At industry conferences, seminars, and board meetings around the world, the digital revolution in scholarly communications dominates the conversation. From open access journals to new approaches to peer review, from altmetrics to plagiarism-detecting software, our community has seen a decade or more of rapid change, with no end in sight. You might think that all these changes would affect perceptions of trustworthiness and authority in scholarly communications, but a recent study by the University of Tennessee and the CIBER Research Group* found that – with a few exceptions – that is not the case. Or at least not yet.
The study concludes instead that:
The results … of this long, large and robust investigation confirms what some commentators had suspected, but had little in the way of hard evidence to support their suspicions that the idea, methods and activities associated with trustworthiness in the scholarly environment have not changed fundamentally. In fact, arguably, the main change has been a reinforcement of the established norms in the face of the rapid expansion in scholarly communications and the digital information tsunami that it unleashed. Instead of looking to the future for a lifeboat, researchers have looked to the past and gripped established practices … even more firmly.
One of the study’s main findings is that – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – peer reviewed journals are still the most trusted and preferred vehicle for scholarly communication. If anything, the authors suggest that trust in peer review has increased, though there are clear indications that this is not the case for everyone. So, for example, while life scientists see peer review as critical, young scholars (aged 30 and under) are more likely to also trust other, less traditional forms of scholarly communication, such as social media. They are much more likely to believe that checking to see how many times an article is downloaded and taking account of colleagues’ opinions is important when deciding what they trust as readers, whereas older researchers overwhelmingly see peer review as the most important factor.
Interestingly, a perceived lack of peer review was one of the main arguments the researchers surveyed gave as not wanting to publish in an OA journals. When this perception was corrected in the focus groups, the participants were more willing to trust OA journals, and “distrust also diminished considerably (but did not quite evaporate) in the case of OA journals published by an established publisher.”
Other misunderstandings about OA exposed by the study include a conflation of paying for publication with a lowering of standards. Many respondents believed that:
OA journals were the sole products of a breed of new, not to be trusted publishers, interested in money above all else, when in fact many traditional publishers offer OA journals. This was almost entirely due to experience of the so-called “predatory” journals. Many of those interviewed or engaged in focus groups protested against the constant flow of emails asking for submissions, or inviting the recipient to join an editorial board.
When it comes to deciding which articles they read and cite, however, researchers treat OA journals exactly the same as any other journal they are not familiar with and, here again, peer review is key. If a journal is seen as having a rigorous peer review process, irrespective of publishing model, then it is to be trusted.
But researchers of all ages and disciplines also rely heavily on their personal networks when evaluating which sources to read and cite. For example, three of the top five reasons given for citing a paper were related to personal knowledge (knowing the author, knowing the journal or conference proceedings, and knowing the group that had carried out the research). Older researchers have the upper hand here, of course, because they typically have a wider network of peers and more experience of the main journals and other publishing outlets in their fields. Young researchers may be using social media as a way of expanding and fast-tracking their personal networks and knowledge, as shown by the academic benefits identified by the focus group of early career researchers:
social media a) helped them develop a personal network; b) facilitated collaboration among researchers; c) speeded-up finding fellow researchers to work with; d) useful for keeping in touch with what is going on in the field; e) you could follow authors you were interested in; f) it was easy to find someone with a particular point of view
Abstracts also play a vital role in deciding which articles to read and cite – a trustworthy article is typically associated with a well-written abstract, making it a valuable time-saving selection tool in its own right.
When it comes to deciding where to publish there was near unanimous agreement by participants across all disciplines and ages about which factors are most important – relevance, peer review, being published by a traditional publisher, and being highly cited (in that order). No surprises there. But the fact that 56% of respondents said that they were heavily or somewhat influenced by funder or institutional policy directives or mandates – for example, to publish OA (over two thirds of the 56%) or in high impact factor journals – gives some cause for concern.
Researchers thought that this had a negative impact on creativity and lead to a distortion in where articles really should be placed. It is felt that early career researchers are particularly disadvantaged, because it has got worse over the years. One focus group participant said: “It is a shame they could not choose a journal in which to publish on a fitness for purpose basis; now it was all about IF scores.
Some of the other concerns highlighted in the report include:
- the increase in poor and mediocre publications – both at the article and journal level – although interestingly most researchers believe that overall the quality of research has improved, which in turn allows them to live with the increasing number of technically competent, but limited interest, papers
- a perceived increase in unethical practices – mainly seen as an issue for young researchers and social scientists, though there were concerns from all groups of researchers about the ethics of paying to publish and the quality of peer review, “a real trust touchstone for open access publications,” as the authors note
- inclusion of data and the need for them to be peer reviewed
- a general lack of awareness or understanding of – and, therefore, trust in – altmetrics, which researchers largely saw as popularity indicators rather than anything more substantive, although young researchers and those in developing world countries were more likely to trust them
Although a minority of researchers reported that they have become much less trusting over the past decade, for example, in terms of being able to associate high impact journals with good science, overall, the report finds that:
Researchers have moved from a print-based system to a digital system, but it has not significantly changed the way they decide what to trust. The digital transition has not led to a digital transformation. Traditional peer review and the journal still hold sway. Measures of establishing trust and authority do not seem to have changed … however, researchers have become more skeptical about a source’s trustworthiness and have developed an increased confidence in their own judgment.
It’s hard to believe that the next generation of researchers will continue to rely on the same old tools to determine which articles and journals to trust in the future. Social media, in particular, is increasingly being used by some groups – especially younger researchers – and even those who haven’t yet embraced it expect it to be a big part of the future, albeit “slowly, selectively, patchily, but surely, as the young and early career researchers move up the academic ladder.” A sign, perhaps, that the long-anticipated tsunami is finally on its way…
One thing is certain – that all of us, whether as publishers, societies, librarians, vendors, or researchers, have an opportunity if not an obligation, to continue to create, develop, and encourage adoption of the new tools that will be needed to support the needs of the scholarly community in future.
*Disclaimer – Wiley was one of several scholarly publishers who participated in this study