Do researchers use journal title to decide what articles to read?

(This is the first in an occasional series on findings from HighWire’s researcher interviews.)

In our series of over sixty interviews, we found remarkable consistency of answers to our questions about researcher workflow, even across disciplines. But on one question, we found a number of researchers answered ‘yes’, and a number ‘no’:

“Do you use journal name to decide what articles to read?”

There was no obvious demographic or other factor that let us see how to rationalize the positive and negative responses. E.g., it wasn’t always the postdocs who answered one way, and the lab directors who answered the other.

Finally, towards the end of our interviews, one person, a postdoc in neuroscience, answered,

“It depends.”

This cued the automatic follow up question:

“It depends on what?”

And then we heard

“On what the article’s about.”

We then understood what seems obvious now: if the reader is an expert in the subject of the article, then it matters less what journal it appears in than it does when the article’s subject is farther away from a reader’s expertise.

When reading “to be a well-informed scientist,” our particular interviewee said he “relies on Science, Nature and Cell to tell me what’s important or interesting.”

The logic for this researcher is that a journal’s peer review process is not essential if he himself is qualified to have been a reviewer on the article: “I can judge for myself, and prefer to” we were told.   Further, for an expert, a journal’s selectivity can be a barrier, since it removes both signal and noise, and slows the dissemination of information by the time taken in the review and revision process. The expert may wish to do his own “signal processing” (i.e., filtering for both novelty and importance), to gain access to a less-filtered and more rapid information stream.

We also heard that researchers felt they must read the materials in their own area of expertise, and mayread the literature of general interest, the big challenge is how to deal with the huge amount of material in between these two poles:

An “expert self-filter” mode seems consistent with my own experience as a reader of the research literature: when I’m reading my Google Scholar alerts and recommendations – which are for my areas of expertise — I look at titles before I look at journal names, suggesting that the journal brand is not the key, but one signal.

An “expert mode,” in which I ignore other experts’ advice is also, perhaps strangely, consistent with my use of a car’s navigation system: when I am driving in my home area, I use the navigation system only to give me an ETA so I can tell my spouse when I’ll be home – I’m an “expert” because I know the local roads better than a mapping program. But when I’m driving in another city, I follow the navigation system slavishly.

In other researcher interviews, we did not, I hasten to add, hear experts telling us they have stopped reading journals in their area of expertise and instead rely solely on database searches and keyword alerts. While this behavior would seem to be consistent with what we had heard, it is also possible that readers continue to rely on major, broad-subject-focused to keep generally informed in their larger subject, as their own research is likely highly specialized. If we saw fewer people reading email TOCs of major subject-focused journals, this might be a sign of a behavior shift. (We are studying this now.)

The rising interest in life sciences in preprint servers such as BioRxiv from Cold Spring Harbor Labs Press could be a tool to address the expert’s need to tap an unfiltered source that is further “upstream” from the published literature. As well, “megajournals” such as PLOS One, and newer journals such as Royal Society Open Science, F1000 Research, and PeerJ Preprints — all based on the principles of “objective review” rather than using novelty as a filtering criterion – could address the expert’s interest in access to less-filtered, more rapid, sources.

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