We spend much time these days wondering when the academic journal as we know it will cease to exist. Opinions on the future of journals vary widely. There are those who say it will live forever and others who see the journal as an ugly reminder of the sins of big publishers – exploitative vehicles for dragging a profit from those who can’t afford to pay.
Perhaps it is worth taking a step back and asking ourselves why the journal exists in the first place.
What are the hard-to-replicate functions of a scholarly journal in our connected age? Here I refer back to Michael Clarke’s excellent 2010 post in the Scholarly Kitchen entitled “Why Hasn’t Scholarly Publishing Been Disrupted Already?” Let’s start with “validation”. For a journal article to be considered seriously – and thus the journal be taken seriously – there must be an acceptable process of quality control. This means peer review. Then there is “designation”. Clarke says that “…perhaps the hardest (function) to replicate through other means, is that of designation. By this I mean that many academic institutions (and other research organizations) rely, to a not insignificant degree, on a scientists’ publication record in career advancement decisions. Moreover, a scientists’ publication record factors into award decisions by research funding organizations. Career advancement and funding prospects are directly related to the prestige of the journals in which a scientist publishes.”
“I know all this”, you might say, so why bring it up now?
I was thinking this through in the face of Tim Gowers’ recent announcement of a new type of journal – the overlay journal. What is an overlay journal? It is really the word “overlay” that matters. Whether we are talking about a journal is arguable, and I discuss this a little later. The basic idea is that an overlay journal does not produce its own content. Rather, it links to already available content, most likely residing in a preprint server. One such server is arXiv, a preprint server in mathematics, physics, astronomy, some computer science, and other related fields. Anyone may submit a preprint of their articles to arXiv, though there are moderators who ensure some level of relevance. In addition, for a preprint to be listed in a particular category it must be endorsed by another arXiv user with a preprint already on the server. The whole thing is funded and run by Cornell University with further funding from the Simons Foundation and fees paid from member institutions. It is worth mentioning that we, at the American Mathematical Society, encourage our authors to post their articles in arXiv.
The new overlay journal, Discrete Analysis, is not intended to be “publishing” in the sense of publishing original articles in a journal. Instead, for those articles deemed to be worthy, preprints will be peer reviewed (it is not clear what model of peer review will be used – but to some extent this is irrelevant), and then links will be provided to arXiv. There will also be summaries/abstracts that one may use to point to the preprints themselves. The result will be a publication that is in some parts niche and some parts generalist, focusing on articles giving “…a good description of many parts of mathematics where the structures being studied are discrete, but the tools are analytical in character…” Gowers, in collaboration with Terry Tao, will ensure that this is a quality venture. The people involved are stellar – and they make up the editorial board under the leadership of Gowers, as he puts it “for the time being”. Discrete Analysis is a very interesting experiment which deserves the attention of mathematicians and publishing and librarian communities.
So, as I say, I am mulling over whether this interesting venture may be called a journal, or not. As of writing this post I have not been able to pin Tim Gowers down for a conversation – it would be good to hear from him directly of course on his views for the future of Discrete Analysis.
My view is that while this is a fascinating way to draw out from arXiv links to good preprints in relevant fields, this is not journal publishing. In Gower’s blog he moves on from talking about the idea of the overlay journal to a more polemical discussion of how his venture is in essence the future of the journal, reducing costs and supplying quality content in a way that may be used in the same way journal articles are used now. While Gowers has every right to his views on this, I would argue that, while his is certainly an exciting way to make use of preprints in arXiv, what it does is quite distinct from a journal. As discussed above, the journal is a matter of record, and like it or not, journals form a part of the academic and recognition workflow that allows for career progress, grant making, more research and more articles to be published.
Moreover, the form of publication is significant. In fact, while there is no question that many publishers are facing up to a new age where journals may not represent the kind of profits once taken for granted, this does not mean that there are no costs associated with producing a journal of record. In fact, if one assumes that the journal contains the final published paper that has not just gone through peer review, but been worked on significantly by the publisher themselves, then one realizes how many resources are plowed into a journal. A publisher adds all manner of value in the creation of a journal, from peer review management, production and perhaps most intensive these days, the features that allow for electronic consumption by libraries and end users, and the intensive work that is put in to ensure survival of the journal in perpetuity. Academics take for granted the features that allow them to, for example, view certain types of supplementary material, or find articles that cite the one they are reading. The assembly of these components is also not a linear value chain. In some ways a journal is a magical product in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What a journal represents to the community is more than just the pages themselves. How else over the span of many years can you keep up with the corpus of human endeavor?
Another interesting set of data points to consider may be seen in the work of Larivière et al in their 2013 paper, arXiv e-prints and the journal of record: An analysis of roles and relationships1, which notes that only 45% of preprints on arXiv appear in Web of Science indexed journals. In other words, only 30% of Web of Science publisher papers appear in arXiv. The take-away from this is that there is plenty of quality mathematics research that does not appear in arXiv that will need to find a home in a published journal. Interestingly, a version of this paper with no DOI attached sits in arXiv at http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.3261.
Perhaps here I should provide an extra disclaimer. I am deeply interested in the future of math publishing in my role leading the publishing enterprise at The American Mathematical Society. Indeed we are experimenting with new technologies, new business models and new publishing approaches. The job as I see it is to serve the mission of the society in a way that allows us to provide operating income for an organization that in turn benefits the global community of mathematicians through its programs, prizes, meetings and other services. I am both mission driven and business focused. This means that I will look to adopt new ways of doing publishing, but it has to make sense in context of the overall mission. In my view, journals are still very much a key piece of this business.