What is ‘editorial quality’?

The UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is worried that there will be a huge loss of so-called ‘editorial quality’ as academic journals move to Open Access publishing models. With publishing now digitised, there seems to be a feeling among academics that academic publishers are losing their value – so why not just sidestep them altogether?

At an NUJ-hosted discussion in February, Pete Wrobel, the managing editor of Nature until 2004, argued that editorial work in scholarly publishing does add value to research, and we should be slow to abandon it.

There’s a video of the event here:

As evidence, Wrobel pointed to a 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The research looked at two groups of articles published in the journal. The first set had been picked up by journalists at the New York Times, written up and publicised in the newspaper. The second group contained articles that journalists also wrote up, but in this case they were not published because of a strike. The journalists continued to produce ‘an edition of record’ during the three month hiatus, but this wasn’t circulated. Since both sets of articles would have been published, they were, in theory, all of roughly equal interest to the public.

The study looked at how often these two groups of medical articles were cited in the scientific literature. You would imagine that scientists would be uninfluenced by newspaper coverage of science – that they would choose the research they cited based on diligent study of the literature, and not be swayed by the Times. But the researchers found publicity did make an article more likely to receive citations.

The publicised articles (black) received consistently more citations over a 10 year period.

The group which were flagged up in the Times received an average of 78% more citations than those which were not, in the first year. (You can see a comparison of the wo groups’ citations for each year in the adjacent graph.) So there you have it: editorial input from the media does have an impact on the process of science. Or that appeared to be Wrobel’s argument.

There is potential for confusion here I think, because mostly when publishers talk about ‘editorial quality’ they mean the value that publishing in a journal adds to a paper. In this case that added value came from a newspaper, not a journal. But I think Wrobel meant that, in a general sense, making articles more ‘discoverable’ (this word cropped up continually at the debate) is helpful for individual pieces of published science. If, for example, journal editors write out a summary of each article’s merits for non-specialists, and include commentaries and news pieces alongside it, that makes potential readers more likely to identify it as interesting.

This kind of ‘added value’ (or ‘editorial quality’) is certainly valuable to researchers. But an interesting question is: precisely how valuable? How much are scientists prepared to pay for it? Richard van Noorden, the assistant news editor at Nature, suggested that moving to an open access publishing model might provide the answer to this question. If we opt for an author-pays OA model, journals will be forced to pitch their prices at the level their services are deemed to worth, he reckons.

Phillip Campbell, the current editor-in-chief of Nature, also on the panel, explained that if his publication’s running costs were neatly divided between each accepted article, the cost would be between £20,000 and £30,000 per paper. Presumably authors value the news and analysis Nature provides – but do they value it enough to pay that kind of sum?

A complicating factor is that these ‘added value’ services, which serve to make research more discoverable are not necessarily tied to a journal. Websites like Faculty of 1000, which highlights interesting articles in a kind of Reddit-for-scholarly-papers format, provide a similar service.

If by ‘editorial quality’ the NUJ mean ‘making research easy to find and digest’ then it is certainly something to be grateful for. As several panel members [open link and scroll down] noted, it is hard to predict how shake-ups in digital publishing, academic career structure and open access – all of which will likely influence each other – will pan out. On its own though, the advent of universal OA might make the ‘discoverability’ of an article more important, not less.

Subscription model publishing drives journals towards publishing quality manuscripts; in the hope of attracting a fee-paying audience. In contrast the (gold) OA model, where authors pay, means that journals make more money if they publish more articles. In 2011, Nature (subscription-based access) published under 5,000 articles, but PLoS ONE (open access), which accepts about 60% of submissions, published about 41,000. With so many pieces of research streaming out of the OA engine room, the role of the editor in making the research visible to those who might benefit from it is more important than ever.

Reference: D. Phillips et al., New Eng. J. Med., 1991, (325) 1180-1183.

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