Journals and the tainting of science

The main feature article in last week’s Times Higher, A threat to scientific communication: do academic journals pose a threat to the advancement of science?, by Zoë Corbyn, examines the scholarly journals system and asks some penetrating questions about dysfunctionality in the academy, at least in the UK. We are all aware of some troubling issues caused by the link between journal publication and academic reputation, both individual and institutional. This article is one of the boldest yet to appear in the press on the subject, and it suggests that the detriment to the advancement of knowledge due to the stranglehold of the impact factor, compounded by the artificial behaviours induced by a regime of research assessment tied to funding, is now at a level that warrants serious attention. One of the most perversely reassuring things about the article is that it quotes several senior academics, editors and policy makers, whose concerns include many that librarians have been shaking their heads about for years now. Rather than rehearse the article, which can be found on the Higher’s website, I provide below my extrapolations of some of the most disturbing symptoms identified both by the correspondents in the article, and by those who are still sending in responses to the article on the website:

  • Scientists over-hype, over-interpret, destructively split out and prematurely publish their findings.
  • Ridiculously long authorship claims are almost fraudulent. This motivated me to search for an indication of the extent of this absurdity. Finding that a Thomson Scientific study indicated that a paper published in 2006 had 2,512 authors raises the question of whether such a distortion of research to benefit the credentials of scientists is not likely to bring their own work into disrepute?
  • Editorial incentives, even in top journals, are distorted by the impact factor in favour of certain types of article written by researchers in wealthy western universities. The effects could be considered racist.
  • New textbooks are not being written by UK-based humanists and social scientists because they are being horse-whipped into producing journal articles in high impact journals. This means that teaching is suffering because the available textbooks are becoming out-dated, and outmoded ideas and attitudes are being perpetuated.
  • Remedies suggested centre upon the academy taking back the means of control into its own hands, which should provide some encouragement to initiatives such as open access repositories, though their role needs considerable development if they are to provide a corrective. Among the measures suggested are:

  • Universities should develop their own metrics.
  • Learned societies should abandon commercial publishing operations.
  • Researchers working in areas of strong public concern should engage in ‘mass disobedience’ and publish their findings on the web immediately.
  • Peer review should be be less imperious, more workmanlike and more democratic.
  • Open access papers should be deposited in a national repository for the UK.
  • Wealthy universities, via their reputationally secure researchers, should lead the rest in preferring open access journals for their publications.
  • Research libraries should take on the burden of presenting choice of publication venues to academic authors.
  • Coming from scholars themselves, these views are important for us to note for our Research Information Management work, where some projects are getting underway with surveying researchers in focus groups and via interviews. It seems clear that the academic community has a number of concerns and possible solutions that librarians have not yet thought of, or dared to think of.

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