Thanks to The Economist, I read yesterday about a paper in PLOS Medicine that suggests there are analogues between academic publishing and economic scarcity. Yes, I am arguably burying the lede of the Economist article – that the paper explains why most scientific research is wrong – but I think the more interesting dilemma is the notion that scarce space in the top-drawer journals (usually considered as Science, Nature and Cell) artificially inflates the value of that work.
The problem comes from the selectivity of the journals. Much like selective colleges, these journals reject most of what is submitted to them. The assumption is that what is left must be top quality work. However, selectivity does not necessarily equal quality. The authors argue that the constraints of scientific publishing have artificially restricted the amount of space in top-flight journals to the point that not all high-quality work could be published in a timely fashion. You may have noticed this is a not-so-subtle argument for open access publishing models that have significantly reduced costs and the ability to publish much more quality research.