While taking a shower I was daydreaming about what would happen if one were to invent journals today, this site with a very low cost of publication and no physical limits to the size of a publication. My shower answer was that there would be little chance for a model like traditional printed journals.
One could create a central repository (a bit like the arXiv) taking submissions of text format of the article + figures, page which are automatically translated to a decent-looking web format and a printable version. This would be the canonical version of the article and would get assigned a unique identifier. The submitters would get to update their article any number of times, creating versions (pretty much like software). This way they could fix any issues without breaking references from other articles.
There would be a payment for submitting articles to the repository (say $100 for the sake of argument), covering the costs of hosting and infrastructure, serving at the same time as a deterrent for spam.
Journals in their current form would tend to disappear, but there would be topical aggregators (or feeds). Thus, the ‘Journal of whatever’ would now be a curator of content from the ‘big bucket’ central repository, pulling aside articles worthy (in their opinion) of more scrutiny, or commentary, etc. This could be either a commercial venture or amateur labor of love, done by people very interested in a given topic and could even apply a different format to the canonical article, always pointing back to the unique identifier in the central repository.
Some aggregators could be highly picky and recognized by readers, becoming the new Nature or Science. Authors could still ‘submit’ or recommend their papers to these aggregators. However, papers could also be in multiple feeds and copyright would probably stay with the authors for a limited amount of time. The most important currency for academics is recognition, and this system would provide it, as well as the potential for broad exposure and no cost for readers or libraries.
There would be no pre-publication peer review because, let’s face it, currently it’s more of a lottery than anything else. Post-publication peer review, broad by the research community would be new standard.
Any big drawbacks for my shower daydream?
P.S.1 2013-12-15 13:40 NZST Thomas Lumley pointed me to a couple of papers on the ‘Selected Papers Network’, which would be one way of dealing with prestige/quality/recognition signals needed by academics.
P.S.2 2013-12-15 14:43 NZST This ‘journals are feeds’ approach fits well with how I read papers: I do not read journals, but odd papers that I found either via web searches or recommended by other researchers. There are, however, researchers that aim to read whole issues, although I can;t make sense of it.