A Sh***y Metaphor for Science Publishing
Ask most people what journals do, and they’ll probably reach for a metaphor. The one you’re most likely to hear is ‘gatekeeping’ – the idea that journals are positioned at the gate to an otherwise inaccessible (but desirable) area, and they get to decide who can enter. While it’s not inaccurate, the gatekeeper metaphor has a lot of uncomfortable baggage, and I would argue that this baggage may drive some of the current antipathy towards journals and peer review.
This Scholarly Kitchen poses an explores an important idea: Describing the role of journals as being akin to a sewage works is more helpful than calling it a gatekeeper. Such a way of thinking sidesteps the drive towards ‘absolute free speech’ (that might provide cover for publishing theories, even if they are whacky and dangerous), but instead recognise the need to keep the crud out of the body of scientific literature.
So, while the gatekeeper metaphor does help people understand what journals and publishers do, its widespread use also fuels calls for the destruction of the journal system: anything that can be described as gatekeeping must be bad and should be brought low.
This video got me thinking about a different metaphor: journals as the sewage works standing between pipes full of untreated research and the pristine beaches of public discourse. The ‘sewage works’ metaphor brings home the importance of what we do, filtering out information that really should not become public, and improving the information that does make it out onto the beach. Tearing down the sewage works suddenly doesn’t seem like such a good idea.