Do academic journals pose a threat to the advancement of science?

Stephen J Bensman notsjb at LSU.EDU
Wed Aug 19 09:45:19 EDT 2009

Some anti-metric, anti-evaluative screeds making the rounds.  Their
authors may be members of this listserv.  I myself am not so hot on
metric evaluations, but the ultimate argument in their favor is that
evaluations will be made consciously or unconsciously, and you might as
well attempt to quantify the biases as a the first step in obtaining a
somewhat more accurate picture.   

Stephen J. Bensman
LSU Libraries
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA   70803
notsjb at
From: owner-liblicense-l at
[mailto:owner-liblicense-l at] On Behalf Of Colin Steele
Sent: Monday, August 17, 2009 3:33 PM
To: liblicense-l at
Subject: Do academic journals pose a threat to the advancement of

A long article from Zoe Corbyn, in the British Times Higher 
Education Supplement for August 13th with the above title has 
some extremely cogent comments regarding the present situation in 
academic publishing and the impact of the increasing trends to 
measure research both individually and institutionally through 
bibliometric and other numeric processes.

"But have these gatekeepers for what counts as acceptable science 
become too powerful? Is the system of reward that has developed 
around them the best for science - and what does the future hold?

Unpicking the power of academic and scholarly journals, with 
their estimated global turnover of at least $5 billion (3 billion 
UK pounds) a year, is a complex business. There are an estimated 
25,000 scholarly peer-reviewed journals in existence, about 
15,000 of which cover the science, technical and medical 

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, describes the growth of the 
importance of citations and impact factors as "divisive" ...If I 
could get rid of the impact factor tomorrow, I would. I hate it. 
I didn't invent it and I did not ask for it. It totally distorts 
decision-making and it is a very, very bad influence on science," 
he says.

Noting that the medical journal articles that get the most 
citations are studies of randomised trials from rich countries, 
he speculates that if The Lancet published more work from Africa, 
its impact factor would go down.

"The incentive for me is to cut off completely parts of the world 
that have the biggest health challenges ... citations create a 
racist culture in journals' decision-making and embody a system 
that is only about us (in the developed world)."

Corbyn quotes Sir John Sulston:

"(Journal metrics) are the disease of our times," says Sir John 
Sulston, chairman of the Institute for Science, Ethics and 
Innovation at the University of Manchester, and Nobel prizewinner 
in the physiology or medicine category in 2002.

He is also a member of an International Council for Science 
committee that last year drafted a statement calling for 
collective action to halt the uncritical use of such metrics.

Sulston argues that the use of journal metrics is not only a 
flimsy guarantee of the best work (his prize-winning discovery 
was never published in a top journal), but he also believes that 
the system puts pressure on scientists to act in ways that 
adversely affect science - from claiming work is more novel than 
it actually is to over-hyping, over-interpreting and prematurely 
publishing it, splitting publications to get more credits and, in 
extreme situations, even committing fraud.

The system also creates what he characterises as an "inefficient 
treadmill" of resubmissions to the journal hierarchy. The whole 
process ropes in many more reviewers than necessary, reduces the 
time available for research, places a heavier burden on peer 
review and delays the communication of important results.

The sting in the tail, he says, is the long list of names that 
now appears on papers, when it is clear that few of the named 
contributors can have made more than a marginal contribution. 
This method provides citations for many, but does little for the 
scientific enterprise.

It is not only scientists but journal editors, too, who see the 
growing reliance on metrics as extremely damaging, with journals 
feeling increasing pressure to publish certain work."

In this context, the publications of Professor Anne-Wil Harzing 
at the University of Melbourne are relevant. See her recent 
article: 'When Knowledge Wins: 
Transcending the Sense and Nonsense of Academic Rankings'

"Has university scholarship gone astray? Do our academic 
assessment systems reward scholarship that addresses the 
questions that matter most to society? Using international 
business as an example, this article highlights the problematic 
nature of academic ranking systems and questions if such 
assessments are drawing scholarship away from its fundamental 

The article calls for an immediate examination of existing 
ratings systems, not only as a legitimate scholarly question vis 
a vis performance-a conceptual lens with deep roots in management 
research-but also because the very health and vibrancy of the 
field are at stake. Indeed, in light of the data presented here, 
which suggest that current systems are dysfunctional and 
potentially cause more harm than good, a temporary moratorium on 
rankings may be appropriate until more valid and reliable ways to 
assess scholarly contributions can be developed.

The worldwide community of scholars, along with the global 
network of institutions interacting with and supporting 
management scholarship (such as the Academy of Management, AACSB, 
and Thomson Reuters Scientific) are invited to innovate and 
design more reliable and valid ways to assess scholarly 
contributions that truly promote the advancement of relevant 
21st-century knowledge and likewise recognize those individuals 
and institutions that best fulfill the university's fundamental 

Reading these articles and listening to David Prosser from SPARC 
Europe, in a speech he gave in Canberra at the National Library 
of Australia on 14 August, reaffirms the view that now is the 
time to look collectively at new models of funding scholarly 
communication, rather than simply following, in the digital 
environment, the historical models of the print environment.

If we were to start again, would the model be the same, except 
for the need for a form of peer review and appropriate 
reputational branding? One suspects not, and while on this topic, 
why do libraries still need to give publishers pre-publication 
interest free 'loans' amounting to hundreds of millions of 
dollars,euros and pounds for content which may not be delivered 
to the libraries for up to 12 months. If a fraction of that money 
was available for realistic projects to work with the academic 
community and research councils/funding bodies on effective 
scholarly communication advocacy and new access and distribution 
models who knows what could be achieved? Best Colin

Colin Steele
Emeritus Fellow
The Australian National University

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