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There is no single future for scientific journals

by Michael Nielsen on September 23, 2009

A question I sometimes hear which I find odd is “What’s the future of scientific journals?” Often – not always, but often – underlying the question is a presumption that there is a single future for journals. The point of view seems to be that we’ve had journals in the past, and now we have this interesting new medium – the internet – so the big question is how journals are going to evolve, or (if slightly more ambitious) what we’re going to replace them with?

This seems to me a peculiar point of view. The origin of the point of view seems to be the fact that paper is a static, relatively inflexible medium. There’s only a limited number of things you can do with paper and a printing press, so scientific publishing to date has ended up concentrated in just a few forms (journals, monographs, textbooks, and a few others). This monolithic character leads to a presumption that scientific communication will continue to evolve in a monolithic way.

The problem with this point of view is that computers and the network are extraordinarily flexible. If you believe AI enthusiasts, computers will eventually end up smarter than us, along pretty much every axis. Imagine a medium that’s smarter, more flexible, and faster than us. What could it be used to do? Of course, the dreams of the AI enthusiasts are quite some ways off. But even now, the internet is an extraordinarly flexible medium. Paper can’t even begin to compare: we’re talking about a single medium that supports World of Warcraft, Intellipedia (collaborative data sharing for spooks), and flash mobs for pillow fighters. We’re not going to have a single future for scientific journals; asking what THE scientific journal of the future will be makes no more sense than asking a programmer what THE program of the future will be. What we will have instead is an increasing number of ways of sharing scientific information, and, in many cases, of doing science. We’re seeing signs of this fragmentation already, from video journals to slide sharing services to all sorts of databases.

There will, of course, be some concentration in particular formats and platforms. Network effects in science are strong – we don’t make discoveries alone, we make them as part of a larger culture of discovery! – and this will drive the broad adoption of shared platforms (and, for that matter, of open standards). But there’s no reason at all to think that there will be just a single platform or standard, not when there’s so much to be gained from multiple approaches.

I should make it clear that I think journals will play a role in all of this. There’s a great deal to be said for having a narrative to explain a new discovery. But we should expect a gradual proliferation in formats and platforms, and (inevitably) for conventional journal articles to recede to be just one of many ways new science is communicated. If that doesn’t happen, then we’re failing to take proper advantage of this new medium. This is what I think successful scientific publishers will do in the future. They’ll be the ones who create the platforms and standards scientists use to communicate science, and, in many cases, to actually do science. But scientific journals don’t have a single future.

6 Comments
  1. Good call…there is no one size fits all. Science itself is so diverse how could there be? Mediating a discussion regarding the needs of the physicists versus the chemists versus the biologists would be an interesting challenge in itself. Even inside a particular discipline there is enough diversity – this is why there is such an abundance of journals focused on specific topics of interest. Segregation of topics on the internet is getting done everyday. Tagging of photos on Flickr is analogous to keywords on an article in many ways. More intelligent search engines, concept linking, author aggregation etc will deal with the unstructured nature of whats online and systems such as PubMed will go from strength to strength. Other systems will show up to alongside PubMed so that not only Life Sciences are handled. For example, a system called PubChem to handle journals and publications for Chemistry would be nice but that name’s gone already!

    Databases, articles, journals, blogposts are all going to mesh together (and are already in many senses) and, from my world view, a journal article will be a report at a point in time summarizing a specific piece of work but providing access to an ongoing conversation with the community to allow the work to be extended, critiqued, re-analyzed, reworked and republished. The RSC is in the fortunate position of being a highly respected publisher, have been at the forefront of semantic markup technology and deliver multiple database projects. With the addition of ChemSpider they have inherited a structure database populated with experimental data, a network of 200 integrated data sources (and growing) and a curation and deposition platform to expand the connectivities with the community. One future for the scientific article for chemistry will certainly use this type of resource for connecting “articles” to live data and across the web. It’s coming..and fast.

  2. RJN permalink

    I think that to help understand possible futures for scientific journals, it is helpful to understand why scientists publish their work in present scientific journals. One key reason is, I believe, for a scientist to establish and maintain a reputation good enough to get and hold a paying job. Journals are brands, and publishing in prestigious journals adds valuable brand markings to a CV. Now many present scientific journals were built on a paper system that relied on page and access charges to survive. With the web, posting only on arxiv.org (for example) is free for all. Therefore, it seems to me, there is little reason to pay for paper-based charges anymore. However, there are still excellent reasons to pay for the endorsement “brand” of established journals, particularly if the scientist is interested in tenure. Therefore, scientists looking to build their reputations now have to consider whether it is worthwhile to pay existing journals for the “brand” of their extra prestige. Paid journals will now exist, it seems to me, only so long as their brand name carries sufficient utility for their authors.

    I will use myself as a case study. To a good approximation, all papers in my area appear on arxiv.org (specifically). Later, all of these same papers eventually appear in a journal. Therefore, in my area, paid journal branding is still very important to the community in establishing and maintaining reputation. I do not believe that the peer review service provided by journals is itself determinative. For example, there are rarely large differences between initial papers appearing on arxiv.org and final papers finally appearing in journals.

    My decision on which journal to submit my papers, after they appear on arxiv.org, is decided not only on journal reputation but on whether or not page charges exist. Papers from my funded projects go to page-charging journals. I don’t care if these papers appear on paper — I care about the brand. Paying for the branding is built right into the grant: who would fund research that is not important enough to go to the top journals?

    My unfunded projects, however, can only be submitted to journals without page charges. These journals likely exist either by external subsidies or access charges. Since the papers are all available for free on arxiv.org anyway, the journal access charges are not much of a gateway anymore. Universities still pay these access charges, though, to maintain the prestige of the university itself. Still, that seems to me a more tenuous reason that could change with time.

    Were arxiv.org (for example) to become nearly as prestigious as major journals, the journal’s brand would bring little extra prestige for the buck, authors would get tenure without them, authors would not want to waste money on low-utility branding, authors would not bother submitting papers already on arxiv.org (for example) to paid journals, and the journals might close. Just now my research area is generally rich enough in government research monies, I believe, to fund the prestige cycle that props up most existing journal brands for at least the next few years.

    Therefore, extrapolating, were government agencies such as the US National Science Foundation (for example) to mandate that no granted funds be allowed to cover page charges, I believe that most major journals in my area would eventually close. Science, however, in my opinion, would march forward relatively unfazed.

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