Academic journals first appeared in the 17th century, beginning with the Journal des Sçavans in 1665 and followed by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London a year later. Their importance as a means of disseminating knowledge has grown considerably since then. After 150 years of sharing the spotlight with letters and scholarly treatises, by the early 1800s, academic journals had become the fastest and most effective means of disseminating research findings. The better part of the 20th century was devoted to consolidating their position within the system of knowledge dissemination1 and in particular in the natural and medical sciences.
The performative effects of international journals
Nowadays, academic journals are often divided into two categories: the so-called international journals, typically published in English, and national and local journals, published in a language other than English. However, for the last 20 years or so, researchers have been encouraged to publish in international journals, usually at the expense of their national counterparts despite the latter being just as, if not more important, in some fields. It is important here to draw a distinction between research topics in the natural sciences and those in the social sciences and humanities. While natural sciences are by definition “international” – the electron behaves the same way in Quebec as in Japan – the history, social structure or education system of these two societies are very different. One of the central roles of national journals is to provide a venue for the publication of research findings related to local or national topics, which are likely to have a direct impact on the societies concerned.
Encouraging publication in international journals has the negative effect of reducing the dissemination of research on topics of local and national interest mainly because international journals – usually Anglo-American publications – are much less likely to publish articles with local or, one might cynically say, non-American themes. Table 1 shows the proportion of Canadian articles with a Canadian theme – defined as the presence of the word “Canada” in the abstract – by the journal’s place of publication. The proportion of articles related to Canada is over three times greater in Canadian than U.S. journals. In other words, when Canadian researchers publish in U.S. journals, their research topics are different and less likely to be of national relevance.
|“Canada” in Abstract (%)
The non-negligible impact of national journals
The scientific impact of journals is unfortunately all too often measured by their Impact Factor, an indicator compiled by Thomson Reuters that reflects the average number of citations to articles published in a journal over two-year period (in other words, in the short term). Since Thomson Reuters’ database rarely contains national journals in a language other than English, these publications are not assigned an Impact Factor, which to some is tantamount to having no impact at all. This is a simplistic view that does not factor in the overall use of national periodicals by the community.
Table 2 shows the average number of downloads per journal from the top publishers in 2013 at Université de Montréal. It clearly shows that, overall, the articles published in French journals – mainly Quebec journals – disseminated on the Érudit platform, are downloaded on average almost as often as those that appear in the journals of the Nature Publishing Group. More strikingly, the average number of downloads per Érudit journal is over five times greater than that of Elsevier publications, and twelve and thirty-two times greater than the number of downloads from Wiley and Springer, respectively. It is therefore safe to say that the academic community uses national journals as frequently as the leading international journals and much more often than those published by most of the top publishers.
Table 2. Average number of downloads per journal at Université de Montréal for various academic journal publishers, 2013.
| Mean Number of
Downloads per journal
|Number of Journals
|Nature Publishing Group
|American Chem. Soc.
|1 003 753
|Wiley Online Library
|Taylor & Francis
Canadian and Quebec academic journals are used to disseminate research findings on national topics and are referenced, on average, much more often than their international counterparts. Therefore, by encouraging researchers in social sciences and humanities to publish in international journals, we may be steering their work in the wrong direction. The question we must ask ourselves is what are our expectations of Canadian and Quebec researchers in social sciences? Do we want to see their work focus on topics relating to U.S. history, society, economy and culture or on topics that will contribute to the advancement of knowledge about the society in which they live?
Vincent Larivière is a Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication, École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information, Université de Montréal, and OST-CIRST, Université du Québec à Montréal. You can also read the original French version of this piece.