Friday 27 January 2012

The Evils of Journal Scope-Shrinkage: The Example of Clinical Psychology

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I’ll come straight to the point. The more that journals have to introduce demand management strategies, the more they end up shrinking their scope. The more they shrink their scope, the more they force research into a cul-de-sac and isolate it from cross-fertilization from other core areas of their over-arching discipline. In this day and age, there are more and more researchers all of whom are under pressure to do research and to publish it – for both the sake of their current jobs and their future careers. Journals find themselves overwhelmed with submissions, to the point where many APA journals now have 80%+ rejection rates. So how do you manage demand? Well, at least some journals manage their demand by shrinking their scope. Demand management is important because it reduces the journal costs incurred by managing a submission through the journal editorial system, and reduces the costs incurred through Associate Editors who manage the peer review process. For most traditional journals that also have a print as well as an on-line version of the journal, it means that increased numbers of submissions mean increased costs for just a fixed publication income. Effectively, scientific publishers believe they are spending good money having to find reasons to reject large numbers of submissions that are of acceptable scientific quality but will never themselves earn money for that publisher.

So you shrink your scope. Often scope-shrinkage has a relatively small impact. But in some areas of psychology it can have a significant impact depending on how a journal redefines its scope. I am an experimental psychopathology researcher. The majority of my research is conducted as an experimental psychologist on a subject matter that is psychopathology, and I have traditionally published in clinical psychology journals – which is a good fit for the subject matter of my research and also gets my research read by clinical psychologists.

But even before scope-shrinkage, I’ve sometimes encountered difficulties publishing in clinical psychology journals because I’ve used analogue rather than clinical samples or my research has not been viewed by editors as being relevant to clinical interventions. They might just as well have said “You’re not a clinical psychologist, and your research can’t have any relevance to clinical populations because your participants weren’t a clinically diagnosed sample, and so your research is of no interest to the clinical research community!” Harsh – but that is the feeling I got.

Well, now that’s official – at least for some Elsevier journals. In 2010 Behaviour Research & Therapy – that traditional bastion of experimental psychopathology research - posted a very brief editor’s note stating “Behaviour Research & Therapy encompasses all of what is commonly referred to as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)” with a revised focus on processes that had a direct implication for treatment and the evaluation of empirically-supported interventions (Vol 48, iii, 2010). In effect, it had become a CBT evaluation journal. An email exchange I had with the editor confirmed that this re-scope was a consequence of the large number of submissions to the journal. To be fair, the editor did say that “the goal is not to eliminate research on experimental psychopathology, but to try to have it more ‘directly’ related to prevention and treatment”.

So where do I now go to publish my psychopathology research if it’s not clearly intervention related. BRAT’s editor did say that “a final sentence in the Discussion would not suffice” to make any research intervention relevant. Fair enough. Most of my research is on the aetiology of anxiety disorders, so one journal that I’ve published in quite frequently is another Elsevier journal, Journal of Anxiety Disorders. I submitted a manuscript in June 2010 – around the same time that BRAT had shrunk its scope to intervention-relevant papers. I received a regretful email from the action editor immediately after submission saying “we have made a decision that we will no longer review manuscripts based solely on undiagnosed or analogue samples. This decision can be found within the Editorial Guidance paragraph on the back cover of the journal. Consequently, I will be unable to accept it for publication”.

Scope-shrinkage yet again. I’m sure that these decisions about journal scope were all taken in the best of faith and genuinely meant to help deal with and manage demand, but I can’t help but think of the potential restrictions that changes such as these will place on the discipline-wide exchange of ideas and information that seeds genuine progress in any applied area. OK, so I’m now miffed that I can’t easily publish any more in journals that I used to consider automatic outlets for my research, but there must surely be a bigger and wider cost. As we get more journals with increasingly narrower scopes, it is likely to lead to researchers reading only those journals that have a direct relevance to their research and areas of interest. There could well be significantly fewer left-field ideas, fewer opportunities for the cross-fertilization of ideas. It is also likely to lead to the entrenchment of existing paradigms of research within specific areas – especially applied areas such as clinical psychology where theoretical and empirical sharpness can often be compromised by the need for serviceable outcomes.

During our own weekly lab meetings, I always bring the latest copy of Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology along as soon as it’s published, and we look through it for ideas that have relevance to the psychopathology processes that we’re researching. This has already been the source of some exciting new ways for us to conceptualise and study the psychopathology processes we’re interested in. With the scope-shrinkage currently occurring in at least some important clinical psychology journals, I wonder where new ways of thinking about clinically-related research problems will come from unless those researchers who publish in these journals are actively scouring the contents of journals beyond their immediate clinical remit.

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  1. Good post. Couple of thoughts:

    A lot of people nowadays, especially younger researchers, don't read journals as such. They just read articles online after finding them through PubMed or equivalent (I suspect many undergraduates & even PhD students today will never have picked up a physical journal! Your bringing the QJEP to lab meetings is a bit unusual I suspect - at my lab meetings it's all PDFs.)

    Therefore the problem of intellectual balkanization might not be as bad as it would have been in the pre-internet era, when people were defined by what journals they regularly read. And that can only be a good thing.

    Secondly I think blogs and social media are well placed to counteract balkanization. If you read a blog or follow a Twitter feed that covers a wide range of journals, you'll be exposed to lots of ideas.

  2. I think you're right about the use of indexing databases that by-pass adherence to individual journals (I only take QJEP to the lab meetings because they insist on sending me a hard copy of it! - usually its pdfs). But I think that researchers do still have allegiances to specific journals - especially through journal alerts. I'm perhaps more worried that a whole area, like clinical psychology research, could become cut apart from the mainstream of psychological research if a number of important journals restrict there scope to purely clinically-relevant research done on clinical populations.

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