Who Reads Journals?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMar 13, 2010 1:30 AM


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Yesterday, I was faced with a typically academic dilemma: which journal to submit to?

I'd written a paper, one which, inexplicably, had been rejected by the first journal I tried to publish it in. Actually, like many people I purposefully aimed too high, going for a very good (i.e. high Impact) journal in the first instance, just in case I got lucky. I didn't, so, I started looking for something more realistic, i.e. a bad one.

But this got me thinking. Why does it matter where I send it? So long as it's published in a journal indexed in PubMed, which every even vaguely scientific publication is nowadays, people who'll find it interesting will see it.

Because people don't actually read journals, people search PubMed for papers relating to their field of research, or increasingly, allow an automated service to search it for them. No-one sits down and reads a journal from cover to cover, like a book. Publishing in a good journal looks better on your CV, and it does lend a paper some extra credibility thus perhaps making it more likely to be read, but not by very much. If it's on PubMed, it gets noticed.

Of course, just because I find all my papers through PubMed searches (or blog links, occasionally) doesn't mean everyone else does. But the other academics I know are the same: with the occasional exception of


and Science, we don't read journals. I'm sure this is partly a reflection of the fact that most of the academics I know are under 30, so we all grew up using computers and search engines.

However, maybe I'm wrong, but it seems that the same thing increasingly applies to older researchers as well. There are so many journals nowadays that searches are pretty much the only way to keep up to date with relevant papers; it would take too long to read, or even skim, them all.

I'm not sure that this is a good thing, though. It's a cliché that today's scientists are "too specialized" and don't know about anything beyond their own particular research focus. In my experience, it's not quite as bad as many people make out, but the efficiency of PubMed for finding the papers you want means that you're correspondingly less likely to come across papers offering new perspectives that you're not aware of.

Browsing an issue of a journal or even just reading the contents page gets you thinking about work that's not directly related to your own, which is how ideas and collaborations start. If you only read things because you know you're going to be interested in them in advance, you'll stay interested in the same thing for ever...

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