May 17, 2012

Make editorial status fast!

A clone of clonesSome scientific journals have low standards.

Usually this means low standards for their submissions: just send things in, get something good-looking for your publication list, the publisher gets another journal to add to their already bloated bundle they are forcing upon university libraries.

But who are the editors of these journals? I just realised that this might be the same thing: people wanting to pad their CVs, giving an ounce of credibility to the journal and hence to the publisher.

The reason I noticed this is that I have been spammed by SciTechnol: International Publisher of Science, Technology and Medicine about becoming an editor for Journal of Molecular Cloning & Genetic Recombination. I have repeatedly been emailed at my Oxford address with invitations that among other things say:

We are aware of your reputation for quality of research and trustworthiness in the field of “Molecular Cloning & Genetic Recombination”.

We cordially invite you to be the prestigious Editorial Board Member of our Journal “Molecular Cloning & Genetic Recombination".

Tempting, isn't it? The cut-and-paste template, the capitalisation... and the fact that they are sending this to a person in the philosophy department who has never ever written anything inside the field (I have a bit on bioethics, but that is hardly the focus of the journal). Clearly they bought some address list from some conference at some point - this is why I also get spam for lab equipment, antibodies and transgenic mice (a nice reminder that we are living in the future).

The funny thing is that this is likely not a scam in any legal or moral sense. Everybody gets something they want: editorial board members get something nice for their CV, researchers get somewhere to publish, the publisher gets another journal. The problem is of course that it contributes to the spread of low-quality science publications, as elucidated by Travis Saunders.

Of course I could be wrong and MCGR is really a high quality journal. Or the editorial board will decide to shape it up to one. But I suspect the incentives are not promoting more than adequate quality.

That is of course the main problem we are facing today: aligning the incentives so that academics are motivated to produce the best research possible (and publish the best explanations of it) rather than producing a lot of research. Saunders' suggestion of the journal that publishes everything, but then evaluates quality sounds like a good start. Now we just need to 1) find a system of detecting/rewarding reviewers that do quality assessment in a high quality manner (perhaps a reviewer quality and trustworthiness ranking system? tip jars?), 2) making the grants bodies (and other institutions academics are motivated to impress) reward for high quality publications and high quality reviewing, 3) giving these bodies incentives for maximizing good research.

These are tall orders. But there are a lot of smart people out there, new technologies that could be used to circumvent stale institutions, and a general awareness that the current system is not good enough. The fact that Nature can publish a feature slamming the bad epistemic system of entire fields (OK, fields it does not publish much in) is a good sign: at least we are aware that we have a problem.

I'd rather work on that than play at being an editor at an ever so interesting cloning journal. So, thank you SciTechnol, but I don't think I would be a suitable editor.

Posted by Anders3 at May 17, 2012 06:03 PM