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?