest Jun 1 '15 at 21:59
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    @daaxix "Non-profits" still have costs, and there's nothing to preclude them from making money in one area to help fund others. – Fomite Oct 18 '15 at 22:09
2

You're partly right, of course, that journals' prominence is a historical artefact.

But let's look at this some other way. Would you want to learn mathematics from a bunch of tweets? How about following developments in Ukraine by reading Facebook posts by people with very strong interests in having people think a certain way about the topic?

Well, no, that wouldn't be so great. Sometimes you want to have information presented in a way that's easier to learn, where the source conveniently contains most of the background you need to know to understand the new material (once you know the basic prerequisites). Sometimes you'd like to have at least some basic fact-checking.

And that's why you always would want something like a journal: a place where fully-crafted, peer-reviewed stories reporting on original research are published.

But many of the other features of journals are anachronistic now. Do you want to know how to run a protocol? You should have something more like GitHub for protocols (but better-indexed that GitHub) so you can search for ways to do something, then clone your own branch, modify, and update as you go. Do you want to know the latest research? Well, it should be there online right away, ideally, as soon as the person knows about it and manages to make it into a figure or something that they can share. (Computers are awesome at tracking citation-like metrics; credit needn't be a problem.)

So I think that the role of journals in transmitting groundbreaking research, or in evaluating the worth of a scientist, ought eventually to be replaced by something faster and more accurate. But that doesn't mean that they'll go away any more than it means that textbooks will go away now that we have Wikipedia. It diminishes the role somewhat, but a unique and vital role remains.

1

The key function of journals nowadays is to certify quality of papers.

(Of course, this is a oversimplification and it is field-specific, but I think that this is essentially true, at least for mathematics.)

It is not at all easy to judge correctness of a paper just by looking. It is even harder to judge a paper's importance. On the other hand, if a paper has been published in a journal, it is guaranteed that at least someone read it and verified that it is correct. If the journal is a somewhat prestigious one, it proves the quality of the paper - it is innovative, important, or good in some other way.

Knowing if a result is correct is crucial when you want to apply it somewhere else. Being able to prove that your results are important is useful when applying for jobs, etc.

All this having been said, there is a spreading belief that journals do not provide enough utility to justify their continued existence in their present form - see for instance the Cost of Knowledge campaign.

1

My take on some of these questions, particularly as they regard public health and medicine in terms of journals:

  • They help support professional societies. Profits from society-level journals, if they indeed do turn a profit, allow professional societies to engage in other activities, from political advocacy to supporting students attending their conferences.
  • They provide typesetting and layout, as well as proof reading. While this is not true for all fields, generally speaking it is true in biomedicine and public health. To my mind, all but the most carefully done LaTeX templates are a poor substitute to actual page layout tools, and typesetting is something that is not necessarily an academic skill set.
  • They provide a means for manditory, potentially blinded review. Most alternate systems rely on optional post-publication review, whereas the conventional journal system ensures somebody saw it before it reached the press. This might seem like something of a low bar, but it's better than a paper that never attracts reviewers. Additionally, it's essentially impossible to make post-publication reviews anonymous. I'd suggest that the quality and level of criticism for identical papers published by a "Senior Luminary in the Field" and a "Female Graduate Student with a Foreign Sounding Name" will be markedly different. This is just as subjective as the existing peer-review system. For something like SX voting, you're also going to conflate two issues - popularity and quality.
  • You mention in the OP that there is an economic burden on institutions and individuals. Disaggregating the publishing process doesn't change that there will be costs associated with publishing and hosting papers.
  • Journals, through their editorial boards, provide a means of field-wide advocacy. I would, for example, suggest that the ICMJE Guidelines carry far more weight because of the associated journals.
  • Journals also provide essentially a curated collection of papers that meet a certain quality standard (whatever that standard may be) and are topical. I can read Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology every month and get a sense for what's going on in a particular field. And importantly, I can find papers there that I wouldn't necessarily have read if I was just searching through somewhere like arXiv. Journals provide a means to browse a field in addition to targeted searches of the literature.

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