Session 5 of LAPIS concerned scholarly publishing – particularly the history/present/future of academic journals. Starting with the Philosophical Transactions (of the Royal Society) in 1665, such journals are often the organs of learned societies, although they may be published in association with a commercial publisher. Their remit is to inform members of the society, and anyone interested in the field, of new research. Philosophical Transactions established the now common principles of scientific priority (an early example being the Newton/Leibniz – both Fellows of the RS – argument about calculus), and peer review.
Peer review is essential to the credibility of such publications, particularly in an age such as ours, in which anyone can publish, one way or another. The greatest titles derive their cachet from their illustrious histories and exclusivity, and the assumption that any article that makes it on to their pages has undergone thorough scrutiny from experts in the field who have pronounced it eligible for publication.
This isn’t a guarantee that mistakes cannot slip through – many have been documented and appear in the news every once-in-a-while, if the journal is well known, such as Nature, which recently addressed problems with peer review itself here. However, this is free for all to read as it’s a news article. Try to read one of their scientific articles proper and you’ll hit a paywall. Open Access is something we will cover in more detail later in the course but the economics – who pays, who profits – of scholarly journal publishing are very much under debate. The UK Government now stipulates that publicly funded research should be available to the public to read or, as explained in one The Guardian blog:
Open access gained a boost this year when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) announced that all UK research post-April 2016 must be open access in order to qualify for funding assessments.
How, or whether, this impacts upon an article’s status is yet to be established. Academic libraries spend huge sums (thanks to high course fees) on digital subscriptions to scholarly journals. Public libraries can only dream of having similar access, though the Access to Research [http://www.accesstoresearch.org.uk] collaboration goes some way to address this, but rather on the publishers’ terms, although this is a good reason to visit a public library as you can’t access it from home.
As one contributor to The Guardian – Impact of research Blog mentioned above writes:
Open access has been for some time now a hub of innovation in publishing technologies, promoting the emergence of academic publishing start-ups and researcher-led projects. How to take those to the mainstream, to be recognised by senior academics, administrators and funders, is in my opinion the biggest challenge.
Taking a step back from the historical process that has led to the state of scholarly publishing today there is clearly a significant amount of work required to formally publish articles, which needs to be paid for. It is equally clear that allowing the widest possible access to scientific research is a public good. The scholarly journal, whilst somewhat old fashioned, is very much fit-for-purpose. But publishing, after all, is about providing access. The digital revolution going on around us should allow publishers to do that even better.