If one were to invent scientific journals today

While taking a shower I was daydreaming about what would happen if one were to invent journals today, 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, 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.

5 thoughts on “If one were to invent scientific journals today”

  1. I initially balked at the ability to change work after submission, because that model seems like it could make it difficult to find original ideas or lead to falsification of data, etc. But as long as there is good version control, so I could see all the edits an author made to a paper (and data) over time, I kind of like this idea. Also, an interesting idea to have “journals” actually be simple aggregations of various topics or “high impact” selections. There would also be potential for the “journals” to review a submission, and suggest changes to the author prior to “publication” in the particular title. This would be more of a post submission, but pre-publication type review process. Perhaps the best of both worlds?

    1. Hi Andrew,

      I think that your suggestion of “journals” making suggestions before accepting the article in their feed would fit well. An updated version would be registered in the canonical repository. Good versioning would be central to keep track of who said what first. That’s why the articles would rely on a text format, which is easier to version (authors still could use any GUI of their choice to create that basic format).

      This system would encourage a stronger culture of interdisciplinary journals, as well as the creation of any number of ‘special issues’. As authors we would not see any money from our publications—as we don’t see any now—but reach would be much larger.

  2. This is really similar to the model I arrived after asking myself the same question over breakfast! I would just add that selecting/aggregating content would be a great role for scientific societies.

  3. PubPeer had that shower a few years ago. We came up with a possible solution: provide a centralized database of post-pub review. This way articles can be “published” anywhere (even on your own website) and all of the “reviews” are aggregated in one spot.

    Would be straightforward to implement an alert system for new “articles” covering your interests. We’re scientists doing this in our spare time and could use help if you know of anyone interested.

    1. Thanks for the info, as I didn’t know about PubPeer before taking my shower. I do disagree with anonymous comments though; I think most people are more civil and constructive when their reputation is on the line. Personally, I stopped doing anonymous refereeing for journals and I will always sign my reviews.

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