What are science journals for, anyway?
Thank goodness John Ioannidis exists. Inter alia, if it wasn’t for his research, plenty of the work of academic journal editors and science publishers would go unnoticed, through thick and thin. Instead, his meta-research prompts us to question about these professions and about the future of science communication. Two of his very recent papers pushed me to reflect - from my possibly biased point of view (I am a scientific publisher) – on what is an important issue also to those who work in clinical research and practice: what scientific journals and the editors who publish them are for, today.
Ioannidis's first paper, that was published in JAMA and co-authored by two Italian researchers, focused on mega-journals, i.e. open-access peer-reviewed journals publishing more than 2000 articles per year. Who would have ever imagined that the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health publishes almost 50 articles a day including Sundays and Christmas Day? (By the way, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the intensity of research in certain areas and the disinterest of politics and industry).
The overview is exhaustive and points out the main limitations of mega-journals:
“mega-journals may perpetuate and accentuate an already dysfunctional system of scientific evaluation and publication. Moreover, perhaps some authors do not find peer review helpful and are looking for easiest paths for publishing, or they conduct trivial research that, regardless of its results, would never compete in the highest-impact journals.”
The article also emphasises the opportunities that mega-journals can offer: first, the adoption of the open access model and, second:
“publishing technically sound scientific work regardless of the nature of the results is highly commendable. It offers opportunities to curb publication and selective reporting bias.”
Finally, the third feature, which is perhaps the most important:
“mega-journals may change medical and scientific publishing at large through indirect effects on other journals”.
Indeed, the faster peer review process and the increased focus on research methods could have a transformative effect on scientific publishing as a whole, by redirecting the editorial policies of both large commercial players and journals published by medical associations such as JAMA, BMJ or NEJM.
The second paper was published in Scientometrics, an interdisciplinary journal dealing mainly with the quantitative aspects of science communication, well known especially to science librarians and documentalists. However, the topic addressed by Ioannidis is not only for few insiders: he quantifies and discusses the production of extremely prolific authors who almost always publish their articles in the journal they work for.
“These prolific authors are editorial staff and science writers who write routinely for a journal on diverse matters, ranging from editorial opinions to news items, perspectives, features, and/or surveys. Their writings can be published expediently (sometimes even within hours of submission) and without formal peer review.”
According to Ioannidis, these prolific authors write on very different topics, they do not write in other journals except the one they work for, do not declare conflicts of interest, do not have academic qualifications, most have limited graduated training in science, and only a minority have a degree in journalism or communication.
“They mostly learn the job iteratively, by experience. This may not be necessarily detrimental and there is debate on what is the best way to educate and train science writers”.
One key issue is that these prolific authors, who often are editors-in-chief and editors of specific information sections of leading science journals, have a strong influence on the political agenda, health policy decisions, and the public opinion. Is it fair, Ioannidis asks, that such critical role is in the hands of people who have no specific training or expertise on the subjects they write about? This is a question that was also raised in Italy during the acute phase of the pandemic, but unfortunately it triggered only not constructive controversies. Instead, the question should encourage us to reflect not so much - or not only - on the credibility of scientific editors, but rather on the role of scientific journals.
Since the end of the 18th century, in Italy - and more generally in Europe - journals have played a valuable cultural role in sharing research hypotheses and perspectives, often becoming incubators of avant-garde movements and open spaces for debate. In this scenario, the editor’s role has always been essential: to shape the profile of the journal, to identify contributors and authors, to monitor the scientific hot topics to be explored and discussed. In the contemporary scientific panorama, only a few journals still retain this function: many more have been reshaped - or have even been established – just to satisfy the needs of those hosts of researchers who must publish to make a career. These Journals are useful to the writers, much less to the readers. Is the scientific literature ensuing from these journals the one we need to support evidence-based clinical practice?
I believe that the objectives, methods, and results of research (down to individual patients’ raw data) should not be shared in scientific journals (which, mostly, follow commercial logics) but on institutional and freely accessible repositories. Scientific journals, instead, should have the function of fostering discussion and providing the scientific community with frameworks for interpreting and critically appraising data published elsewhere. In short: scientific journals made up of editorials, commentaries, reviews, viewpoints, podcasts, interviews, videos.
As Richard Smith, former editor-in-chief of the BMJ, wrote medical journals “can move medicine forward, less through providing a clear direction of travel but more through highlighting the deficiencies of the present and providing a hundred ideas on how to do better.”
Luca De Fiore is a scientific publisher, CEO of Il Pensiero Scientifico Editore.
On Twitter, he’s @lucadf