Some thoughts on why there are so many journals.

Someone pointed me at this nicely written post asking why we still have academic journals. It’s a fun read and it draws parallels between the music business and the academic publishing business with the evil music labels and the evil publishers playing the same roll.

The question asked is why do we still have journals, and why do we still have so many of them?

Well, I have a lot of sympathy for the author, the idea that we should allow journals to evaporate as we move from a partially distributed system to one where peer review is properly distributed and the submission cascade problem goes away is an appealing one. What the centralised aggregator for discovery service ends up looking like in this future is an open question; trust google with scholar, the library with ArXiV, the publishers with CHORUS, the government of one country with PMC, or some federation or nonprofit like ORCID or CROSSREF (both of whom mostly get their funding from publishers). But I digress. I have a few thoughts on why we still have journals.

I think that publishers have played a role in encouraging the creation of new titles. This is undoubtedly one reason. Publishers have people who work for them called commissioning editors and their job is to go out and cheerlead academics to write books for the publisher, edit collections for the publisher and yes, launch journals for the publisher (I used to be a commissioning editor in a past life).

The critical thing though, is that academics need to be willing participants in these activities, and there is prestige involved in being on the editorial board of a journal, but moreover the second reason why I believe there are so many journals is that to some extent a journal is a manifestation of a community. A new title often arises when a group of academics have carved out a new domain of knowledge and the old guards in the journal they try to publish in just don’t get this newfangled thing. We used to say the to get a sustainable new journal you need somewhere around 15o academics working in a field. Look for the new interdisciplinary symposia and meetings, and when they get enough traction think about whether it’s time to launch that title.

The third reason, and most certainly the most important one, is that the system is slow to change (indeed it often looks positively immune to change). The great difference between the music game and the academic game is that whereas the audience in the music game is separate from the musicians, the audience in the academic game is identical to the authors. Musicians could break out of the control of the labels because they could create lines of communication directly with their audiences, and those audiences didn’t care about the labels, but academics are the consumer and the producer and the damn academics care too too deeply about their labels.

I think one of the reasons for that is the benefit of publishing is not only to inform but also to get the cookies associated with getting a publication. In all likelihood if musicians felt they were rewarded based on who they published with rather than how many people listened to their songs, then we may not have seen the same shift in the relationship between bands and labels that we have seen.

I don’t have any solutions, or global insight into where things might go, I’m certain that a shift has to be researcher led and the anger expressed in the comments indicate that the passion for this change is as alive as I have seen it to be over the past thirteen years that I have been watching.

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