In this lecture given to an International Journal of Epidemiology gathering in 2016, Dr. Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal (now The BMJ), posits that academic journals are fundamentally flawed and actually detract from academic and scientific research.
Smith first considers the reasons used to justify the existence of academic journals and finds that most of their stated purposes — as educational tools, reference materials, or forums for discussion — are outdated or invalid. The two things academic scientific journals do well, according to Smith, are to (1) provide a scoring system for academics, which allows universities to outsource this competency, and (2) promote pharmaceutical drugs.
Smith presents a list of current flaws in academic journals, arguing that:
- Journals publish an extremely biased sample of all the research that is performed;
- Many to most published articles in academic journals are of poor quality;
- The peer-review system is “faith-based, not evidence-based.” There is no evidence that peer review adds value to either the journals or the content published in them, and the system fails to reduce bias or fraud while slowing research timelines and increasing costs;
- Journals do not encourage reproduction of experiments;
- Eighty-five percent of research is wasted (by which Smith means that either the question the research seeks to answer doesn’t matter or has been answered before, the study is poorly designed, the study isn’t published, or the results aren’t available to everybody);
- Journals are inefficient, often requiring multiple rounds of review before publication;
- The average time to publish is often many months to years after submission, slowing down the research process and the advancement of the relevant field;
- Publication fraud is more common than we’d like to think;
- Academic journals are not transparent and are plagued with conflicts of interest;
- Most research remains inaccessible: Only 20 percent of studies are open access, despite the fact that most research is publicly funded and/or has implications for public benefit;
- Journals and their publishers exploit academics: Journals receive millions in revenue annually, with rich profit margins (30 percent or more in the highest-earning journals) — all while taking advantage of free labor provided by academics; and
- Predatory journals (i.e., journals that charge publication fees to authors and have no or very low editorial standards) are increasingly prevalent
In conclusion, Smith argues that peer review could be disposed of entirely and the majority of academic journals add no value to the scientific community. More specifically, he suggests that increasing research transparency, beginning at the start of study design, would ameliorate many of these issues.