Publishing too much (transport) research?


flickr photo shared by jambina under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Today I stumbled across an editorial by the esteemed transport economist Kenneth Button in Transport Reviews that articulates a lot of ideas I’ve been working on the past few years. The editorial is titled, “Publishing Transport Research: Are We Learning Much of Use?”  In it, Button criticises the current trends that stress quantity and quantification of scholarly output, sacrificing quality and more “verbal” presentations of ideas. There are many reasons for this: the need for us to quantify everything, it’s easier to ‘show the work’ with math than it is to explain the ideas behind it, the whole publish or perish paradigm, and the struggle to retain qualified reviewers.  Button does make note of the increase in paper submissions from Asia, which has overall increased the demand for reviewers. He also highlights problems in the editorial process which hinders publication, such as requiring authors to suggest reviewers or citation stacking.

Button closes the editorial with his concern that without a step back and focus on quality, that transport journals may “sink to the level of junk bonds.” He closes it by encouraging people just blog.

This reminded me of another Transport Reviews editorial about the proliferation of transport journals by David Banister. Banister discusses the now many entry points of publishing that’s often daunting for authors to know where to submit a paper. He also notes the reliance on easily quantifiable metrics, such as impact factor and citation rates.

These problems aren’t really news and it’s obvious. From a librarian’s view, this makes collection development difficult since it seems like there’s a new journal we might need to subscribe to founded every few months. We can’t afford them all, so the need to tease out quality is important but how? It’s also hard to navigate which journals we should recommend people publish in based on copyright policies, review turnaround, and subject matter. Given that transportation is such an interdisciplinary field, it’s hard to guess which editors will take a narrow view of their subject and which will not.

As to Button’s argument that the increase in quality means a decrease in quality of thoughts, I would need to see some data. I do see that there are more things being published and I have concerns (see my crude analysis of published TRB conference papers in the last decade), but it’s also true that technology has opened up the process to more people. I think it can be a great thing, but we need to balance quantity with quality, and I don’t know how the current peer-review system is handling it. Button’s resignation that we should all just blog isn’t a bad idea, because it does provide a public feedback mechanism. Maybe open access, open data, and open blogging can be a way forward? Will that be enough to push big ideas forward and make people step back and look at the landscape?

Basically, go read Button’s editorial.

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