The Roles of Journals

January 8, 2010

Academic journal publications are the lifeblood of science: The medium for serious communication, the marker of career success, and moderator of scientific integrity. Modern technology is disrupting the funding model that has supported the system for hundreds of years. As things change, it becomes worthwhile to consider the various functions journals perform. Only with new understanding can we identify the pieces we shall need to rebuild if the established structures cannot adapt.

Before the Internet, printing and distributing physical documents was sufficiently complicated to warrant specialized organizations. It was natural to capture the value of this service by asking readers to pay. These subscriptions effectively subsidized other journal services.

Now, printing and distribution are cheap commodities. For pennies, a scientist can make work available to every interested reader. This undermines the subscription business model, and it isn’t clear how existing journals can measure or capture the value of their other jobs.

To stave off collapse, journal publishers now fight bitterly to keep their publications closed to all but paying subscribers. This pits them directly against their contributing authors, who favour openness on principle and on the pragmatic realization that open publication means more citation.

Let us explore some of the unfunded roles journals play:

Editing: Journal-funded editors raise the basic quality of writing in scientific publication, filtering out spelling and grammatical errors.

Coordination of peer review: Journals arrange for qualified scientists to review others’ work, guaranteeing authors a source of feedback that is sometimes even useful.

Formalization of discussion: Journals provide a generally-accepted forum for comments on a paper and a system of retraction for severe flaws discovered after publication.

Reputation assignment: Within every scientific subfield, there is a generally-understood status hierarchy of journals. Publication in prestigious journals bestows honor on a paper, its authors, and their institutions. In some fields and journals, the order of the author list tweaks this assignment of credit.

Some fields formalize this system into a mathematical formula in an attempt to fairly measure the impact of a scientist, institution or journal.

Attention assignment: Journals regularly aggregate related content in a field, focusing the attention of interested parties. The structure of journal articles permits sophisticated searches of the literature.

Durability assurance: Journal publications are archived reliably, making it rare for a piece of work to become completely inaccessible.

Canonical citation: The scientific community generally agrees on how to cite articles from journals. A journal article citation is sufficient for a reader to uniquely identify the work being discussed.

Any serious effort to replace or fix journals will need to consider more than just the obvious, formal processes. The unwritten social roles and subtle benefits must not be overlooked.


One Response to “The Roles of Journals”

  1. Also:
    Community-forming. Many researchers implicitly (and perhaps unconsciously) define their research community via a few journals that they read and publish in regularly. This helps them limit which other researchers they have to actively keep abreast of, and defines an audience for their research. As they get to know what areas of research are in scope for the journal, and what standards of reporting the journal expects, it also implicitly defines the “paradigm” (in the general Kuhnian sense) for a particular research community.

    BTW most editorships and editorial board memberships are voluntary. People do it for the prestige, not the money. Which means that the reputation assignment role works for editorship as well as authorship, and membership of an editorial board is a useful marker on an academic’s resume, to indicate that person’s standing in the field.

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