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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pros and cons of academic journals

Do scholarly journals warrant high subscription fees?

Yesterday's post about the movement to make academic journals more affordable -- or at least to promote the revolutionary idea that their authors and reviewers should be paid -- generated such interest on both this blog and facebook, that I had a look at what the internet is saying. 

And I found that it is a LOT. Google (perhaps because of a vested interest?) seems to actively encourage discussion, but it is definitely a very hot topic, originally triggered by the boycott of Elsevier, the Dutch publisher of many of these journals. See, for instance, gigaom -- but there is much, much more.

Traditionally, students are strongly recommended to use journals in their research; indeed, they are considered so important that the University Library of the University of New England has a page with tips for telling academic ("peer-reviewed") journals from other types of publication. To summarize:
  • In academic journals there is a list of editorial board members at the beginning 
  • The articles include sourcing, such as footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies
  • The papers are often illustrated with charts and graphs 
  • The authors are NEVER anonymous 
  • The language is very formal: "sensational, highly emotive language is almost never used"
  • Most specialize in original research

So, okay, these students are captive to the scholarly journal arena, and university libraries include hefty subscription fees in their budgets as a matter of course.  But is this system coming to an end? Have internet search engines such as google guaranteed the demise of these publications in their present form?

A forum which discusses the issue in an intelligent manner is based at Slashdot. What makes it interesting is the input from people who have been involved in the author or reviewer process -- people like Dale, who posted very interesting comments on this blog.  And, there are very definite pros and cons:

PRO:

  • Reliable scholarship
  • Junk is more likely to be rejected
  • Internet data is easy to obtain, but the recipient has to do all his or her assessment, while with scholarly journals the assessment has already been done
  • The current journal system employs people with high level filtering expertise, and no search engine can match that
  • It allows significant advances to be seen more easily
  • "Saner content than a crackpot with a webpage"

CON:

  • Anonymity of reviewers cannot be guaranteed when there are only a few experts in the field
  • Vulnerability to academic rivalry
  • Immense time-lag between submission and publication: one author commented that by the time his technology-related paper was printed it was obsolete and not worth reading
  • Despite the peer review system idiotic and plagiarized material has been published
  • It panders to intellectual elitism
  • Reviewers can be emotionally biased
  • Most papers are work in progress, and not a complete understanding
  • Because of high charges "these publishing bodies are actually slowing down the advancement of mankind!" 
 Obviously, the discussion is only going to get more lively. Watch this space.

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