What does the introduction of new communications or letters publications mean?

Sep 19 2009 Published by under publishing, scholarly communication

It just hit me this morning that new communications journals are sort of less expected right now. In this post I'll briefly discuss the traditional place of letters or communications publications in scholarly communications (in science) and then weave in some thoughts about pressures on the system to change and where we're going.*

First, this piece out of the standard Garvey and Griffith model of scholarly communication (also very similar to part of the UNISIST model)(drawn on Gliffy, which rocks):



Technical reports and pre-prints also might happen between regional conferences and journal articles.  There are also off shoots for new work beginning while manuscripts are preparation from the last project.

By letters-type publications, I mean like Optics Express or Phys Rev Lett. The general idea is that:

  • they're faster (weekly or bi-weekly publication - but articles might be viewable as soon as they're ready)
  • contributions are shorter
  • peer review might be lighter
  • articles are about new things like new discoveries or advances

Some of the idea with the invisible college is that scientists in the in-group will know what their colleagues are working on and will get preprints of manuscripts anyway. The publication of letters and journal articles is for archival and certification purposes as well as for making the information available to a larger audience. Letters publications are also aimed at a larger group.

So initially, I figured that letters publications were to respond to how long it took journals to get out before the days of the internet, but actually, Optics Express didn't even start until 1997. I also would think that the role of the letters publication is being taken over from both ends. First, because journal publication has gotten much quicker (in many areas, but not all) and articles are available online in advance of "print".  Second, because there are pre-print servers and other ways to self-archive to get the word out faster as well as blogs and other means of communication.

With that said, I find it interesting that Nature Publishing Group is coming out with a new Communications publication in 2010.  Clearly this fills a gap they have between Precedings (haven't heard much about that lately) and Nature (and all of the Nature x journals). A gap in formality. A gap in level of peer review: none to high quality.

With PLOS and some other publishers on the biomed side we also see these multiple levels of review. PLOS Currents has a light review for very rapid dissemination whereas the PLOS journals have regular peer review (I think).

I definitely find this interesting. There is a lot of pressure on the publishers to be faster - much faster. But the reviewers are very busy and overloaded - so to be faster, review must be lighter and the contributions must often be shorter and written for a more general audience (not "the public" but for optical physicists in other research areas, for example).  Why do the scientists pressure the publishers to be faster instead of doing other things with their work? The authors could disseminate the information themselves on their blog or web page - but it won't get the same attention that way unless the scientist is an A-lister. They could also put it in a disciplinary repository - but not all areas have one of these that is active and followed by the right people.  The societies clearly see this need and their whole point in life is to advance their area of science and support the scientists working in that area (well, except for ACS which is apparently trying to make money).

I would have thought that the pressure on both sides - from blogs and repositories as well as from quicker journal publication - would obviate the need for communications journals. Apparently this is not the case. Clearly, we need a continuum of peer review (not at all, some, very much so) and publication (immediate, pretty quick (weeks), somewhat slower (months)) and the publishers are jumping into the gap.

Oh, and as an aside - the letters and communications journals are often the most highly cited in their discipline. Does this mean the end for longer, slower pieces? No. Actually, AFAIK, scientists often chafe at having to cut their beautiful article to fit in the tiny space allowed in PRL. I don't think these publications steal much, if any, from the larger journals.  Does your mileage vary?


* the idea for this post came to me while I was reading this thread on friendfeed and it's also related to the conference presentation I'm supposed to be getting ready and the dissertation idea brief article I'm supposed to be writing, so pretty timely.

update: crap, sorry about the image sizing, hope this is fixed

update2: pretty much got the models for PLOS wrong - Bora provided corrections on friendfeed

Comments are off for this post