Friday, August 6, 2021

The Academic Publication Industry is Modern Day Feudalism

Even if the cost of journals were low and affordable, open access to scientific knowledge is the ethically correct and practically useful position for humankind.

Internet has made publishing costs near zero.

Why do journals still continue to exist? And why are they so expensive to society?

A common defense of journals is that "peer review" is important to ensure scientific integrity. We know from Retraction Watch and Pubpeer that peer review is not perfect. We also know how peer review can reinforce social inequities

We have an alternate model too - post-publication peer review. After all, what is peer review if not the entire world reviewing an article and weighing it for its pros and cons? Can reviewer 1 and reviewer 2 do better than that?

In the editorial ‘Open’ relationships: reflections on the role of the journal in the contemporary scholarly publishing landscape the authors state that there are a few more reasons why journals exist:

"One could optimistically assert that a journal can be multiple: both a brand, with a value indicated by the impact factor and the level of income it can generate for a corporate publisher on the one hand, and on the other, the home of a community of scholars with a history and (we hope) a future of pushing the frontiers of scholarship in public health."

It goes without saying that there is a conflict of interest here because it is an editorial. And therefore let us critically examine the reasons the editors propose to justify their own existence.

Are journals a brand with a value indicated by impact factor and income? Absolutely. Yes. Journals are blogs. But they are decades old. Sure, in "blogs", peer review is rare. But platforms like, and do allow private publication that can be reviewed by others. If peer review is a genuine need for which authors publish in journals, there are countless ways to achieve that through the internet using blogs, etc (combining with post-publication peer review as described earlier).

Peer review is just a facade. It is the "impact factor" and the "brand" that authors use journals for.

The reason why we should end the meritocracy of impact factor is the subject of a recent editorial (irony intended): The merit privilege: examining dubious claims of merit in public health and public policy

Now, let us come to the only remaining argument for journals. 

Are journals a community of scholars with a history, who push the frontiers of scholarship?

First I'll make the assertion that the editorial doesn't include any citations on this claim. They use their belief and self-selected appreciation from readers to base this claim on. But I will take their word for it. Let us assume that people do appreciate this specific journal. But the editorial starts with the question "What are academic journals for?" We cannot generalize the experience of the editorial team of one journal to all academic journals. Therefore let us examine this claim more objectively.

First, we will examine whether it is reasonable for a community of scholars who share a history to work together.

We do know that human beings are very social. Shared history gives a shared sense of purpose and shared sense of identity. But it can also come with disadvantages. Identity as a group has the tendency to create conflicts with people outside the group. There is also chance for nepotism and favoritism. While scrutiny and skepticism is good for academic rigor, nepotism and favoritism are not good. So, shared history can be advantageous and problematic.

The next question is whether frontiers of scholarship is pushed by communities. Communities reinforce the beliefs of each other and help people go to extremes. And it is at the extremes that scholarship needs to be pushed. But communities can also reinforce falsehoods and false methodologies. We know in psychological experiments that humans tend to conform rather than stand out. Communities could cause this effect too. It can make people take less risks for the fear of being ousted from communities. Again, pushing frontier through communities has disadvantages and advantages.

Now let us come to the most important question. Are journals communities?

My answer is that they aren't.

Wikipedia says that a community "is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity."

What is the commonality among groups around journals?

One might be tempted to say that the group has a common vision - the vision that the journal articulates.

But in my experience, most journals have a broad vision that makes them non-unique.

For example, let us take the journal from which the editorial is quoted:

Critical Public Health (CPH) is an international peer reviewed journal publishing critically engaged research in public health, health promotion and related fields.

Critical Public Health provides a dedicated forum for innovative analyses of theory and practice and to explore new ways of thinking about public health, bringing together international scholarship from social scientists and health researchers.

The journal explores issues of equity, power, social justice and oppression in health and covers contemporary empirical and theoretical work from a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, sociology, politics, cultural studies, health studies, medicine, psychology and nursing.

Now, this is a broad vision that I subjectively think most journals in public health will have. So I went to google and search "public health journal" and came up with the aims & scopes of some other journals.

Here are some.

European Journal of Public Health

The European Journal of Public Health is a multidisciplinary journal in the field of public health, publishing contributions from social medicine, epidemiology, health services research, management, ethics and law, health economics, social sciences, and environmental health.

The journal provides a forum for discussion and debate of current international public health issues with a focus on the European region
Global Public Health

 Global Public Health is an international journal that publishes research on public health including the social and cultural aspects of global health issues.

Global Public Health addresses public health issues that come to the fore in the global environment, such as epidemics of newly emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, the globalization of trade and the increase in chronic illnesses.

The journal is characterized by a global and multidisciplinary focus, its emphasis on significant global health issues and its concern to understand resource-poor and resource-rich countries including the public health challenges they face as part of a single, interacting and global system.
Journal of Community Health

The Journal of Community Health, a peer-reviewed publication, offers original articles on the practice, teaching, and research of community health. Coverage includes preventive medicine, new forms of health manpower, analysis of environmental factors, delivery of health care services, and the study of health maintenance and health insurance programs. Serving as a forum for the exchange of ideas and clarification, the journal features articles on projects that make a significant impact on the education of health personnel.
BMC Public Health

BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. The journal has a special focus on the social determinants of health, the environmental, behavioral, and occupational correlates of health and disease, and the impact of health policies, practices and interventions on the community. BMC Public Health does not publish clinical research: this should be submitted to the relevant BMC Series medical journal.
Of course you wouldn't find an article about public health in the Nature journal or a paper about cellular pathways in a public health journal. But within each broad field of "public health", "life science", "medicine" there are many journals with similar aims & scope. So, I do not think the aims & scope of a journal are unique to a journal.

Nevertheless, as the editorial claims, it might be possible to build a shared history around a particular journal's aims & scopes.

In fact, I know a few such journals. The Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, for example has a very vibrant community with people who have a shared history in the public health movement of India. But here is a very important thing about IJME:

 As a policy, since its inception, the IJME has never charged authors for publication of their writings, and all material available on the website of the journal is free and offers open access to all
How is IJME possible to publish all articles as open access through just donations? My answer is that they have a real community behind them.

In essence, it is indeed possible to build a community with shared history through a journal - through a democratic spirit of openness and accessibility.

But is this generalizable across all academic journals? My hunch is that it is not. My hunch is that most academic journals have a group of editors who care for the chance to build a community like that, but cannot do so by design.

If journals could truly form communities, they wouldn't struggle with the problem of underrepresentation.

If journals could truly form communities, they wouldn't have to make meritocratic excuses like "the underrepresented are underrepresented because they do not have the privilege to volunteer time or because they do not fulfill the prerequisite of a broad network"

Journals are part of a feudalistic system. One where the title of the journal is owned by a publisher (the feudal lord), who give powers to a set of editors (vassals) in return of profit (fief), and the authors have no choice other than writing articles in these journals (serfs). The only difference, one might say, is that serfs in the academic publication industry have the mobility to change journals. But wherever they go, they are serfs indeed.

If this is true, this also gives us a way out of this feudalistic system. Here's a paragraph from a law library article:

Predictably, the relationship between lord and vassal became a struggle for a reduction in the services required by the fief. Lords, as vassals of the king, joined their own vassals in revolt against the high cost of the feudal arrangement. In England, this struggle culminated in the MAGNA CHARTA, a constitutional document sealed by King John (1199–1216) in 1215 that signaled the beginning of the end for feudalism. The Magna Charta, forced on King John by his lords, contained 38 chapters outlining demands for liberty from the Crown, including limitations on the rights of the Crown over land.

As seen in the CPH editorial, there is already tension between publishers and editorials. Publishers are also in a strained relationship with the King (through initiatives like Plan-S). The logical conclusion is that within a few years, there will be a revolution where the right to own knowledge will be taken away from the academic industry and be given back to the producers of knowledge themselves.

Until then, the current generation of journals will try to justify their existence.

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