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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Version of Record

Don't get me wrong, I'm a great fan of "online first" academic publishing and I look forward to the day when the outmoded conventions of print journals: issue numbers, volumes, endless waits to see your work appear etc are consigned to the dust heap of history.

But, there is one convention that is worth keeping: the single dated version of record that is only amended by errata or retraction. Once you have read and corrected the proofs and the article is in the public domain that should be it. You shouldn't be permitted to tinker with it once it has gone live and there should not be multiple versions of record.

The reason for this is that once something is published online the academic conversation has begun and the object of discussion needs to be fixed. It is clearly undesirable if the target of a debate or discussion is a moving one. Authors should not be permitted to  add or delete in response to criticism or second thoughts. They can, of course, react to critics in replies and responses. They can also, if they discover consequential mistakes in their work, issue errata. All of these things give us a clear audit trail and they constitute an essential foundation of discipline on the urge to publish quick and dirty, ill considered, work. 

It seems to me that we already have a large body of people whose modus operandi is to submit poorly conceived and half-finished articles  at the point where they reckon the chances of getting an R&R are evens. I've definitely heard people say they encourage their doctoral students to  submit early and benefit from referees' comments. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the nature the referee's job. Referees should not be  unpaid auxiliary doctoral supervisors, hidden and largely unacknowledged co-authors, methods advisers, proof-readers or translators. If I have to write five pages to tell you why what you have written is nonsense, you probably shouldn't have submitted it in the first place and you probably should have shown it to a  supervisor or a few colleagues  and then rewritten it before you even started to think about sending it off.

These thoughts came to mind when I saw that the journal Sociology appears to allow multiple online versions of record (as well as a final print version of record) distinguished only by the date of publication. As far as I can discover there is no information as to how these versions differ and the reader is left to figure this out for themselves, which I assume few will have the time or patience to do. I've no idea whether all that is happening is that a few minor typos are being corrected or that more substantial changes are being made, but personally I'm against any unexplained changes being made.  It would be trivial to produce an errata list and then the reader would feel assured that no funny business was going on (I'm not claiming there is). Science is not just about intellectual integrity, it's also about the appearance of integrity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Worse still, the colleague who doesn't give your draft a close reading suggesting that it looks OK and you should see what the referees make of it...