Thursday, 11 June 2020

Why do we still have journals?

When academic journals first came into fashion, they were primarily a way to disseminate research. Unless you attended a lecture, there was no other way you could keep up to date with new findings in a field without seeing a physical written copy. One would think that the invention of the internet would revolutionise how this process happens but this has not been the case. In fact, it is deeply weird how much academia sticks to pretending the physical publication is still a thing. I have never seen a physical copy of any of my publication let alone held one.

We are all still pretending that lots of people read physical copies of journals. We even format papers designed to be read like they are still physically printed objects. It is the equivalent of logging into the New York Times website and there just being a bunch of pictures of the physical newspaper itself.
We do not need journals to tell people about our research. All we need is a website that we can upload papers to so people can search and access them. If only there was a way to publish a PAPER we are currently WORKING on? We really don’t have to waste time with font sizes or fiddle with how to present references.* And if you want to have a physical copy of them then you can cut down a tree and buy a printer yourself.

So if not dissemination, then journals must be of some other value right? There are two main reasons which often come up when defending journals: scientific rigour and quality. These both come from the process of peer review: where you send your paper to the editor of a journal who then sends them out to anonymous referees and they are rude to you.

In terms of scientific rigour, having a few people read your article closely for mistakes is a good thing. But you know what is better than a few people? Lots of people looking for mistakes. If I made a typo in this blog, due to the magic of the internet, I can quite easily change the typo. I can even post longer amendments and changes based on people's suggestions as they read my piece. If someone disagrees with me so much, they can write their own blog saying I am wrong.

Now some may argue that doing away with formal referees will mean we do not have anonymity and so may be afraid to speak the truth (or at least this is the view of wonk54 on twitter with an anime character as their profile pic). Personally, I am not massively convinced that this improves the process all much as it makes referees overly negative.

There is little incentive to referee for a journal other than academic duty, at the best of times. If there is an incentive, it is to signal to an editor that you have high quality standards. This, however, doesn’t necessarily lead to the overall goal we should all be working toward: increasing scientific knowledge.
The problem with the current approach is that a lot of the time reports are read more like how the referee would do the paper, rather than whether it is correct or not. Often reports don’t take into consideration whether the effort to re-run a study, to get one more data set etc is worth the marginal gain in improving the paper - they are not the ones having to do it after all.

The part I find the most frustrating about journals is the argument that we need to assign “quality”. In economics, we have 5 journals that are deemed the top in the field for historical reasons. I think calls to break up this oligopoly miss the point. We should be debating whether we need journals at all?

I am not against assigning quality to publications, but “quality” is not the same as saying the research isn’t publishable (don’t get me started on “not a good fit of this journal”). What you mostly end up doing is pinging about your research to journals in order to find one that would meet some quality threshold which can take years! Why doesn’t the first editor you send it to just say this if of X quality? Like having AER, and AER macro? Just say AER 1, 2, 3, 4. Or even the top X percent of AER submissions. Journals are not the only way to signal quality and we do not have to stick to this format. I think the film review site Rotten Tomatoes does a better and fairer job of assigning quality than academic journals.

I am not going to suggest exactly what replace journals with but alternatives already exist. For example, physics is already moving away from the journal format with something like https://arxiv.org/. Journals do not need to continue because we think this is how science has been done forever (peer-review isn’t actually that old). I am not really aware of any (peer-reviewed) evidence that journals are the best way to expand scientific knowledge???

The main thing I am worried about is we have a Lord of the Rings problem. We may all think that destroying journals is the best thing to do. But once people start publishing in these journals and become editors of these journals, they no longer want to lob them into the fiery pit of Mount Doom.
I am nowhere near good enough to be Frodo. But if people at the top are willing to get rid of journals, you will definitely have “my axe”.


*we still have to cite issue and page numbers as if we all have libraries in the east wing of our mansions. It is ridiculous.

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