This summer, scholars will use the break from teaching to submit manuscripts, review papers and develop new ideas. But even as the major functions of scholarly publishing march on, scholars, publishers and librarians start to ask, “What does the future of the scholarly journal look like?”
Perhaps we should be asking a different question. Perhaps we should be asking
"Does the scholarly journal have a future?”
In 2012, Jason Priem and Bradley Hemminger made the case for a Decoupled Journal, in which the individual services related to publication are performed independently. This vision is now closer to reality.
As I look at some of the intriguing developments in scholarly publishing over the last few years, it seems as though most of the functions of the scholarly journals are now also done independently by third parties, making the scholarly journal less and less vital to the publication process.
After the manuscript is written, the first step in the publication process is submission. This step can now be handled by posting a pre-print. A growing number of disciplinary repositories accept pre-prints and other manuscripts, as well as offer some kind of version control. The original pre-print server, arXiv.org, has seen incredible growth in recent years, including documents from an expanding number of academic subjects. Support from libraries across the world is helping to ensure its sustainability. In biology, pre-print servers such as PeerJ and BioRxiv are growing, and researchers are making the case for wide-spread acceptance of pre-prints.
After submission, manuscripts are typically reviewed by peers selected by editors or suggested by the authors. Third party peer review systems and open review processes are now taking this on. Authors can now seek out independent reviewers through services such as Rubriq, Axois and others. These services coordinate the peer review (sometimes even paying reviewers!) and authors can take the reviews with them. Open review sites such as PubPeer can provide feedback on papers, allowing authors to make updates and improvements (especially if version control is provided).
Of course, journals are used as a proxy for quality: because it was published in Nature, I know it has to be good. This is done on a qualitative basis (brand recognition) and quantitatively (journal metrics, such as the impact factor). But article level metrics (pioneered by PLOS) and alternative metrics (see Altmetric or PlumAnalytics) are now providing more precise measurements of various quality indicators and provide some context for those numbers as well.
So right now, in 2014, authors can post manuscripts online, have them reviewed by independent experts, track versions and examine article impact without the need for a scholarly journal.
Many of the signs are pointing to an academic publishing model based on the article, not the journal. This doesn’t mean that publishers will go away, but individual journals may not matter as much in the future. Like other brands, loyalty to individual journals may decrease. Even now, articles appear on publisher websites that can make it difficult to tell which journal the article is in. The predominant branding is typically for the publisher, possibly the platform (e.g. ScienceDirect), and the article. Journal branding is typically relgated to a small thumbnail of a journal cover.
Martin Fenner has made a compelling case that the future of scholarly publishing may not even lie at the article level, but at an even finer grained level where data, analysis, code and other information products live separate (but closely linked) lives. As the call for greater sharing of research data and code grows louder, researchers are citing data sets more often and scholars are starting to get credit for publishing high quality data.
Certainly, the statistical trend of journal growth undercuts my argument. But scholarly publishing is a very slowly changing business and has changed little since the 17th century when the first scientific journals were published. Interesting new developments in open access and peer review and providing new opportunities for researchers. Another important consideration is the business models of for-profit publishers, which seems to favor increasing numbers of journals. Creating a new journal is another way to ask for additional subscription fees. But these techniques may not work much longer as open access grows and funders require authors to make publications available.
While I won’t write an obituary for the scholarly journal quite yet, the tools currently in place mean that the journal isn’t necessary, and may eventually be resigned to the articles about scholarly publishing history.