The “slow” decline of the elite scholarly journal



The elite scholarly journals, long the gatekeepers of the ivory tower, have been losing their effectiveness this last decade or so–in their gatekeeping role, at least. As these journals increasingly become profit centers in the corporate publishing industry, their real impact is constricted to only those who can afford the toll. At the same time, as holes in the castle walls–alternative means of scholarly publication–have appeared, promotion, tenure, and re-appointment committees are becoming less enamored of the peer-reviewed article in a top journal as a major benchmark, seeing it, more and more, as simply one of many possibilities. The decline in the importance of elite journals that we are seeing today, we now must admit, was inevitable in the face of emerging digital possibilities that are making the walls of our ivory towers as archaic as the quaint walls still standing around a few old European towns, walls of interest to tourists but keeping no one in or out.

A new article, sponsored by Google, “Rise of the Rest: The Growing Impact of Non-Elite Journals,” concludes that “the fraction of highly-cited articles published in non-elite journals increased steadily over 1995-2013″ and “the fraction of citations to articles published in non-elite journals has grown substantially over most research areas.” In other words, useful research in a broad variety of disciplines appears more and more frequently outside of the elite journals. Google Scholar, admittedly, has a stake in this change, for it provides metrics that can be used to show impact beyond the established elite. As is said on the Google Scholar blog:

The world of scholarly communication has changed quite a bit over the last decade and Scholar has been a part of the change. We are taking the opportunity of Scholar’s 10th anniversary to explore the impact of these changes – looking at how scholarship and citation patterns have changed as publications and archives moved online and comprehensive relevance-ranked search became available to everyone.

Though Google Scholar is a bit frustrating and opaque (its pages claim that its “citation counts are estimated and are determined automatically by a computer program”), making it seem like a bit of a gatekeeper itself, it isn’t the only source of information on the impact of scholarly work, as Arizona State University’s librarians show us. In fact, it may be these “bibliometric” tools that are the most important factor in the breaches in the walls guarded by the elite journals. In the past, scholars had few means of showing the importance of their work outside of the reputations of their venues of publication. Today, a candidate for promotion can make a case for the significance of even a blog post, showing where it has been cited and how often–and can also, of course, show how many times it has been viewed (a weaker metric, in academic situations, but still of significance).

As even Nature, in an editorial, admits, “a peer-reviewed paper” is an “artificial landmark.” Relying on bibliometrics instead gives both scholars and those judging them more utilitarian benchmarks than the fact of peer review and the status of the venue. These new tools provide “real” information in the sense that they relate directly to impact and use and not to what are, instead, rather arbitrary standards.

The process of change in academic publishing has been gaining momentum for more than a decade, now. It is not unusual, today, to find scholars totally uninterested in pursuing publication in traditional venues, looking instead to maximize the impact of their work–which they can now do in informed fashion through attention to things like bibliometrics. Where once there were a few select journals that everyone in a particular field read (my father, in his comprehensive exams, was given the table-of-contents of a current journal in his field and told to comment on each article and each author), scholarly conversations are now much more diffuse, divergent, and distinctive–each faculty office shelf showing the idiosyncratic interests of the occupant instead of nods to the prevailing wisdom of the field, as once was often the case.

Today, many of the elite journals are stymied, unable to participate in the changes. Unless they are released from the strangleholds of corporate owners, they are going to find themselves replaced–no matter what other changes might take place in any particular field. Scholars want professional conversation, and they cannot find it–certainly not in the free-ranging style it demands–when the words of some of the discussants are hidden behind paywalls, and expensive ones, at that. They are already taking advantage of the digital possibilities that have grown these last twenty years–and they will continue to do so, gatekeepers be damned.