Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Education Media Science

Are Academic Journals Obsolete? 317

Writing "Surely there is a better way," eggy78 asks "With the ability to get information anywhere in the world in seconds, and the virtually immediate obsolescence of any printed work, why are journals such an important part of academic research? Many of these journals take two or more years to print an article after it has been submitted, and the information is very difficult (or expensive) to obtain. Does this hinder technological advancement? There are certainly other venues for peer review, so why journals? What do they offer our society? Are they just a way to evaluate the productivity of professors?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Are Academic Journals Obsolete?

Comments Filter:
  • Easy question (Score:5, Informative)

    by mrbluze ( 1034940 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:44PM (#23702713) Journal

    Why are journals such an important part of academic research?
    Quality control.
    • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Interesting)

      by mrbluze ( 1034940 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:46PM (#23702733) Journal
      Quality control and that journals are recognizable and until now, financially viable.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:05PM (#23702839)
        There is a difference between data and information. Data is what the electronic era makes available in seconds. Information takes time: you have to read more than a paragraph to really understand a complex issue. That is not to say that jounals can't be on line [slashdot.org], but the process of analyzing data and turning it into information as academic journals do is long, difficult, and certainly not obsolete.
        • by hjf ( 703092 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @12:10AM (#23705093) Homepage
          Information is processed data. It is anything that can help reduce uncertainty in the decision-making process. It has nothing to do with the complexity of the issue.



          You can read it all you want, and analyze it all you want, and it would still be just raw data to you, without any meaning. But if I told you that this is the temperature, in degrees celsius, at my city right now, it would still be a useless piece of data for you. But for me, it's a great piece of information: now I know that I should wear a little more than just a t-shirt.
    • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Insightful)

      by mactard ( 1223412 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:46PM (#23702735)
      Peer review can be done online. Journals seem like a more expensive and time-consuming way of peer review that the Internet will probably supplant soon.
      • Re:Easy question (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mrbluze ( 1034940 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:48PM (#23702745) Journal

        Peer review can be done online.
        Journals can be online. And for all we know peer review is already happening online, maybe just not in public forums.
        • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Informative)

          by Thowllly ( 529311 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:58PM (#23702795)
          They are done online. At least the example a friend of mine showed me of a poor paper (It had references to obscure papers that did not in fact contain what the paper claimed) he had reviewed was.
          • by barista ( 587936 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:10PM (#23702899) Homepage
            Was it submitted by Ignatius J. Reilly?
          • Re:Easy question (Score:5, Interesting)

            by smallfries ( 601545 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:13PM (#23702931) Homepage
            One consequence of this is that plagarism is easier to detect. Even when it is not outright theft but an author trying to game the system by double publishing work it shows up quickly in search queries. I'm aware of (reviewed) two papers recently that were rejected because another reviewer spotted the previous publication of the work.

            The submitter doesn't seem to know as much about academia as he believes. What kind of scientific publication is "obsolete"? More importantly when does that change occur?

            The purpose of restricting published work to that which has passed peer review is to ensure that results do not become obsolete. They must uphold the same quality standards that we expect from all scientific disciplines - not blog-style fads that have become popular and at some stage will cease to be popular. The body of the literature should contain timeless observations that have resulted from hard study. These do not become obsolete, even if they are superceded by better methods.
            • Re:Easy question (Score:2, Insightful)

              by that this is not und ( 1026860 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:16PM (#23703353)

              The submitter doesn't seem to know as much about academia as he believes. What kind of scientific publication is "obsolete"? More importantly when does that change occur?

              Even more importantly, why is it necessarily a bad thing if it 'hinders technological advancement'?

              Technological advancement in and of itself isn't automatically a good thing. In fact, unless informed with scholarly scrutiny, it can rapidly become a bad thing. I am not speaking here as a luddite. A luddite chants 'all bad' just like a technophile chants 'all good.' The truth is more complicated than that.
        • Re:Easy question (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Rutulian ( 171771 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:07PM (#23702873)
          Peer review does effectively happen online. After an article is submitted to a journal and vetted by the editors, it is sent, usually electronically, to selected reviewers. Reviewers then submit their critique electronically. There isn't a lot of mailing of manuscripts. That, like you say, is fairly pointless in an electronic age. Critique in a forum doesn't happen, but that would be fairly impractical for a scientific article. Besides, there isn't any direct communication between reviewers and submitters. It is blind, and there isn't a lot of traffic in general--just the manuscript to be sent and the review to be received.

          I do think there is an important role for journals...it allows scientific themes and significant advances to be followed more easily. Somebody else (the editors) has screened a lot of submissions--looking for things like relevance to the journal, significance of data, a well-told story, etc--before it ever makes it to print, so the reader doesn't have to wade through a ton of crap to get to the interesting article he is looking for. The economics of journals will probably certainly change, but journals themselves will remain for the near future. And nothing stops a PI from publishing their findings online if it doesn't make it into a journal. It's just that fewer people are likely to see it that way.
        • Re:Easy question (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:39PM (#23703571)
          As someone who submits to journals and occasionally helps peer review: It is certainly being done online.

          Submission of articles for most medical journals are for the most part online. There are attestations that have to be physically signed and mailed in, but everything else is online.

          As for the actual peer review, that is also predominately online.
      • by MrHanky ( 141717 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:00PM (#23702801) Homepage Journal
        Sure, and many (most?) journals do their peer review "online" -- through email, mostly, with Word .docs as attachments. I'm sure it can be even more online with Google's word processor, but that's hardly going to revolutionise anything.
        • Re:Easy question (Score:5, Informative)

          by finiteSet ( 834891 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:32PM (#23703055)

          Sure, and many (most?) journals do their peer review "online" ... with Word .docs as attachments. I'm sure it can be even more online with Google's word processor....
          I'm sure this varies from field to field, but academic papers are overwhelming written using LaTeX in my circle. The thought of writing a paper using Goggle's online processor makes me cringe.
          • by Malekin ( 1079147 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:37PM (#23703083)
            LaTeX is usually required for the final submission, but a lot of journals are accepting Word files for submission for peer review.
            • by Tango42 ( 662363 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:10PM (#23703299)
              If the final version is going to be in LaTeX, why wouldn't you just write it in LaTeX to start with? The hard part is learning the language, which you'll have to do anyway. Once you know what you're doing, it's really not difficult to work with.
              • Re:Easy question (Score:3, Informative)

                by Buran ( 150348 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:40PM (#23703579)
                My dad's a physicist, and he DOES write all his papers in LaTeX on his own (and started in a text editor, so he knows his stuff) but it's not necessary. Journals have typesetters/preparers whose job it is to take your rough proof (which is nearly always a Word file in biomedical journals, in my experience) and turn it into a finished, polished piece ready for publication. At times I can tell what app was used to create a document, and much of the time it's FrameMaker or similar, which most individuals aren't going to use -- most individuals make PDFs with Acrobat or features like the "save to PDF" feature in MacOS.

                I do however have a recent document, not a journal article, that has the file name stamped at the bottom of each page. From the extension, I can tell that it was created in InDesign.

                Text imported into InDesign can be in plain text format or, I believe -- it's been awhile since I've used InDesign, although I have done so in the past -- Word format.

                So, in other words, people like my dad, who is the real live manifestation of your hypothetical researcher, are rare. I don't know if the time period in which one grew up would have any effect on the likelihood of being like him, but if it helps, he's in the 75-80 age range.
          • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Informative)

            by ceifeira ( 1230772 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:40PM (#23703099)
            That's true mainly in computer science, mathematics, physics, etc. I see little LaTeX being used in the life and social sciences. Unfortunately, the de facto standard for those really is microsoft word documents.
            • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Informative)

              by proxima ( 165692 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:03PM (#23703231)

              That's true mainly in computer science, mathematics, physics, etc. I see little LaTeX being used in the life and social sciences. Unfortunately, the de facto standard for those really is microsoft word documents.

              LaTeX is widely used in economics, probably more than word processors in general. It's easy to spot with working paper versions of papers; authors tend to leave the LaTeX default fonts and heading styles.

              I've also noticed a significant trend away from PowerPoint towards Beamer [sourceforge.net] for presentations. From what I understand, in the physics world, PowerPoint still reigns for presentations (and even poster making!).
      • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Insightful)

        by NoobixCube ( 1133473 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:07PM (#23702879) Journal
        Some people don't like wading through unreviewed papers. Even though I read Slashdot, OS News, Ars Technica and a few others, I still buy a copy of Linux Format every so often. Peer review is a nice idea, and I'm not saying that a published journal is inherently better or more effective, but often peer review can totally miss something. Peer review is subject to groupthink - Slashdot is a prime example, if you look in the Firehose, or how comments are rated. Recently, there was that article on Slashdot about cold fusion. Turned out to be very under tested and probably a load of crap, but peer review saw that it was big news.
        • Re:Easy question (Score:2, Insightful)

          by arktemplar ( 1060050 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:46PM (#23703145)
          Most people who do reviewing are knowledgeable to the point of expertise in their field (This can be questioned but the reviewers are at least grad students who have published on the topic once). The people on slashdot - not so knowledgeable about high energy physics.
        • Re:Easy question (Score:4, Insightful)

          by pbhj ( 607776 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @07:57AM (#23707555) Homepage Journal

          Recently, there was that article on Slashdot about cold fusion. Turned out to be very under tested and probably a load of crap, but peer review saw that it was big news.
          I'd hardly call a /. moderation on cold-fusion "peer review". Slashdot aims to find important _OR_ interesting news (not XOR incidentally), even if it's crackpot then it can still be interesting.

          Some guy claims to have made an anti-gravity machine with a cat and some buttered toast? That's still news for nerds!

    • by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:01PM (#23702815)
      The internet is a great way to share information and ideas. The flip-side is that it is also a vehicle for disinformation and trial by popular opinion. The opinions of alarmist popularist bloggers are more influential than the review by proper scientists.

      To get any serious scientific review there has to be a place for this to happen - off the internet highway.

      Perhaps what we have is good enough: true scientific journals for the scientists; Nature and Scientific American etc for the informed amateur; bloggoshere for the great unwashed.

      • by moranar ( 632206 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:13PM (#23702935) Homepage Journal
        There's nothing that forces the peer review process out of the interwebs. Accountability is there with gpg/pgp, the intercommunication is obvious. Journals could be organised over the web, even with subscriptions and all. Thing is, the time needed for proper review won't change significatively: the amount of time and attention a person must give to a review doesn't depend on the publication medium. The publishing time, OTOH, would be reduced, but I don't know how much that is.

        Perhaps the journals don't do it because they feel it would threaten them in the same way it threatens the media industry?
    • by nguy ( 1207026 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:18PM (#23702985)
      Unfortunately, the quality control by academic journals is getting worse and worse.
    • They have to be written in a delibrately abbreviated and obscure form.

      They can only report original work rather than synthesize and consolidate existing work.

      Thus what is valuable in the field gets submerged in a torrent of crap, sometimes never to see the light of day again.

      Where existing work is referenced, the reference is usually to an obscure and (unless you in a first world first rate university) unobtainable journal.

      When you finally get that paper, it is a smidgeon of information packed atop an array of references to earlier work in obscurer journals.


      Think of all this as _the_ primary User Interface on the body of human knowledge.

      What a crap UI!

      • by Ichoran ( 106539 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @11:45PM (#23704937)
        It's a user interface for experts. For us, it works pretty well. Deliberately abbreviated? Efficient! Obscure? Not to me! Smidgeon of new information--well, yeah, I knew the older stuff already and I want the new stuff as soon as it's known, and if I don't know the older stuff I want the references so I can go check the data to make sure it means what you've said it means.
  • Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:49PM (#23702747) Homepage
    ...they tend to have saner content than your average crackpot with a web page. It's all about recognition, any professor can just spew out as much junk as he likes on his webpage to show how "productive" he is. Getting journals to publish something however takes work, and that usually means you've said something significant about something significant. I suppose you could have other things like "mod points" but the current system seems to work well enough for science.
    • Re:Because... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by samad-e-azam ( 1304165 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:12PM (#23702915)
      While I agree having a board of scientists review an article as opposed to having unsupervised content is not such a bad idea, this article is extremely revealing: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=16060722 [nih.gov]
    • Re:Because... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:12PM (#23702917) Homepage Journal
      ...they tend to have saner content than your average crackpot with a web page. It's all about recognition, any professor can just spew out as much junk as he likes on his webpage to show how "productive" he is.

      Indeed. But this doesn't necessarily mean that paper journals are the long-term answer. What's more likely is that such "papers" will be submitted to appropriate professional scientific organizations, which will vet them via the usual peer-review process, and accept approved articles into the organization's web site. Such web sites will be the replacement for printed journals.

      OTOH, there might still be a role for print publications. We can see a sign of thiis in the recent revamping of the venerable Science News periodical. Their publication has traditionally arrived weekly, and contained summaries (mostly 1-4 per page) of breaking scientific news. Within the past month, they have announced a new format. They are now biweekly, and rather than reporting isolated breaking news stories, they are concentrating on "summary" articles. These articles still mention recent advances, but concentrate on tying them into their general subject matter. Their first few issues in this new format have been quite good, and Science News is still a good investment for anyone reasonably well-educated who wants to keep up with current scientific advances.

      However, their print edition might still be doomed. Such summary articles can well work online. So they might end up a purely electronic "publisher", specializing in high-quality scientific summary articles for the well educated. People might be willing to pay for membership to get rid of the (mostly irrelevant) ads. We'll see.
    • Re:Because... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by hackstraw ( 262471 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:15PM (#23702959)
      I second the parent's opinion.

      Journals are peer reviewed, and getting a paper accepted to different journals is not the same. Meaning, that some have super mod points over others.

      Also, keep in mind that the creation of the web was to more easily transfer scientific data to scientists, but I don't think its intent was to replace journal publications.

      Another point, is that in academia, they have a saying "Publish or perish". I simply don't think that "throwing some crap on the web" is a drop in replacement. Like the parent said, any bozo can put something on the web, but its not the same as putting something in a scientific journal. Now, many of these journals are available over the web, and they often cost money, and that money is spent on the review process and overhead costs. These journals do not have advertising, they are about science. The web is about, I dunno, piracy, porn, and slashdot or something.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 08, 2008 @05:51PM (#23702767)
    Was this question even asked by an actual scientist?

    With all the kook and crackpots blogs around, of course it's vital to have peer reviewed journals. I don't have time to wade through hundreds of websites and then carry out my own verification of whether what I am reading is valid and whether they followed correct basic scientific experimental procedure. Are they basing what they think on hearsay, is it stuff that sounds obvious and intuiotive but totally wrong? A peer review process, while not perfect is essential to reducing the amopunt of noise out there.

    Peer reviewed journals must stay in place, and are even more relevant today.

    • by SlashWombat ( 1227578 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:12PM (#23702921)
      Don't forget, these publications are also a source of money to the publishing bodies. 99% of searches for modern scientific data ends up at one of several sites, and all you can see is an abstract. To see anything more, you need to pay cold hard cash. So, really, these publishing bodies are actually slowing down the advancement of mankind!

      Same is true for "standards". (ISO or otherwise). IMHO, if they want to call it a standard, it really should be free. (Especially considering that the standards bodies have the "standard" written by people/companies giving their time for free!)
      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @02:01PM (#23712589)
        Any decent university will have an electronic subscription to all but the most obscure journals. If you don't work at or in conjunction with a university or at another research lab that subscribes to the important journals of the field then you can always GO to a university library, sit down at one of their computers and pull down pdfs to your heart's content. For free.

        Slowing down the advancement of mankind? I doubt it very much.
  • Peer review! (Score:3, Informative)

    by p_trekkie ( 597206 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:00PM (#23702803) Homepage
    Many of these journals take two or more years to print an article after it has been submitted,

    Peer review, peer review, peer review. It takes months or years for an article to be properly refereed and revised and revised again until it is properly ready for publication.

    There already exists arxiv.org [arxiv.org] for many sciences, where people can publish results before they have been printed. However, many people that read their appropriate newsfeed will only read the articles on their that have already been published or accepted for publication. A lot of drivel gets posted on there since it is not required to be peer reviewed. Journals are a way of filtering for content that is notable and peer-reviewed.
  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:02PM (#23702821)
    Are academic journals obsolete? Not as long as academic status is measured by your publication record.

    Good points made in the ./ story - journals may take years to be published after articles are submitted, the peer review process can take a long time and may be faulty, paper journals might cost a lot more than online journals to produce, they may not add much to wider society.

    *But* being published in peer reviewed journals is still perceived as being a solid indicator of one's academic status and career progression. It's a key element of an academic CV. It's one way of getting a PhD. Poor publication record, poor career prospects. Published in prestigious journals? you're going places. Until this changes, peer reviewed journals (whether paper or online) will remain central to the academic world.

    I'm speaking as a junior academic. Interested to hear of senior academics perspectives...
    • by teslar ( 706653 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:15PM (#23702965)

      Interested to hear of senior academics perspectives
      Well, I'm not senior, but as a medium academic, I think you pretty much nailed it. I think it's worth mentioning, within the "it's gonna take forever to get published" context, that many journals do offer pretty speedy advance online publication. Which, in today's world, is really all that matters.
    • by JustinOpinion ( 1246824 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:31PM (#23703045)
      Another junior academic here.

      I feel like the original submitter question slightly confuses the issues of "paper vs. online", "pay access vs. open access" and "journal vs. something else." The fact is that the "paper vs. online" question is already nearly completely settled: journals have shifted aggressively over the last decade towards being online. Many of them still release paper versions--but nearly all academics access journals online nowadays. The business model has shifted from selling print subscriptions to libraries, to selling online subscriptions to institutions. Any decent journal nowadays is online, and searcheable both from the journal site and due to integration with other search services (e.g. Web of Science).

      Journals are adapting, and online systems have helped them streamline their operations. "Two or more years" is no longer the norm. Good journals (with online submission) turn around papers in a few months. The paper is usually available online as soon as it has been accepted and typeset--so the publication is available to anyone interested long before the delayed dead-tree copy is shipped. Also, preprint servers (arXiv [arxiv.org] being the most famous) help academics get their results out quickly, while still publishing things in more official/traditional sources.

      With respect to the "pay access vs. open access" question--this is a more difficult thing to change. Journals are very accustomed to their ability to charge for the spread of information. Many academics (myself included) consider this unfair (as they seem to do very little, relying on volunteer reviewers, and requiring authors to do quite a lot of editing and formatting themselves), and even detrimental to the free spread of information that is crucial to science. Despite the inertia of the entrenched players, things are changing. For instance, the Public Library of Science [plos.org] journals are all open-access, and are doing quite well at attracting high-profile science. The list of open access journals [doaj.org] is growing all the time. The pressure has even induced many traditional journals to sponsor preprint servers (e.g. Nature Precedings [nature.com]), or to give authors the option of making their contribution open-access (usually through a page charge).

      With respect to the "journal vs. something else" question... it's unclear why we should switch away from journals if they suit our needs. The current journal process (rigorous publication requirements, peer review, editorial oversight) is very important to modern science. It helps maintain the rigor and transparency, while reducing fraud and sub-standard work.

      All of that to say that I'm a little confused by the initial submission. The situation is changing. Nearly everything is online. Open access is gaining traction. Modern journals bear little resemblance to the printed versions of a few decades ago... so the suggestion that they are "obsolete" somewhat misses the mark.
    • by Rutulian ( 171771 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:39PM (#23703095)
      *But* being published in peer reviewed journals is still perceived as being a solid indicator of one's academic status and career progression.

      And not for a bad reason. Economics is driven by productivity. A carpenter or a plumber can perform a service for somebody. A physician can treat somebody. A computer programmer can write software needed to help you run your business.

      A scientist does research, but what's the difference between him and the above? The above are fairly tangible and their contribution to society easily measured. A scientists contributions are not. But people try, and the most popular method is via publications. Still, the benefit to society of basic research is a long-term affair and isn't usually realized right away. So how do you determine how much of your resources to allocate to it?

      I think publications, to an extent, are a measure of productivity. If a scientist can get a research project off the ground, get relevant data, analyze it, answer an important scientific question, and put it all together into a nice story, that is productivity. If he can't, for whatever reason, it doesn't mean he is unproductive, but it is a lot harder to measure his contribution. And just like the computer programmer who is fresh out of school with no real experience to demonstrate, an employer is more likely to go with somebody who has proven himself than with somebody who hasn't.
  • The question posed is, as other commenters have pointed out, ridiculous, as science must be peer reviewed.

    However, a question that should be asked is whether or not printed journals are obsolete. Whenever I need to research papers, I search almost exclusively through online journals and professors' publication pages. Google scholar makes this search pretty painless, and there are free, open journals that are getting quite decent. Is it time to move to online-only publications to save costs and speed up distribution?
    • by poopdeville ( 841677 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:13PM (#23702937)
      Is it time to move to online-only publications to save costs and speed up distribution?

      That's a pointless idea. I like the interbutts as much as the next guy, but you need to realize that the distribution phase of academic publishing takes only a small fraction of the time of producing a work. Most of that time is spent by the peer review process, which is already done electronically.
    • by jellie ( 949898 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:42PM (#23703123)

      However, a question that should be asked is whether or not printed journals are obsolete. Whenever I need to research papers, I search almost exclusively through online journals and professors' publication pages. Google scholar makes this search pretty painless, and there are free, open journals that are getting quite decent.
      My understanding of "online journal" is a journal that is only published online, such as PLoS. Most journals that have printed articles also have websites, often e-publishing before the printed journal comes out.

      I work in the biomedical sciences, and it seems that most journals are not open-access, and most scientists do not publish their articles on their websites. Personally, I find Google Scholar to be lacking when compared to PubMed, and gives far too many odd results and dates. I wish that the open-access journals would be able to support themselves through advertising, rather than having authors pay thousands of dollars.
  • Public Library of Science [plos.org]

    PLoS Core Principles
    1. Open access. All material published by the Public Library of Science, whether submitted to or created by PLoS, is published under an open access license [slashdot.org] that allows unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
    2. Excellence. PLoS strives to set the highest standards for excellence in everything we do: in content, style, and aesthetics of presentation; in editorial performance at every level; in transparency and accessibility to the scientific community and public; and in educational value.
    3. Scientific integrity. PLoS is committed to a fair, rigorous editorial process. Scientific quality and importance are the sole considerations in publication decisions. The basis for decisions will be communicated to authors.
    4. Breadth. Although pragmatic considerations require us to focus initially on publishing high-impact research in the life sciences, we intend to expand our scope as rapidly as practically possible, to provide a vehicle for publication of other valuable scientific or scholarly articles.
    5. Cooperation. PLoS welcomes and actively seeks opportunities to work cooperatively with any group (scientific/scholarly societies, physicians, patient advocacy groups, educational organizations) and any publisher who shares our commitment to open access and to making scientific information available for the good of science and the public.
    6. Financial fairness. As a nonprofit organization, PLoS charges authors a fair price that reflects the actual cost of publication. However, the ability of authors to pay publication charges will never be a consideration in the decision whether to publish.
    7. Community engagement. PLoS was founded as a grassroots organization and we are committed to remaining one, with the active participation of practicing scientists [slashdot.org] at every level. Every publishing decision has at its heart the needs of the constituencies that we serve (scientists, physicians, educators, and the public).
    8. Internationalism. Science is international. PLoS aims to be a truly international organization by providing access to the scientific literature to anyone, anywhere; by publishing works from every nation; and by engaging a geographically diverse group of scientists in the editorial process.
    9. Science as a public resource. Our mission of building a public library of science includes not only providing unrestricted access to scientific research ideas and discoveries, but developing tools and materials to engage the interest and imagination of the public and helping non-scientists to understand and enjoy scientific discoveries and the scientific process.
  • by barista ( 587936 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:07PM (#23702871) Homepage
    I'm sort of ambivalent about the paper vs. online argument because they both have their positive and negative aspects.

    For my part, with a paper journal, I don't have to worry about a server being down, or losing access to older articles because my subscription ran out. I also don't have to worry about broken links. OTOH, with electronic journals, I can access my "library" when I'm at a conference and finishing up a presentation I'll be giving. I won't need to bother with carting around years worth of journals in a suitcase.
  • slanted question (Score:5, Informative)

    by ghostlibrary ( 450718 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:09PM (#23702883) Homepage Journal
    This question isn't even asking the right questions, just (I'm guessing) pushing an anti-journal agenda. One inaccuracy:

    > Many of these journals take two or more years to print an article after it has been submitted,

    Any journal that takes that long in the hard sciences wouldn't stay in print. Their own requirements are that the work be timely. I've had papers pulled because our team took too long (3 months) to submit a rewrite.

    Now, an article _might_ take 2 years from 'first blog post announcing a discovery' to 'peer-accepted academic paper', but that's because the _research_, not the paper process, takes time to be both complete and thorough. I can blog "I discovered X", but any paper needs to explain why I know it's X and not Y, what the confidence levels are, and how it compares with competing explanations. In short, you have to analyze, write and edit.

    The actual submission process for, say, Astrophysics Journal can go by in 3 months from submission to publication if the writing team is keeping up with the requested edits.

    I will also point out ADS (at ads.harvard.edu) has provided free searchable access to astronomy journals since 1992. Further, most (if not all) astronomy journals require electronic submission (and review rounds are electronic too). So for that area of science, journals are ideal: timely, thorough, and vetted.
    • Re:slanted question (Score:4, Informative)

      by jmv ( 93421 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:32PM (#23703057) Homepage
      I've seen one of my papers take one year to get reviewed. I know someone who's paper took two years and came back from peer review with "good idea, but the work is a bit old". So yes, it happens. Not always, but frequently enough that it's a problem.
    • Re:slanted question (Score:2, Informative)

      by techstep ( 80533 ) <jeffer@ t e c h s t e p . o rg> on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:01PM (#23703219)
      I am an economics student, and I am working on my first paper right now. As such, I'm becoming more cognizant of the glacial pace publishing takes in economics. When I heard that it could take two years or more in some cases from first submission to appearing in an issue, I thought it was an anomaly, that there were a few papers that were in such a state.

      But then I read a paper by Glenn Ellison in the Journal of Political Economy from 2002. His work suggested that not only is the mean time in publishing papers upwards of two years (especially in fields like econometrics), but that the submit-review-revise-publish cycle has been slower and going through more iterations over the past two decades, especially at the top journals.

      I get the sense that there's very little in economics with any credibility in the field that has a cycle on par with Astrophysics Journal or Physical Review.
  • by Spasemunki ( 63473 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:10PM (#23702893) Homepage
    1) Why do they exist at all, and 2) why are they published primarily in print? The first question is easy; journals are structured the way that they are in order to vet quality and remove bias. The refereeing process for prestigious journals is quite complex; the papers are often anonymized, and then read by multiple readers, each of whom are recognized as significant contributors to their field. Changes or additional data may be asked for prior to publication to clarify or improve the article. It's comparable in many ways to the work flow of any magazine or other publication, but more rigorous and involved. Also keep in mind that the people who are editing and reviewing important papers are not primarily editors; they often have full-time loads of teaching and research for a university as well. These are areas where expertise is more important than number of eyes; having 10,000 people with a sophomoric understanding of a field review a research paper in a technical field is much less useful- and possibly counter-productive- than having one or two people who have a more complete background in the topic (they've read all the papers that the new paper sites, as well as having performed their own research in the field- in other words, they have a PhD).

    Why are they published on paper instead of primarily online? Well, one reason is certainly inertia. On the other hand, there are relatively few individual subscribers to these journals. They are mostly shipped to universities and research institutes, which keep them in the periodicals room for a month/quarter/whatever, and then bind them into collections and keep them in perpetuity in their library collection. After that point, the institution is not dependent on permission or payment to anyone else in order to provide access to the work in question. Print publication provides a good back-up in the event of a journal ceasing publication (taking its web site with it), or a paper or publisher running afoul of the law in some other area.

    Another point to be made here is that increasingly, journals are publishing material online in addition to their print releases. There are fees associated with access (typically that only universities want to pay), but on the other hand keeping this system of rigorous refereeing going requires some monetary inputs (as does perpetually hosting and indexing these papers in a robust system). Print publication is slow, but significant papers are often also available on the web from their authors, are shared in pre-publication formats, or are presented at conferences or seminars. The rights granted to a journal on publication are often narrowly defined enough that the authors can do whatever they want with the paper before or after publication. In these scenarios, publication in a journal acts primarily as a stamp of approval, rather than as the primary channel of distribution for the information that the paper contains.

    I would be happy to see every journal in the world parallel-publish their content on the web free of charge, and frankly think that a lot of academics would too. It will probably happen, eventually. However, right now you can get access to almost anything that has been published through either a university, or even public library in most cases. Technical articles in particular are increasingly made available on the web by their authors- hit the home page of any professor of computer science or a related field and you'll find lots of papers to download. Access is lagging behind primarily in non-tech savvy fields- you can very easily find free copies of significant papers in engineering fields, not so much in philosophy and ancient history. These fields will likely catch up over time, and in the meantime the number of people who have 1) the background sufficient to contribute to the field but 2) no ready access to these papers is likely to be very small. As such, I would be surprised if the journal system is really holding back progress in any meaningful way.
  • by wanax ( 46819 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:11PM (#23702903)
    Peer review and good editing, typesetting etc. are absolutely vital to academics as a first line of quality control. Even with unpaid referees, the value-added still has notable cost.

    A more rational question would be: Is there any reason for journals to keep publishing in paper? This is especially true in most fields of science, where most papers have either a short useful life or are only useful in a super-specialized area. Spending university library budgets on getting many of these things in print seems like a waste, especially since many fields are moving to pre-print systems to get faster turnaround and exchange of ideas.

    But while many journals should probably move to low-cost, online only distribution, that doesn't mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many things that PDFs are not sufficient, mostly to do with high resolution or large scale imagery. Certain types of cell staining, reproductions of art or rare and damaged papyrii for example, require a professional print job to be useful.

    I think that many journals that can do so are already moving away from printing, because most university libraries can't afford to buy them all, and the low-prestige or specialized journals are seeing dipping subscriptions. The journal industry is already modernizing fairly quickly because of these budget pressures, and I don't think this will be a major issue for much longer.
  • by Robert1 ( 513674 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:14PM (#23702949) Homepage
    We're not talking about shitty corporate news sources like CNN being supplanted by web loggers. That worked because the quality of reporting is the same on both - i.e. non-existent. They offer the same info, but with private web loggers you can at least get a little bit of flavor to the story, rather than the dry cookie-cutter rehashed AP/Reuters four paragraph 'news' report.

    Throw the thoughts that the same thing will happen to scientific journals away. Scientific progress NEEDS peer-review. If it were somehow opened like web blogging then it would be impossible for anyone to separate actual science from the ubiquitous noise of slop-science and at worst total pseudoscience/nutjobs.

    Ugh, it gives me visions of a wikipedia for scientific articles. Just imagine, several hundred pages devoted to people's research into "body toxins," "chi," and "maintaining harmony with nature." I mean wikipedia proper already does that, but no one considers it a serious scientific resource (thank god).
  • Peer Review (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mathimus1863 ( 1120437 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:15PM (#23702951)
    Peer review is the single most important aspect of scientific/mathematical development, and that doesn't exist online, unless it's reprinting the peer reviewed journals. The process for journal publication is what ensures that there is quality being printed and that multiple other scientists agree with the results (or rather, don't find problems with it).

    You'll notice http://www.claymath.org/millennium/ [claymath.org] has seven, $1million problems and the money won't be awarded until a solution has been published, and survives the peer review process for two years. Without this process, there is no mechanism for separating people who sound like they know what they're talking about, and people who *actually* know what they're talking about.
  • by Kryptikmo ( 1256514 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:15PM (#23702961)
    As a member of an active high energy physics collaboration, we just published our first paper at JHEP [sissa.it] which is an open access journal that does not charge for access to papers. It works like any other journal - you email your submission, and it is refereed by, IIRC, two independent anonymous referees.

    Not only is it free, it has a high impact rating in the UK, so we can even publish there without having our careers impacted. Backed by the Institute of Physics, it is an example of what journals could easily become in time. I doubt that much in there will be of interest to the /. community, but it's a harbinger of things to come across all fields, I hope. I would expect that within 10-20 years, there'll be very few, if any pay-to-publish-and-pay-to-read journals.

    In the same way that HEP has been using linux now for at least a decade, we are getting there with publishing too. Let's hope we can have some more examples here of other serious sciences with open-access journals.

  • by quo_vadis ( 889902 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:16PM (#23702967) Journal
    Peer review is an essential part of scientific progress. In the academic and research community an innovation is not just something you think is new, but is something that someone else in your field can acknowledge is new and improves the state of the art in the field.

    That said, there are many improvements that can be made. It would be nice to move the whole review process online for all journals(a large fraction of it already is, especially for engineering journals by IEEE). Sites such as arxiv help the physics community a lot by allowing others to view preprint versions of articles. Conferences and technical sessions, which have shorter deadlines also help a lot in publishing shortened versions of new directions in research.

    As for those who think it should be free, that is another story. Cost of publication is already moving more and more to the author. The current model, where subscriptions are paid for takes some of this burden off the author. In most cases, most universities have site licensed access to digital libraries, with publications (such as pubmed for medical research, IEEE digital library for engineering etc). Individuals can access publications by going to a library. I do not think it is realistic to expect that price of access (to nonacademic or non-research) people is going to come down.

    Practically speaking it should not, as the costs will be directed to the authors (grad students and professors) who will then have to pick and choose what to publish and where due to publication fees. To give you an idea, there are some journals where publication carries a voluntary charge of $110 per page for the author, and this is despite having subscription. If subscription prices were removed, the author would be forced to pay that.
  • No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ajdecon ( 233641 ) <ajdecon@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:16PM (#23702973)

    Journals act as a combination of quality control and aggregation/filtering of "interesting" material. When you read an article which has been published by an academic journal, you have some assurance both that the content is of reasonably high quality and that it is likely to be important and interesting to someone interested in the field the journal covers. The journal also assures you that these evaluations have been made by competent experts in the field who do not have a conflict of interest in evaluating the work. The system also gives scientists access to reviewers they may not be personally familiar with, who frequently make recommendations to improve the work before publication. Obviously there are problems on occasion (conflicts of interest occur, or bad articles make it in/good articles are rejected) but journals still act as a pretty decent filtering mechanism.

    Is it possible that this could be handled purely online in some decentralized manner? I suppose so, but I expect that the signal to noise ratio would be much lower and the quality of reviewing would be likely to suffer.

    Note that I'm not defending the current expensive paper-publication restricted-access model: the jury is out on how well that will survive. But I think it's worth noticing that even online open-access journals like PLoS ONE still follow a recognizable editor-reviewer model, and still charge submission fees to operate.

  • by kklein ( 900361 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:17PM (#23702981)

    As an academic myself, I can only say it would be utter madness to do away with academic journals. Peer review, though sometimes flawed (editorial bias), serves as information quality control. Yes, tripe still gets published. Yes, good papers still get refused. But it works well enough.

    However, again, as an academic myself, I am very much opposed to the insane prices to get at research, both as a researcher and a writer. I have found that, if your research budget can't handle getting at a key piece of research, an email to the person who did it oftentimes results in a Word file or a PDF, because what they want is for you to read and use their work as well.

    All this really is is the same copyright/IP storm we see everywhere else. Producers and consumers want each others' lives to be easy and to be able to meet each others' needs. But there is a massive organization in the middle that maybe costs too much but which handles some of the important work necessary to avoid wasting people's time. It's fun to research, but no one really likes reading all the unfiltered crap, so those people--regular professors--on those editorial boards have to be paid.

    I'm seeing Creative Commons licenses creeping in, slowly, though. I think we'll see big changes coming down the pipe in academic, peer-reviewed journals, same as anywhere else.

    • by hankwang ( 413283 ) * on Monday June 09, 2008 @03:42AM (#23706231) Homepage

      I am very much opposed to the insane prices to get at research, both as a researcher and a writer.

      It depends quite a bit on the publisher. For example, the prestigious Physical Review (A,B,C,...,Letters) cost quite a bit, but mainly because there are so many articles in there. If you convert it, an institutional subscription is only about $0.10 per page. An institutional subscription to Nature is much more expensive at about $0.90 per page. And Elsevier's Chemical Physics Letters (a fairly important journal in its field) is $2 per page! I think the publisher of Physical Review (American Physical Society) is a non-profit organisation, while for Elsevier, the journals are created with the sole purpose of extracting as much money from them as possible. Researchers in the field of chemical physics must have access to CPL, so the publisher can basically charge as much as they want.

    • journals are a con (Score:3, Insightful)

      by upside ( 574799 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @07:29AM (#23707373) Journal
      The researchers and the university spend a lot of effort and money to get results, and the publisher gets the copyright to the article for free. Then the same university that produced the article have to buy the journal back for big $⣠from the privately owned publisher.

      Practically the whole business is owned by a handful of companies, the 800lb pound gorilla being Elsevier. Wiley and others come way behind.

      Yes, peer review is pivotal to academic research but the system is idiotic. Many libraries cannot afford all the journals they need to stay current. It's even worse for poorer countries.
  • Like the Dinosaur (Score:2, Interesting)

    by aurizon ( 122550 ) <bill.jacksonNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:27PM (#23703021)
    Classical Print Journals(CPJ) have small brains, long and slow nerve pathways....and they are extinct now, but will take a while to die.

    In truth, the CPJ must adapt or perish. The threats they make to discourage people from using the online journals are only effective against others whose brains are also like dinosaurs.
    Is also harms the third world who either do without, or get e-mailed copies.(although there is a little 'mercy-sex' availability given by the CPJ

    This means a parallel community who uses online journals and who love their immediacy will supplant the CPJ.

    So how will they adapt? They must become online journals and find another funding model.
  • Your question is actually two questions blurred together. Changes in technology are finally unblurring them.

    Question One: Is a mechanism for quality controlled, peer reviewed papers to be exchanged between researchers in a given field? Answer: Yes, yes there is. I strongly suspect that dead trees are no longer a good way to do that(and given the limited circulation of some journals, electronic copy + print on demand is probably more viable than printing up a bunch in any case). At very least, I assume we'll be seeing journal articles being exchanged in PDF or similar form; and there are numerous directions for online collaboration(wikis, distributed version control systems, listservs, etc, etc.) that researchers will experiment with. Some will work, some will die, progress will be made.

    Question Two: Are journal publishers obsolete? Yes, oh dear god yes. For the most part, publishers in our present system are parasites. They have some editors, and handle the logistics of printing; but the researchers, the research, the papers, and the peer reviewers are all provided gratis by academia. Publish or perish and all that. Sometimes researchers have to pay some sort of publication fee, and even give up print rights to their own work. The publishers turn around and earn, shall we say, generous margins by selling the fruits of researchers back to themselves.
    The publishers do provide necessary elements(editors, logistics, etc.); but they are insanely costly for the service they offer. There will always be some sort of company(s) around to provide these services; but we need to push them into the position of providing these services at market rates, not extracting monopoly rents on the labor of researchers. I'm sure online is cheaper than paper, and definitely more convenient; but profit, not paper, is the real money sink here. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against companies being profitable; but only by providing actual service, not by exploiting market power.
  • by Sir Holo ( 531007 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:42PM (#23703119)
    It's not that it's on paper. The important aspect is the editorial board that performs the peer review, and the reputation of that board (i.e., that journal).

    There have been cases of revolt of editors against the greedy paper publishers, some of which abandoned one title journal to form a new title journal, covering the same area. The main one that comes to mind is something like the Journal of Symbolic Mathematics of something like that. They successfully dumped the paper publisher.

    Paper is not going away. Sure, more libraries will go to electronic-only, but the fact is that the underpinning of our entire civilization (law, science, etc.) relies upon physical recordation. If it ain't written, it don't exist.
  • IAAMS (I am a medical student), and medical journals are PARAMOUNT to the field of medicine. I mean, after medical school, you have 3-5 years or so of residency (depending on your field), and then NOTHING forever. So basically, a guy in a private practice who graduated in 1970 has no real exposure to new medicines, techniques, surgeries and other therapies other than monthly periodicals. These are very important, and peer-reviewed and the main way doctors learn new concepts outside of hospitals, conventions and other settings which half of doctors will never encounter.

    While we're at it, I'll vent that this is exactly why pharmaceutical reps are in many ways very GOOD for medicine (and therefore, good for patients like you and me). Most doctors will find a class of drug that they like and prescribe that one forever. If a doc prescribes Lovastatin (cholesterol lowering drug), he/she will probably do that out of habit for all high cholesterol patients, and never look at Zetia, Somatostatin or other therapies. Drug reps introduce them to new drugs. Only a fool would prescribe the new drug simply because the hot rep brought them sandwiches. Of 10 reps that come by, maybe one will convince the doctor to use that product. But it's still a good thing docs are exposed to them. Once you find a drug that works for a specific problem, with little (or acceptable) side effects, most docs would have little reason to say "Gee, this drug is pretty darn good. Let me try and find a new drug for no reason that may or may not have different effects." The rep will introduce the new product, usually supply a New England Journal of Medicine article studying it, and the doc will say "thanks," eat the sandwich, and decide for him/herself if the drug is right.

    So in conclusion, not all doctors (and in fact, very few) are tech-wizards or Slashdotophiles. The chief of surgery at my hospital (BRILLIANT world-renowned guy here in Manhattan) could not turn on his laptop and asked me to run his powerpoint show for him. If you're going to cut him off from "obsolete" paper journals and rely on online journals for him to get information, you can safely assume that he will never again read another study that is post-2008.
    • by justinlee37 ( 993373 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @06:55PM (#23703189)
      But can't we begin working on a new medium now, that will grow gradually alongside paper journals and eventually replace them, once all of those brilliant old people have died off? It will only take one or two more generations of children before everybody is at least internet-proficient, if not able to build their own boxes.
      • by Stormcrow309 ( 590240 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:17PM (#23703361) Journal

        Hard part is seperating the wheat from the chaft. That is what scientific journals are for, since readers can't just determine the validity on their own when the amount of writings are considered. Type 'how much time nurses have to review evidence based research per week and you get a ton of results that do not apply' and you get a whole bunch of results that don't answer the question. (We are statisticly certian that it is less then an hour per week. You heard it on slashdot first)

        The fundemental question is are you going to believe JAMA with a peer reviewed article or what Joe Blow posted on the net. Sometimes the process is a shame. One of the most useful papers for my master's thesis never made it to press due to an interesting confluence of events. The problem is that the process will be horribly slow just to do the peer-review and expensive due to the cost of reviews, editors, and support staff. Then trying to get the article in a paper takes a while because the editors are trying to get the issues to flow somewhat. How would you improve a process while maintaining the quality?

    • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:13PM (#23703331)

      I'd agree with you but for one point. Too many pharmaceutical companies bury the results when they don't come out "the right way". If they have their way, the results you see will be skewed in a direction that might encourage you to use treatments that are not in the best interests of your patient.

      Remember Phen-fen?

  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:07PM (#23703273)

    Anybody who believes proper peer review can be done at the drop of a hat is an ass. I won't bore you with the details. Either a moment's reflection will tell you why, or you're hopelessly out of touch with how real science gets done.

    There's probably some sloppiness in the system that delays the prompt publication of a well-refereed paper. But how fast, really, can people who are busy conducting their own research find the time and money to duplicate other peoples' experiments?

    If you want to start cutting corners in order to get more papers through the system faster, you're going to compromise the quality of review, and you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be no shortage of Philistines eager to use the resulting errors to further undermine the scientific process.

  • Obsolete? Really? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by maccam ( 967469 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @07:30PM (#23703463)
    As an academic, who has been involved on both sides of the process, author and editor, I think this article is off base.
    With the ability to get information anywhere in the world in seconds...Many of these journals take two or more years to print an article after it has been submitted
    Two years would be highly unusual; a journal with such a long publication lead time would soon find itself without submissions from authors. The parts of the process that take the most time are the peer review, the essential quality-control step, and the revisions by the authors.

    the information is very difficult (or expensive) to obtain
    The main users of these publications have access at university libraries and almost all major journals are already online. As for expensive, organizing, preserving and keeping a repository of published research will cost something.

    Does this hinder technological advancement?
    No, why would it?

    There are certainly other venues for peer review, so why journals?
    What other venues? Most journals are available as PDFs.

    What do they offer our society?
    They hold the main body of research published to date...or should we hit reset and start over?

    Are they just a way to evaluate the productivity of professors?
    No more or less so than the hypothetical and unspecified "other venues" would be.
  • Um, no. (Score:4, Funny)

    by pz ( 113803 ) on Sunday June 08, 2008 @10:23PM (#23704269) Journal
    With the ability to get information anywhere in the world in seconds, and the virtually immediate obsolescence of any printed work, why are journals such an important part of academic research?

    Ease of accessibility is orthogonal to the question of what the role of academic journals is in modern society. Journals perform one basic service: vetting. The more prestigious the journal, the more exacting the vetting (and, nominally, the converse is true). There are journals which accept well under 30% of submissions. It is entirely based on reputation, and the only way of developing reputation is to have a long, consistent history of certain behaviors. Journals, good ones at least, publish high-quality work.

    In what field does the appearance of a printed article mean certain obsolescence? Certainly none of the ones I'm familiar with, consider publishing in, and read on a regular basis.

    Many of these journals take two or more years to print an article after it has been submitted, ...

    While the reviewing process can be slow in some cases, the mean time to publishing for most high-quality academic journals is (warning, purely subjective experience:) under a year. What journals are routinely taking over two years from initial submission to appearing in print? I'm not personally aware of any that take this long.

    and the information is very difficult (or expensive) to obtain.

    Difficult? In what way? If you have a subscription, journals go out of their way to make it easy to get copies of the articles. In fact, journals make it easy to access the abstracts so as to entice you to purchase the content. If you are an academician, you likely have an affiliation with an institution that would already have a subscription. If you work in industry, the cost of purchasing an article shouldn't be prohibitive. Google Scholar in addition to a wide variety of indexing services make it nearly trivial to find out about articles. With the new NIH mandate that any NIH-funded research must be publicly available after one year, nearly all biologically-related research will be free and easy. I smell a troll.

    Does this hinder technological advancement?

    I cannot imagine anyone would think that technological advancement (the fact that the OP does not say "scientific" advancement is perhaps a sign that the whole posting is a troll) has been held back appreciably over the last 50 years.

    There are certainly other venues for peer review, so why journals?

    Such as? I'm not familiar with any. Peer review and journal publication are symbiotic. Or did you think that the Slashdot model is peer review? It's definitely related (I've had discussions about Slashdot with editors of PLoS and Nature which, I suspect, influenced their earlier implementation of community review).

    What do they offer our society?

    This is a troll.

    Are they just a way to evaluate the productivity of professors?"

    No, as other responders have written, journals are gatekeepers to the permanent record of what is considered to be high-quality knowledge. You don't hear criticisms about accuracy levied at Nature and Science the way you do at Wikipedia, and while there are occasional retractions, the top journals are well-regarded because they are, in large part, careful. That said, one way of evaluating academic productivity is to measure publication rate. But then, one way of evaluating business productivity is to measure quarterly profit. Both are good, and both are incomplete unless you consider other factors as well.

    On the whole, the questions posed in this posting are all somewhere between just naive and outright trolls.
  • by udippel ( 562132 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @12:18AM (#23705139)
    [Being an old-timer,]I can in principle agree on the quality control. But the all-out American style of 'publish or perish' has resulted in some weird consequences:

    1. There are thousands of academicians about with - just to give an example - 150 publications in 10 years of activity. 15 publications per year, that is one per good three weeks. Considering teaching obligations, supervisions, time for reviewing others' papers, making corrections as required by the reviewers, could take 1 week out of these three. If I have the honour to shake the hand of a person who can come up with a relevant contribution to science once a fortnight; do I shake the hand of a genius or the hand of a schemer?

    2. Some will argue on the 'high impact journal'. While 'Nature' might be one of those, does this make my contribution in the [fictitious] 'Research Journal of the West Indies' any worse? Can one really exclude to encounter relevant contributions in the latter; maybe attributable to the shyness of the author?

    3. More philosophically: Quality Control. The term implies that the researcher/professor needs to be controlled; or, (s)he can't be trusted to rather silently pursue the topic of inclination, the intrinsic drive, the obsession to advance what is close to one's heart?
    Personally, it is a disease of our times to just not trust; to ask [Anglo-American style] for objective measures at evaluation. As a researcher for many years now, I still feel that team members can assess the contributions and qualities of another team member pretty well. Much better than a quantifiable number ('number of publications') could. Often enough, I have to observe that attainment of these so-called objective achievements takes precedence over inherent quality. Last not least because promotion or tenure are attached to quantifiable criteria.

    4. The author is correct on the relatively long duration between writing and publication. But not only is the lapse in time disadvantageous; also the effort(s) required by the average author [like myself]. Personally, I am rather drawn to online, direct, peer-to-peer interaction; like in the communities of the FOSS [and Slashdot]: The feedback is normally immediate, the product or solution can be trashed out in comparatively short terms through a consolidated effort.
    Being a member in quite a few of these communities, I perceive another advantage: plagiarism. Better: the relative lack thereof. Due to the direct and spontaneous interaction, there is not much of an incentive or time, to retrieve others' works just to show off.

    5. When I started, a quarter of a century ago, there were a handful of relevant journals in my field; and it was possible to scan them, and be up to date. Probably one of our team would draw our attention to relevant articles.
    In these days, maybe due to the pressure to publish, most articles - of course except those in some highly relevant journals - will not even be noticed; or can't be noticed. It can be asked, if people like Alexander Fleming or Einstein would necessarily have been noticed in the contemporary academic publication climate.

    Despite 1-5 above, we need per-review; and even more though in these days with all and sundry crackpot being able to publish the flat-earth-theory on his or her webpage or blogsite.
    I do doubt, though, that we need expensive printed journals. If one has achieved ground-breaking research - to pick up the argument from before - there is no reason to waste trees in order to distribute the results.

  • by Dr_Ish ( 639005 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @02:13AM (#23705787) Homepage
    The original post asks,

    "There are certainly other venues for peer review, so why journals? What do they offer our society? Are they just a way to evaluate the productivity of professors?"

    First off, most 'other venues for peer review' (at least the ones that are any good) are frequently associated with journals. Second, there are many ways to evaluate the 'productivity of professors' and peer reviewed publications are only one, but an important one.

    As many other people have noted, the crucial issue with journals has to do with quality control. It really does matter. Speaking as an academic with with a bit of seniority, journal publications are the first thing looked at by tenure and promotion committees and by job search committees. In the words of a very famous and senior person in my field(s), "The refereed publication is the one form of academic gold that can never be debased." As academic journals are the usual place to find refereed publications, this alone is one reason why they still matter.

    That being said, there are some caveats which are in order. The first is to realize that not all 'refereed' journals are equal. A journal which has a blind refereeing process, but publishes almost anything submitted, despite this, will have a low impact rating. A publication in one of these places will not count for much. By contrast, a journal that has a 99% rejection rate will almost certainly have a high impact rating and will thus be much more impressive.

    It is also the case that, having served as a journal editor, many submissions to journals are far from perfect. As a rough estimate, I would see 10-20% of submissions that came from people who were simply nuts. Without some kind of editing and refereeing process, a great deal of plain rubbish would have been in print.

    Currently, academic journals are undergoing a transitional process. The turn around times are getting better, but there are still problems. For instance, as a faculty member at a State university, I am employed by the people of my State. Yet, when I have a paper accepted for publication by a journal, I have to sign over the copyright of the paper. If the people of my State, or even my students, want to read my work, they then have to pay the publishers for the right to do so. This is simply wrong and a system that will hopefully be replaced soon. Naturally, I provide anyone who asks for a copy of a paper of mine, one for free. The system is still defective though.

    However, the bottom line is that peer review, and the academic journals that maintain this, are crucial for quality control. Just do a hunt on the blogs and you will see the reason why. There are quite a few 'professor' bloggers, but it is also clear that at least some of them are either frauds, or failures. Some time ago, I saw one who claimed that they could not get a paper published in any refereed journal, either good, or bad, because their paper was too 'insightful'. This is patent silliness. A better explanation was that the paper was simply unoriginal, or bad in some other way. A further reading of the same blog suggests either outright fraud, mental illness, or both. This is one of the reasons why, for all their faults, we still have academic journals. I say Thank Goodness!

  • by Selanit ( 192811 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @03:31AM (#23706165)
    The submitter wrote:

    ... virtually immediate obsolescence of any printed work ...
    I'd like to point out that obsolescence varies by field. Sure, in the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, etc) research gets superseded very fast. But there are plenty of other fields out there, and not all of them work that way.

    For example, I'm a medievalist. The people I study have all been dead for centuries, and genuinely new data are rare. Once every few years somebody will find a lost manuscript or something, but for the most part we're working with known, thoroughly studied information. Our research doesn't churn; it accretes. I routinely consult articles that are decades old, and in one instance I can think of, I actually cited an article that was over a hundred years old. New research is important too, but it tends to take the form of a new angle on existing data.

    Other fields have their own tempos, I'm sure. It's a mistake to assume that all academic fields work alike.
  • Permanence (Score:3, Informative)

    by drakkos ( 203515 ) <(moc.seitilaer-yranigami) (ta) (leahcim)> on Monday June 09, 2008 @04:43AM (#23706569) Homepage
    One of the advantages that paper journals have over electronic distribution is in the permanence of the source... that's especially important in 'checking the working' when someone is going through the references. It's immensely frustrating to try and check up on an interesting (or unbelievable) assertion to find a URL provided as a reference. Chances are, by the time you check it the reference has been lost, moved, reshuffled, renamed, or simply taken offline. If the reference is to a source that isn't peer reviewed (which has been amply dealt with in this thread) or fixed in some way, you even run the risk that by the time someone checks your reference it's saying something completely different from what it said when *you* checked it.

    A reference to an actual paper journal ensures the permanence of the record - it's a fixed point against which you can always reliably check. Books that are out of print are still available in libraries - papers from fifty years ago are still (moderately) easily accessible in their paper forms. In twenty years time, will I even be able to read any of the digital papers I have now?

    I think the two different mediums work best in combination - I almost never check out a journal article in an actual paper copy, I get them from the online 'arm' of the publisher. In that way, you get the best of both worlds - a permanent record combined with convenient access.
  • by HuguesT ( 84078 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @05:21AM (#23706751)
    Academic journal are still, or even increasingly important in many areas of science, even though stuff that is published in them is essentially known before it is printed.

    Before an article makes it into a journal, its content is usually published online as a report (either through the home institution or on arxiv), then at one or two conferences (where papers are reviewed too, but more quickly). By the time it gets reviewed for a journal, competent reviewers usually have heard of some of its content, which is good.

    The journal paper however usually contains more data, more details, more discussion and better results than the previous incarnations. It has also been scrutinised and criticised a whole lot more. It has probably been revised completely at least once. This is a very different "product" than the initial report or conference stuff.

    Nowadays the whole review process is online and often double-blind.

    If a journal article has taken 2 years to be published it was probably because the authors didn't do a very good job of writing the first version of the article. The whole idea is to make the article's material into a reference.

    Most researchers will then look up the article through web interfaces such as the IEEE's, the ACM's, the web of science, etc.

    Scientists go through this trouble (they are both the authors, the reviewers and the editor -- not all at one of course) because it is worth it. No one has found a better system. After it is published, a good article will get cited often, and so the meritocratic aspect of science doesn't stop at publication.

    In addition, the value of individual scientists is estimated through their paper output: the number of papers published, how often they are cited. Scientist have a strong incentive to publish quality new research, which is as it should be.

    Eventually, if the stuff is good, it ends up as a book chapter, or even a whole book.

    This is for image analysis and computer vision stuff BTW. It may vary significantly in other areas.

    So no, journals are not obsolete. Since they are now easily indexed and searchable, they have become even more valuable and valued. What has changed is that institution have been able to bargain prices down, since paper issues are rarely used now and so the cost of running a journal has gone down. Journals that have an easy and relatively cheap subscription model have been able to get more mindshare, their "impact factor" have gone up, and their value as well. For instance, it is perfectly possible for an individual to subscribe to the IEEE and get some or most of its online library access at a reasonable price. This was unthinkable only a few years ago.
  • by l3v1 ( 787564 ) on Monday June 09, 2008 @05:27AM (#23706779)
    I'll say just one thing: most probably those are trying to call these obsolete, who never manage to publish anything. That said, faster publication times should be desirable, but not in any way shall we dismiss these journals so quickly.

Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.