“It is a classic collective action problem. In that Tragedy of the Commons, the role of the editor is to be The Enforcer, against both self-serving authors in the blogsphere and self-serving commercial publishers in the share market.”
That’s Bob Goodin (ANU) in an interview with the Swedish journal Politisk Filosofi about his current work, his editorship of the Journal of Political Philosophy (JPP), and the publishing landscape in philosophy.
That passage comes after he has discussed some changes to the business models of the publishers of academic journals.
The profits of commercial publishers are increasingly a function of ridiculously large Open Access fees, whether paid by the author, the grant-giver or (nowadays most typically) the author’s home institution or national government through ‘Read and Publish Transformative Agreements’. The way to maximize those profits is to maximize the number of articles a journal publishes—and to do so without regard to quality. (As I have said, given bundling [of journal subscriptions] and [library] consortia, no [individual] library can unsubscribe to an individual journal of diminishing quality anyway, so a journal’s quality is no longer a commercial concern to publishers seeking to maximize profits.)
In that New World of journal publishing, publishers are incentivized to pressure editors to increase, sometimes radically, the numbers of articles published. They may pompously pretend that doing so is in the interest of ‘good science’, given the greatly increased number of papers being written every year. But that argument assumes that all of that new stuff is of the same average quality as the old—which a publisher has no way of knowing, and which in my experience as JPP’s editor is radically untrue. JPP experienced multiple doublings of its submissions over my time as editor. But the number of ‘really good’ submissions always remained almost literally constant, in absolute terms; the extra submissions virtually all fell in the unpublishable tail of the distribution. I say that as an editor famous for publishing good first pieces from unknown authors just starting their careers, and as someone whose journal publishes more articles from non-Anglophone authors than any comparator. So I say that not out of Ivy League snootiness. (Indeed, I consistently reject more of their articles than I publish.) It is a quality assessment, pure and simple.
The push for journals to publish more articles comes not just from publishers, he notes, but from authors, too:
Blogsphere is full of bleating that journals should increase the number of articles being accepted, on the grounds that ‘my article was no worse than the worst article appearing there that year’. In most cases that is simply untrue. (I do freely admit, however, that in some years JPP published an article or two that we would not have done had we not been contractually obliged to publish a certain number of articles per year.) But suppose the claim were true, and just do the maths. Publishing more articles that are equally bad as the worst articles published would automatically reduce the average quality of articles in the journal—that is an unavoidable fact of simple arithmetic. Of course, each author of an almost-as-good article has an interest in their own article being accepted—but only theirs. If every almost-as-good article were published, the value of publishing in the venue would nosedive, to the chagrin of all authors publishing there.
Hence, the line from the start of the post: “It is a classic collective action problem. In that Tragedy of the Commons, the role of the editor is to be The Enforcer, against both self-serving authors in the blogsphere and self-serving commercial publishers in the share market.”
Goodin also emphasizes the curatorial role of editors. In the era of the internet,
‘making things generally available’ is not the exclusive prerogative of journals anymore. Given that fact, however, what is the value added by a journal?
Surely it lies simply in telling you what, among all the myriad things available out there in cyberspace, you should bother reading. And if that is the primary function of a journal, it is crucial that the guidance it provides be more rather than less selective. Selective journals serve an attention-guiding service: they say ‘these are the things that you really need to read’ (certainly if you are interested in the particular topic, but even if you just want a good overview of general developments in your field).
If journals succumb to the pressures to publish more, different modes of curation may gain prominence:
I used to joke with my minders at Blackwell, back when JPP was published by them, ‘What is JPP but “Bob’s picks”?’ The subtext: if the publisher got too intrusive, I could always just resign and invite people to send me urls of their recently posted unpublished papers; and I would then curate a list of ‘Bob’s picks’ and post links to what I regarded as the best among them. It was a joke back then (although one that the people at Blackwell, far more cluey than their successors, had the sense to take seriously). That, or something like it, may be the way forward if we want to preserve the quality-control function that highly selective academic journals have historically performed for the scholarly community.
The whole interview, which includes some interesting points regarding the creation and early success of JPP, among other things, is here.
(Thanks to Joona Räsänen and Björn Lundgren for the pointer.)