EASE members webinar series: Quality of research content in journals

The first in the series of exclusive, members-only, webinars being organized by EASE in 2022 got off to a good start, with Dr Balaram posing some thought-provoking questions in his webinar entitled ‘Quality of research content in journals’. Although the presentation deck used cartoons liberally, the tone and the content were serious, with the main message being that editors of science journals need to get involved a lot more in improving the quality of research content they publish.

Dr Balaram, who, for 18 years, was the editor of Current Science, perhaps the largest circulation and more than a century old multidisciplinary science journal in India, began by reminding his audience that although journals continue to face such problems as market pressure, increasing competition, and shrinking library budgets, no respectable journal can exist without authors, reviewers, and readers. That is the constituency editors must serve. The speaker then went on to trace briefly the history of scientific journals, and then the history of citation indexing, to arrive at the main thrust of his talk, namely that editors should not obsess over the metrics and realize that as journal publishing stands today, it is an enterprise driven by greed on the part of publishers and vanity on the part of researchers and authors. Dr Balaram supported this contention with several noteworthy facts and figures. Here is one example: Robert Maxwell bought Butterworths for £13,000 in 1951 and, forty years later, sold it to Elsevier for £440 million.

Dr Balaram also touched upon open access. He posed a question – can or should science journals be freely accessed? – and answered it himself, concisely, as ‘In principle, yes; in practice, no’. He made it clear that the line that divides predatory publishers and legitimate publishers is thin, fuzzy, and dynamic, mentioning that even respectable and mainstream publishers are not above adding a couple of dubious journals to their stable.

The presentation was enlivened with many apt quotations; the one that sums it up and offers a thought-provoking message to the editors of journals is from McGlashan and Hadley (2016), who end their blog titled ‘How journal editors can improve journal quality’ (https://www.inlexio.com/how-journal-editors-can-improve-journal-quality/) thus: “A good editor innovates, initiates, cajoles, chases, emboldens, enlivens and ultimately determines a journal’s journey. An editor has the power to proactively shape the direction of the journal rather than react to what manuscripts are submitted. The journal’s impact factor will likely increase as a result, but more importantly, the journal will become a stronger, more vital resource for authors and readers.”
To me, the takeaway of the webinar was that editors should be wary of being obsessed with metrics; instead, they should be more actively involved in getting quality content, having it reviewed fairly, and presenting it accessibly — and let the metrics take care of themselves.

Written by: Yateendra Joshi