Publication incentives

(This post continues discussing issues I described back in January in Academic publication boycott)

Some weeks ago I received a couple of emails the same day: one asking me to submit a paper to an open access journal, while the other one was inviting me to be the editor of an ‘special issue’ of my choice for another journal. I haven’t heard before about any of the two publications, which follow pretty much the same model: submit a paper for $600 and—if they like it—it will be published. However, the special issue email had this ‘buy your way in’ feeling: find ten contributors (i.e. $6,000) and you get to be an editor. Now, there is nothing wrong per-se with open access journals, some of my favorite ones (e.g. PLoS ONE) follow that model. However, I was surprised by the increasing number of new journals that look at filling the gap for ‘I need to publish soon, somewhere’. Surprised until one remembers the incentives at play in academic environments.

If I, or most academics for that matter, want to apply for academic promotion I have to show that I’m a good guy that has a ‘teaching philosophy’ and that my work is good enough to get published in journals; hopefully in lots of them. The first part is a pain, but most people can write something along the lines ‘I’m passionate about teaching and enjoy creating a challenging environment for students…’ without puking. The second part is trickier because one has to really have the papers in actual journals.

Personally, I would be happier with only having the odd ‘formal’ publication. The first time (OK, few times) I saw my name in a properly typeset paper was very exciting, but it gets old after a while. These days, however, I would prefer to just upload my work to a website, saying here you have some ideas and code, play with it. If you like it great, if not well, next time I hope it’ll be better. Nevertheless, this doesn’t count as proper publication, because it isn’t peer reviewed, independently of the number of comments the post may get. PLoS ONE counts, but it’s still a journal and I (and many other researchers) work in many things that are too small for a paper, but cool enough to share. The problem: there is little or no credit for sharing so Quantum Forest is mostly a ‘labor of love’, which counts bugger all for anything else.

These days as a researcher I often learn more from other people’s blogs and quick idea exchanges (for example through Twitter) than via formal publication. I enjoy sharing analysis, ideas and code in this blog. So what’s the point of so many papers in so many journals? I guess that many times we are just ‘ticking the box’ for promotions purposes. In addition, the idea of facing referees’ or editors’ comments like ‘it would be a good idea that you cite the following papers…’ puts me off. And what about authorship arrangements? We have moved from papers with 2-3 authors to enough authors to have a football team (with reserves and everything). Some research groups also run arrangements where ‘I scratch your back (include you as a coauthor) and you scratch mine (include me in your papers)’. We break ideas into little pieces that count for many papers, etc.

Another related issue is the cost of publication (and the barriers it imposes on readership). You see, we referee papers for journals for free (as in for zero money) and tell ourselves that we are doing a professional service to uphold the high standards of whatever research branch we belong to. Then we spend a fortune from our library budget to subscribe to the same journals for which we reviewed the papers (for free, remember?). It is not a great deal, as many reasonable people have pointed out; I added a few comments in academic publication boycott.

So, what do we need? We need promotion committees to reduce the weight on publication. We need to move away from impact factor. We can and need to communicate in other ways: scientific papers will not go away, but their importance should be reduced.

Some times the way forward is unclear. Incense doesn’t hurt.

Making an effort to prepare interesting lectures doesn’t hurt either.
These days it is fairly common editors ‘suggesting’ to include additional references in our manuscripts, which just happen to be to papers in the same journal, hoping to inflate the impact factor of the journal. Referees tend to suggest their own papers (some times useful, many times not). Lame, isn’t it?

PS. 2012-10-19 15:27 NZST. You also have to remember that not because something was published it is actually correct: outrageously funny example (via Arthur Charpentier). Yep, through Twitter.

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