At some point during the research process, someone on the team asks “where should we try to publish this paper?”. One common strategy is to make a list of possible journals, starting with the “best” possible outlet, then the next “best”, and so on. The definition of “best” in this context typically refers to the perceived prestige of the journal, and the belief that publishing in some outlets can boost one’s career more strongly than publishing in other outlets. In practice, therefore, the title of the journal where a study is published serves as a heuristic for evaluating the quality and significance of the research without ever having to read the actual paper. For example, if Pat’s research was published in what is considered a top tier journal, someone may think, “Pat’s research was published in the Journal of GREAT, so Pat must have conducted theoretically guided novel research, across a few studies, that is likely to significantly change our thinking on the topic of the research. And Pat clearly knows how to package the research to ultimately be published in this journal. Pat is probably going to get a good job/tenure/hired at a Business School.”. If Pat’s research was published in a less prestigious journal, someone may think, “Pat’s research was only published in the Journal of ORDINARY, a place I may only consider sending a paper if I cannot get it published at a better journal. I wonder if Pat is going to get a job/tenure/good H index over time? ”. For many researchers I have talked with, publication outlet can play an important role in the research process, guiding their decisions for what topics to study and how to study them. After sitting on my department’s annual performance and evaluation committee many times, I understand the desire to publish in particular outlets given the weight these types of committees place on journal impact factors and other indicators of journal prestige. Journal “quality” is valued broadly.
But judging a research paper based on where it is published can have important unintended consequences (Brembs, Button & Munafo, 2013), and to me does not make as much sense as judging a research paper based on the actual research it presents*. Anyway, the academic publishing landscape that has existed for so long and has allowed for a fairly stable hierarchy of highly desirable to less desirable publication outlets to develop is now changing. For a long time, publishing the findings of research meant printing words on paper, collating the printed pages of multiple manuscripts until a page restriction was reached, binding the pages together to make multiple copies of a journal issue, and then mailing these copies to paid subscribers. This process takes a lot of expertise, equipment, and money (hence the page restrictions). There is therefore a lot of competition among researchers to publish their research in the limited number of pages available (a limited resource), with publications serving as currency for career advancement. There are simply not enough print journal pages available each year for all researchers to publish their research. In this system, therefore, a publication represents more than a report communicating the results of one’s research; it represents the ability to navigate the publication process in order to secure a portion of the limited pages available for publication for oneself compared to others.
Today, there are many more options for making the results of research publically available (i.e., publishing), meaning printing words on a restricted number of pages of paper that are mailed to paid subscribers is no longer the only game in town. Digital technology, combined with the rapid growth of the internet and internet connectivity all over the world, makes page restrictions for publication meaningless—space is no longer a real restriction. It has the potential to also make journals themselves somewhat redundant—instead of searching for research papers by perusing the table of contents of various specialized journals sponsored by different societies teamed up with private publishing houses, search engines can locate anything on the web on a topic of interest very quickly. Indeed, when recently searching the internet for material on a particular topic, I came across papers published in traditional academic journals, chapters in edited volumes, blog posts, news and magazine articles, conference abstracts, papers currently under review but made available on various sites (e.g., arXiv.org, osf.io, ssrn.com), theses/dissertations, porn sites (let’s face it, all internet searches can lead to porn), youtube videos/lectures, as well as graduate and undergraduate research papers. Also popping up a lot more in these searchers are papers published in what are currently considered non-traditional journals, such as the open access journals Frontiers in Psychology and PLOS One (among others of course). A new open access journal called Collabra recently opened its digital doors for business. Open access papers can be downloaded by anyone in the world with an internet connection (not the case for most traditional journals). It is therefore much easier to publish something today than it was, say, when I started graduate school in 1996. This blog post is publicly available, will pop up in web searches, and I can obtain a DOI for this post with ease.
The restrictions on publishing are crumbling. Going forward, the challenge for researchers will likely not lie in getting papers published—there is always space on the internet to present results, and this demand (every academic needs to publish their research) is being met creatively with publishing capacity outside the traditional academic publishing establishment. The new challenges facing researchers going forward will therefore be getting our ideas and our data noticed. New ways of bestowing status and prestige on researchers will undoubtedly develop that do not include the ability to publish in select outlets. What will they include? Good ideas are always good ideas, but maybe the future rock stars of academia will be the ones with ideas that consistently replicate. Or maybe they will simply be the best looking researchers. Hard to tell really.
So how do I respond to the question of where our team should try to publish new papers? Having shared my thoughts on the future of publishing, it is probably not surprising to hear that I now find it hard to get excited thinking of how to “craft” a paper to be viewed favourably by reviewers of particular journals (will it be theoretical enough? Are there enough studies? Do the results tell a coherent story?). I now get more excited thinking of the non-traditional options available, and the ones yet to come. More steak (I love steak; seriously, ask my friends), less sizzle.
* Yes, there are a lot of predatory journals that publish almost anything sent to them for a fee, and I receive a lot of invitations from these journals to quickly publish my most recent research on cancer/physics/post-modern reflections on post-modernism/any other topic you can think of, but I am not referring to these journals in this discussion
Brembs, B., Button, K., & Munafò, M. (2013) Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 7:291. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291.