The case against the journal article

It seems that the academic article is currently more part of the problem than the solution for the scientific community. The race for the biggest impact and the so called “publish or perish” mentality are responsible for many ethically dubious practices, such as dissecting research results in order to produce the maximum number of articles, inflating lists of referenced articles and co-authors to boost impact factors, and data jealousy (as in even though I don’t have any use for this data any more, I sure as hell am not publishing it to benefit my competitors). Even though these practices can’t be cataloged under scientific misconduct or fraud, they give science a bad name and jeopardize the quality of published research.

I am relatively new to the research-making scene, so I get to ask basic questions, such as why on earth do we rely on these journals and their articles, hogging money from taxpayers, copyrights from researchers, creating distorted incentives? Does the system serve some function that could not be met by any other means? Let’s see.

Function 1: Dissemination of scientific knowledge
Have you heard of the internet? Let’s go and disseminate there (or here) all day long. Of course there is a possibility of younger, not yet established, researchers losing their voice into the noise, but I don’t think it’s much different in the current situation. There are only so many articles Science and Nature can publish. The challenge of being heard is one that can be overcome by putting more effort into teaching undergraduate and graduate students science communication skills.

Function 2: Discussing science among peers
I think the journal article fails miserably in this respect, both in speed and inclusiveness. Publishing an article takes ages, publishing a comeback article takes equally long. The amount of people who can play this ping-pong are limited, even if one of the articles has 5000 co-authors. There is loads of academic discussion going on in Twitter, ResearchGate, blogs… Anyone can participate and it’s in real-time. A comment posted on a blog isn’t as thorough as an article, but consider an entire discussion: it can sometimes hold enough novel ideas for a dozen articles. The peer-review gets taken care of on the side, since the discussants are (possible trolls and other beside the point comments aside) peers reviewing each others contributions. The original Polymath Project is a powerful example of this. (Disclaimer: As a historian by origin I love the monograph, longue durée and histoire totale. I’m all for doing things that require time, thoroughness and narrative. Real-time scientific discussion and taking-your-time research shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.)

Function 3: Maintaining the quality of scientific research through peer review
Journals are not doing too good of a job here either. Think for example of the Michael LaCours case, or Diederik Stapel, father of 60 retracted articles, both of whom published in eminent journals. Another example: an author was asked to add male co-authors in order to “not drift into ideologically based assumptions”. One response to the challenge came last week when an American body called the Transparency and Openness Promotion Committee published their guidelines for journals in Science. Their motivation was to “move scientific communication toward greater openness”. To me, the guidelines are fine, in principle, encouraging journals to demand stronger proof of reproducibility and more data transparency from published-to-be research. The problem is that they lack any mention of open peer review, open source, open data or open access. The article states that “the journal article is central to the research communication process.”, without giving any arguments to back the claim up. Is it really such a law of nature? To me a far better solution than the above mentioned guidelines would be an open peer review, along the lines of Open Science Peer Review Oath. Instead of journals the review process could be handled by, say, the numerous learned societies, such as science academies and scientific associations (they would need more resources, but when the journals stop bleeding research funders there will be more cake left for everyone).

Function 4: Helping to calculate the impact factor and so determine academic merit
I wonder how anyone in the non-academic world ever gets recruited or funded. I mean they don’t have the impact factor! How can they evaluate the successfulness of a person/business/endeavor without journal-based metrics? Oh, they evaluate each case individually and qualitatively, looking for example at persons CV, the things they have accomplished, talking to them in order to find about their personality, their competences, etc.? I mean who does the impact factor really serve, the government, the accountants? Not science, that’s for sure. If the government can cut funding without first checking the impact factor or Publication Forum classification, they should be capable of doing the opposite as well.

It’s starting to feel like an emperor without clothes type of situation and I’m going to call it if no one else will: Open Access publishing is a transition period solution. The journal article (at least as we know it) will become a thing of the past, and rather sooner than later. It will be replaced by article style narrative reports, blogs, wikis, video and audio recordings, conference papers and presentations, documentary films, whatever. This might sound like uncontrollable chaos and it probably is. But why try to heard cats, when you can watch them on a cute viral video? We are already finding our daily dose of information via peers, social media, traditional media, random googling and whatnot. The age of authorities like the aforementioned Nature and Science is going, going, gone. We just have to live with it. I think we’ll manage fine. (Second disclaimer: I too am planning on writing and publishing articles. I have to do that in order to have my dissertation formally approved.)

BTW, the Open Knowledge Foundation Finland Open Science Working Group (jeez, we need a catchier name) is planning on a workshop proposal for the Academic Mindtrek Conference about this issue (Publication Forum classification level 1!).

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8 thoughts on “The case against the journal article

    • Thank you for the comment and the link! I am yet to experience scientific publishing in practice and found your post really interesting and useful. There are a lot of tools that have this or that good quality, but like you describe, it’s very fragmented. Also, many of the services are commercial, which I have nothing against in principal, but often there is no guarantee of continuity, so they can’t be the only resource. The Open Science and Research Initiative by the Finnish Ministry of Education is trying to create publicly owned services for open science. So far they have been mostly concentrated on data management, not so much on publishing. But I think there are people in the initiative that would be very interested to read your remarks. I will pass the link on. The challenge so far has been getting researchers interested in using the national, public services in addition to the international and commercial ones they are already using, and that are still in the middle of development and therefore clumsy. It’s a potential vicious cycle: if the services can’t reach the critical mass of users it’s hard to better them and the government might eventually find better use for their money. The service issue is a tough one.

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      • Oh, this is excellent news, thanks a lot! I’ll be in Helsinki in November on a Knowledge Exchange event and will definitely read up on these initiatives until then. Thanks also for passing the link to my blog post on, so they know who’s coming (in case some of them are attending as well, I would presume so) 🙂
        One has to break the vicious cycle you so astutely have identified, yes indeed! My approach is to cut all subscriptions and offer faculty better services as they come and ask what to do now. Anybody not willing to change their ways is of course free to publish where they want and subscribe to the journals they think they need, but given the horrible hoops we have to go through to get published (and that’s not counting peer-review at all!), I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go back. What they have developed for now may be clumsy, but compared to what we’re currently faced with, it can’t be much worse 🙂 That’s the good thing: it’s not a very high bar that institutions need reach 🙂

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    • For some reason there is no reply option to your latest comment, so I’ll just reply here again: The Finnish Knowledge Exchange partner and my previous employer, CSC – IT Center for Science, is also responsible for executing the Open Science and Research Initiative, so you are almost certainly going to hear about the initiative and come across people working on it in November. One of the services, the data publishing platform AVAA, just announced yesterday that it’s source codes are openly available on GitHub: http://avaa.tdata.fi/web/avaa/-/avaa-web-sovellusten-lahdekoodit-avattu

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  1. Dear Heidi,
    I am amazed you have understood all these things so early in your career! Took me much longer to envision them. I have implemented what you ask (and importantly: the logic that you ask, beyond pure technical features) at “The Self-Journal of Science” (SJS, a non-commercial and very very special repository, http://www.sjscience.org) and you should take time (roughly 30minutes) to read http://www.sjscience.org/article?id=46 to see how everything can be interconnected. Of course, you are welcome to openly and dynamically review this article too! Hope you’ll give me some feedback and take some minutes to deposit your future articles there!

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    • Dear Michaël,
      Thank you for commenting! I am early in my career as a researcher, but I have many years of working experience in science policy and administration. It is very interesting and eye-opening for me to try and practice things I’ve previously known only in theory. I got stung by the open science bee a few years back when following the formation of the Research Data Alliance. From open data my interest grew to open publishing and soon I realized that the ultimate goal is to stop talking about open this and open that and just embed the principles of openness into every aspect of science. I completely agree with you on that making scientific knowledge open is essentially an ethical necessity and responsibility. I will definitely keep the Self-Journal of Science in mind, thank you!

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  2. Pingback: My thoughts on #OpenAccess and libraries | FromMelbin

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