Who will shelter the "shitasse" society journals?

Jan 27 2012 Published by under Science Communication, Science Publication

In the previous post on journal publishing, I observed that sub-sub-specialty journals were an anachronism of the era prior to the establishment of nearly comprehensive search engines and databases like PubMed. In that era, dividing the monthly output of scientific papers into journals made sense. First of all, it would be pretty hard to pick up a monthly issue of "The Omnibus Journal of Biomedical Science". Second, it would be unduly laborious (and paper cut-y) to keep flipping around from some index or TOC to the abstracts you wanted to scan. So there were certain physical realities driving journal specialization.

Not to mention the fact that across the decades from 1886 to 1996 (PubMed established) there was a gradual and sustained addition of sub-specialty societies, narrower and narrower subfields of interest and an all around expansion of academic science. This came with a desire for yet another group of scientists to have selection of the studies they most wanted to read into a smaller number of journals.

I am not privy to all the details of the history of journals in academic science. Not even close. But what I do know is that a publisher such as Elsevier has a metric boatload of small sub-specialty journals at present time. Many of which are tied to an academic society. They continue to launch NEW ones. (Phew, I'm already link exhausted- Google "Official Journal Elsevier" and see what you get. The list is enormous.)

It is, or has been, in the interests of both Elsevier and the academic society to continue this arrangement. Occasionally societies will switch publishers. For example, Neuropsychopharmacology jumped from Elsevier to Nature Publishing Group in recent memory**. Occasionally you'll be looking at the online site for a journal and notice a truncation in the archive..and have to Google around to figure out who used to publish the journal. Nevertheless, it is clear that Elsevier thinks these arrangements are good ones. Presumably because they get good return from libraries when they bundle a bunch of journals into a fixed price menu.

[Sidebar: This is a bit of a fly in the ointment, btw. One thing I do laud the publishers for is when they've taken effort to PDF all of their back catalog...back to vol 1, issue 1 in the dark ages in some cases. When there's a shift in the publisher that took place prior to the online age it seems to me that their motivation for putting up a back catalog for a journal they no longer publish is not very high.]

What do the societies get in return?

I am, shall we say*, somewhat informed about moves by at least two society level journals to switch their default member subscription from print to online. The response seemed to be overwhelming approval and lack of opting-for-print amongst the memberships. No surprise, almost all of us are complete and total converts to the benefits of online access to journal articles and personal PDF archives on our computers. Yes, even the rapidly emeritizing cohort. Still, it is nice to see the data, so to speak. Nice to see that if a society stops sending print issues to clog up faculty bookshelves collecting dust, nobody objects.

But......ego. Somehow I bet the existing societies would get their backs up a little bit if there was a suggestion that they simply give up their journal. Neuropolarbear asked what could be done about the assy position being taken by some publishers on the Research Works Act issue. This is the one trying to reverse the law demanding the deposit of all NIH funded papers into PubMedCentral (in peer-reviewed, accepted, manuscript form).

One thing we could do is to demand our society journals stop working with the jerky publishers.

This thought is what brought up all the above blathering. It is very likely that each and every small journal couldn't make it on their own. Well, duh, of course not. As noted by the irrepressible Comrade Physioproffe

From what I understand, the other issue moneywise is that big publishers like Elsevier force institutions to pay subscription fees for shitteasse journals that no one reads by bundling them with their flagship journals. Those journals wouldn’t even exist if they had to survive on their own submission/publication fees.

But if all we're talking about is a sort of virtual journal...why can't some other umbrella journal publisher just kind of take up the slack? Why couldn't a PLoS ONE type of outfit agree to provide all the publishing services and put some sort of tag on the article to group by academic society?

*christ that was priggish, wasn't it?

**fascinating. In the case of Neuropsychopharmacology, the entire back catalog was transferred over to NPG so if you click on an article that your print copy insists was published by Elsevier, boom, you end up at NPG.

24 responses so far

  • That's more or less what we want to do - change editorial boards from groups that select articles for publication into boards that select articles of interest to their community from amongst a large body being published in a journal like PLoS ONE. This selection becomes an attribute attached to the paper - "Selected by the Genetic Society of America" or whatever. It's a way to keep the good things associated with smart, interested people reading a paper and deciding on its relevance and import to a particular audience without the massive inefficiencies associated with having 10,000 journals each covering a small slice of the literature, and with these journals controlling which papers are and aren't suitable for publication.

  • What about using Frontiers as the backend?

    Allegedly, there was substantial debate within the society for neuroeconomics. Many wanted to turn Frontiers in Decision Making into the default in-house journal for the field (possibly with some links to the society). Others were worried that if they didn't go with a more established publishing house, then that publisher would create it anyway, without the input of the society. The whole thing is ongoing.

  • Eisen's comment seems very sensible to me. It also solves a few other problems. (1) It gives the society something to do, (2) it solves the problem of weak post-publication peer-review. We just need to figure out a way to avoid nepotism.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I forgot to link Pp's quote...it's from a good discussion at Eisen's pad http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=873#comment-54874

  • Nepotism is always a problem, but it's no different when reviews are linked to publication, as in the current system, or occur alongside or after publication, as I'd like to see. In either case, the thing that keeps any natural inclination towards nepotism in check is the need to maintain a reputation for making sound decisions. Obviously, not everybody responds to this pressure - that's why there are plenty of shitasse journals today. But I don't see the problem getting worse, and, because crappy ed boards don't serve as gatekeepers, there are fewer negative consequences.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Let me just step in here to note I do not agree with the description of small market / small field journals as "shitasse"....

  • drugmonkey says:

    The Bunny Hopper Society of the Internets stands ready to contribute recommendations and selections.

  • Pamiam says:

    I am going to take a contrary stance here and full well expect to be electronically pummeled, but here goes. Every TT faculty member I know, save for those at community college, are expected to publish something in order to achieve tenure. So for example, a TT faculty member at a small liberal arts PUI in the middle of nowhere with a start up of less than $100K, access to crappy equipment, and either has no grad students or at least (shall I say) grad students who are not up to R01 status is still expected to publish to earn tenure. In many cases the requirement, which used to be 2 or 3 papers, had doubled to 4-6 papers. Where will these people publish if we lose the "shitasse" journals?

    You might argue that we don't need these people. I disagree as they teach the vast majority of college students today.

    Then you might change your argument to something like they don't need to do research. But studies show researchers generally make better teachers AND we have a huge push to engage pretty much every undergrad who wants to in research, so we NEED those people to have those undergrads in their lab.

    Then maybe you'll argue that these people should do research but don't need to publish. But how do they show their progress and get the PUI any publicity for their research unless there are products along the way?

    So, in conclusion, and I'll stop so you may pummel me, "those journals" fill an important place for the 90% of faculty who are not at R01s who still must do research and publish, or will perish.

    [how do I know? Because that's me. With a startup of $35K, a requirement to publish 6 papers for tenure, and no grad students, I had to go to those journals to save my skin]

  • Mike_F says:


    Are you saying that your work and those of others in your situation can't be published in PLoS ONE or other similar journals?? Given the fact that the only requirement for publication in PLoS ONE is that the work be technically adequate and properly controlled, and their over 70% acceptance rate, I find it hard to believe that you could not place your papers there, with the added benefit that their impact factor of ~4 is probably higher than that of most small society journals.


  • Pamiam says:

    If you check carefully, PLoS has a page charge of essentially my entire lab budget per year. http://www.plos.org/publish/pricing-policy/publication-fees/ Of course they say they can waive the fee partially, but I don't know what that means in real terms.

    Secondly, think about it. Our research is done by undergrads, who are not as committed to a project as an army of postdocs nor are they as sophisticated, and we don't have access to state-of-the-art equipment. Do you think we're doing cutting edge science that would go into a PLoS journal?

    Thirdly, why don't I do the research? Because I physically can't; I have to teach my classes and will get into the lab when I can.

    Finally, why don't I just get a grant? Heck, R01 people are grousing about the low funding rate. Do you think that someone who has no grad students and no startup to fund a postdoc can generate the prelimiary data to do work that will compete with someone from Stanford?

    I am not complaining. I have changed students' lives in ways I never knew possible by mentoring them in my lab. I like what I do and I am content to publish in "those journals." I am just arguing that in fact "those journals" are important to me and many other people.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I would second the need for *some* no-cost-to-author journals. The method of getting there isn't important but the current uncertainty of " might be waived" isn't enough.

  • Alex says:


    First, a minor quibble: Liberal arts PUIs in the middle of nowhere do not educate the vast majority of college students. Those places are deliberately small and usually private. No, state schools with name like "Southeastern State University" or "[StateName] State University, [CityName]" do that.

    But, yes, teaching-oriented schools with few resources and heavy teaching loads are hard places to do research. Despite that, it is important for us to do research with our students. I don't know your field, and obviously the typical publication rate varies by field and sub-field, but 4-6 papers, in (presumably) 5 years or so, does sound pretty drastic. If I were you, once I have tenure I would push to change the tenure criteria to look at quality instead of quantity. One paper in a "good journal" (not Science or Nature, just a good society journal) and 1-2 more in other journals seems like a better body of work than 4-6 Least Publishable Units, and is probably feasible in 5 years or so.

  • Pamiam says:

    I agree with your quibble. I was thinking specifically about the SUNY system with their state colleges like Fredonia, Courtland, Geneseo, and Texas with West Texas State. Some of those are PUIs but most are state colleges with a small Master's program. We are unique because we don't have a grad program, but most similar places do.

    Full disclosure: this is I.

    I do well because I have strategically developed collaborations across the spectrum, am on an R15 with a chemist, and won a university award that essentially funds my yeast work for the next 4.5 years. However, I still publish in "those journals" (plus others) because that's the type of work we have been able to do. I am sympathetic to those at smaller PUIs or even state colleges who have not been as lucky as I.

  • Alex says:


    I also teach at a state university that is focused on undergrads but has some MS programs. IMHO, having a grad program doesn't mean much for productivity. My department doesn't have a grad program, but most others in my College do. Since I do interdisciplinary work, I took one MS student from a related program. He's a good guy, he was on a paper, and he graduated, but the undergrad honors students that I can work with are definitely stronger than the typical grad students. There's one program that has really strong MS students, but it seems like there's always one good program. The rest? Well, I'll take an undergrad from the Honors program.

  • Pamiam says:


    What's your strategy? How do you get research out? What's the expectation there? I ask because we're hiring again and I'll need to help the new juniors figure it out. Like I said, mine is MPU, "those journals," and collaborations. Any other ideas? PAM

  • Pascale says:

    As a pediatric nephrologist, my work has almost entirely appeared in "shitasse" society journals. I simply do not study stuff that Science or Nature or other broad audience journals will print. Specialized science is not unimportant; it just has a smaller audience.
    One argument in favor of maintaining this sort of association is the review process. It is much easier to maintain journals with sufficient expertise in all areas of a specialty and its related scientific base than for any centralized repository "journal" to do so. Even though most journals now require suggested reviewers, you need editors who can come up with appropriate substitutes when those suggested are unavailable.
    Don't get me wrong; I believe we need to move away from the "printed word" paradigm for scientific publishing. However, having different groups maintain the electronic infrastructure for their interests could be of benefit, both on the front end (for pre-review) and on the back end (spreading the cost of the endeavor).

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Idle sort-of on topic question:

    Why was PLOS able to climb the prestige hierarchy with such success so quickly while BioMed Central (which I think has been around longer?) hasn't done so?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Specialized science is not unimportant; it just has a smaller audience.

    Agreed. And a little appreciated fact about IF is that it is largely indexing field size, not any sort of objective "importance". One might argue, in fact, that in densely populated subfields, the relative importance of any contributor or contribution is lower since it is basically a dime-a-dozen situation. If this person didn't do it, the next person would have. This is where being first to publish something comes to have such silly, irrelevant importance and perverts the advance of science.

    It is much easier to maintain journals with sufficient expertise in all areas of a specialty and its related scientific base than for any centralized repository "journal" to do so.

    again, agreed. I have recently been slightly concerned to see the slate of editors with focus on my subfields of interest in a journal that is a potential model for the "Omnibus Journal of Everything".

  • [...] (the blog of a US NIH-funded researcher) asked: ‘Who will shelter the “shitasse” society journals?‘; that is, he suggested that researchers could demand that the journals published by their [...]

  • dsks says:

    I can't help but think that it would be much cheaper for teh tax payin' public if the federal funding bodies simply assumed control of online publishing of federally funded research, adopting the acceptance criteria of PLoS One. Using federal bucks to pay what is now, in the online era, extortionate vanity publications fees that are surely in excess of the publication costs, is bordering on unethical anyway, I should think.

    There should be no energy barrier to publishing federally funded research beyond it being reported in a coherent manner. Even if it's just a fat load of negative data (don't get me started on how much money we must surely be wasting repeating dead-ender experiments because the last person who tried it didn't (couldn't) publish the negative data).

    We don't need editors or a tiny cadre of peer reviewers to dictate impact anymore, that need died along with print. When you can just put a paper online and let the entire field give it the thumbs either way, it makes no sense to introduce an arbitrary bottle neck.

  • drugmonkey says:

    m eisen noted that Varmus tried to do the federal journal thing back in 1999 http://www.nih.gov/about/director/pubmedcentral/ebiomedarch.htm

  • dsks says:

    Do you have a link to Eisen's discussion on that? What happened? (bureaucratic inertia, or did lobbying scuttle it?)

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It was a Tweet but I think he has a post up on his blog about it in the last day or so.

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