What is an Academic Journal?We spend much time these days wondering when the academic journal as
we know it will cease to exist. Opinions on the future of journals vary
widely. There are those who say it will live forever and others who see
the journal as an ugly reminder of the sins of big publishers –
exploitative vehicles for dragging a profit from those who can’t afford
Perhaps it is worth taking a step back and asking ourselves why the journal exists in the first place.
What are the hard-to-replicate functions of a scholarly journal in our connected age? Here I refer back to Michael Clarke’s excellent 2010 post in the Scholarly Kitchen entitled “Why Hasn’t Scholarly Publishing Been Disrupted Already?”
Let’s start with “validation”. For a journal article to be considered
seriously – and thus the journal be taken seriously – there must be an
acceptable process of quality control. This means peer review. Then
there is “designation”. Clarke says that “…perhaps the hardest
(function) to replicate through other means, is that of designation. By
this I mean that many academic institutions (and other research
organizations) rely, to a not insignificant degree, on a scientists’
publication record in career advancement decisions. Moreover, a
scientists’ publication record factors into award decisions by research
funding organizations. Career advancement and funding prospects are
directly related to the prestige of the journals in which a scientist
“I know all this”, you might say, so why bring it up now?
I was thinking this through in the face of Tim Gowers’ recent announcement of a new type of journal
– the overlay journal. What is an overlay journal? It is really the
word “overlay” that matters. Whether we are talking about a journal is
arguable, and I discuss this a little later. The basic idea is that an
overlay journal does not produce its own content. Rather, it links to
already available content, most likely residing in a preprint server.
One such server is arXiv, a preprint
server in mathematics, physics, astronomy, some computer science, and
other related fields. Anyone may submit a preprint of their articles to
arXiv, though there are moderators who ensure some level of relevance.
In addition, for a preprint to be listed in a particular category it
must be endorsed by another arXiv user with a preprint already on the
server. The whole thing is funded and run by Cornell University with
further funding from the Simons Foundation
and fees paid from member institutions. It is worth mentioning that we,
at the American Mathematical Society, encourage our authors to post
their articles in arXiv.
The new overlay journal, Discrete Analysis, is not intended
to be “publishing” in the sense of publishing original articles in a
journal. Instead, for those articles deemed to be worthy, preprints will
be peer reviewed (it is not clear what model of peer review will be
used – but to some extent this is irrelevant), and then links will be
provided to arXiv. There will also be
summaries/abstracts that one may use to point to the preprints
themselves. The result will be a publication that is in some parts niche
and some parts generalist, focusing on articles giving “…a good
description of many parts of mathematics where the structures being
studied are discrete, but the tools are analytical in character…”
Gowers, in collaboration with Terry Tao,
will ensure that this is a quality venture. The people involved are
stellar – and they make up the editorial board under the leadership of
Gowers, as he puts it “for the time being”. Discrete Analysis is a very interesting experiment which deserves the attention of mathematicians and publishing and librarian communities.
So, as I say, I am mulling over whether this interesting venture may
be called a journal, or not. As of writing this post I have not been
able to pin Tim Gowers down for a conversation – it would be good to
hear from him directly of course on his views for the future of Discrete Analysis.
My view is that while this is a fascinating way to draw out from arXiv
links to good preprints in relevant fields, this is not journal
publishing. In Gower’s blog he moves on from talking about the idea of
the overlay journal to a more polemical discussion of how his venture is
in essence the future of the journal, reducing costs and supplying
quality content in a way that may be used in the same way journal
articles are used now. While Gowers has every right to his views on
this, I would argue that, while his is certainly an exciting way to make
use of preprints in arXiv, what it
does is quite distinct from a journal. As discussed above, the journal
is a matter of record, and like it or not, journals form a part of the
academic and recognition workflow that allows for career progress, grant
making, more research and more articles to be published.
Moreover, the form of publication is significant. In fact, while
there is no question that many publishers are facing up to a new age
where journals may not represent the kind of profits once taken for
granted, this does not mean that there are no costs associated with
producing a journal of record. In fact, if one assumes that the journal
contains the final published paper that has not just gone through peer
review, but been worked on significantly by the publisher themselves,
then one realizes how many resources are plowed into a journal. A
publisher adds all manner of value
in the creation of a journal, from peer review management, production
and perhaps most intensive these days, the features that allow for
electronic consumption by libraries and end users, and the intensive
work that is put in to ensure survival of the journal in perpetuity.
Academics take for granted the features that allow them to, for example,
view certain types of supplementary material, or find articles that
cite the one they are reading. The assembly of these components is also
not a linear value chain. In some ways a journal is a magical product in
which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What a journal
represents to the community is more than just the pages themselves. How
else over the span of many years can you keep up with the corpus of
Another interesting set of data points to consider may be seen in the work of Larivière et al in their 2013 paper, arXiv e-prints and the journal of record: An analysis of roles and relationships1, which notes that only 45% of preprints on arXiv appear in Web of Science indexed journals. In other words, only 30% of Web of Science publisher papers appear in arXiv. The take-away from this is that there is plenty of quality mathematics research that does not appear in arXiv that will need to find a home in a published journal. Interestingly, a version of this paper with no DOI attached sits in arXiv at http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.3261.
Perhaps here I should provide an extra disclaimer. I am deeply
interested in the future of math publishing in my role leading the
publishing enterprise at The American Mathematical Society.
Indeed we are experimenting with new technologies, new business models
and new publishing approaches. The job as I see it is to serve the
mission of the society in a way that allows us to provide operating
income for an organization that in turn benefits the global community of
mathematicians through its programs, prizes, meetings and other
services. I am both mission driven and business focused. This means that
I will look to adopt new ways of doing publishing, but it has to make
sense in context of the overall mission. In my view, journals are still
very much a key piece of this business.
V., Sugimoto, C. R., Macaluso, B., Milojević, S., Cronin, B. and
Thelwall, M. (2014), arXiv E-prints and the journal of record: An
analysis of roles and relationships. Journal of the Association for
Information Science and Technology, 65: 1157–1169.
What is an Academic Journal? | The Scholarly Kitchen