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Re: Electronic availability

As a recently retired publisher myself, I too cannot refrain from adding
some comments of my own to those of Anthony Watkinson and others regarding
the debate over quality in today's journals. I am pleased to be able to
speak out from a safe vantage point, above the fray, as it were.

It is true that newly started journals may benefit for a time from the
extra efforts expended by the journal editor and his/her editorial board
to obtain quality papers. In fact, it is tacitly understood when one is
invited to join the editorial board of a new journal that one is supposed
to divert one or two important articles to it rather than send them to
more established and presumably more prestigious journals. This is
intended to "jump start" the new publication.  I always warned my new
journal editors that while filling the first few issues may seem to go
fairly smoothly, albeit with a very significant effort on their part, they
should be steeled for a rough ride when it comes to filling out the rest
of Volume 1.  All too often, authors, having fulfilled their obligations
to the editor, go back to their regular pattern of submissions. It is the
rare new journal today that can sustain the quality of Volume 1 in Volume
2 and 3. But enough on this topic.

More generally, let me address the flood of new journals that seems never
to abate. There are at least three main reasons for this phenomenon:

1. As the volume of new research continues to expand in a given field, it
becomes increasingly difficult to find a "home" for weaker articles, or
articles by younger and thus less well known authors.  The stronger
journals have the luxury of picking and choosing the best articles by the
best known authors, fulfilling their task of screening for quality (but
also, at times, giving unfair preference to the well connected and well
recognized authors).Hence the opportunity for starting yet another
journal, and another, and another.

2. The pressure on commercial journal publishers to add to their journal
lists is hard to appreciate from outside the companies. Publishing careers
may literally rise or fall based on how many new journals have been signed
up each year. In firms that yield indiscriminately to the pressures from
"above" to raise subscription revenue through growth of their journal
lists, this can at times lead to an acceptance of lower quality editors,
questionable selections of topics, and the notorious "twigging" effect in
which the focus of new journals becomes ever narrower, sometimes to the
point of absurdity.

3. Professional societies woke up years ago to the potential for journals
to generate revenue streams to support society activities. Either by
self-publishing or by contracting with commercial publishers, socities
increasingly seek to start journals, using the lure of their sponsorship
and the loyalties of their members. While it is often believed that a
society sponsored/owned journal is going to be of a higher quality than
that of a journal wholly initiated by a commercial publisher, I'm afraid
that this is not necessarily the case. In both types of journals, the
profit motive is heavily involved, with all that this implies.  And
society politics have often been known to conflict with considerations of
quality when it comes to choosing the most able editors and editorial
board members, as well as articles.

Sadly, it has often been remarked by scientists I know that virtually any
article, however weak, can ultimately get published in some journal or
other if the author is persistent enough. And whereas a better quality
journal may demand revisions to improve the article, authors have
frequently been known to decline such advice and simply resubmit to a less
demanding journal. This raises many troubling questions about the
beneficial effects of the peer review process today.  Suppose that one day
soon all journals were indexable and retrievable. How would peer reviewing
really have helped to prevent publication of articles that spread more
confusion than light on their subject?

It appears likely to me that a not insignificant proportion of the
journals rolling off the presses today contain a not insignificant
proportion of articles that the scholarly and scientific world could well
live without, or that should not have been published in the form in which
they were presented.  Perhaps the author tried to pad his/her CV by
splitting a body of research into five separate publications rather than
writing one weighty, well-documented paper, as was thought proper a
generation or two ago. Perhaps he/she ought to have delayed publishing
anything until more solid data leading to a more significant insight could
be realized. Unfortunately this is unrealistic for most authors who, under
our current systems, must frequently document their activities to obtain
research grants or tenure, or both.

For several years now I have followed with interest and sympathy the
comments written here by conscientious librarians agonizing over the
question of how to spread their inadequate budgets so as to best serve
their clientelle. But given the present system of scientific and scholarly
publishing, with its financial consequences to libraries and others, and
given also the ever expanding demand, if not need, for more room for more
articles, I do not see how this system as presently configured can be
sustained indefinitely. I know that I am not alone in drawing this

The sooner all parties, i.e., publishers, authors, librarians, societies,
and information technologists, as well as research funding agencies and
tenure granting committees begin to work together toward a solution that
incorporates at least some of the main concepts behind the Varmus
proposal, the sooner the creators and consumers of information will be
better served, and at a sustainable cost.

Alan M. Edelson, Ph.D.
(retired) President and CEO
J.B. Lippincott Company


Anthony Watkinson wrote:

> As a publisher I cannot resist chipping in here. I do find the debate
> between David and Tony highly realistic. I want to muddy the waters a
> little with a few points about (bad) journals and (good) papers.
> 1. Most publishers really want to publish good journals and put a lot of
> effort trying to encourage their editors, upgrading their editorial boards
> and find ways of enticing good people to contribute. The result is that
> some good papers go into almost all journals.
> 2. New journals are particularly liable to get some good papers in early
> issues where the editorial board are lent on and they themselves lean on
> their friends and dependents. It is interesting how much more willing good
> scholars put into such journals good papers if they are already tenured or
> have an assured position.
> 3. Many scientists in a hurry can be tempted by journals which promise
> quick publication if they have something burning to get into print and
> have been turned down by Nature. The word "Letters" in the title is a big
> enticement - even if it means little.
> Anthony Watkinson