Death of academic journal greatly exaggerated, says ERC president

Publishing in highly selective journals will remain important to scientists in future because academics will always recognize the value added by scholars attached to such publications, the new president of the European Research Council has said.

Dismissing predictions that traditional scholarly publishers will not be needed in the near future as preprint and other open access platforms grow in popularity, Maria Leptin said she did not foresee a world without journals.

Even in decades to come, researchers “will still be submitting articles for peer review in the same way as they do now”, said Professor Leptin, who took over the European Union’s research funder in November, having been director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), which publishes a select number of journals, since 2010.

On the potential shift away from journal-based peer review that some have predicted, Professor Leptin added: “Post-publication commenting, badging and all that…I don’t see it, because the work that expert referees put into reviewing the papers makes them better and is already something that we use to judge papers on.”

Her comments are contained in a new book, Plan S for Shockby Robert-Jan Smits, who oversaw the creation of the Plan S open access initiative while a senior official at the European Commission, and journalist Rachael Pells, which chronicles the initiative’s development and eventual launch in January 2021.

Leading open access advocates interviewed for the book insisted that journals will become – and perhaps already are – obsolete.

“We don’t need journals,” said Robert Kiley, the former head of open access at the Wellcome Trust who is now Plan S’ head of strategy. He argued that a “completely open repository where researchers can upload their research once they feel ready to share it – just like any preprint server” would be a more efficient model, to which reviewers could add their comments.

But Professor Leptin noted that a survey of EMBO’s members in 2019 suggested that there was little appetite for this kind of model. Asked how they would select papers outside their field, they opted for articles “by someone they know or have heard of, a highly regarded name in science – or they look to a highly selective journal”, said Professor Leptin, who argued that scientists “ need some kind of flag that says ‘start here’” when undertaking research.

For Jasmin Lange, director of Brill, the Netherlands-based publisher with almost 300 journals, journals will become more important than ever as trusted sources within the “huge information overflow” of the internet.

“What a journal does is build community,” she said, adding that titles were 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” . The community “will not split away dramatically from the existing models of journal, because we are talking about very specialized communities that publish with society journals – subfields of subfields”, she explained.

Mr Smits, who is now president of Eindhoven University of Technology, told Times HigherEducation that he believed the “role of the journal would diminish”.

“It’s a generational thing,” he said. “The average age of professors in Europe is about 54, and they will be around for another 10 years, but the next generation already share their findings in a very different way – it is not around journals so much,” he said.

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