Friday, 4 November 2011

The problem with academic journals

Noam Nisan at the Algorithmic Game-Theory/Economics blog writes that
Journals are simply not fulfilling their main three functions: dissemination, verification, and allocation of attention.
  1. Dissemination: While originally the main point of a print journal was so that Prof. A. can see the results of Prof. B. relatively quickly, it is clear that, in the age of the Internet, journals only slow dissemination compared to, say, putting stuff on the arXiv.
  2. Verification: Despite pretenses, refereeing is not really trust-worthy. Results of some importance become believed not when refereed but rather only after the community has studied them for a while.
  3. Allocation of attention: an important goal of leading journals is to filter the “important” papers out of all the submitted ones, so that readers need not read everything but rather only the important stuff. I am afraid that today so much is published so that most of what one reads in most journals should have been filtered out. Partially this is a problem of the publish-or-perish culture and partially due to the coarseness of the refereeing model as a filtering tool.
All three of these main goals can be improved upon considerably using the right tools (that need to be figured out) on the Internet. At the same time that the journal system has lost its usefulness, it has created a lot of harmful side effects: the writing of countless worthless papers, lack of recognition for surveys, books, or other non-”paper” contributions, blind and silly use of metrics like impact factors for hiring, grants and promotion which lead to wasteful optimization of these rather than of real research. All these harmful side-effects could be tolerated had the system served its main purpose — but now we are just paying the price but not getting the goods.
I think there are a number of problems with academic journals but the negative externalities that Nisan points out in his last paragraph are not, I would argue, the fault of the journals. Problems with lack of recognition for some types of work or the use of silly metrics for hiring etc are caused by the incentives put in place by administrators for things like promotion, getting grants etc. Here is New Zealand efforts like the PBRF drive the types of side-effects Nisan notes rather than the journals. A lot of useless publishing, for example, takes place just to keep your PBRF ranking up. A lot of lower ranking journal have been created so that people have places to publish the aforementioned useless articles.

On a related matter, the question of the excessive journal pricing by commercial publishers, see Ted Bergstrom's homepage.

No comments: