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Have Journal Editors Become Anachronisms?

Understanding the role journals play in an expanding information economy.

By Philip Davis, Ph.D

Are journal editors an anachronism? A throwback to an age of print publishing that no longer exists? An institution, like the British monarchy, that continues to exist more for symbolism than for functionality? An institution whose purpose is to perpetuate an unfair power relationship with authors and readers?

There have been cries of revolution ringing through the hallways of some scientific establishments that publishing must be taken back from editors and the institutions that help to maintain their social standing—journals and publishers—and returned rightfully to the people.

Luckily, this kind of revolution doesn’t require a call to arms, but the simple use of the disruptive tools of the Internet, which are available to us all. As David Colquhoun proposed this fall in the Guardian newspaper.

"Publish your paper yourself on the web and open the comments. This sort of post-publication review would reduce costs enormously, and the results would be open for anyone to read without paying. It would also destroy the hegemony of half a dozen high-status journals."


Would self-publishing, along with the defenestration of a few prized editors, really do the trick to revolutionize science? Or do Colquhoun and others fail to see the value of editors and their journals?

In an information marketplace that is getting more crowded each year, readers increasingly seek out quality signals that help them decide what is worth reading; after all, no one has time to read everything in their field, and quite frankly, most of the literature isn’t worth reading in the first place. One of the strongest quality signals is the journal brand.

Authors understand the information-seeking behaviors of readers (remember, authors are also readers) and use the journal branding system to reach their intended audience. Authors are not bound to journals as the sole distribution channel for their papers: authors can, and do, distribute their own work using other means, but continue to use the journal system for quality certification.

Viewed this way, the journal forms an intermediary between readers on one side and authors on the other. Economists call this arrangement a two-sided market. The role of editors is simply to make this information market work.

Running such a marketplace is not cheap. It requires the involvement of highly trained editors, reviewers and the infrastructure to support their work (we call this infrastructure, the “publisher”). Razing this infrastructure and ousting its leaders would no doubt lead to a cheaper system for communicating scientific research, as Colquhoun argues, but it fundamentally fails to account for the scarcest resource in this economy: the limited time of readers, who are left alone to dig through the rubble of low-quality self-published papers in search of the few that are worth reading.

If we view journals, and their editors, as mediators of quality signals in a crowded information space, the future of the journal presents many more opportunities than when it is seen as an anachronistic institution to control the distribution of scientific research.

Adapted from a talk given at the OUP Journals Day, 15 September 2011. A more detailed version of this piece may be found on the Scholarly Kitchen.

Philip Davis is an independent researcher and consultant, a former postdoc in science communication and science librarian.