I am new to research and I have yet to internalize the concept of journals and their utility in archiving scientific literature.

Almost all the papers I have read recently are from this website called arxiv. Arxiv calls itself to be a preprint archive. Anyone can upload a PDF file to the repository and it counts as a valid research. Large companies like Google and Facebook post all their research here. The research is peer reviewed, It does not have the tyranny of a fixed format and the publishing is instantaneous unlike journals which are painfully slow. It is also open access and unlike open access journals it does not cost a fortune to publish a paper.

My question is, why were journals used to begin with? Why are they used now?

I have heard some people say that if a paper is not published in a scopus indexed journal then it does not have any value. Then why are so many people publishing here? As far as I know citations from arxiv are picked up by google scholar.

EDIT: Ok, so the entire system is a huge mess.

  • 57
    ArXiv is not peer reviewed. Mar 18, 2017 at 14:57
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    "the tyranny of a fixed format" sounds a bit bombastic -- it isn't such a big deal in practice. Mar 18, 2017 at 15:00
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    "it counts as a valid research" - that's in the eye of the beholder. There isn't some universal "valid/invalid" flag attached to any given piece of research. For instance, most university faculty will find that arXiv posts will not satisfy their employer's expectations for their research. Mar 18, 2017 at 15:28
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    "The entire system is a mess" is an overstatement. Don't despair. The system certainly has flaws, and some people feel more strongly about them than others, and are more vocal. But for a lot of other people, the system works reasonably well and its flaws do not interfere with research in a serious way. Mar 18, 2017 at 18:57
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    @DavidRicherby I’m not accusing, I’m trying to explain something (to myself and others). I’m not mad at Nate, I just think he’s wrong, and in such a way as to be hard to grasp for me: To many scientists, stating that the current publishing system isn’t a mess just flies in the face of overwhelming evidence. Incidentally, I don’t think it’s wrong to defend the current system, either. But defending doesn’t mean not acknowledging that it’s broken in very fundamental ways. Mar 21, 2017 at 17:27

7 Answers 7


Why are so many people publishing [on ArXiv]?

You have to be careful with terminology when making statements like that. ArXiv is certainly "publishing" in the literal sense of "making public" but would you say that you'd "published a book" if you'd just put it on your website? Probably not.

My question is, why were journals used to begin with?

Because they predate ArXiv and the web by hundreds of years, though the format has changed over time.

Why are they used now?

Partly through inertia, partly through a lack of alternatives. On a purely scientific level, ArXiv itself is not peer-reviewed. On a non-scientific level, ... People have an intuition about the quality they expect from a paper that appears in a particular journal and we don't have alternatives that allow us to make this kind of judgement. Correspondingly, certain journals have quite a lot of prestige, which is important for students early-career researchers who are looking for promotion; a large fraction of papers have at least one such author. It's easier for people like Tim Gowers to work outside that system.

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    Additional context for the last sentence: Tim Gowers (the author of one of the linked posts) is an extremely famous mathematician. An abbreviated listed of his accomplishments include: the Fields Medal (the biggest award in mathematics), membership in the Royal Society of London, a professorship at arguably the best place to study mathematics in his country and a consensus top 10 pick world-wide, and a Knighthood for his accomplishments in mathematics. Sep 14, 2018 at 5:05
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    I think his blog is excellent and take his ideas about mathematics culture quite seriously, but at the end of the day when you’re the kind of person who can walk into almost any university in the world and tell them that they now employ you, it’s a lot easier to disdain the prestige system than it is for most people. Sep 14, 2018 at 5:07

First of all, ArXiv covers mathematical disciplines (specifically: Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics), not all academic fields. So, the question, which seems to pose this as a general inquiry about the need for journals, is overly broad in the context of offer ArXiv as an alternative.

Second of all, ArXiv is not peer reviewed. Therefore, consumers of the information need to be a bit more careful than when they're referencing information that has gotten past an editorial board and at least a couple peer reviewers. That's not to say that erroneous material doesn't get past peer reviewers (it does) but there's just more quality control in a peer reviewed paper than an unreviewed paper.

Third, my impression of ArXiv is that people upload their stuff there to make it available sooner while they pursue publication in a peer-reviewed journal. It is not meant as a publishing destination, but rather a repository to speed up dissemination of the information for those who may want it sooner.

Fourth, in my department (I'm in a science discipline, not math), getting tenure requires publishing in peer reviewed journals that are indexed by something like Pubmed. Book chapters and unpublished reports (which is what I'd consider an ArXiv paper) count very little toward fulfilling tenure expectations.

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    I feel compelled to say that things on the internet are literally "published". I'd hate to see that word corrupted to mean only "peer-reviewed" or "passed the gate-keepers", etc. And for many people with tenure, now that we have the internet, what's the point of continued status-seeking? It costs time and effort, as opposed to actually doing the work. Mar 18, 2017 at 17:34
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    @SouradeepNanda I am afraid that what's superficial is your view of computer science. It's about far more than "does the code run". Mar 18, 2017 at 18:58
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    Yes - computer science (my area of it, at least) is about proofs, not code. Even if you're looking at code, the fact that it runs does not in any way imply that it will always give a correct result.
    – William
    Mar 18, 2017 at 19:28
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    @SouradeepNanda if anything, whether or not the code runs is the least important bit of information. A valid algorithm with a syntax error in its implementation is still useful, while a perfect implementation of a crappy algorithm is pointless. Nevertheless, the later runs while the former doesn't. In any case, the vast majority of scientific output is not algorithms and isn't something that can "run".
    – terdon
    Mar 18, 2017 at 23:16
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    @terdon I'm making a stronger statement. Much of computer science is not about code at all, to the extent that saying that "the code is not even there" is a bit like saying "the bananas are not even there." It's not that these researchers have code but don't put it in their papers: there never was any code because the work has nothing to do with code. Mar 20, 2017 at 10:53

Peer review, as the others have said.

Mathematicians can consult dozens (if not hundreds) of false proofs of the Riemann Hypothesis on Arxiv. Such things are (mostly) rejected by the journals. Journals which publish them soon get a bad reputation.

Imagine if all the amazing new health claims form the Internet could not be distinguished from serious medical research! (For many people I know, that is unfortunately already the case. But those who care can try to find which of those cancer cures have at least some actual evidence for them.)

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    Are you sure you're not thinking of Vixra? Completely hokey spammy Riemann hypothesis proofs and that sort of thing tend to be deleted from Arxiv as I understand it.
    – user12726
    Mar 20, 2017 at 6:13
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    There is not a lot of junk math on Arxiv.
    – jwg
    Mar 20, 2017 at 11:02
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    @MilesRout... Yes Archiv. For fun I just browsed there. The most recent proofs of the Riemann hypothesis are dated March 15 and March 13. Some wiseacre once said that the Archiv category math.GM stands for "garbage math".
    – GEdgar
    Mar 20, 2017 at 14:40

Journals, in the past and today, are not just printed material - they're social institutions of the community; and publishing in a journal is a process that involves:

  • Peer review by such specialists in the field as the editor/editorial collective/steering committee deems appropriate; and
  • Editing of the paper: Content-wise and typesetting/graphics-wise and language/style-wise. It could be editing due to reviewer comments by the original authors or by professionals employed to assist with the journal.

You don't get that on ArXiv, and you only get that partially (or almost not at all) in conferences.

The use of journals as publication venues is also a form of filtration / selection, even from among papers which would merit reading given endless time and attention. In the past, publication in a journal was often the difference between a publication coming to people's attention at all (ignoring personal contacts); but these days, it's still the case in most disciplines that there's much more awareness of what's been published in journals than of what one could find using an web search engine.

In some fields, conferences serve this role as much/more so than journals, but you can just apply this answer to submitting papers to those conferences - whose proceedings are like a sort of a journal too.

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    Regarding getting peer review and editing feedback from journals more than conferences, that must depend on the field. I've been involved in many CS conferences whose reviewing processes are more rigorous than most journals, including some reviews that will note every last grammatical mistake and typo for the benefit of the authors. Mar 21, 2017 at 17:25
  • @FredDouglis: Well, that's true, but you can count the proceedings of those conferences as journals in the context of OP's question.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 21, 2017 at 17:38
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    - Perhaps. If the real question is "why peer review versus arXiv," that is a different point entirely. I originally read the question as given: why should we still have journals in the modern age? And that is a good question. The role of journals has evolved. In fact some conferences (e.g., VLDB) have moved to a "journal-first" model in which papers are submitted to a journal and selected papers are invited to be presented at a conference. PS. Why can't I tag einpoklum? It disappears. Mar 21, 2017 at 18:11
  • Thanks Nate. I'm relatively new to stackexchange from the standpoint of active commentary. I would have expected an alert saying it was removing the name, and not silent edits. Mar 21, 2017 at 20:49
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    +300 this is the correct answer.
    – Cape Code
    Mar 23, 2017 at 20:06

The big problem with Arxiv is something you mentioned in your post:

"Anyone can upload a PDF file to the repository and it counts as a valid research. "

There are thousands and thousands of papers on arxiv which are somewhere between junk and complete nonsense. To convince yourself just look at the many "proofs" of the Riemann Hypothesis and, if I remember right, there are also "proofs" that RH is false.

The same problem also appears with some journals. The simple fact that something was published in a journal doesn't make it true. There are a lot of predatory journals which would publish anything for money, and the quality of their papers is even lower that the worst things on arxiv.

But there are a few journals which try to control the quality of the published research. They are not foolproof, and they sometimes publish bad or wrong papers, but the chances of that happening are typically much much lower than the chances of a random paper from arxiv of being junk or wrong. While not perfect, peer review can catch many mistakes and comb out many low quality papers.

As a researcher, knowing that a paper was published in what I know to be a serious journal, compared to just put on arxiv (see (*) below for extra comments), gives me an extremely important piece of information: I know that if I read the paper in detail, and try to understand it fully, it is less likely that after couple weeks I discover on page 64 that the author does something completely stupid and unfixable and nothing works.

Peer review in good journals it gives me better chances of not wasting large amounts of time for nothing.

(*) Often, if I am familiar with the work of a certain mathematician, I don't need to rely on this type of information to know what to expect. In that situation, what I know about his work combined with a fast read of the abstract and maybe introduction can tell me if the paper will be interesting or not. But things can be tricky if I come along a very long and technical, potentially interesting paper from an unknown mathematician.

  • 1
    Maybe Nick is from a Slavic country? Anyway, when he says "There are few journals" he means "There are a few journals". Not the same thing at all. English is weird like that.
    – GEdgar
    Mar 19, 2017 at 0:37
  • @GEdgar Not slavic, but English is my second language :)
    – Nick S
    Mar 19, 2017 at 1:04
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    You claim that this is a problem. But most people who use/understand preprint wouldn’t agree that it is a problem at all. So what if crap is uploaded to arXiv? It only becomes problematic if that crap somehow is thought to have the same validity as good research uploaded there. And this isn’t how preprint servers work. The fact that there’s no gatekeeping is intentional, not incidental. Institutionalised peer review is often upheld as the only valid form of scientific assessment but that’s nonsense. Mar 20, 2017 at 16:41
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    @NickS I don’t understand the jump from “makes peer review take much longer” (agreed) to “makes arxiv problematic”. arXiv is an archive, it does not in itself confer any status to a publication. The status comes from how the paper is regarded by professionals (= peer review). If anything, early publication and wide dissemination helps make this peer review more thorough because more experts get timely access to the results. Mar 20, 2017 at 19:28
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    @KonradRudolph With the Arxiv, there is too much of a risk of investing months to read something, and discover that it doesn't work, and that you learned nothing new. And with long technical proofs, the devil is always in small details, you cannot catch the mistakes unless you invest the effort....And unfortunately, in mathematics an "almost right paper" is not much better than a crap paper.... When reading things from Arxiv, I am never concerned about the crap papers, but I am concerned that the paper I read might be "almost right".
    – Nick S
    Mar 20, 2017 at 19:34

It's all about scientific communication.

Once opon a time ... researchers wanted to share and discuss their findings with each other. At the beginning, they talked and wrote letters, since there was only a small number of researchers in each field.

With a more and more educated society the research communities started growing. Letters were no longer sufficient, because only a small amount of people could read and interact. The solution was to publish the letters, i.e. allow several print copies which could be distributed to several researchers and/or research institutions.

Letters were mainly like writing down an idea and/or conclusions as a starting point, waiting for the input of one or two collegues/recipients, pick their ideas up and answer to them again with a letter.

The communication via published and widely distributed letters was no longer as interactive as letters. The published research/text was no longer a starting point of a discussion, since a discussion only worked by publishing an answer and waiting for the published reply of the initial author. Each publication had to be printed and send per Mail.

This process had three major disadvantages: (1) It was expensive, (2) it was very slow and (3) since there was no longer a specific recipient which was required to answer, some letters were never discussed/questioned.

Journals shifted the discussion with some colleagues to the time before the publication of the letter/article. This is what we call peer-review. It solved the three disadvantages by being less expensive, by allowing a faster interaction between author and reviewers (only letters between author and reviewers) and by ensuring a critical examination of each published research/text and therefore its quality.

Today ... print publications are more and more vanishing and online/digital publications are the majority. Although the current peer-review process has its problems and issues, it still has the goal to ensure the critical examination of the published research/texts. This is what repositories without peer-review like arXiv can't ensure.

There are several approaches to solve this problem, since there are problems with peer-review and publishers. Some researchers and research societies start their own open access journals where researchers publish and review for free, i.e. research coordinates its own communication without the need of publishers. Another approach is to peer-review after the publication. This is also a community approach but might end up with articles without peer-review, since there are no specific recipients/reviewers which are required to answer. This approach reintroduces disadvantege (3) to the communication process.

In general, most researcher would say that articles that are not peer-reviewed are not quality proved which means that a reader always has to check and validate what is written in the article. Since there are problems with peer-review, most researcher would say, that you also have to check and validate what is written in a peer-reviewed article. With this in mind, one could argue that both ways to publish are equivalent.

Looking at the great picture one could describe the current system of scientific communication as ... let's say ... problematic. Publishers are trying to make money. Funders want to save money. Institutions want their researchers to publish a lot, to be cited a lot and to publish in reputable journals, which are most of the times defined by the impact factor that privileges journals that have been around for some time. Researchers want a wide distribution of their work and good jobs which is most of the time depending on their publication list, the impact factors of the journals they published in and the h-index.

Long story short, the whole system is stuck.

Coming back to your question ... Publishing on arXiv is fine, if your research topic is represented at arXiv. It's also fine to publish on any other (maybe institutional) repository without peer-review. Unfortunately, the current system might penalise this due to the concentration on journals, publishers and bibliometrics when it comes to evaluating research/researcher.


Why were journals used to begin with?

Before journals, scientific work was disseminated through books.

And this was fine for many centuries. However, after the Scientific Revolution, as scientific work and consequently publishing were gaining momentum, the format of books and book publishing was simply becoming impractical.

Scientists needed frequent, periodical publishing of regulated works, i.e. something akin to a scientific news service. And this is how scientific journals came to be.

The format of scientific journals has noticeably changed over the years, but the core idea of periodical publishing of new scientific work has remained the same.

Why are journals used in modern academic research?

We still use journals for at least a few reasons.

As @DavidRicherby has mentioned in his answer, inertia and lack of significantly better alternatives are two major reasons.

But the biggest reason, in my opinion, is simply money.
There is just too much money in current academic publishing, e.g. Elsevier had a net profit of £1.014 billions for 2015, and this creates all sorts of barriers.

  • 1
    The last paragraph makes no sense.
    – Cape Code
    Mar 22, 2017 at 7:25
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    @CapeCode It makes all the sense. When you make billions and have no other stake in the system (the management of Elsevier are not scientists), having all these resources at your disposal to guard your profits and keep the status quo is really no joke. And Elsevier have time and time again proven this through their business model, e.g. by spending millions actively working against the Open Access community and other viable alternatives to the current publishing model. Mar 22, 2017 at 8:21
  • Ab-surd. Open access is a goldmine for publishing. Elsevier is not "working against it" they're jumping on the bandwagon. Imagine, infinite papers, no desk reject, academics only worried about getting their stuff published and funding agencies allocating budget for "article processing charges".
    – Cape Code
    Mar 22, 2017 at 8:28
  • @CapeCode I agree it's absurd but there we are. Journals took ages to accept open access, just as the music industry, for over a decade, struggled idiotically against commercial file sharing. Journals see open access as a competition, even as they begrudgingly embrace it. That's a simple fact. Mar 22, 2017 at 18:51

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