Thursday, 31 May 2007

Journal madness

A recent survey shows a remarkable disconnect between what scientists think the system of journal publication should do, and how the scientists act in practice. The survey, entitled "New journal publishing models: an international survey of senior researchers", asked 5,513 senior journal authors their opinions of the current system of scholarly communication. In one part of the survey, participants were asked a series of paired questions relating to journal publications. For me two findings particularly stood out. Firstly, on journal subscription costs. Participants were asked how much they agreed with the statements 'high prices make it difficult to access the journals literature' and 'I publish in affordable journals'. Only 20.7% agreed with both statements.

Of course, how much of a problem high journal prices are to you depends on who you are. As a researcher at the University of Manchester, a large institution with a library that can afford high journal subscription fees, this is not a problem for me at all. If I were working at a less wealthy institution, perhaps in Asia or Africa, access to journal articles would be a significant problem. And as a member of the general public, I would be unlikely to be able to afford to subscribe to a large number of journals. If you wanted to look at my own article on salt deposits in New Brunswick in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, it would cost you £16.85 to download it. This seems crazy, as the journals pay nothing for content and much of the reviewing and editing is done on a voluntary basis. Surely research work that is done at universities should be freely available to the public. After all, they have (in most cases) paid for the work to be done. If the point of doing research is to serve society, then what purpose is served by not making research findings freely available? While journal authors recognise there is a problem here, they generally do not act to mitigate the problem by publishing in affordable (or open access) journals.

Secondly, participants were asked how much they agreed with the statements 'too much research is being published' and 'I publish more than I ought to'. Although the growth in published literature was a major concern, only 8.5% agreed with both statements! So again, while a problem is recognised, journal authors themselves refuse to act in ways that might help solve the problem (i.e. by publishing less).

So why the disconnect? To put it simply, the system is broken. Careers in academia depend on publishing as many papers as possible, and in journals that have high 'impact factors' or high levels of citations by other journal papers. This inevitably leads to an elevation of quantity over quality, and researchers tweaking research findings to publish in journals with high impact factors, rather than considering the most appropriate journal for the paper.

There is surely an urgent need to create a more sensible system of scholarly communication. In the meantime, perhaps those of us who write journal articles can put more thought into whether we are contributing to the madness.


Mich said...

Short of surgically removing the male ego, shooting article recyclers, and inventing a new qualitative (and highly subjective) funding system, based on scientific merit rather than number of papers published (thereby forcing half the scientific community into early retirement), I'm not sure what can be done.

You could always move to industry. So far, it seems to pay better, and the people are friendly and comparatively well balanced!

Paul Wilson said...

Hi Michelle

Oddly enough, in the UK we already had a qualitative (and, as you say, highly subjective) funding system. It's called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and it's largely based on peer review. It's hugely bureaucratic and unwieldy, and it doesn't work so well. David Colquhoun, writing in Nature, said "All of us who do research (rather than talk about it) know the disastrous effects that the Research Assessment Exercise has had on research in the United Kingdom: short-termism, intellectual shallowness, guest authorships and even dishonesty."

Anyhow, the government has decided that after 2008, the RAE will mainly be based on 'metrics', i.e. statistics of dubious worth. I'm going to have a whine about this soon, when I've done researching it.

Mich said...

This was published in the Annals of Improbable research in 1996:

There is an update on this story on the front page of the improbable blog:

Kind of relevant and very entertaining!