Liz Wager: Journals that dare not speak their name

Liz WagerThere’s a new species of journal lurking in the medical publishing jungle, but it doesn’t seem to have a name. As a zoologist turned writer (ie somebody obsessed by taxonomy and words) this bothers me so I hope somebody will christen them soon. To launch this campaign, I’ll begin by describing what the new type of journal isn’t and then try to describe what it is.

Think of a famous medical journal, let’s say the BMJ. It publishes only a tiny proportion of the submissions it receives (currently only about 7%). The result is an influential, respected and widely read journal focused on the needs of its readers rather than on those who’d like to publish in it. Readers trust the “brand”  of such highly selective journals and recognise them as good places to go when seeking information. They may even pay to subscribe to the journal (although the BMJ‘s research articles are Open Access) and may scan the table of contents regularly. This conventional model also applies to most specialty journals – many of these rely on reader subscriptions for their income and their readers/subscribers rely on the journals to select the most relevant material for them to read.

But web publishing has opened up new possibilities. As Kamran Abbasi, editor of JRSM and its new sister publication JRSM Short Reports, notes “Our editorial view is that readers can decide for themselves whether or not an article has value or relevance to them, and this is the way that the internet has transformed publication of all kinds. Print publication, because of space limitations, forces decisions on editors based on their judgement of what’s of interest to readers. Online publication allows readers to decide what’s of interest to them.”

And it’s not only JRSM that has a new little sister, BMJ recently launched BMJ Open, which aims to publish “all research study types – including small or potentially low-impact studies.” Contrast this with the BMJ, which “gives priority to articles reporting original, robust research studies that can improve decision making in medical practice – and will be important to general medical readers internationally.”

So, the new type of journal I’m talking about are these “little sisters”: that’s clearly an unsatisfactory term, so what should we call them? In my quest for a name I looked at the journals’ websites to see how they describe themselves. BioMed Central was one of the first publishers to offer such journals and coined the phrase “bias to publish.” It states the acceptance criteria in many of its titles as “validity and coherence.” PLoS ONE‘s website states that the journal’s review process ‘does not judge the importance of the work, rather focuses on whether the work is done to high scientific and ethical standards’.

While nearly all the new journals are Open Access, this is not a helpful blanket term for them because not all Open Access journals operate this publishing model. Thus, BMC Medicine publishes only papers of “outstanding quality, broad interest and special importance” in contrast to other BMC journals that only require validity and coherence, yet all are Open Access. Similarly, PLoS Medicine, while definitely Open Access, clearly has a different philosophy and acceptance rate from PLoS ONE, since the former aims only to publish ‘important original research and analysis relevant to human health’ while the latter ‘does not judge the importance of the work’.

Another reason why Open Access is not the right term for these journals (although I have heard it used), is that not all of them are Open Access. Nature Communications allows authors to choose whether to pay to make their article freely accessible to readers (if not, the article will be available only to institutional subscribers or via pay-per-view). The Nature Publishing Group website states: “Nature will continue to publish the most significant advances in science.” Nature Communications will publish high-quality papers from all areas of science that represent important advances within specific scientific disciplines, but that might not necessarily have the scientific reach of papers published in Nature’.

So, how should we describe journals like BMJ Open, PLoS ONE, and Nature Communications to distinguish them from more traditional journals? I have used the term non-selective, but that’s not quite right – these journals do select (a bit), it’s just that they use radically different criteria for acceptance. It’s unreasonable to expect any publisher to describe their product as a journal for unimportant or even low-impact research, even it that’s mainly what they publish. Several publishers seem drawn to naval metaphors describing their more selective titles as their flagship publications. So perhaps that makes the others “second-class ships of the line” or whatever the opposite of flagship is (my husband suggested bumboat, but I doubt this will catch on). (Incidentally, Wikipedia informed me that flagships were usually the most heavily armed so the term is particularly apt for journals with high rejection rates.) Family analogies also appear, with journals having “sister publications” but, strangely, never brothers or parents.

I quite like the distinction between reader-driven and author-driven (or author-focused) publications. The highly selective journals clearly prioritise the needs of their readers above those of their potential authors. Maybe that’s a possibility (AFPs and RFPs, perhaps?).

Another difference we might exploit is the way information is sought from these journals. While conventional journals have subscribers or regular readers, the new journals rely on search engines to find articles of interest. Instead of going to a particular journal, or receiving its table of contents, users go to the web (or a portal such as PubMed) and search with key words and then read what they find. But I’ve just taken 54 words to describe this feature and can’t think of a snappier way (search-located sounds tautologous) so that’s no use.

We could use negative terms such as unconventional or non-traditional journals but these aren’t very descriptive or clear and might seem a bit disparaging. Which would be a pity, as I am a big fan of the new journals and think they represent a real advance in making research results more accessible, which has to be a good thing. Much drug development research is pretty unexciting (e.g. we need to know whether medicines interact with warfarin or alcohol – most don’t so the results are negative, but I’d much rather have the information in the public domain than languishing in the drug company’s files). Some negative terms are quite flattering, so I suppose we could use non-discriminatory, impartial or even unprejudiced – but then the conventional journals might object.

The term “general” medical journal already has a specific meaning, and you could argue that the new titles are both catering for a highly specialised readership and a non-specialised one so that’s a non-starter and likely to be confused with specialty journals anyway. We could look to medicines and try “broad-spectrum” but that doesn’t fit the BMC specialty journals. We could focus on the archival function and call them repositories rather than journals, but that’s illogical, as all journals act as repositories.

So, I still don’t know what to call these journals but I want to write and talk about them. Can anybody help me?

Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).