Tim Gowers recently suggested an answer to “How might we get to a new model of mathematical publishing?” which I highly recommend. While there has been much talk for years now on how to replace the journal system, I think that his proposal is explicit enough and simple enough to actually be implementable if seriously attempted.
One of the many comments to his post questioned the basic premise:
[…] I have no idea why people constantly claim that the journal system is broken. It seems to work just fine to me. The only real issues I’ve heard people bring up are 1. the open access issue, and 2. the cost issue. [Here comes a discussion of how these issues are on their way to be solved — a point to which I mostly agree] Aside from the above two issues, what exactly is this suggestion supposed to accomplish?
I’d like to answer this explicitly and talk about the problem with the journal publication system, even assuming that we’ve completely solved the open-access and cost issues: Journals are simply not fulfilling their main three functions: dissemination, verification, and allocation of attention.
- Dissemination: While originally the main point of a print journal was so that Prof. A. can see the results of Prof. B. relatively quickly, it is clear that, in the age of the Internet, journals only slow dissemination compared to, say, putting stuff on the arXiv.
- Verification: Despite pretenses, refereeing is not really trust-worthy. Results of some importance become believed not when refereed but rather only after the community has studied them for a while.
- Allocation of attention: an important goal of leading journals is to filter the “important” papers out of all the submitted ones, so that readers need not read everything but rather only the important stuff. I am afraid that today so much is published so that most of what one reads in most journals should have been filtered out. Partially this is a problem of the publish-or-perish culture and partially due to the coarseness of the refereeing model as a filtering tool.
All three of these main goals can be improved upon considerably using the right tools (that need to be figured out) on the Internet. At the same time that the journal system has lost its usefulness, it has created a lot of harmful side effects: the writing of countless worthless papers, lack of recognition for surveys, books, or other non-“paper” contributions, blind and silly use of metrics like impact factors for hiring, grants and promotion which lead to wasteful optimization of these rather than of real research. All these harmful side-effects could be tolerated had the system served its main purpose — but now we are just paying the price but not getting the goods.