The Journal Issue

Thanks to a post on Retraction Watch, I just read an essay by University of Michigan’s Gerald Davis, “Why Do We Still Have Journals?” He concludes:

there is room for many kinds of contributions, and it is reasonable for journals and other kinds of outlets to have a division of labor. But it is worth being cognizant of the incentive structures created when different review processes articulate with different systems for evaluating academics.

I agree, though I am a little less optimistic than he in seeing a future for traditional academic journals, especially those relying on blind peer-review for article acceptance. The critical problem for alternatives concerns creating review processes understandable by, and acceptable to, scholars doing their own subsequent research and faculty retention, tenure, and promotion committees. Once an alternative to standard journal practice gains enough popularity, I see little hope for traditional journals–unless they also change.

Davis’s concern is social-science scholarship in particular, but his discussion extends into the sciences and humanities as well. Early on, he makes the salient point that:

New technologies of communication should enable new ways of sharing and advancing knowledge. Newspapers have been radically transformed by the Internet revolution, adapting their format to continuous updating, color, video, and opportunities for feedback and debate by readers. Yet academic journals still bear the imprints of their origins, and most look little different today than they did 50 years ago.

Frankly, they could not exist in their current form at all if it weren’t for hesitations inherent in the processes of hiring, retention, and promotion. Because success in publishing in traditional journals retains a central position in the professional lives of faculty, the journals are able to sustain their profitability through institutional subscriptions. Without that base, they would long ago have had to radically change both their approaches and their presentations.

There are quite a few different models for alternatives to traditional journals and their peer review systems, many of which rely on open (not necessarily public, but open between reviewers, editors, and writers) review processes, differing concepts of publication (moving from emphasis on print, for example), or reader-response review. Davis presents one of these last, the Public Library of Science (PLOS), in which articles are vetted not for originality or new contribution but on legitimacy within their fields. Writers pay to have their articles published, something that will make many people uncomfortable (shades of old vanity presses), but the post-publication review process is designed to make that irrelevant:

Assessments of novelty and contribution happen after publication, by readers, rather than by editors and reviewers before publication. Potential readers can see how often an article has been downloaded and cited, as proxies for quality, and readers can leave comments.

This is neither unique nor revolutionary, but such processes do go a long way toward providing an alternative to traditional peer review. An article that is read widely and used by other scholars proves its worth without having to rely on validation through venue. Davis continues:

One could imagine a model of science in which all articles in all fields are published on PLOS ONE and then the necessary sorting for insight and contribution happens afterward. We could, in principle, dispense with traditional journals entirely. It is not obvious, however, how the process for separating out the breakthrough articles from the quotidian or the genuinely flawed might happen after the review process is over and the paper is in print (virtually), at least under the current academic incentive system. High-quality interlocutors seem unlikely to engage such papers after publication the way reviewers would engage them before publication, and authors are under no obligation to respond. But there is certainly room for many formats of journal publication today.

We need to be taking advantage of all formats, including traditional academic journals (I think they will die on their own accord if they do not find ways of better utilizing digital possibilities) and targeted anthologies. As Davis points out, there is no need, in the digital age, for publication bottlenecks. Just so, there is no need to limit the types of publications produced.

What we do need to change is how our professional hiring, retention, and promotion committees consider scholarly work. Simply relying on the status of publication venues (or on their means of review) should no longer be acceptable.

[This is an issue of particular concern to me. My relevant MLA presentation can be found here. An article on Inside Higher Ed about that, here. An earlier post on this blog, here. A relevant interview, here.]

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