Scientific Journals Are Bad for Science

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It seems like a given that scientific and academic journals, the august peer-reviewed publications where experts print lengthy studies and reports for the consumption of other experts, should be a good thing for the academy and science in general. Not so, says the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a long, quintuple-bylined column, the Chronicle warns that the "avalanche" of "redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades." They say this waters down the discourse to the point that good ideas are harder to find and the academy and sciences are worse off as a result. Here's just one of the many dangers:

Too much publication raises the refereeing load on leading practitioners--often beyond their capacity to cope. Recognized figures are besieged by journal and press editors who need authoritative judgments to take to their editorial boards. Foundations and government agencies need more and more people to serve on panels to review grant applications whose cumulative page counts keep rising. Departments need distinguished figures in a field to evaluate candidates for promotion whose research files have likewise swelled.

They suggest three fixes. "First, limit the number of papers to the best three, four, or five that a job or promotion candidate can submit. ... Second, make more use of citation and journal 'impact factors,' from Thomson ISI. ... Third, change the length of papers published in print: Limit manuscripts to five to six journal-length pages, as Nature and Science do, and put a longer version up on a journal's Web site." They envision a bold new future:

Our suggestions would change evaluation practices in committee rooms, editorial offices, and library purchasing meetings. Hiring committees would favor candidates with high citation scores, not bulky publications. Libraries would drop journals that don't register impact. Journals would change practices so that the materials they publish would make meaningful contributions and have the needed, detailed backup available online. Finally, researchers themselves would devote more attention to fewer and better papers actually published, and more journals might be more discriminating.

Best of all, our suggested changes would allow academe to revert to its proper focus on quality research and rededicate itself to the sober pursuit of knowledge. And it would end the dispiriting paper chase that turns fledgling inquirers into careerists and established figures into overburdened grouches.

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