Earlier this year I was asked to serve on a Cultural Evolution Society committee tasked with developing a strategy for the Society’s publications. The most important issue is whether the Society should publish its own academic journal, and if yes, how. Generally speaking launching a journal in a new scientific discipline is very important for defining its domain and methodology, creating a shared identity for the field’s practitioners, and providing a kind of a “refuge space.” The latter may be needed to allow nurturing approaches and methodologies particular to the new field. It’s often necessary to overcome potential hostility from rival established disciplines, whose practitioners could create significant barriers to publication of papers with novel results and approaches in their roles as editors and reviewers. Unfortunately, organized science is not immune to rejecting novelty just because it’s new!
So a Journal of Cultural Evolution would definitely be a good thing. The question is how to effect its appearance in practice. The discussion within our groups quickly identified three possible approaches (see below). I believe there is a plan to discuss this further at the first annual conference in Jena, Germany, in September. But I thought it would be useful for the Society’s officers and rank-and-file to start thinking and discussing the options now, before we get together in Jena. So here are my thoughts, with which other committee members may agree or disagree.
Traditional publisher route
A default approach in scientific publishing (until recently) has been to link up with a traditional publisher who would provide the funding and know-how to launch the journal. I personally think that following this route in 2017 would be a great mistake. I explain why in this blog post:
The main problem is that it is the nature of for-profit publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer, to extract profit. And they do a great job, enjoying profit margins of 30-40% (see the chart in the post). Some of my colleagues suggested that we discuss this route with a publisher—perhaps we could get a better deal. But I don’t see any point—it’s like a lamb discussing a contract with a lion. It’s in the nature of lions to eat lambs.
University presses are somewhat better than for-profit publishers, but they are also businesses, and they need to make money to stay in business. What’s important is that the goals of us as scientists and of any traditional publisher are misaligned (this misalignment has become more glaring in the last few years). We want to get our results out and we want open access for all (especially for scientists at non-western institutions that can’t afford the subscription fees). But open access clashes with the goal of the publisher to make money
Furthermore, there is an issue of equity. Traditional publishers operate by making scientists do most of the work. We do the research, write articles, review manuscripts, serve on editorial boards. The publisher does the job of organization. For doing perhaps 5% of the work (probably less), they get all the profits. More importantly, they make all the decisions: especially on how to price the “product”.
The whole landscape of scientific publishing is changing dramatically, and most publishers will probably not survive it for long. Thirty years ago publishers could expect to place their journals in perhaps 5,000 university libraries. They were able to price them modestly because of bulk. Then we entered the spiral of journal subscriptions rising and library funds declining. This business model is already in trouble, and I expect it will collapse completely in a few years. Right now is the worst time to give the journal away to a business.
And here’s the latest news on the open access front:
Publishing the journal using Society’s resources
In my opinion, this is the best route assuming we find such resources. I have a lot of experience with starting a journal, having launched Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution eight years ago. Here’s what my experience suggests.
- We will need two volunteers. A junior academic who will be willing to be Managing Editor and will do the bulk of day-to-day running of the journal, and an Editor-in-Chief, a senior scholar who will lend her or his name and provide strategic planning, advised by a board of editors. This will require a substantial time investment on the part of both individuals, but is still quite compatible with continuing the usual research program, normal teaching, etc. I’ve done it for Cliodynamics, doing both jobs (until recently), so I know all it takes is motivation and commitment.
- We also need money. We should ask society members to vote on how much of their dues should go to the journal. Actually, I would even wait to see how many members pay dues before making the decision.
In my opinion, we can, and should, ask authors to help with publication costs. Most grants budget for this. At the same time, we should not make payment a condition for acceptance; we should wave the costs for those without grants (and most authors outside the western countries).
Not starting a new journal
This third option is the one to follow if we cannot raise resources (human and material) needed for Option 2. If there is not enough enthusiasm for starting a new journal, as indicated by failure to generate such resources, then perhaps we don’t really need one.
There are a number of publishing options for society’s members.
- Nature Human Behavior and Nature Ecology and Evolution. I recently talked to the editor of NHB and they are very interested in publishing Cultural Evolution articles. NEE, of course, has already published our article on the grand challenges in cultural evolution. These journals provide high prestige, high visibility outlets for our articles.
- Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, which I edit. We are eager to publish any articles in Cultural Evolution, including modeling, historical analysis, and experiments.
- Religion, Brain, and Behavior, Human Nature, etc. There is a bunch of journals that cover almost any imaginable topic in Cultural Evolution.
- Preprint archives. In particular, we might invest into building SocArXiv, which is just starting and we can help shape it in a direction that would be compatible with the society’s goals.
I would welcome comments and discussion; and I hope these laying out of our options will be useful for the discussion we will hold in Jena in September.