Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why should we have “top journals” – are there good reasons?

In a previous post I listed some functions of a system of academic publishing. The ones relevant to the “progress of science” were:

    • Facilitate scientific progress, by

      • ensuring quality of published research by weeding out work that is riddled with errors, poor methodology etc. through anonymous peer-review by relevant experts
      • assessing/predicting importance of researchand thus how “high up” in the journal hierarchy it should be published,
      • making research results broadly accessible so that disciplines can build their way brick-by-brick to greater truths
      • promoting a convergence towards consensusby ensuring reproducibility of research and promoting academic dialogue and debate

This got me thinking: Are there any good reasons at all for having a hierarchy of journals of different “quality” or importance? In asking this, it may be good to have a clear idea of the alternative we are comparing it to. I’m thinking of mega-journals such as PLOS One, that have referees evaluating whether the method and arguments and evidence is sufficiently good to merit publication – and who then publish everything that  - in the referees’ eyes - clears this “minimal” bar of purely scientific criteria. In other words – importance or “originality” does not feature into it.

Compared to this – what do we get from a hierarchy of journals? My first guess would be that they help answer questions such as:

  • “What is the key citation for this theory/hypothesis/claim?”– I would guess most researchers would prefer citing from a “top journal” than from a lower-tier journal (ceteris paribus). This may be useful provided the first and/or best justifications are generally found in articles from top-journals (i.e., if the quality sorting is good).
  • “What should I read/pay attention to? What are the most important recent research results/theoretical innovations/topics?” Helping readers sort out the dross and focus on the choice bits of juicy, nutritious research. Again, may be useful if the quality sorting is good.”

Are there others? I realize top journals are important for other reasons (such as helping rank faculty), but are there other good and valid reasons such a system would help facilitate scientific progress?


  1. Can it be that, by making the door narrow, it induces all of us to work just a bit harder?

    1. Would have to be evaluated relative to some alternative system and the incentives for working hard under that system. If quality differences in an alternative system translated into differences in some other metric that was seen as important to careers or status (downloads, citations, etc.), incentives might not be that different.