Christina's LIS Rant
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
  What are journals for?
(I'm supposed to be working on a paper, but...)
I've been watching and commenting (ah, too lazy to link, see in DASER notes in December and elsewhere) on ongoing discussions about disaggregating the journal (from APS and IOP) and also the absolute glut of new, expensive, STM journals.

Last week, I posted to CHEM-INF
I think it's worthwhile, as a group and as librarians (some of us) or information professionals, for us to think through why journals exist, why new journals are created and when it is legitimate for new journals to be created. It sometimes feels like we're feeling a little hateful and threatened because of the various budgetary pressures we're under and our professional need to give our customers what they want/need.

There's been talk of disaggregating the journal since at least the 80s, but journals remain. Part of the reason is what Price (1986) talked about with the reward structure: scientists publish results -- give away valuable information -- to received recognition. Sure, there's some altruism, too. The journals also collect articles and make them findable for outsiders and peripheral participants in the "invisible colleges". Most fields have really accepted electronic versions of print journals -- but all-e and open access are not equally well accepted across the disciplines.

We had a discussion, started I believe by Peggy Dominy of Drexel, at the Physics-Astro-Math section meeting at SLA last year asking why IOP felt they needed new niche journals when other competing professional societies were releasing similar journals at the same time. The publisher representative said that the new journals were demanded by the institute's members because these members felt that their niche area was not well covered by other journals. We can also look at this as a reward-recognition thing for editors and journal founders.

I can imagine several legitimate reasons for new journals: to co-locate articles currently dispersed through various general journals, to further divide a journal that's starting to look like a phonebook, to represent the interests of a new society/division/paradigm/research area...

No doubt some of these journals will succeed and some will fail. Also, in many fields a researcher has lots on her mind when she chooses where to submit an article -- more than just best fit or impact factor.

Nature Physics makes no sense to me, at all, except as others have said, Nature apparently wants more money. So what am I saying for librarians? I think we have to look at journals as we always have, individually on a cost-benefit model and also consortially on a cost-benefit model. I think just about every subscription should be reviewed to see if we can cut it to make room for new, good journals. Nothing is safe.
There were some very good replies, namely that there are few journal failures in STM -- they live indefinitely, get bought by one of the biggies or merge into something else. Can libraries *not* buy a journal? Should we campaign against new journals? I guess it depends on our users. NPG has not paid any attention to these conversations, btw, as far as I can tell. Most libraries have cut to the bone already, and can't cut more to get new good journals. Are they really serving their customers? They're really trying.

So all of this was background for something from the new Cites & Insights 6:7, actually about a quote from Jan Velterop whom I had the pleasure to meet at DASER. (the larger quote is from Crawford with the sub-blockquote from Velterop)
A February 21 post entitled “Too many papers, too many journals” discusses the ongoing issue of “journal fragmentation.” Velterop poses the question as “how much scientific information should be made available, i.e. published?” As posed, it’s hard to disagree with his answer: “I think it should be as much as possible. There is no place for ‘quantity control’ of information.” He goes on to note that, in some respects, not enough information is being published—e.g., negative results rarely get published (although that may be changing).

But 'information' is not the same as ‘amount of articles.’ We all know about ‘salami-slicing,’ when a given amount of information is published in a number of articles, where putting them in just one article would be perfectly reasonable and possible. This is of course a consequence of the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture that has taken hold of science.

He discusses publish-or-perish and the quest for the highest possible Impact Factor; it’s an interesting discussion. Seeking the highest IF creates a “major inefficiency” because it results in too many “speculative submissions” to journals with very high Impact Factors, rather than directly submitting articles to the most appropriate journals. “This in turn has lead to overburdening of peer-reviewers, high rejection rates, time-wasting” and other problems.

I take mild issue with the next paragraph, in which Velterop says, “In the modern world, journals are just ‘tags,’ ‘labels’ that are attached to articles.” That may be true for virtually all STM journals; it has certainly not been true historically for some journals in other fields, where the journal itself is more than the sum of its refereed articles. It trivializes the journal qua journal; maybe that’s the way the world is going, but I don’t have to like it. Velterop also seems to dismiss browsing, which has always been one use of a field’s top journals.

I admit to not having read Velterop's original post, but it seems like he's a bit on the same path. As you can see from my comment to the listserv, I do believe that journals have a place as Walt says for browsing, but also for reputation, recognition, peer review -- essentially why they were started in the first place. The in-group in the invisible colleges have never needed to read articles from a published journal to know what is going on in their field--they're linked in. It's the new or peripheral researchers who need the journal to find things. I think some publishers would like to get rid of the journal and have a publisher-wide (brand-wide?) impact factor -- some of the reason for the big Evil's indivisible journal packages and NPG's incessant launching of journals. Anyway, there are many reasons an author picks a journal (hm, I bet there's a paper in this, in fact there probably has been a paper on this) and the smallest one might be that the journal's appropriate for the article.
That's an interesting path of inquiry; as you and Velterop both seem to be saying, authors tend to aim for the highest-prestige/highest-IF journal even if they know it's not really the appropriate one. How much overhead does that actually add to the refereeing process, and how much does it distort the content of what should be the leading journals in narrower fields (because the hottest papers wind up in even higher impact, more general journals)?

My problem with Velterop's statement may be more relevant to humanities/social science, where in many cases the journal as a succession of printed, bound issues has significance beyond bringing together and validating a collection of articles. Examples include thematic issues (where the colocation of articles adds significance), the "extras" that many journals (including some STM journals) add [editorials, reviews, non-refereed tutorials, news...], and more. I think those values are in danger, and I think they're real values.

Anyway, thanks for the citation and thoughtful post.
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This is my blog on library and information science. I'm into Sci/Tech libraries, special libraries, personal information management, sci/tech scholarly comms.... My name is Christina Pikas and I'm a librarian in a physics, astronomy, math, computer science, and engineering library. I'm also a doctoral student at Maryland. Any opinions expressed here are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or CLIS. You may reach me via e-mail at cpikas {at} gmail {dot} com.

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Christina Kirk Pikas

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