Dec 13, 2013

Chasing Paper, Part 3


This is part three of a three part post brainstorming potential improvements to the journal article format. Part one is here, part two is here.

The classic journal article is only readable by domain experts.

Journal articles are currently written for domain experts. While novel concepts or terms are usually explained, there is the assumption of a vast array of background knowledge and jargon is the rule, not the exception. While this leads to quick reading for domain experts, it can make for a difficult slog for everyone else.

Why is this a problem? For one thing, it prevents interdisciplinary collaboration. Researchers will not make a habit of reading outside their field if it takes hours of painstaking, self-directed work to comprehend a single article. It also discourages public engagement. While science writers do admirable work boiling hard concepts down to their comprehensible cores, many non-scientists want to actually read the articles, and get discouraged when they can’t.

While opaque scientific writing exists in every format, technologies present new options to translate and teach. Jargon could be linked to a glossary or other reference material. You could be given a plain english explanation of a term when your mouse hovers over it. Perhaps each article could have multiple versions - for domain experts, other scientists, and for laypeople.

Of course, the ability to write accessibly is a skill not everyone has. Luckily, any given paper would mostly use terminology already introduced in previous papers. If researchers could easily credit the teaching and popularization work done by others, they could acknowledge the value of those contributions while at the same time making their own work accessible.

The classic journal article has no universally-agreed upon standards.

Academic publishing, historically, has been a distributed system. Currently, the top three publishers still account for less than half (42%) of all published articles (McGuigan and Russell, 2008). While certain format and content conventions are shared among publishers, generally speaking it’s difficult to propagate new standards, and even harder to enforce them. Not only do standards vary, they are frequently hidden, with most of the review and editing process taking place behind closed doors.

There are benefits to decentralization, but the drawbacks are clear. Widespread adoption of new standards, such as Simmons et al’s 21 Word Solution or open science practices, depends on the hard work and high status of those advocating for them. How can the article format be changed to better accommodate changing standards, while still retaining individual publishers’ autonomy?

One option might be to create a new section of each journal article, a free-form field where users could record whether an article met this or that standard. Researchers could then independently decide what standards they wanted to pay attention to. While this sounds messy, if properly implemented this feature could be used very much like a search filter, yet would not require the creation or maintenance of a centralized database.

A different approach is already being embraced: an effort to make the standards that currently exist more transparent by bringing peer review out into the open. Open peer review allows readers to view an article’s pre-publication history, including the authorship and content of peer reviews, while public peer review allows the public to participate in the review process. However, these methods have yet to be generally adopted.


It’s clear that journal articles are already changing. But they may not be changing fast enough. It may be better to forgo the trappings of the journal article entirely, and seek a new system that more naturally encourages collaboration, curation, and the efficient use of the incredible resources at our disposal. With journal articles commonly costing more than $30 each, some might jump at the chance to leave them behind.

Of course, it’s easy to play “what if” and imagine alternatives; it’s far harder to actually implement them. And not all innovations are improvements. But with over a billion dollars spent on research each day in the United States, with over 25,000 journals in existence, and over a million articles published each year, surely there is room to experiment.


Budd, J.M., Coble, Z.C. and Anderson, K.M. (2011) Retracted Publications in Biomedicine: Cause for Concern.

Wright, K. and McDaid, C. (2011). Reporting of article retractions in bibliographic databases and online journals. J Med Libr Assoc. 2011 April; 99(2): 164–167.

McGuigan, G.S. and Russell, R.D. (2008). The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship. Winter 2008; 9(3).

Simmons, J.P., Nelson, L.D. and Simonsohn, U.A. (2012) A 21 Word Solution.

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