Death of academic journal greatly exaggerated, says ERC president

Open access platforms are no substitute for peer-reviewed periodicals, says Maria Leptin

January 27, 2022
Source: Michael Wodak / MedizinFotoKöln, 2021

Publishing in highly selective journals will remain important to scientists in future because academics will always recognise the value added by scholars attached to such publications, the new president of the European Research Council has said.

Dismissing predictions that traditional scholarly publishers will not be needed in the near future as preprint and other open access platforms grow in popularity, Maria Leptin said she did not foresee a world without journals.

Even in decades to come, researchers “will still be submitting articles for peer review in the same way as they do now”, said Professor Leptin, who took over the European Union’s research funder in November, having been director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), which publishes a select number of journals, since 2010.

On the potential shift away from journal-based peer review that some have predicted, Professor Leptin added: “Post-publication commenting, badging and all that…I don’t see it, because the work that expert referees put into reviewing the papers makes them better and is already something that we use to judge papers on.”

Her comments are contained in a new book, Plan S for Shock, by Robert-Jan Smits, who oversaw the creation of the Plan S open access initiative while a senior official at the European Commission, and journalist Rachael Pells, which chronicles the initiative’s development and eventual launch in January 2021.

Leading open access advocates interviewed for the book insisted that journals will become – and perhaps already are – obsolete.

“We don’t need journals,” said Robert Kiley, the former head of open access at the Wellcome Trust who is now Plan S’ head of strategy. He argued that a “completely open repository where researchers can upload their research once they feel ready to share it – just like any preprint server” would be a more efficient model, to which reviewers could add their comments.

But Professor Leptin noted that a survey of EMBO’s members in 2019 suggested that there was little appetite for this kind of model. Asked how they would select papers outside their field, they opted for articles “by someone they know or have heard of, a highly regarded name in science – or they look to a highly selective journal”, said Professor Leptin, who argued that scientists “need some kind of flag that says ‘start here’” when undertaking research.

For Jasmin Lange, director of Brill, the Netherlands-based publisher with almost 300 journals, journals will become more important than ever as trusted sources within the “huge information overflow” of the internet.

“What a journal does is build community,” she said, adding that titles were a “platform for discussion which we as a publisher have put together with the editors and are continuously working on to improve by seeking out new authors and also new readers”. The community “will not split dramatically away from the existing models of journal, because we are talking about very specialised communities that publish with society journals – subfields of subfields”, she explained.

Mr Smits, who is now president of Eindhoven University of Technology, told Times Higher Education that he believed the “role of the journal would diminish”.

“It’s a generational thing,” he said. “The average age of professors in Europe is about 54, and they will be around for another 10 years, but the next generation already share their findings in a very different way – it is not around journals so much,” he said.


Print headline: ERC head: don’t write off journals

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Reader's comments (8)

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This is an interesting discussion, but I think it confuses two different issues: First is what a given scholarly community prefers as its primary mode of dissemination and communication (e.g., via traditional peer-reviewed journals; preprint servers...or some combination thereof). Second regards how one might best build a lively and engaged community within scholarly disciplines - one that has the ability to improve manuscripts and the conduct of research, as well as detect and correct errors made along the way.
I wish it wasnt so. “What a journal does is build community" Journals that charge nearly £700+ pounds for submission creates what kind of community exactly? Community of the rich?
While open access is a great idea in principle it is going the same way as the internet where there is too much information for it to be properly collated and there are not enough people who have enough expertise to properly critique all that is out there. As a result the scientific literature is becoming devalued because it is not being properly filtered. Scientific publishing started out as society journals. These were then mostly taken up by publishers who found a profitable margin. Open access then came along but the scientific community still ends up doing all the work, writing, reviewing editing etc. and also has to pay for the privilege. Publishers are still making money out of it, although less than previously, but the value of the literature has declined with all sorts of players entering the market. Scientific publishing is not an ecological system - to the uninitiated and non-expert the dregs at the bottom look the same as the well researched and written finding. Pressure to publish from institutions keen to have "metrics" for their staff is also to blame but open access is not the panacea everyone hoped it would be.
An Open Peer Evaluation Network is achievable with todays technology. There are some well written articles on how to do this. It needs funding of course but above all a change in mind set. Research should not be a zero sum game where which depends on getting a place on limited journal real estate. This constraint on real estate is deliberately created for vested interests. This should go. It may not happen in my lifetime as the incentives for keeping the system alive are still very large.. but it will go. It will surely go.