Lancet editor-in-chief calls for ‘activist’ journals

Richard Horton says periodicals can no longer sit ‘passively waiting’ for submissions and should instead focus on issues such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals

January 17, 2020
Source: Alamy

Academic journals must become more “activist” if they are to survive, seeking to “change the direction of society” rather than “passively waiting” for manuscripts, according to the editor-in-chief of The Lancet.

The medical journal is one of a number of titles now explicitly committed to helping pursue the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which range from eradicating hunger to reducing inequalities, as titles try to carve out a new role in a world where publishing has moved online.

Richard Horton, its editor-in-chief, told publishers at a conference in Berlin that “scientific journals in the 21st century, if they are to survive – if you want them to survive – must be more than simply journals”.

“The journal as we’ve known it, I think, is coming to its end,” Dr Horton told the Academic Publishing in Europe conference. “What we now need to do is to reinvent the idea of the scientific journal that needs to be more activist in its engagement with the challenges of society.”

Born in the print-dominated world of the 17th century, academic journals face questions over their relevance now that functions such as peer review can, some critics argue, be done on looser online platforms.

Instead of “sitting in our office passively waiting for manuscripts to be submitted to the journal”, Dr Horton said, The Lancet, founded in 1823, now had a mission to “gather the very best scientific evidence, [and] to then think strategically about how that evidence fits within the overall trajectory of scientific and political policy in the world”.

For example, last year the journal published a report setting out how to eradicate malaria by 2050, backed by research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This was one of dozens of “commissions” initiated by the journal, which bring together experts to formulate proposals on subjects ranging from defeating Alzheimer’s disease to reforming medical education for the 21st century.

“Journals have a very powerful series of incentives that we can use to literally change the direction of society,” said Dr Horton, who in October last year said doctors had a “responsibility” and an “obligation” to engage in “non-violent social protest” to address the climate crisis.

Also speaking at the conference was Elisa de Ranieri, editor-in-chief of Nature Communications, who said that Nature journals were also trying to help achieve the SDGs by translating results into reality.

Nature Energy, for example, publishes one-page “policy briefs” explaining the implications of academic papers to policymakers.

The publisher has also hosted summits attended by academics, city leaders and policymakers, and is working on making articles searchable by the SDG they sought to tackle.

Still, some journals have faced long-standing criticism that their subscription costs mean they are unaffordable for readers in developing countries – or conversely, that the price of publishing an open-access article excludes scholars from poorer university systems.

Some publishers offer discounts to academics in poorer countries. The Lancet, for example, waives open-access publishing fees for scholars whose main funder is based in a state with a low human development index. Many Lancet articles remain closed except for subscribers, however.

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Reader's comments (3)

"Changing direction of society" seems like a different goal than actively seeking articles. Organic activism is one thing, but activism purposefully poured into academia threatens to strip away the integrity of academic research by politicizing it and steeping it in agenda. Agenda removes the openness required to maintain the integrity of the academic research endeavor. Precarious ground. I hope this will never be the expectation or standard.
"Changing direction of society" is much too broad and ill-defined a goal to be useful. The probability of making it much worse is exceeding high. A lot of time and money can be wasted if the direction happens to be wrong. Changing the direction of society, by instituting socialist policies would not seem to be a good idea judging by the numerous failed attempts to do so in the near past. But "socialism" still seems to be the favorite solution of many academics and social revolutionaries. A cruel argument might be made that one or two small foreign "socialist" experiments should be subsidized to keep them alive as examples to others.
The SDGs represent a complex and sophisticated scientific agenda for peace and security, which is being ignored and rejected, or implemented in name only in practice- much like with climate change. Yet, it is the most sophisticated agenda we've seen in history. We now have a network of corrupt and conservative politicians in charge across the world, as well as in the US and UK, who are encouraging populations to ignore uncomfortable truths and are keeping their corrupt, rent-seeking politics going by pandering to their worst inclinations (racism, sexism, nationalism, supporting economic inequality, over-consumption, anthropocentrism- a long list of ills). It's convenient to claim that universities are in the hands of lefty types, indoctrinating the young with pseudo-science (see above). Systems for political cooperations are fragmenting, conventions and treaties are being ignored, etc etc. Journals can do their small bit, and many are doing so (though not necessarily the mainstream gate-keeping journals) but this is a problem with national and international political systems, with checks and balance, as well as law and norms being ignored; the science is not the problem. We've all been here before I'm afraid. At least academic knowledge, policy frameworks like the SDGs, on climate change can hope to maintain a level of integrity throughout all of this. However, it's not much good shifting knowledge into impact frameworks if states and international actors cannot actually implement them because of some leaders' and some people's ignorance and selfishness- and the ease with which such reactionary forces can now hijack democracy and block international cooperation.