The scientific publishing deluge, part I

The theme of journal publishing, peer reviewing, open access and cost distribution is becoming increasingly important for the scientific community. As the academic field keeps growing and more people are active in research, so does the amount of reporting on the findings. This poses some serious challenges to Academia for the coming decades, with the most important being: how do we manage the ever-expanding amount of scientific publishing, both in terms of structure, manpower and attention?

WARNING: Long, serious post coming up. So long, in fact, that it must be broken into several posts. The first post will focus on performance-based models of funding and its connection to the (possible) fragmenting of scientific research reporting. I’ll divide this post into several smaller parts: new public management in science, recycling of material (or partial reporting), and the journal explosion. Then I’ll tell you what comes next.

1. New Public Management
Putting the tag of NPM on things is pretty cheap, I know, but I really think there is something there. Let me explain: in most countries, there is an increasing resistance to expanding public spending within most policy areas (notable exception: military spending). Very few countries are increasing their tax rates, and the trend is rather the opposite. Yet most areas relying on public spending are growing, for different reasons: the health sector is meeting demands for better service while paying for ever better but more expensive treatments, pension payments are increasing while payments to the pension system are fixed or decreasing, and higher education enrollment is constantly growing, just to name a few.

This leads to a pressure for cost control and fiscal accountability. How does one achieve this? One solution is to tie funding to performance; the better you perform, the more money you get. This, when applied to the public sector, is (very, very roughly) referred to as New Public Management. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not without its problems. Let’s look at how this works out in higher education.

In higher education, there are basically two forms of “performing”, namely teaching and researching. The first is pretty straight forward. If you hold courses, correct papers and advise students, your output can be measured and rated, and thus rewarded. For research, it also seems straight forward: your output is measured when you report on your research at conferences, through journal papers or book publishing. As a result, a complex system of awarding publishing points and other credits has been designed in order to manage performance-based funding.

To take an example, let’s look at my own Ph.D. It is awarded on the basis of publication points, I think it is 4 points total. A chapter in a book nets me 0.8 publication points, an article in a tier 1 journal gives me 1 point, and publication in a tier 2 journal gives me 3 points. Or something like that. In addition, there is some evaluation of my public presentations and other kinds of publications. For more information, read NTNU’s strategy document.

Of course, criticism of NPM is nothing new. For a great account of how NPM affects education, read Martin Carnoy’s Globalization and Educational Reform: What Planners Need to Know (find it here). Although, this being written during the 90s, he calls it “globalization”, it’s all the same. Some of the things he examines are:

* The changes in labour markets and education systems due to the emerging demand for workforces capable of the production of high value-added consumer goods.

* The ensuing demand for additional resources for education in a policy environment hostile to the expansion of the role of the public sector.

* The consequences of increased decentralization and privatization, which are often considered as the most effective strategy for ensuring quality and flexibility in a globalized economy.

* The multiplication of cross-national measurement of education systems

It’s all very interesting.

2. Recycling of material
Now, there are mainly two problems with this kind of system: it doesn’t discern between different fields of study, and it rewards quantity. The result of this, something that should have been anticipated by the designers of the system, is that people publish more than before. A lot more. An article detailing one specific journal finds that there has been a five-fold increase in both number of articles and journal pages published the last 20 years, and suggests that the same is true for other areas of research.

Does this mean that more science is being produced, or simply that reporting has been increased? Well, since more people than ever are working in research, it’s probable that more science, to a certain extent, is being produced. But to me it’s fairly obvious that the funding model is an incentive to write more papers on the same amount of research as before. This would not pose that much of a problem if it didn’t mean that so much noise came with it.

Consider the average journal paper. It has a standard setup (well, at least in the social science fields I work within), with introduction, some theoretical considerations, a description of methodology, reporting on findings, discussion of the implications of these and a conclusion. Now, most of this will have to be there, regardless of how long the “findings” section is. This means that when someone produces three smaller articles to report on findings that would previously be reported in one, they are not three times shorter. Instead, they are more or less the same length, meaning that the overall information value of the article is lowered.

3. The journal explosion
This leads us to the next point. As publishing increases, competition for funding intensifies and recycling multiplies, more journals are needed to publish and report findings. Similarly, many fields of study find it necessary to fund their own journals to compete for attention and possible funding. A journal of one’s own adds weight to claims for importance. A journal article (what else?) from way back in 1999 finds that there is a 7 % annual increase in the number of journals. This means that the number of journals double every 10-15 years or so. Clearly, this growth is not sustainable, both from an ease-of-access and a signal-to-noise ratio point of view. Finding relevant stuff gets harder and harder.

This again means that there is a risk of literature reviews consisting more of sorting for relevance rather than spending real time with the arguments in the literature, endangering the overall value of the article. This might lead to more important findings being lost in the jungle, and strategies for getting one’s own findings to stand out from the crowd. See, for example, this quick literature search for the words “counter-intuitive findings”, which have skyrocketed, since the 70s. The study stops in 2000, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t have continued since then

So what next?
That’s it for this post. I’m not even going to touch the process of proposal writing for grant funding, because that would merit another marathon post. Maybe some other time. Next up, discussing the possibility of cutting the ever increasing costs, both in terms of money and manpower, of maintaining the peer-review system through Open Access publishing and post-publishing peer reviewing.

Also, good boy/girl for staying with me for the whole post. Here’s your treat: Nerd kids’ toys. Also, check out a similar idea: Reactables.

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2 Responses

  1. Long post indeed, but nice read.

    I am not certain, though, about the link between what you call recycling and lowered information value. Couldn’t an alternate hypothesis be that the findings sections in the articles become more detailed and richer in information about the parts they actually choose to report on? Speculation, of course, and it doesn’t help much for the poor bastards writing literature reviews…

  2. Thanks.

    You might be right about that. There is something to be said for thick descriptions of empirical findings. But I still wonder if that is something for journal articles, and not for monographies/books?

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