Selective Journals Are The A&R Of Science

Why selective journals have thrived in the online era

Mark Humphries
May 21, 2019 · 7 min read
This kid could go far. Credit: Pixabay

Papers are the lifeblood of research, the currency in which we trade and reputations are made. This currency bestows awesome power on selective journals, on Cell, Nature, Science, eLife, et al: those which deliberately publish a mere fraction, a few percent, of the papers submitted to them. That choose those papers based on perceived importance and “impact”. For which many scientists will spend years toiling for just a crack at getting one paper in that journal.

We scientists reflexively turn to read their output, discuss the papers they publish, and congratulate one another for publishing there.

Why do we do this? Because selective journals are the A&R of science.

The scientific journal is an anachronism. In continuous existence for 354 years since the Royal Society began publishing its Transactions in 1665, journals are a relic of the print era. The modern journal still publishes discrete papers, gives those papers page numbers; many give them an official “volume” or “issue” to live in. Despite the fact that everything is now published online. Hell, some journals still validate all this palaver by printing their verbiage on dead trees.

Selective journals double-down on the anachronism. That to be given this approving stamp of paper, page number and volume, you have to pass a quality threshold set by an editor or two based on the feedback from two to four reviewers. That means they reject most papers submitted. Where once this high rejection rate could be justified by the pressure for physical space in the journal, the hard limit of how many pages could be afforded to print, now it cannot. So now the rationale for selection is simply: to deliberately curate their output.

The open science movement is perplexed by the continued existence of selective journals. Circumventing the prodigious power of the selective journals seems simple: publish all science online before review. Let the readers decide. The selective journal is a relic, and one that should die.

And I agree with all this. I know that selective journals are an anachronism, that they hold too much power, that they are biased and beholden to flashy, sometimes wobbly, science. Yet I still check what the most selective journals choose to publish. And I cannot quash the feeling that I, too, want to publish there. And I cannot help but notice that they are thriving, not dying. Why?

In the music industry, the A&R (Artists & repertoire) people were (and are) who selected the acts a record label would sign. So they held prodigious power. They were inundated with demos; frequented countless gigs. Offered inducements of all kinds. For they were the ticket to the big time, the keepers of the gates.

And for you the listener, the lover of music, they were even more powerful. A&R people selected what you heard. They determined which acts would make it, and which would not. They are the filter through which you’ve heard the last 60-plus years of recorded music.

This deliberate curation was based on judgements of what would be the most impactful and important music. By which was often understood: make the most cash. But equally often the A&R people were genuine fans: see, for example, how many albums David Bowie was signed for and made before he got to Hunky Dory — and even that was a total flop on release. They were after all lovers of music themselves, and wanted to sign the very best, the most creative, the most compelling, the most important.

Then music went online. The deep pain of this process is well documented. An oft-repeated grand claim for the internet was that it would set music free. That artists would be freed from the tyranny of the A&R mob; that they could release their music to the world; that lovers of music could find the precious, sweet music which they had been denied.

Clearly this has not happened. There is little to show for setting music free. The most popular and lucrative tours are all well-established acts. A few artists have been online derived — Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Bieber — but these were pushed to global fame by, yes, being signed by A&R. The biggest impact of online music being major artists freeing themselves from shackles of labels — Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Prince — their reputations alone enough to draw their existing fans.

(Granted, downloads and streaming bring a wider awareness and choice of released music. But even there to cope with the sheer scale, streaming services have to implement algorithms that play songs based on your tastes. So rather than free you to discover new music, they reinforce the bubble in which you already exist.)

The problem is, most music is at best uninteresting; much of it is garbage. We’ve a finite amount of time, and with no quality filters there is an infinite amount to choose from. The A&R people did this job for you: they listened to all the dull and shit music, so you didn’t have to. They waded through mountains of dross, so you didn’t have to. What “setting the music free” has taught us is just how essential the A&R process was for putting the stuff in front of us that deserved to be heard.

The parallels are cute, no?

For any major problem in science you can name, there are more published papers than you can possibly read. And that’s not including reading the papers on the techniques, analyses, and theories feeding into that work. Nor including reading work on related problems. Nor including reading stuff because it’s, you know, interesting. So, I’d wager, for the exact same reasons as music, going online has not set science free.

Because faced with this deluge, we need to know where to start. So we instinctively turn to selective journals. They have forced three, four, sometimes six people to read each paper, many of whom will have helped improve the paper, and all of whom have given it a pass of some kind, have considered it important enough to be published there. Which means you know, perhaps implicitly, there’s a chance the answers you seek will be there in the selective journals.

Not a great chance. But a chance. A far better chance than simply wading neck deep into the ocean of published papers. For the selective journals are the A&R for science, acting as a quality filter between you and the endless ocean of papers.

(For journals with an independent editorial staff, they are literally A&R. They send scouts to check out new band (reviewers); but they take the ultimate decision to sign the act (the paper) — if they love it, you’re in).

So we reflexively turn to read their output as they have selected the potentially greatest hits for us; and we congratulate one another for publishing there, for we know that to be picked up by science A&R means a massive jump in the visibility of your science to the world.

Let me be clear: I’m semi-seriously suggesting why selective journals still hold such sway. I am not saying that’s a good thing.

The problems with selective journals are well documented. Because those journals want hits, they favour the impactful, which in biomedical science tends to mean sprawling. It leads them to publish many “mountains of straw, not houses of bricks”: papers comprising many horribly under-powered individual studies. Consistent with this, there is evidence that studies in selective journals are less likely to replicate. And there is evidence of considerable bias in who gets selected. Big names — the kind of people who phone editors to harangue them — are favoured. Compounded by tales of journal editors hanging out in major labs apparently oblivious to the deep conflicts of interest this creates. Urgh.

(They publish some crap. But then, so did the music industry. Mistakes are made. I mean, Menswear, for the love of god).

But. But still we return.

I was a PhD student during the Great Move Online, when untold numbers of poorly paid or unpaid interns scanned back issues of journals into PDFs and uploaded them onto websites. Some still utterly incomprehensible. Electronic-only journals sprang into existence many-fold. The mega journals kicked off. PLoS One is Borges’ Library of Babel incarnate. And as the ever growing army of predatory journals show, it’s now too easy to set up your own journal, too easy to publish yet more papers.

Garbage is everywhere. Someone needs to find the papers. Post-publication peer review is a noble ideal, but lacks incentives. Social media could help by highlighting unsung work — sometimes this happens, but often it’s an exercise in fad-following. Pre-prints are great, but without any filters at all besides the names attached to the papers — which is worse. And when bioRxiv reaches the size of arXiv, how much of a working week are you prepared to put aside to go through the “new releases” email?

Most likely there isn’t “a” solution to finding papers. Most likely we need to be more politic, less science: accept compromise. So perhaps we could acknowledge selective journals can play a vital role in the science ecosystem, that they act as our A&R, to give us a curated playlist, a foothold in the science mountain. And perhaps in return selective journals can acknowledge that we all would like to read the papers they publish. Open access is, after all, a solution that’s been around for twenty years.

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Twitter: @markdhumphries

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