Why Do We Still Have Journals?

This the title of an editorial essay by Gerald Davis (Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan), in Administrative Science Quarterly. His essay was concerned with journals in social science, but I think many of the issues he raises are relevant to astronomy as well.

In our age of instant communication,  many consider traditional journals as dinosaurs, even when the papers are published on-line. Davis devotes a section to this: his list of “What’s The Matter With Journals?” will look familiar:

  • Peer review is slow and papers may not appear in print until a year after submission.
  • Journals are generally expensive.
  • Some elite journals exercise disproportionate influence over the direction of a field.
  • Publication tallies as the basis for career advancement can create incentives for bad science.
  • A rigid publication schedule (driven the need to deliver print copies) is out of synch with the timescale on which knowledge is produced.

The internet age has enabled new, rapid approaches to publication that come with their own consequences and pathologies:

  • Low barriers to entry have led to a proliferation of journals of dubious provenance.
  • The proliferation of papers makes it hard to find the right papers to read.
  • “Impact factors” assessing the importance of journals can be gamed.
  • Legitimate exercises in fast publication models – such as the Public Library of Science, described as “noble experiments” by Davis, are more platforms for sharing articles, with assessment of value following afterwards.

In the light of these consequences and pathologies, Davis argues that traditional journals retain an essential role, as follows (author’s emphasis):

“At their best, journals accomplish three things: certifying, convening, and curating. Certifying is what the review process does, validating articles as hav-ing made it through a vetting process (however organized). Convening means that specific journals are able to bring together interested and engaged scholars in a way that the abstract endeavor of organizational scholarship cannot. The membership of the editorial board reflects a journal’s ability to attract the volun- ary and mostly anonymous labor of outstanding scholars. Ideally, scholars will regard a journal as a community (but not a club). Curating suggests that what is published in a particular journal is likely to be worth reading. In a field in which 8,000 or more papers are published every year, it is helpful to have the assur- ance that papers in a specific journal will be worth your time.”


“Journals can also serve a civilizing function. Through their editorial practices, journals can enhance the legibility of arguments and findings. Graduate pro- grams rarely teach students how to write well, and good scientists are not always good writers. (Many of us believe that our Stata output ought to speak for itself and that the words surrounding the tables are mostly ornamental.) Although many journals have dispensed with the close editing of articles entirely, those that continue to do so serve a civilizing function by training new authors in how to write for an audience. ”


This entry was posted in astroinformatics, document management, informatics, information sharing, Internet, Journals, On-line Journals, Open Access, Peer review, publishing, social media, social networking, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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