Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Academic Journals: High Stakes, Few Safeguards

If a journal’s decision can make or break your career, its employees wield extraordinary power.

A week ago I discussed a paper that comes right out and says what everyone knows: most academic research eventually gets published in a peer-reviewed journal of some description. After all, there are 34,000 journals out there.

Because universities need criteria by which to award promotions and fast-track careers, it has become accepted wisdom that the most dazzling discoveries are the ones that get published in the most fashionable places. This is a hierarchy, with everyone scrambling for a spot in the high prestige journals at the top of the pyramid.

In the words of a former editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, “For an academic, publication in a major journal like Nature or Cell is to win the jackpot.”

As neurobiologist Bjorn Brembs observes, the “underlying assumption is that only the best scientists manage to publish in a highly selective tier of the most prestigious journals.” Where their research appears is “one of the most crucial factors determining their career.”

Government grants get distributed along exactly the same lines. Everyone knows that a scientist whose work has just been accepted by Science has a bright future.

This is an alarming state of affairs. Brilliant minds shouldn’t be sidelined by subjective, unsophisticated snobbery. For his part, Brembs demonstrates that “several lines of evidence” suggest high prestige journals may actually be publishing lower quality research than less prestigious ones.

But there’s actually an entire minefield lurking here. If a journal’s decision can make or break your career, it then follows that the people who work at these journals wield extraordinary power. They exercise that no-fooling power every day. They hold, in their hands, the lives of real people.

We all know power corrupts. We also know the stakes are incredibly high. So what safeguards are in place? What checks and balances prevent journal employees from abusing their power? What mechanisms discourage blatant corruption?

Let us not be naive. As Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, explains:

Whenever the following three conditions are met, you always have rampant cheating:

1. Cheating is easy

2. The payoff is huge.

3. The odds of getting caught are low

Western, affluent societies have placed tremendous trust in institutions of higher learning, in the scholarly publishing industry, and in entities that spend our tax dollars on scientific research.

It takes one’s breath away to comprehend the wobbly foundations on which all three of those now stand.


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The Trouble with Medical Journals
Richard Smith

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This entry was posted on November 28, 2018 by in media, peer-review and tagged .