Do Journals still need issues, pages, volumes and impact factors?

A lot of people may hate me for saying this. But I think the time for having a periodical journal has passed.

Journal: Created for a reason

Scholars and scientists needed a way to publish the result of their research. Originally they published their research as ‘letters’ to peers and colleagues. Then people thought that these papers needed to be published and disseminated more widely. The most cost effective way of doing it was packing ‘letters’ or papers in a discipline together. This made it more practical and viable and effective than sending letters to peers. It also made the discovery of new knowledge easier for the academic and scientific community. Physicists could subscribe to one or more Physics journals and they would know what their peers where doing.

By the time they published an ‘issue’, more papers would come in. It made sense to set a quarterly, monthly or weekly frequency to the publication plan. So they created ‘periodical journals’. After a few year, they decided that it would make sense to package all the research published in one year, in a single volume. This is how ‘volumes’ where created.

Reasons for journal structures

  • Papers (or research articles) were created to disseminate the outcome of research, a theory, a discourse, etc. In order to:
    • Claiming credit and intellectual property for the research
    • Inform peers of what had been achieved, to reduce duplicate efforts
    • To advance the science, so others could build upon the achievements and discoveries
  • Journals were born to:
    • Create a vehicle for effective dissemination of these paper
    • Generate economy of scale for wider access to the outcome of research
    • Create an official record for the papers published
    • Enable a peer-review process to ensure the research published still stood after scrutiny and was reproducible
    • Make research in a discipline or field more discoverable
    • Improve availability of the research in the discipline available to the community as soon as possible, by creating a ‘frequency’ of publication.
    • To enable ‘citation’, so others could have a common way of referring to the content of each paper.
  • Issues were born because it wasn’t viable to publish one paper at a time and it made sense to pack a few papers together and then print them
  • Volumes were created to package all the research published in a calendar year for ease of archiving.

Therefore, a journal was a ‘periodical’, ‘printed’ ‘package of content’ around a ‘specific scientific or scholarly discipline’, which followed a quality assurance process. The publishers released the journals in ‘issues’ and ‘volumes’. All good.

Journal reinvented: Henry Oldenburg arrives in 2016

Henry Oldenburg (1619 - 1677). Founder of the Royal Society, the first editor of the journal Philosophical Transactions, and the creator of peer review.

Henry Oldenburg (1619 – 1677). Founder of the Royal Society, the first editor of the journal Philosophical Transactions, and the creator of peer review.

Henry Oldenburg was a founder of Royal Society and Philosophical Transactions (the first scientific journal). He was also the creator of scientific peer-review. Imagine Oldenburg sat in a time machine and arrived in 2016. Would he still create Philosophical Transactions the way he did?

Seeing the power of the Internet, he would probably find a different, more effective solution to his problem. He wouldn’t probably even consider print as the medium and would use the web as a way of publishing scientific discoveries. Our Henry would still need some sort of peer-review process so people could trust the discoveries. He would need a brand name, to create trust around the published material and the quality assurance processes. Philosophical Transactions would still sound like a good name, probably.

No periodicals

However, it wouldn’t probably even occur to him to create a periodical, with ‘issues’ and ‘volumes’, use page numbers for citation, or even create articles in a PDF format. He would probably find the concept of an ‘Impact Factor’ for his efforts a bit absurd. It would have been the impact of the research paper that mattered, rather than the ‘publication’.

He would probably create an online platform, underpinned by a strong taxonomy, semantically enriched. Its name would probably not include the word ‘journal’. And the name of the communications would not be ‘papers’ or ‘articles’. He would know that the narrative and the ‘written’ content about a scientific discovery was only part of the communication. There were so many other elements — such as the underlying raw data, videos of the experiment, protocols and methods, peers’ views, etc. These, together with the text, would form the scientific communications, and would probably call them ‘research objects’.

He would use that single platform for publication of all natural and social sciences. The robust process for production, quality assurance and publications would be the same for all disciplines. He would not need to create thousands of niche journals in order to facilitate the discovery of content. Instead, He would use his taxonomy of science. As a result, anyone looking to find a specific communication in a discipline or wishing to know of the latest discoveries in a discipline, would go to Philosophical Transactions, choose their topic (or simply use the search engine).

He would not create ‘Issues’ or ‘volumes’, since it would be more important to place that research object into a net of related research rather than articles that happen to be submitted at the same time.

But we are still sticking to ‘journal’

However, today, we still have ‘journals’, ‘papers’, ‘issues’, ‘volumes’ and impact factors. Millions of dollars and years of investment in the development of mega-platforms and fundamental transformation of the STM and SSH publishing industry, and we still have them.  Everyone knows they don’t need to be there anymore, but they are still there. Every platform development uses them as the basis of the design. The industry spends thousands of hours to publish issues on time with sufficient page counts. Publishers aspire for digital first workflows, but they still commission typesetters to create PDFs before the html version of the articles. People are still talking about ‘page budgets’.

Someone needs to be a bit more daring and just try it differently, I guess. I mean, just make sure you have got the right taxonomy and ontology. Publish articles under the right subject terms, whenever they are ready. Just forget about ‘issues’, and focus on discovery and semantics. Forget about journal level metrics, and focus on article level metrics. And focus on creating research objects rather than research papers.