Journal press embargoes are predicated on journals being news sources. But what basis does the “news” of journal publication rest upon? What are its foundational elements?
Science is accomplished within and between increasingly specialized communities. For most people within a field, news of a study, a finding, or a setback can travel fast. When a group receives a grant, that’s news — within that field, but often not beyond. When a protocol wraps up or a study closes, that’s news — but again, to a very limited audience. These are news items that are not broadcast widely, and even the few recipients can merely infer the significance of the news.
The kind of news that is protected by embargoes is not the insider news, but the kind of awareness that crosses boundaries and sends clearer signals to the broader scientific community and, in some cases, the general public.
The economics of research publication are fundamental to the question of what is “news” in science publication. As Paula Stephan’s excellent book, “How Economics Shapes Science,” outlines, research itself is non-rival and non-excludable — that is, if two researchers are asking the same research question, they can’t stop one another or claim any primacy. It’s the act of publication that allows authors to claim primacy and make other subsequently published research look redundant. That’s why there is some value to speed in the publication process.
More importantly, it matters where you get published. If you’re published in a major journal, your claims of rivalry and exclusivity are stronger and more widely known and respected.
Because journal editors and publishers manage this crucial economic transformation point, they have a good deal of say about when news occurs.
Another hint about the source of the news function can be gained from how and why embargoes are typically maintained. The journals that manage their embargoes well understand that researchers have to talk about their studies and results at meetings and conferences. What most journals want to prevent is having authors issue their results elsewhere for wide dissemination, as that threatens the novelty of any paper they might publish. Decreased novelty naturally decreases an editor’s interest in the work. At its most extreme, pre-publication can be perceived as essentially a double-publication event.
Pre-print servers have changed the game here a bit, but the fact that journals still exist despite a high proportion of papers being made available initially on pre-print servers only underscores the value that exists in the journals economy. There is still a lot more power behind claims of exclusivity and rivalry when publication occurs in a journal.
It’s interesting to parse the phrase “pre-print server,” as doing so yields another clue around the news functions of journals. The sore thumb word in the phrase is “print,” already an anachronism as most of the reports will never see print. But “print” is a partner to “paper,” and suggests a final package, something immutable and authoritative. Pre-print servers lack this finality — it’s in the name — so the interest they generate is penultimate by definition. The main interest is in the final published work. It may not differ much in content, but it does differ in venue. And this may be the most important point.
Where and when and how a paper is finally published, and what it finally says, represent the news.
To me, the news function of journals is mostly about selection, branding, editing, and final publication. The “news” of journal publication is a combination of two things:
- A final report ending any speculation about what the researchers claim.
- Where and when the results were published — i.e., which editors and filter and brand published it.
Communities care about when someone goes on the record, and journal publication is our community’s act of going on the record. Reports at meetings are acknowledged to be preliminary, as are pre-prints. They may be intriguing or even compelling, but until the reports are final and on the record, they are necessarily less interesting. Things could change.
It’s the difference between the interviews and bluster before a big court case, compared to the sworn testimony under threat of perjury.
Studies in clinical medicine are usually not news in the sense of “being surprising developments.” Trials go through multiple grant-making and institutional review steps before patient recruitment can begin. Phase I and Phase II results are often published and submitted to oversight authorities before the final clinical trials are permitted. The hypothesis is typically well-established and widely understood by the time the patients are recruited into any major Phase III trial.
Even so, researchers and readers alike know that the final publication is the major moment for the trial. Most significantly, the journal in which the study is published is itself a major component of the news event.
Some might argue that this is improper and too glamorous for science. In an imagined world, it might be. But in the real world, it’s incredibly useful. The pecking order of journals is a reasonable, reliable, time-tested rough guide to quality. It’s not perfect. It’s not unchanging. Yet, it has proven useful. Every field has a pecking order, with competition to be in the top spot driving improvements, editorial regime changes, new initiatives, and so forth.
Not coincidentally, this “announcing where and when something is published” is the news function journals are most concerned with. It is the aspect of the embargo they pay the most attention to, and for good reason. There is both a positive effect of brand association for all involved, but also a positive effect of “going out with a bang” that embargoes help with.
One association with the top brand in a field is usually better penetration of a crowded media market. Big brands cut through the clutter. With more papers being published than ever, this ability to gain attention, drive interest, and make reputations is potentially more important with each passing day. It’s a strange counterpoint to movements to publish everything — when more is published, filters and megaphones become differentiators. Big brand journals have tighter filters and generally possess better megaphones.
Journal brands are a large part of the news function of publication. Where you get published matters.
That shouldn’t be news to anyone.