Small journals maintain the business of large journals – the scientific semiperiphery

Image credits: Brandi Redd / Unsplash.

It would come at a shock to most people, but accessing scientific papers and journals can be very expensive. A single paper goes for $30 and above, and annual journal subscription can cost in the thousands. As a result, many universities pay huge amounts of money to access the scientific journals they want.

This system has many critics throughout academia, but reform is not easy to find, and the sheer complexity of the scientific publishing world makes it difficult to find solutions that work for everybody.

The interplay between different types of journals is also not always clear. For instance, in order to understand how smaller journals can help large journals succeed, we must first look at the concept of semiperiphery, which has been introduced by Immanuel Wallerstein in the field of International Relations.

In his world’s system theory, Wallerstein classifies states according to three distinct categories: core states, semiperipheral states and peripheral states.
The first ones are those rich and developed countries that benefit from the existence of an open market and a capitalist system, whereas the peripheral states are those focusing on labor intensive production and extraction of raw materials, and do not benefit from the capitalist system in place.

Wallerstein proposed that the system is held in place by semiperipheral states, which are fluid entities that can aim at becoming core states. They are the structural elements of the system, the connection between the two worlds that help to avoid a global scale revolution.

Understanding this notion is important because the existence of low impact journals is a sign that peripheral entities desire of becoming core entities within the scientific publishing system. In other words, peripheral journals constitute the scientific publishing semiperiphery, as they aspire to becoming core, highly profitable journals.

Following this logic, hegemonic journals, such as Science, Cell, and Nature (“the scientific publishing triumvirate” as Prof. Randy Schekman has defined them), benefit from the existence of smaller journals.

The very existence of these journals is a sign that even smaller publishers, individual scientists or people with knowledge of the scientific publishing system wish to make money by setting up yet another journal. This push from the bottom provides a great boost for big branded journals.

Smaller publishers cannot compete with Nature, Science or Cell. Though, they provide the foundation for their business model – and the scientific publishing system as a whole ­– to be held in place. In Wallerstein’s terms, although they unwittingly constitute the scientific periphery – they have little chances of becoming as profitable as the aforementioned big players –, they place themselves as the structural semiperiphery.

Basically, as long as scientists are willing to transform research into a business – i.e. by setting up journals ­of any kind, open-access or not – high impact journals will indirectly benefit.

The idea is after all rather simple: the existence of replicas can be detrimental for a leading brand, when this has an impact on its business (for instance the sale of fake wines affects the wine market), it can also be favorable if it increases the awareness of a brand.
Here is an illustrative example: unofficial replicas of famous football team’s t-shirts are sold all over the world for little money. Although this may seem to limit the selling potential of these branded teams, the sales of unofficial merchandise may actually increase – or help to maintain ­– the awareness of a brand, which in turn generates sales via official means.

Small journals that use the same communicative strategies of big journals, in fact help big journals to maintain their popularity and gain traction.

This system has further downsides. As big journals are able impose their model, the existence of a scientific semiperiphery further limits the usage of a different way to communicate scientific discoveries. As the language used in research papers has to accommodate the length, the style (and sexiness) of a journal, the ways of publishing scientific results have become extremely limited, if not completely standardized.

First of all, science must be communicated rigorously in English, thus decreasing the spread of locally relevant knowledge. The implementation of international standards further helps maintaining Western hegemony in scientific production, the existence of a “publish or perish” culture, and the fact that scientific publications have become more important than research itself, with dangerous implications for the whole scientific production (the issue has been discussed in details here).

Finally, this has implications for the education of young scientists, who are increasingly undertaking courses to learn how to write papers, how to get their research published, etc. This may be a strong limitation for a scientist’s potential, as it undermines the creative process that may be fundamental for new scientific revolutions to take place.

After all, limiting the expressive potential of scientists may be the ultimate goal of high impact journals, as the next scientific revolution could be one that eradicates their existence.

Even if we think about new, open platforms to publish science, such as Arxiv, they still make use of language structures that are indirectly imposed by journals. Thus, the scientific community should try to move away from a communicative system based on scientific journals. Proposals and ideas should be focusing on these aspects.  

Federico Germani

Federico is a passionate and enthusiastic geneticist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Culturico. He brings awareness to the broad public of how the scientific publishing system works. He believes in multidisciplinary approaches, as they oppose to narrow minded – limited – ways to look at reality. This is why he reads and writes about topics ranging from science to International Relations, from society to philosophy.

Twitter: @fedgermani

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About Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Culturico. He brings awareness to the broad public of how the scientific publishing system works. He believes in multidisciplinary approaches, as opposed to narrow-minded – limited – ways of looking at reality. This is why he reads and writes about topics ranging from science to international relations, and from society to philosophy.

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