Journal of Cultural Evolution, again

Exactly four years ago, writing on this very blog, I was starting to mumble about the possibility of a journal dedicated to the field of Cultural Evolution. The post prompted a number of supportive reactions and some actual actions – for example, a meeting at the EHBEA Conference 2014 in Bristol –  but without any concrete result (my summary of the situation at the end of 2015 is here).

In the meantime, enters the new Cultural Evolution Society, and things start to get real. In fact, I am part of a “publishing committee”, which is exploring whether and how such journal could be realised. In September, the inaugural conference of the Cultural Evolution Society will be held in Jena, and there will be time there to discuss with the other members about the project. Peter Turchin just posted on the matter, so I decided I could also write some thoughts here.

While there is a general agreement that a Journal of Cultural Evolution would be a good idea (see for example the reasons that Peter explains in his first paragraph), there is less agreement on the details. There are many reasons to not simply contact a mainstream traditional publisher and publish the journal with them (see again Peter’s post), and I – as I believe the majority of members of the society – agree this is not the ideal way to proceed.

The second option, which seems to have the majority of approvals, is to self-publish the journal, with a quite traditional publication model. The difference in respect to work with a for-profit publisher would be, as I see it, that we will not contribute to the survival of their economic eco-system (a laudable goal indeed), but we will do, on our own, and with our own funding, more or less the same thing.

One – big – problem is that publishing a journal has some costs. Part of them can be covered with funding from the Society and with some form of publication fees, but I strongly believe that, for the journal having a serious profile and impact, we would need as a minimum a qualified person (possibly a former, or aspiring, managing editor) to be hired permanently and to take care of the housekeeping tasks. This does not seem possible at this stage with funding from the society. I am quite sceptical about the volunteering option suggested by Peter. First I believe that academic, especially early- and mid-career ones, are already required to “volunteer” in any sort of activities, and I would not feel particularly comfortable to add on this. Second, and probably most important, as the main job of these “volunteers” would be to research or teaching, they will be obviously able to dedicate only their spare time to the journal. I can’t avoid the feeling that most self-published journals have a sort of dilettantish layout and graphics, or a low integration with other services (say Altmetric), not much possibility of interactions (e.g. comments), etc. Of course, this requires time and people working on it, and people should be paid to do that.

On top of this, if the aim is to basically reproduce a traditional publication model (i.e. submission — “hidden” peer-review — rejection or publication), I am not sure that we want to reinvent the wheel and do it by ourselves (apart the laudable reason to not give money to traditional publishers). In this case, I wonder whether publishers for-not-too-much-profit exist, as they will have competence we have not and can help in the process, for a reasonable amount of money – which we will need to spend anyway, as said above.

Peter’s third option is simply not starting a new journal which is, naturally, a very serious one. I just want to mention that I proposed initially to the other members of the publishing committee another third option, namely the self-publication of a “journal” with a non-traditional publication model involving an archive of freely uploadable manuscripts, and a system to realise open, and facultative, review (see for example here for some strong general arguments in favour of this option – with the difference that we would not have “pre”-prints, as nothing would be submitted after…) I also circulated a short document with some very preliminary thoughts about the project, and I invite to check there for some more details. No need to say that this option did not have much support. In a way, it presents the same main problem of option 2 (money!), but it goes at least in a direction of different, high risk/high reward, publication project that may be more coherent with the overall ambitious goals of the society.

I guess there will be much to discuss in Jena, and, as usual, I look forward to comments and ideas.

9 thoughts on “Journal of Cultural Evolution, again

  1. I said it before and I said it again: if the Journal of Cultural Evolution does not exemplify its own name, it would be a lost opportunity. Lets make a journal that breaks with all the old accumulated problems. Lets evolve journals. Thus, I cam a stout supporter of your radical option, Alberto.

  2. I like Claudio’s analogy – it seems a great chance to be involved in, and help drive, the evolution of publishing. I hope you can work with open science advocates on designing and piloting a progressive journal.

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