Saturday, March 18, 2017

Important distinctions in the debate about journals

My post, "Do we need more journals?" generated a lot of comments, showing that the associated issues are something people have strong opinions about.

I think it important to consider some distinct questions that the community needs to debate.

What research fields, topics, and projects should we work on?

When is a specific research result worth communicating to the relevant research community?

Who should be co-authors of that communication?

What is the best method of communicating that result to the community?

How should the "performance" and "potential" of individuals, departments, and institutions be evaluated?

A major problem for science is that over the past two decades the dominant answer to the last question (metrics such as Journal "Impact" Factors and citations) is determining the answer to the other questions. This issue has been nicely discussed by Carl Caves.
The tail is wagging the dog.

People flock to "hot" topics that can produce quick papers, may attract a lot of citations, and are beloved by the editors of luxury journals. Results are often obtained and analysed in a rush, not checked adequately, and presented in the "best" possible light with a bias towards exotic explanations. Co-authors are sometimes determined by career issues and the prospect of increasing the probability of publication in a luxury journal, rather than by scientific contribution.

Finally, there is a meta-question that is in the background. The question is actually more important but harder to answer.
How are the answers to the last question being driven by broader moral and political issues?
Examples include the rise of the neoliberal management class, treatment of employees, democracy in the workplace, inequality, post-truth, the value of status and "success", economic instrumentalism, ...


  1. Nice post.

    Referring to the last paragraph, I often feel sad as to how indifferent nowadays scholars appear as to the tragedy of their follow workers, especially when it comes to political/administrative stuff. I have in mind the suicide turmoil of a professor from the medical school of Imperial College London a few years back. Very strangely, his death led to no big event at any level. I was wondering, where had gone the voice of those who seem generally (according to a recent poll, 80% of lecturers in UK universities are) left-leaning in ideology? Most of my colleagues choose not to speak of it and consider it as an exception. Even at my best will, I could not help but thinking that the traditional scholarship has somehow been lost long ago, in the mist of neoliberalism ...

    1. I agree this is a concern. This lack of community and solidarity also reflects broader social trends: the decline of unions, the increased power of management, and an underlying social Darwinism.

  2. The sad case at Imperial College is because , he did not chase " hot topics" as mentioned in the write up. The great modern paradox of science is mentioned in this paper, "the dynamics leading to the Prize in physiology and medicine seems more complex and less endogenous; citations and centrality measures are even less useful as predictive indices"

  3. Regarding your first question (what research fields should we work on) - I think I disagree that this is a good question to answer.
    I (arrogantly) think that each researcher knows best what subject would deliver most progress for him/her(regardless of whether that's short or long term).

    Would "we" have agreed that we needed to look into the theory of special relativity?

    I think knowledge improves best if the people generating it focus on what they do best.
    Obviously there are limitations (funding agencies, which may or may not be part of the "we" above), but overall I somewhat disagree that basic research needs directions to be set.

    It's fine to write review/progress/outlook papers with suggestions of where to go next, but setting directions for (limits to) what "we" should do may restrict things too much.

    1. Thanks for another stimulating comment. I agree up to a point. You may be even more idealistic than me!

      How about I separate my question into two.

      A. What research field should I personally decide to work on?

      B. What fields and topics should the "community" work on?

      Unfortunately, the answer to A. is not yours but too often "whatever will get me the most citations as quickly as possible."

      But B. is a question that is asked all the time by funding agencies, departments, grant reviewers, ... = "we".
      We can't avoid this question.

      Again, the answer is too often the wrong one.

      Your comment suggests another blog post: Should we fund people or projects?

    2. Well, one should have ideals, even if they are utopian within the existing boundary conditions :-)
      Ideals allow one to look farther ahead without being forced to plan a detailed road (that often gets changed after the first few steps anyway).

      Your last question is indeed interesting - and the answer will affect a lot the distribution of funds between established people and starting ones.

  4. Seasonal bias in editorial decisions for
    a physics journal:you should write when you like, but submit in July. by Michael SCHREIBER Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany.
    Open access.