Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Has the Definition of "Scholarly Journal" Changed?

How Has the Definition of "Scholarly Journal" Changed?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Many years ago I was involved in a series of projects funded by the National Science Foundation to create “statistical indicators” describing research productivity in the U.S. I was responsible for some of the survey and statistical research around describing the size and distribution of scientific and technical “journals” in different scientific fields.

Back then it was relatively straightforward to define a “journal.” The primary characteristics included  peer review, a defined editorial policy, and sponsorship by some sort of stable organization or institution. Journals could vary in terms of their for profit or nonprofit nature, whether or not they accepted advertising, or whether or not they also published news, but the primary focus was on peer review and the publishing of new research.

Even back then we realized that the journal played many roles besides communicating research and that use of alternative ways for disseminating research (reprints and preprints, photocopies, seminarsconference sessions, etc.) was just as important as, if not more important than, the journal itself.

Can someone point me to some current (non-paywalled, preferably — I’m not associated with any academic or research  institutions) research or publications that explicitly define and count what constitutes a “journal” nowadays? Are journals still the same, just no longer disseminated primarily via issue-based bundling of articles on paper? Or has the definition changed given the ease with which communication and collaboration can occur regardless of copyright restrictions and other controls?

What got me thinking about this again was the article published by Mike Taylor in The Guardian recently titled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. He makes a good case for why he thinks that publishing a journal article behind a “paywall” is actually an “immoral” act.

Here is the comment I made on Google+ about this article when a link to it was posted by William Gunn:

“Immoral” seems a bit of hyperbole, but I think the stronger argument is that, these days, if you publish behind a paywall without providing real alternative ways for people to discover your work, you have not really published and your potential impact on science and society are thereby reduced. That may not be immoral but it sure sounds stupid. 

On reflection, the “stupid” comment may not always be appropriate. Here’s another comment I made on Google+ in response to a posting of the original link by Dimitrios Diamantaras and Hendrik Bunke:

The meat of the matter is what it means to “publish.” My PhD dissertation research decades ago was why scientists select the journals they do to publish their research. The obvious finding: people selected the journals that helped them reach the people they wanted to reach with their research. That doesn’t seem to have changed. One of the reasons so many people are willing to live with the “paywall” described by Taylor is that they don’t really care if they reach government policymakers, the general public, or others outside the paywall. They don’t think reaching such audiences is important in comparison with reaching the influencers/decisionmakers already within the paywall. I don’t see this as “immoral” it’s just enlightened self interest based on an underestimate of the potential value of reaching more people.  

I think this is another case where to change behavior you need to change motivation and the only way to do that in such a complex environment as academic journal publishing is through education and through support of viable alternatives.  

I suspect that a mix of top down requirements (e.g., government funder requirements for open access) and bottom up change (e.g., younger researchers being more receptive to unrestricted collaboration and publishing) will finally change the day. But change won’t happen overnight.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald.

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