Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Do journals "add value" to articles they publish?

Below I'm just cutting and pasting comments I made in reply to a post at, where I suppose you might as well go. But I'll probably transform this post over time. Note I'm absotively and 100% all-for free-access to journals and the Public Library of Science in particular, but because I also see journals as playing a huge and under-appreciated role beyond publication, I was sparked into verbiage by a suggestion that maybe there is nothing else they're doing at all. It just happens to be stuff that fascinates me.

5 Responses to “Value Added by Publishers?”

  1. MT Says:

    They add crucial value, which is prestige. Each journal is like a brand and has a prestige rank and vets manuscripts with its own cadre of peer reviewers, not to mention editorial taste. Open access sounds like we just dump all articles in a barrel. How do we recruit a high-powered academic to provide free refereeing for a manuscript that’s a candidate to be just one more article in the barrel? When we look in the barrel, how do we now which articles were stringently reviewed? Without the splash that comes from landing in a high prestige journal, there’s no way to decide which new articles to look at first. The journal branding flags an article as likely to be good and interesting and important. There’s tons and tons of junky and derivative and incremental work being done, creating a din of noise within which to hear the signal. I suppose with modern IT some fast sifting method will arise eventually, but in the mean time, total open access sounds like a wheel in the spokes of how scholarship gets done (or at least science scholarship, which I know better).

  2. MT Says:

    I suppose one way the academic market might react to total open access to peer-reviewed articles is with a drastic contraction of the number of articles published. When the barrel is small enough, getting into it will carry enough prestigious that editors should be able to recruit good free referees. Another way the market could react would be to start rewarding referees in some other way than they are rewarded now (affiliation with a prestigious enterprise, early info about the most important work in their subject, and the establishment of a relationship with the editors of a journal they want to get their own manuscripts into). Otherwise I imagine peer review as we know it will disappear and some more social process will determine the relative importance of articles after they are published.

  3. MT Says:

    You could also think of a journal as providing an article with a kind of credential. The lack of credentials and authentication online seems a large part of why scholars tend to dismiss it. It sounds like snobbery, but it’s entirely practical. Plenty of people with great ideas write badly. Plenty of people who write wonderfully have bad ideas. Plenty of people assert confidently what they are not confident. And people differ hugely in what kind of evidence and how much it takes to make them confident. So why bother reading any piece of text ever? Descartes may have been saying something worthwhile, but his writing certainly didn’t draw me in. In lieu of a reputation, we settle for credentials, and without credentials (or any credential besides access to the Internet) the potential rewards are far to meager for the effort and/or risk. Scholars earn their living in part by reading text, and so were journals to disappear and were no system for ranking the importance of new articles immediately to replace them, scholars would have no choice but to look for text credentials elsewhere–e.g. whether the purported author purports to have a PhD or a professorship at an Ivy League school (open-access systems still will have to earn reader’s trust for truly and accurately stating authorship and credentials). If we came to rely on this we might end up with even more an intellectual caste system than we have now. People might only read publications out of the top 3 schools. Of course, there’s so much gold to be mined from the publications that come from less prestigious schools that someone will figure out some IT scheme to efficiently extract it. In the meantime though, dissolving journals as I said above I think would be a stick in the spokes. This is just to argue for their value, which the post seemed to call into question. I suppose the actual political proposal doesn’t mean dissolving journals exactly but just preventing them from making money from subscriptions (there’s still advertising).

  4. MT Says:

    Of course, who the hell am I to say?

  5. MT Says:

    I suppose it should be mentioned that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction and skepticism toward the peer review system as practiced now (c.f. For Science’s Gatekeepers, a Credibility Gap, by Lawrence Altman May 2, 2006 NY Times)

1 comment:

SteveG said...

I entirely agree, although I think this question has an interesting contextual side to it. I'm a philosopher of science and for institutional reasons I had a chemist on my departmental tenure committee. In our "candidate faces the committee" meeting, it was explained to the chemist by one of my colleagues that I had just gotten an article accepted in one of the top journals in the field and he asked what has stuck with me as a fascinating question. He asked, "One of the top for Gettysburg people or one of the top, period?" The idea that my work could appear beside that of technicians from high powered, well-financed, research universities was alien to him. Chemists at a liberal arts college are restricted to a set of "lower prestige" journals by the equipment they can afford, by the amount of help they can get from having only a few undergrads instead of post-docs and grad students, by the size of their lab spaces. Journals do have a "good housekeeping stamp of approval" function, but that function is only one part quality, it is also one part hierarchy. My scientist colleagues here do good work, but they play in the equivalent of the CFL or NFL Europe when it comes to journals.