‘We don’t need journals’…? The future of our past.

Open Access is here to stay and it is in many ways a force for good.  It opens up knowledge, and it has already started to change the world of publishing.  But it is only a stage in the development of the organization of knowledge and it has consequences, unintended or otherwise, which we need to grapple with.  In this article, based on remarks to RLUK’s 2022 annual conference Mapping the new open for research libraries, I would like to reflect on these consequences, and specifically for periodicals.

I have taken several quotes from Robert-Jan Smits’ and Rachael Pells’ recent Plan S for Shock: Science. Shock. Solution. Speed.[1]  Here is their account of the dilemma facing a researcher, which is intended to explain the attraction and necessity of open access.

“You write a paper. Now you have a dilemma – where to publish it? Clearly, you want to submit your precious work to the most prestigious, well-known academic journal that you can. A journal that, if your paper is accepted, will score you plenty of points for credibility among the big names in science, ultimately helping you climb the ladder towards promotion. For in the world of academia lies a toxic cycle: many funders will assess your future grant applications based on which outlet you are successfully published in, and your university or research centre will assess your performance and appraisal using the same metric.

Oh, but there is a catch – if you choose to publish in that famously prestigious journal, only a tiny proportion of people will ever become aware of your work, let alone read it. Sure, you could be a big fish, but you would be left in a very small pond. Your work would be underappreciated and underutilised by the vast majority of the planet. Most people would never know about it, because they do not know about or have access to that journal. Some may even go on to do the same experiments and learn the same things over and over again, without you.”

The dilemma is even worse for the taxpayer who has paid for the research:

“…let’s not forget, an estimated 72 per cent of the world’s research remains hidden to the majority of readers behind a paywall. You have essentially purchased something at great expense that you are not allowed to look at.”

Is this actually true?  Or better, is it remotely plausible as an argument? To what extent are the vast majority of people on the planet clamouring for technical papers leading to REF submissions?  And REF is blind to place of publication and UKRI is working on narrartvie CVs which may circumvent that admittedly perverse focus – but it is a product of peer review as much as it is of periodicals.  

Some of the claims made, including the attractions of medical self diagnosis, strike me as dubious.  I remember a medic asking me to take old medical journals off the shelf of our library because they were dangerous.  And whilst specific research outputs may be difficult to access, the mutual attraction between research and innovation means that taxpayers do see the value of that research, but in tangible form (vaccines being a fairly obvious example, and again, it’s not the scientific publishing model which is preventing unrestricted vaccine production).  And great expense is interesting; the UK government aims to reach 2.4% of GDP on R&D, but we haven’t got there yet, and the £20million the government has announced for research and innovation spend is only just over 2%  of tax receipts. 

Taking a different tack, is it enough to be open or does it matter that you are read – and read with understanding?  Where is the concern with legibility?  The vast majority of research is written in a very small number of languages.  A lot of it is highly technical, and that’s not just science – quite a lot of arts and humanities is fairly impenetrable.  Openness is not just about a method of dissemination.

There is another issue – and it’s key, and that is the expense of some journals.  The eyewatering costs of some periodical subscriptions, driven by a few major publishers, are one of the main reasons why many of us have supported open access.  So why do we have periodicals at all?  

Smits and Pells write:

“It was not until 1665 that the world’s first recognisable scholarly journals appeared in their early forms: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and the Journal des Sçavans, launched in London and Paris, respectively.”

“It was not until…” understates I think the extraordinary triumph of the organization of information which is represented by the periodical, and organization of information was, is and remains an enormous challenge. 

The periodical is an amazing achievement.  Starting from the desire of communities of knowledge, albeit small and highly privileged,, to publish and share knowledge, it went on to become an absolutely critical mechanism of curating information and stewarding disciplines.  The world of periodicals brings knowledge together and has done so – increasingly – in more discrete and coherent containers.  One of my great joys has always been to go into stacks and look at the physical swell and spread of a periodicals run – they have a sort of majesty, as Peter Reid from Aberdeen said to me recently. But not everyone would agree…

Robert Kiley, head of strategy Coalition S, is quoted in Plan S for Shock as follows:

“‘We don’t need journals. Journals were really useful in an age where we had to physically print things to distribute them. Since the 1990s, we’ve had something called the internet … what do we still need journals for?’

While some may argue otherwise, it is certainly true that the printed journal is very much a convenient luxury in the modern age rather than a necessity when digital copies can be created in an instant. But what about the concept of the journal itself, digital or not? The value of the curated document, Kiley says, is ‘only to say this is the stuff worth reading. We certainly don’t need the 30,000 or more journals that currently exist.’”

I don’t disagree about the proliferation of expensive journals, and I have battled myself with the massive drain on space.  But I would disagree with the idea that the value of the curated document is ‘only to say this is the stuff worth reading.’  Actually direction is critical in an information age. The rate of production of digital content is going up 20% a year I am told; it has been predicted that the world’s data will grow to 175 zettabytes in 2025.  If you attempted to download 175 zettabytes at the average current internet connection speed, it would take you 1.8 billion years.  Although much of that is not scholarly, the point remains – saying what is worth reading, for all the problems of gatekeeping, is critical to combat pseudoscience and develop information literacy.

This seems to me to pose the problem of the difference between ‘open’ and ‘curated and connected.’

How do we find our way through the labyrinth of contemporary knowledge, and how do we connect it when it is so fragmented?  In my view the key answer lies in building communities of knowledge.  For me that is an absolutely central role which librarians already play, and it relates to the way we produce knowledge. 

Even in the Open Access world, not everyone agrees with Robert Kiley:

“Brill director Jasmin Lange points out that, even if the printed record ceases to exist, a journal is so much more than the paper copy that sits on the library shelf – particularly in the smaller and more niche research fields.

‘What a journal does is build community,’ she says. ‘It’s a social thing, a platform for discussion which we as a publisher have put together with the editors and are continuously working on to improve by seeking out new authors and also new readers. One thing with OA is that we still need to look for readers for that community – because there is a huge information overflow, which makes it hard for people to find online the information that’s relevant to them.’”

Information is complex and combinatory, and I would argue it requires context.  Moving beyond information to understanding is key; we have to foster the ability to make sense of what is out there.  Again, not all seem to agree.

“As Marc Schiltz sees it, ‘everyone knows data is the asset of the future’. But, more than this, open science has the power to turn traditional research practices on their head. ‘There is so much data generated now, we are seeing this paradigm shift in science,’ he explains. ‘We used to be hypothesis-driven – so you have the idea and you go and collect data to test it out. Whereas now we have this huge amount of data available and it speaks for itself. The hypothesis is found later. It’s an entirely new approach to research which is really exciting.’”

I don’t doubt the excitement, but I really worry about the argument.  Data without narrative seems to me to return us to a decontextualized ahistoric view of science which is troubling.  How do we manage pseudoscience if we think data speaks for itself?  It doesn’t; it needs a narrative of explanation, and it needs a context – it needs to be connected.  Any article without those fundamental features of argument seems to me likely to be weak.

And we can draw the context more widely still.  One thing I think a periodical does is to give a sense of the ongoing narrative of a discipline.  Two really standard pieces of advice for graduates in my day were to read the article next to the article you were directed to, and to read the run of a periodical.  Both are ways of saying – understand your narrative and your data in context.

But how can we do this in a world of zettabytes and open access?  The answers I think will lie in communities of knowledge and team science – and that applies to arts and humanities as well as physical or medical sciences now (though we aren’t necessarily good at realizing that).

It’s only when we build or rebuild in the contemporary period the communities of knowledge which were represented in part by the organization of disciplines around periodicals that we can manage moving from open data to connected data

For me connection is critical.  It’s about connection of data across time and space through the skeins and webs of narrative, through the tests and resistances of argument.  But it’s also about how data, narrative and argument connect us as researchers and readers, make us part of a community in which we crowd in knowledge and insight with rules of rigour and methodology. 

Openness in other words is really not the goal in my view – the capacity to contextualize the flow of data is.  When openness is taken to be the desired goal it potentially cuts across the ambition of better data and better science.  Science is about connection more than it is about openness, if openness simply means that something is on a billboard for no-one to read.

In this context it becomes essential to ask “What replaces the journal?”

To a degree the answer may lie in a sort of self-curation.  And research tools now offer all sorts of opportunities for one to produce one’s own journal if you like, and it’s one of the things librarians of course are teaching more and more.

But the risk is when this isn’t set into context, when it doesn’t become part of the ongoing conversation.  For every self-taught genius who changes the world of knowledge there are thousands of keyboard warriors churning out arrant nonsense without scientific validity, without context, without story, but often with prejudice.

My view in sum is that we need to get past the open agenda and get to the connected agenda.  For that to happen we need to accept and support the fact that transition arrangements for some scholarly journals may last a while, that a mixed economy remains crucial, that diversity of practice has value, and that the specialist periodical which is affordable, and curates debate will have a role for a while to come.  We need to be open to the significance of research which isn’t quite as open to the rest of the world at point of creation, but is open to constructive challenge and debate because it is placed in the context of a community of knowledge, and then translated into public discourse.

We need to find again the mechanisms that allow debate and discussion to flow over time; a defined arena in which to test the rules.  For nearly 400 years the periodical has been one of those spaces and one of those mechanisms and for all the oddities, strangenesses and quirks, and the cost on financial and physical resource, it has been the place where we have tested science before bringing it to the world. 

So in our passion for the open let’s not lose the need for connection.

In this uncertain future, one thing is certain for me – this future will happen in a library.  Whatever the library looks like, physical or virtual, libraries are and always will be the place where we will build these essential communities of knowledge.

This is where we need to situate openness I think.  Openness should not be about ‘my article’ or ‘your article’ but about how we make the barriers to entry lower – or better how we signpost the labyrinth.  When I think of sharing knowledge, I think of Prometheus who gave us fire, that is skill and knowledge.  He didn’t give us an open access data set.  He shared a secret, made the natural legible, helped us help ourselves. 

That’s what libraries do.  It’s why libraries matter.  It’s why we should care passionately about libraries and vigorously defend them, from community libraries to school and university libraries and in the cyberspace and across the world.  And it’s why we should join them up.

So for me the new open is the new connected open – and we will find it in a refreshed understanding of the library. 


[1] Smits R. & Pells R. 2022. Plan S for Shock: Science. Shock. Solution. Speed.. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bcq

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