Publish and perish: the damage done by journal “special issues”

More journal space means more work, as researchers struggle to pump out papers.

The number of articles indexed by Scopus and Web of Science increased by 47 per cent 2016-22 way ahead of any growth in researcher numbers, creating issues for quality (not enough peer reviewers) and consumption (too much to read), Mark Hanson and colleagues, write in a new paper.

As to how much content that is, they refer to, “nearly one million articles per year over the last six years.”

The growth is driven by funders, who want to see output for investment, researchers who want to impress them – and predominantly publishers, who have variously increased their titles and/or expanded content via existing journals (special issues and the like). With the latter, “rejection rates decline with increased use.”

And it leads to sufficiently more citations so that (Goodhart’s Law applies, “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”

Overall, the problem is with publishers,  who “ structure the market, control journal reputation, and as such are focal players – which has led to concerns regarding to what extent publisher behaviour is motivated by profit.”

In particular, the authors point to “special issue articles”  which “are systematically handled differently from normal submissions: special issues have lower rejection rates, and also both lower and seemingly more homogeneous turnaround times.”

So what, if anything can, is to be done?

The authors suggest funders look for “narrative CVs that highlight researchers’ best work over total volume which mitigate publish or perish pressures,” and they suggest research funders discourage publishing in “special issues,” “which our study suggests are not held to the same standard as normal issues.”



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