196 – The web vs journals

After last week’s PD, describing the difficulties we had publishing a journal paper about INFFER (Investment Framework for Environmental Resources), a reader emailed to ask, why bother? Why not just put a manual or report about INFFER on the web? This prompted me to think about the relationship between putting information on a personal web site and publishing in a peer-reviewed research journal. They are very different beasts.

As it happens, as well as having a new journal paper (Pannell et al., 2011), we also have a beautiful new web site for the INFFER project: www.inffer.org. The old version was looking a bit amateurish and outdated, but the new one looks professional and contemporary, and should be more intuitive for users.

The web site already contains documentation about INFFER at various levels of detail: from brief introductions to comprehensive user manuals. There is information about existing users and 30 pages of Frequently Asked Questions.

So, given that all this is available on the web site, why would we go to so much bother to publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal? There are several reasons.

Firstly, journal publication provides a degree of quality assurance that may help to increase our credibility with potential users. The rigour of the analysis is assessed by expert, anonymous, independent reviewers, so having made it to publication should help to convince people that the work has substance. Of course, the peer review process is neither perfect nor exhaustive, but it should increase people’s confidence to some degree.

A second reason is to enhance one’s own critical assessment of the work. The act of writing a paper that you know is going to be peer reviewed is rather different from other writing. It sharpens the mind to know that anonymous reviewers will have the freedom to criticise your work. One thinks more clearly about potential limitations of the work, in anticipation of what reviewers might say.

Thirdly, you hope to reach an additional group of readers. In truth, the audience for an active web site is vastly greater than the audience for almost all journals, but there may still be different people, and different types of people, who access the journal version.

Finally, for a professional researcher, journal publication is probably the most important measure of performance and success. My university is happy that that I use the web like this to communicate about issues related to my research, but when it comes to evaluating my research, anything that I just put on the web counts for nothing. That’s fair enough, given how easy it is for anyone to put any old rubbish on the web.

One might ask the converse question: if research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, why also include it on a web site? There are good reasons to do this as well.

  1. To increase the number of readers. As a generalisation, readership of web pages dwarfs the readership of journal articles. Here’s an extreme example. I don’t know how many people would have read Pannell (1997) if I had not put a pre-publication version of it on the web, but my guess would be, a few hundred. That number of readers is tiny compared to the number of people who download the paper from my web site each year after finding it in Google. Over the past 12 months, it has been downloaded 17,500 times! I’m sure they don’t all read it, but plenty do.
  2. To promote journal articles. Some of those extra readers may follow up and read the journal article version of the work, if you give them the details. I’m confident that a web presence also helps to increase the extent to which certain papers are cited by other research authors. Pannell (1997) is a good example.
  3. Speed of publication. I can “publish” something on the web a few minutes after I finish writing it. Journal publishing speeds have increased since they started using web-based systems to manage the review process, but a six-to-twelve month lag between submission and publication is still normal.
  4. Detail. On the web, I can publish something that is much less detailed than a journal article if I want, increasing its accessibility to many readers. I can also provide much more detailed documentation for models and frameworks than one could ever get published in a journal. I can also publish something of the nature of a user manual, which you’d never get into a journal.
  5. Ease of reading. When I write journal articles, I try to make them readable, but there is only so far you can go in that direction in a journal context. On the web, there is no such constraint.
  6. Updateable. Once published, a journal article is forever. The most you can do to update it is publish an erratum, if necessary, or maybe write a follow up article some years later. By contrast, I can update something I have put online as often as necessary.

In summary, I publish in journals for quality assurance and professional recognition, and I publish on-line to increase the size of the audience. It makes sense to do both.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (1997). Sensitivity analysis of normative economic models: Theoretical framework and practical strategies. Agricultural Economics 16: 139-152. Pre-publication version of full paper (100 K)

Pannell, D.J., Roberts, A.M., Park, G., Alexander, J., Curatolo, A. and Marsh, S. (2011). Integrated assessment of public investment in land-use change to protect environmental assets in Australia, Land Use Policy 29(2): 377-387. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2011.08.002. Journal web site here

29(2): 377-387

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