Do academic journals matter any more?

I do a lot of reading and writing as part of my job. But though I work for a research policy institute, I find I have little need for academic journals, and if anything, academic journals have made themselves less and less relevant over time.

It used to be the case that academic journals represented essential sources of literature if one wanted to get a handle on any particular topic. In the days of the Internet, that comparative advantage has dissipated. This may be because many academic journals only participate on-line through a payment wall. I do sometimes come across an article I want, only to have the journal seek a preposterous fee for accessing it. This seems odd as the whole point of academic papers is supposed to be advancing the state of knowledge and getting your own ideas as widespread as possible. If I really want a particular paper, I can often get a copy from the author’s website. Failing that, I walk down the street to Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus, where my alumni ID can get it for me. In practice, I rarely bother if I have to go out of my way. It is true that many journals are putting their content up for free – that is, leveraging the power of the Internet – but this still seems the exception rather than the norm.

A deeper concern is that as academia has pursued finer distinctions of study, the research work of vast parts of the academic establishment has turned into intellectual masturbation that paradoxically adds little to our collective understanding. In economics, there is a plague of theoretical papers that trot out, in the words of Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontieff, “more or less plausible but really arbitrary assumptions, to elegantly demonstrated but irrelevant conclusions”. There are empirical papers that have degenerated into incomprehensible statistical tracts far removed from interesting policy questions, and anchored in bad theory to boot. But there is a shortage of research that takes empirical observations as the basis for theory.

I do not want to paint all economists or academics with this brush as there are some phenomenal researchers out there. But they are unfortunately a tiny fraction of the total. And while economics seems to be an easy target for this criticism, the same problems appear in other parts of the social sciences and arts (I’m tempted to give a free pass to science, but have you seen the nonsense that passes as theoretical physics?).

Academic journals need to rethink how they work to be more relevant and responsive in a world where blogs and websites allow users a rich array of research. There is a place for peer review to set a higher standard of scholarship and this is an obvious niche for journals. But first, tear down that wall and let the sun shine in.

8 comments

  • Sure, there’s lots of problems with the current profit-driven (but losing) journal format, and online access is killing all print businesses, but peer review still has a place, and so far journals are the best format around for ensuring that process.

    Perhaps it’s more flawed in the social sciences, but as a grad student in physics I see a lot of value in them. True, theoretical physics (specifically string theory) has lost its way, but condensed matter, biophysics and engineering journals are still progressing and producing important results. Look at the list of the last few Nobel Prizes – you have discoveries of (in order of the last few) graphene (a novel electrical material), the CCD sensor (in most cameras), a mechanism to describe quarks, giant magnetoresistance (responsible for the hard drive in your computer), and the best evidence for the big bang (the Cosmic Microwave Background). I’d say those are all groundbreaking discoveries that required thorough vetting through a journal peer-review system.

  • I don’t know how to fix social sciences, especially economics, but open-access journals are definitely the wave of the future (especially for government-sponsored/university research).

  • I read this passing comment on an economics blog somewhere, about a year or two back: “We can’t read that paper any more — because it’s been published”

    It was said without any intended irony. When a paper is published, you can (usually) no longer read it online. So “published” now means the opposite of what it used to mean.

    Blog posts get “peer reviewed” too, in a way. Anyone can comment, or link, and say “this is great” or “this is rubbish”. The difference is that review happens after publication, not before. And anyone can review. They could be your peers, or better, or worse. Or better in some ways and worse in others.

  • I am kind of thinking the academic community likes it this way- the less people looking at the work the better. Otherwise, I am sure they would have changed it long ago.

    I will say that when I worked at Statcan, we had some fairly decent analytical capacity with a fairly wide audience, and the peer review process was government and academic wide which put on a bit of pressure, as at least there was the threat that somebody might actually read the work or potentially use the work to base policy on.

    To me Statcan was the pinnacle for academic based practical and useful economics. It also become a stomping grounds for the theoretical in its heyday.

    What the academic economists are up to these days-given the economy- hiding is my first guess. If anything you may actually see user fees skyrocket- a better cover.

    As to the state of degenerating into incomprehensible statistical tracts, it is the ultimate cover.

    I wish it was different and I wish I was being cynical, but sadly, all those academics know quite well, it is the truth.

    I do wonder what will come crawling from the ashes.

    pt

  • Doesn’t your headline tittle beg the question – ‘Did academic journals ever matter??”

  • “Tearning down the walls” on 4,000 arts and humanities journals… JURN.

  • Arrived via Naomi Devine – and SO glad I did. I do believe academic journals (and as Ian, Nick and Paul indicate, there IS enormous value in peer-review) have a place. But the pay-wall is an enormous deterrent (I work in an interdisciplinary field, where I have to look at literature that goes from urban planning to sociology to geography to political science).

    I’m trained as an academic and I still involve myself in the academic world, but I think the relevancy of academic journals is definitely area-specific). In my field(s) I find them really interesting, though I am not sure interestingness is relevancy.

    Finally, I totally echo your comment on paywalls. How to implement an Open Journals (Open Access) policy everywhere? The 64,000 dollars question.

  • I cannot agree more. I am fond of economics, but I feel like it should be possible to express a good economic theory in no more than a few sentences.

    The style and rigor that academic journals demand make it almost impossible to discuss simultaneously the different facets of of a large complex issue like climate change.

    Not all economists are interested in being the best economist. Probably the most skilled in the profession are purely interested in learning and sharing their ideas with the public.

    Such an opportunity can be better provided by a forum like this one, so I am pleased that I have stumbled across it. It is truly a great and exciting time to be alive.

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