A Journal for the Cultural Evolution Society?

Peter Turchin


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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Religion, Brain, and Behavior, Human Nature, etc. There is a bunch of journals that cover almost any imaginable topic in Cultural Evolution.
  4. 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.

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Joe Brewer

Thank you, Peter, for drafting these thoughts to get a conversation going. I can see that the Publications Committee for the Cultural Evolution Society (CES) has been having important dialogue about a host of related issues for the field of cultural evolutionary studies.

One thought I had upon reading this is that it may be valuable to take something of a consortium approach — where CES provides the organizing capacity for a working group to coordinate among several existing publications (like those you listed here) around special issues on key themes that bring integration across the field as it continues to grow.

This can be combined with a broader communication-and-outreach plan to engage in blogging and science journalism. We can work with existing publications like This View of Life, Social Evolution Forum, the new EES Update (Extended Evolutionary Synthesis), Evonomics, Aeon, Nautilus, Behavioral Scientist, and others that come across our radar.

Essentially what I am thinking of is that CES can play a coordinating role to help a network of peer-review journals where shared mission is visible and relationships built on trust and prior conviviality can be strengthened. In this way, we can accelerate the transdisciplinary integration of knowledge that cultural evolution holds so much potential for.

Much to discuss in Jena this fall!

Ross Hartshorn

It might be worth laying out the exact distinction between what would be appropriate for the proposed new journal, and what would be appropriate for the Cliodynamics journal? Not saying there isn’t a distinction, but an interested layman (and potential small-scale supporter) like myself doesn’t immediately see the kind of article that would be appropriate for Cultural Evolution but not for Cliodynamics, or vice versa. Which, I’m sure, is just because I’m an interested layman and not a scholar, but even for potential contributors it might be worth sketching out exactly the distinction?

Guillaume Belanger

Hi Peter, I agree with your analysis, and think option 2 would be the best. Otherwise option 3. Definitely not option 1.

Peter van den Engel


Evolution is a vast subject, so it’s hard to define in a simple equation. I’ll try to provide for an overview when a journal is concerned, although its evolution probably concerns more than a journal.

The question you could ask yourself is: do you want to be an authority/ or do you want to bring out your knowledge as it is, to perhaps become more of an authority later. The second option seems to be more practical, since that’s reality. Although it deserves an authority position in knowledge and science, it is still a relative unknown. This already describes a difference, that also applies on the communication strategy.
The first conclusion so far is simply anything you do in publishing will be productive whereas not publishing not. But that’s not really a guided strategy yet.

In terms of communication and positioning there are two reality questions next, like what would be an ideal in publishing, that is not reality yet/ but can be worked towards – and in what kind of equation as a science it sits in now and where would it like to be.

To start with the last one, it evolved from Darwin’s science who studied animal biological evolution, that also led to human evolution. Where society selected, concluded, that survival of the fittest was its main physical law. So it sits in three areas at the same time.

It is the study and proof of living laws as they are in nature, it has general central values which can be derived from that, that are natural physics, that can be projected on cultural awareness in its own real time evolution. In Darwin’s time cultural society did exactly that, because it was perceived as an important new science, that had a strong cultural profile. This connection is no longer there. But can be revitalized.

Why? Because our society is still evolving and therefore these laws are in its general interest. Especially in areas that are evolving the most/ that have a big unknown in their evolution. Like a globalizing economy, a no longer properly functioning financial and fiscal system; as well as democracy; causing social inequality and the question of renewable energy as opposed to fossil, that is causing global warming and therefor a climate change. Along with cultural, political and economic behavioral consequences. All these things seem to be intertwined. So it’s a multidiscipline question, that probably only evolutionary science is able to clarify. That is its current urgency and value.

In general terms the objective conclusion is that it’s a science on its own, studying specific fields of interest/ but primarily that the science embraces general laws that imply any field of interest, so it’s able to identify intertwined connections.
When we’re looking at its current positioning concerning scientific environment, evolutionary theory is not being educated on every university and when it is, often in a specialty discipline with other connections. When there is an interest in broadening that spectrum, there might be grants and when there is an interest to teach its general laws; interconnected with practical examples; that could become a separate discipline: like ‘what means life to us’, that could be politically granted in its own interest. Investing in communication first. You need ambassadors for that.

Back to the journal.

As Peter mentioned journal providers like Elsevier and Springer have become monopolies that extract money from its receivers, that at the same time have less money to spend, so it’s counterproductive. It’s not the first time that go-betweens run with the profits, because they own the connections. Apart from the negative fact that print is not a very good archive builder because of its randomness and inability to evolve or communicate in real time. It’s a static.

Nevertheless when there is an option for another publisher, like perhaps one that already publishes in science too, to provide for an extra title, that runs parallel with its distribution and has an online version for the same price, so that the print version can be abolished later. It wouldn’t be an bad option to begin with. Its lower price setting fi could aim at a larger distribution number before it is reached, so it will be reached. Which needs some extra investing in the beginning. The temporary advantage of print could be that its visual and fits in already existing distribution models to reach universities or scientists, or general interest. This is not a standalone, because its connected to a parallel internet model that can evolve, maintain and broaden its connections more easily, because of its higher cost efficiency and skip the print version later on.

Magazines though never have been able to prove themselves on the internet, so there must be another concept on top of it, that keeps a ‘day to day’ connection alive, fi as blogs, or discussions, related to something you are interested in, that connects via algorithms to other groups. By branding it, it refers to a source. In terms of advertising, related courses, bachelor degrees, or evolutionary consciousness institutions could provide for an extra income of the publication.
Referring to the first question, in an ideal world the science would be on an open access platform as knowledge, like Wikipedia for instance: called Cultural Evolution of Society/ and next to that publish its latest discoveries and theory in a magazine/ or a newsletter/ or an internet model that uses algorithms to connect special interests to its publications that are blogs with an essay character, that can also refer to published books you can buy. Something like Medium does. On an intermediate level there could be active discussions or publications in related fields, that also have their own interest, to influence its knowledge and make sure evolutionary theory’s importance.

In terms of branding I am thinking of alternatives like: Cultural Evolution of Society, that switches the interest from ours into theirs. Spring offs: Cultural Evolution of Life (CEL has a nice connotation to it), Cultural Evolution of Economy, Cultural Evolution of Human history, Cultural Evolution of Animal life, Cultural Evolution of Behavior, Cultural Evolution of Man and Woman (the Sexes), Cultural Evolution of Language. I see visuals, that don’t preclude video. It could be a section on National Geographic. So the branding keeps its origin and therefore the same authority/ while it can diverse and specialize at the same time and use algorithm for connection on the internet.
So it depends on how broad the connections become and how real time evolving they need to be/ and what is feasible to begin with.

Set a level where you are now and what you can do in the short term, working towards goals you have set yourself mentally and are prepared to actually start building. Keep an open mind for its future evolution. You first need to collect and identify its role models in connecting fields, or general interest and set up a blogging identity.

Since evolutionary theory by itself is taught in smaller specialty fields/ while it contains general knowledge and laws that can be projected on any specialty field of interest, therein lies the connection with what’s been taught on most universities already and areas of general public interest. So in terms of communication it could position itself in that relationship the best/ although it might be more practical to just start with what you’ve got, hoping a larger group will be interested/ or mitigate between the two, aiming at the mentioned connection. You will need to reflect on that, in terms of strategy. It can also evolve in and out of that, or maintain a double sided strategy. Broaden its specific interests/ and broaden its general interest in most prevalent areas.

When you don’t use a publisher, you will need to set up contacts with students, academics, general public through the internet for a free trial subscription that can be longer or prolonged in less developed areas.

When you don’t use an owned journal, or web connection, it means publishing in or discussing with other entities, so you gradually build a profile, that possibly also relates to an owned internet archive. But this is not a guided strategy to inflate its value to a more academic acknowledged higher standard level relatively faster than where it is already. When you don’t build an identity of your own, it will not be earning money.

Potentially it can evolve on three levels; at the same time intertwined and guided/ or separate as a wild evolution. Preferably as a living internet platform. Or as just an archive, or as just a print version/ inserted in, as well as other academic cells like The Evolution Institute can publish in it for contribution, or discussing online with, intertwined in other special interests, like the groups Joe mentioned/ although there’s a difference between academic and action driven, that are two different fields of authority, you keep a separate branding, but then you should have one.

Ilfryn Price

I am not sure the case for a new journal has been made. I agree that:

“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!”

This was essentially Stephen Toulmin’s argument for conceptual evolution and the group of ‘young Turks’ founding a new journal was his safeguard preserving requisite variety. Nowadays however the young academic – on tenure track or European equivalents – is judged by where they publish with journal ratings assigned either by citation indices or by rating committees. Established journals live in “Toulmin’s Greenhouse” where new variants are discouraged.

I don’t therefor accept that it necessarily follows that:

“So a Journal of Cultural Evolution would definitely be a good thing. The question is how to effect its appearance in practice.”

Joe’s alternative merits a lot more exploration. Other existing journals could be added to the list (each with their Toulminian idiosyncrasies). Economics alone has journals of evolutionary, bio and institutional economics and the odd great paper in more mainstream journals. Organizational studies has the latter and a few lesser special issues. Biology and Philosophy also comes to mind.

Alberto Acerbi

Thanks for the link, Peter. I look forward to hearing more.

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Joanna Bryson

Personally my favourite mode of publication is journals supported by an academic society, such as the JsEP https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journal_of_Experimental_Psychology or Animal Behaviour http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00033472

I think people who study cultural evolution can understand the perverse incentives of open access “pay to play” models, but in case not here’s three blog posts about it: https://joanna-bryson.blogspot.com/search/label/peer%20review%20%2F%20open%20access

Having said that, I very much want to support some existing journals that already publish in this area. Interaction Studies started its journal life as Evolution of Language and still takes good papers in this area: https://benjamins.com/#catalog/journals/is/main

Mind and Language is another place I’ve published http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-MILA.html and of course the Journal of Theoretical Biology has been very supportive.

But if you do decide to put together a journal, and you won’t charge me to publish there, I have a great article for the inaugural issue 🙂

Peter van den Engel

Journal 2.

Elaborating further on the overview, leaning towards a live digital archive with on top of that alternative communication. .

Describing the character identity and best structure options, starting with strategic communication, one should first reflect on what your goals are.

These could be described differently. Fi for getting a higher ranking scientific recognition as an individual; within the group you are communicating in, or/and outside the group, also contributing to the general interest of evolutionary theory’s importance, because of you primary believe in the overall value of its knowledge/ either seeding recognition for a specialty field within evolution theory.
All of these don’t exclude one another.

Next to that it should have a respectable level, that is academic in its core/ but does not exclude quality interests, that do not necessarily have an academic title, as long as it is recognized within the general interest.

What is academic? There always are and have been evolutionary timed ‘believe levels’, that even include universal studies. Also there are more/ and less factual levels within evolution theory itself. In general evolution is owned by society; even representing it; as a cultural ‘democratic’ right. One could say, ‘when it pretends to know something’ that’s already interesting by itself.

Levels of complexity don’t necessarily exclude each other. The deeper you go the more complex it gets/ the better you understand its complexity, the easier it becomes. 8
As a structure for archiving and knowledge building a real time collection, which is always accessible and up-to-date; something like Wikipedia; would be the best option. Because of its digital character, compared to a paper journal, it is most parallel to the set demands and also more cost efficient. It would get known by its unique branding, Evolution.org fi (I will get to CES later) through PR and spontaneous mentioning in media for awareness. Because it’s a helper, it does not compete with other media or interests.

This does not describe its financing yet, or self-earning practices – and fi something like translation.
Before getting into that, the question is how it should be build.

When digital, obviously through uploading and editing. Simply described as collecting, so you need a collecting entry point somewhere to begin with. It does not necessarily have to be a finished solution in the beginning. Within its evolution you need a backbone structure, a branched relationship (nicely referring to Darwin’s study of evolution) for distributing it. It could fi start with cellular life, evolving into human current evolutionary state, with its issues. Everything else is chronologically situated in between. You preferably also need a narrative synopsis guide-lining users, with its appropriate links. Written by editorial management or its authors.
Elaborating on this backbone of branches, it’s useful to identify the kind of positioning evolutionary theory deserves.

The primary thing Darwin did with his science fi was discovering the very relevance of evolution and its functioning by proving it, using findings of how biological life on earth had evolved and apparently adapted itself into better solutions (theory and testing in one, because the testing had already been done); by the way accidently confronting Christian religion, as far as its genesis is concerned – ending with mankind/ which as an end conclusion did not conflict with religious believe.

What he did not discover as such though is there are general laws of how life is evolving; even as it currently still does; apart from registering related biological branches that have materialized over time, resulting in better solutions (‘the survival of the fittest’, that social selection mistakenly interpreted as a predator function) and the beginning of genetic theory, which is primarily a biological function and not behavioral.

Animal life has never evolved itself like human society does.

Evolving within its species, as a split division of inner professional species/ while at the same time the overall species group evolves itself as one. This in my opinion concerns the current most relevant theory of evolution. So, therefore it should not be described only as a revival of old history/ but as a live instrument that can be used for better understanding our own evolution. As it enfolds itself as a culture/ and over and over again in individual life. It has two segments of interest.

Its general interest should be seen as live science, that fi also interconnects with Darwin’s branches and genetics/ but does not just rely on that. This fore calls an introduction on top of the mentioned narrative of branches. Again, something setting it apart from an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, ‘because that is only a knowledge bank with a history’.

So, there are four levels of introduction. The connected end manuscripts need a summary of that, in understanding the overlap – and an abstract to pre describe its own individual purpose, that could be written already, before landing in the actual manuscript/ or a summary of a book which can be bought (I would prefer co-ownership of the digital version, for self-distribution) as a ‘giant manuscript’. In this way its setup also differs from Wikipedia.
To finance it there is an option for (fi development stage related) crowd funding – and/ or, since Europe declared it wants scientific knowledge freely accessible, its policy should finance that – and not just within its own region. A political debate.

It needs to be created as a platform first (including translations, although the primary language would be English) – and it could also be financed by advertising of related fields, like universities and courses, masterclasses and/or fora, providing in an extra income.

On top of its archive function, it also needs an evolving (connected) dynamic area, that communicates on its own. Containing news in its related fields. That could be newsletters or essays, research findings; under the condition there are as many needed to keep an ongoing interest alive/ otherwise they should be compressed into one, two or three categories; whose identity prospers under the brand name of Cultural Evolution Society; a concept like Medium fi. *
* possibly other related groups in the field can decide to work cooperative for the archive/ and under their own name signature when sharing in the live medium. Potentially involving current politics, economy, immigrants, energy solutions, global warming, democracy, whatever is actual. This should include an option for response and commenting, to create a live dialogue that keeps evolving itself, possibly between scientists but also anyone who’s interested. Creating its own ‘peer groups’. This would be linked to a prescription, as communicated, advertised in evolution. org.

These articles can potentially be added by choice to the scientific archive later; under the supervision of a peer group + the same articles can be used (sold or granted) for inserts in other media in related subjects; print or internet; depending on the author/ or editorial management. You preferably need a commercial assistant(s) at this stage and politically involved ambassador(s) in the early one, if that kind of finance also is an option.

Bruce Lepper

For those not yet convinced of the need to find a new way around this, The Guardian just published a long article on the history, practices and resilience of the enormously profitable academic journal publishing world:

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