31: Too many journals, too many conferences?

Journals and conferences are certainly proliferating. I receive e-mails weekly inviting me to submit papers to new journals and daily inviting me to sign up for conferences. These are virtually all related to commercial profit-making enterprises rather than from, say, learned societies. (Though some learned societies make a large slice of their income from journals.) Inevitably this leads to a pecking order of journals which are long-established and those with high impact factors being important and supporting the idea of being a ‘top’ journal. I have some experience, of long ago, of being part of launching new journals, both from commercial publishers. I was the Assistant Editor of Transportation Research when it was first published in 1967 and Editor of Environment and Planning for its launch in 1969. They have grown, clearly being successful in their markets and meeting a demand. Transportation research now has Parts a, b, c, d and f and Environment and Planning has A, B, C and D. The 1969 volume of E and P had 2 issues, the 1970 volume, 4. Even E and P A now has 12 issue per annual volume. These are each journals which cover a broad field. Perhaps many of the new competitors are more niche oriented, perhaps not. Many of the long-established and prestigious journals continue to grow through addition of specialist marques – notably Nature for instance. Part of the growth is fuelled by the opportunities for on-line journals, and then related to this, to offering open access – something which is now required by research councils for example. The former offers low entry costs for the publisher and the latter a business model for which the author pays rather than the subscriber – though there may still be print editions.

Are there too many journals? At best, the current landscape is confusing for academic contributors. The new journals have to be filled and notwithstanding peer review, it must be tempting to publish papers which are not adding much to the corpus of knowledge. Indeed, a test of this is the very high proportion of published papers that end up with zero or maybe one citation. And where do editors find the army of referees that are needed? Of course, one reason for the increase is the growth of universities and the corresponding growth in academic staff. Most of these want to publish – for both good reasons and also – still good I guess – as a basis for promotion. So perhaps the number of journals matches this growth, and perhaps the pool of potential referees grows proportionately. Intuition suggests otherwise, but this would make a good research project for information scientists. Maybe it has been done?

This is still not answering the question: are there too many? In one sense, perhaps not – if this number of opportunities is necessary to support the publishing ambitions of the research community. But this leaves the problem of sorting out the real value but perhaps crowd sourcing solves this: some papers will rise to the top of the pile via citation counts. I thought when I started writing this piece that the answer to the question that I pose for myself would be that there are too many – but now I feel more neutral. Perhaps the market should be left to sort things out. We don’t have any other option in practice anyway!!

But what about conferences? Learned Society conferences of long-standing provide promotional opportunities, especially for early-career staff. There are problems: the societies need fee-paying attendees and most staff can only claim expenses if they can say that they have had a paper accepted for a conference. This leads to huge numbers of papers and many parallel sessions, so that even in large conferences, the attendance in a parallel session may be in single figures. And of course, the primary function of conferences is probably ‘networking’ – so even when there are many parallel sessions in play, the coffee shops and bars will be full of truants chatting! Conference organisers might be advised to allocate more time for this rather than cramming the programme.

So again, we probably have to say: let the market sort things out – but with some riders – some things could be improved. a colleague of mine banned her young researchers from presenting papers at conferences that had already been presented at previous conferences. Perhaps conference organisers could take up the policies of many journal editors by asking for confirmation that a paper has not been previously presented or published. But of course there would be ways of steering round that. The big quality test for a conference – beyond the location, the networking and the facilities – should be: what is being announced that is really new. The final confirmation of the Higgs boson for example!

Alan Wilson

December 2015

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