Journal brand and research culture

Research culture is one of the hot topics in research policy. There is general agreement that things are not right in the culture of research, and that this is ultimately to the detriment of research (see, for example, the recent findings from a survey of researchers carried out by Wellcome). This is a global question, and covers a broad territory, from questions of research misconduct and reproducibility to the relations between researchers and equality, diversity and inclusion. When you consider these issues, two things emerge: the huge complexity of the research ecosystem, and the related problem of collective action that this complexity creates.

But there is a factor that is a recurring and major issue that comes up in the context of almost all the issues that are covered within the umbrella term research culture. There are clearly significant and negative effects of the different brands of scholarly journals, and percieved or actual hierarchies relating to journal brand. Sometimes the issue relates to the use of journal-level metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, but there are also qualitative narratives around the notion of ‘top journals’ that are pervasive in the research system. For example, the report of the Wellcome survey:

“The current publishing focus on high-impact journals was perceived to lead to misplaced priorities, with university metrics and funding bodies seen to value where research was published more than its quality”

In general, the problem is the use of journal brand as a proxy for performance. Brand and quantitative journal level metrics are used extensively in hiring and promotion criteria, which creates a pressure not just to publish, but to target an often small subset of journals. But these journals often have a bias towards certain disciplines or subdisciplines, particular methodological approaches or theoretical frameworks, and have a bias towards novel, eye-catching or positive results. Many of these factors have the effect of limiting the nature of the research record, and run the risk of tempting researchers into poor practices or even misconduct.

The focus on publication in particular venues can also be central to incidences of bullying and harrassment within the research system.

Of course, this is not a novel observation; the problematic role of journal brand has been discussed for a number of years. Many solutions have been proposed, and some implemented. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which is gaining increasing traction. Other initiatives include the establishment of so-called mega-journals, which seek to circumvent journal brand and use different criteria for publishing research. Proposals have also been made to alter the use of journals in post-publication review, such as using anonymous review where journal brand (among other things) is removed from the versions provided to reviewers.

These initiatives of something in common - they attempt to modify and work within the current system of journals. However effective DORA is in removing formal considerations and use of journal brand, there will remain, perhaps unconscious, biases within the academy. As I have argued before, there are practical challenges with anonymous review. Everyone acknowledges that a change in culture around journals is needed, but it is not clear to me how any of the current initiative will be able to change culture working within the currrent system. Even if we can change the culture around journal brand, this will undoubtedly take a long time, and the concerns about research culture will persist in the meantime.

Which leaves me wondering, maybe the only solution, or at least the only one that can make a difference quickly, is to abandon the idea of journals all together. If there are no journals, then there can be no brands, nor any hierarchies between them, either real or perceived.

Instead of journals, we need a universal platform for the publication of research that is available to all. At its simplest level, such a platform simply publishes and registers content in the way that preprint platforms do today. Processes of quality assurance and peer review can be layered onto such a system, as can some of the other functions that are sometimes ascribed to journals, such as aiding discoverability or providing foci around which scholarly communities.

I must admit this is not an original idea. Jason Priem and Bradley Hemminger floated the idea of the ‘decoupled journal’ in a paper in 2012, which I have previously written about in the context of scholarly book publishing. But the more I think about the challenges of research culture, the more the ideas of Priem and Hemminger seem like the solution, rather than just an option to consider.

The implementation is the challenge. While by no means easy, building such a research publishing platform is clearly possible. The issue would be pursuading researchers to use it. The pressures created by journal brand in the current system themselves discourage researchers to use a new platform. Even if such a publishing platform were used, there would need to be incentives for providers of the associated services - peer review, curation and discovery - that would also be needed alongside. And agreement to adopt this new approach would need to be global.

Perhaps most significantly, I struggle to see how this sort of transformation could ever be the result of incremental change from the current system. The strength of journal brand is just to strong and pervasive. The only option is radical and change that is potentially destabilising, at least in the short term.

In a complex system like research, where no single stakeholder can control the system, bringing about a change like this would require collective action. Many within the system currently drive the dominance of journal brand: funders, universities and those who give out prizes and awards for research, including national academies. Even if overt policies and practices push against the power of journal brand, the tolerance of the current system is complicit. But these stakeholders have the power to bring about change. What if these stakeholders all worked together to build a journal-free space to publish research, and then said that research only matters if it is published there?

Written on January 20, 2020

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