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Do We Really Need More Journals?

In the middle of the recession, in the middle of a downturn in many library budgets, new academic journals keep popping up. I am not sure that this expansion is altogether a good thing.

In part, this apparently remorseless expansion is an outcome of publisher “bundling” strategies which mean that, when combined with general technological advance, the costs of setting up a journal are much less than used to be the case. In part, it is an artifact of publishers’ Web publishing strategies which increasingly rely on multiplying stock so that electronic library shelves can come to resemble supermarket shelves from which it is possible to pick and mix. In part, it is an outcome of what sometimes seems like an increasingly narrow academic culture in which academics are part of self-selecting communities serviced by e-mail updates, mailing lists, keyword triggers, and the like, which mean that their searching is done for them and browsing is becoming an increasingly directed activity.

Whatever the exact cause and consequences, the fact is that new journals growing at a rate of some 3.26 percent per year (see the 2010 Chronicle article by Bauerlein et al). But what is all this new publishing for? Of course, one obvious argument is that new fields are continually coming into existence — and they need their own journals. (Indeed, I have made the argument myself.) But is this necessarily an inevitability, even given the undoubted expansion in academe across the world? Another argument is that the proliferation of new journals might begin to offer some redress of the imbalance in journal publishing patterns across the world (see, in particular, this post on GlobalHigheredEd blog). But my rejoinder would be that as more and more papers have become spread across more and more journals, so perhaps the dialogue we are promoting is a dialogue of the deaf (or at least the hard of hearing).

After all, it is hardly news that many papers have very, very low citation rates. Indeed it has been has been pointed out in this very publication. In her new book How We Think, Katherine Hayles points to an admittedly rather aged study by Hamilton which showed that 22.4 percent of articles in the sciences had never been cited once within five years of their publication. For the arts and humanities, the figure was 93.1 percent. Accepting that these figures have been subject to considerable debate subsequently (see for example, the work of Jacsó), still, as Hayles points out, many papers seem to have little or no communicative function: “even acknowledging the different roles that article publication plays in the sciences (where it is the norm) and the humanities (where the book is the norm) and the different rates at which journal publication takes place in the two fields (a few months in the sciences, from one to three years in the humanities), the figure[s] should give us pause.” In any case, the proliferation – or is it oversupply? – of journals is hardly likely to be helping matters.

In the U.K., these issues have been highlighted recently in an interesting way. Open access has become an even more pressing issue with the publication of a recent government report. The report recommends the setting up of an open access system in which, in one version, the author (or funder) pays a journal to make their work instantly available to all. But the report gives only limited guidance as to how such a system would be paid for. British research universities are concerned that the system, which would mean that papers would have to be paid for by institutions, could become a costly burden which would not, in fact, be compensated for to any great degree by a cut in library budgets since around the world many papers would still not be accessible in open access form. If the cost proved great enough, such a system might even lead to a system of rationing of the publication of papers.

Such a prospect might well be greeted with horror. And perhaps it should be. But then again perhaps not. I can remember my doctoral supervisor, Peter Haggett, suggesting, many years ago, that each academic should be given an annual or even lifetime quota of publishing opportunities in order to make sure that they only published their very best work — in the best journals. In my youthful enthusiasm, I was sure that this would be a bad thing. But now I am not quite so sure.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia image by Jorge Royan]

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