By Kevin Smith

Brands and branding are an important part of a consumer society, and they are largely about goodwill.  Trademarks, which are, roughly speaking,the legal protection given to brands, are premised on the idea that consumers should have some assurance about the continuity of the source of the goods and services they purchase.  A brand name is supposed to provide that continuity; whether you are buying from McDonald’s or Land’s End, the brand helps you know what you are going to get.  This is why trademarks protect against any use that might cause consumers to be confused about whether the goods or services they are buying are really from the same source.  The sense of continuity is what we call goodwill.

Branding is extraordinarily important in scholarly publishing.  As a scholar quoted in a recent WIRED article put it, academic publishers hold a great deal of power in scholarly communications (his phrase was more colorful) because “we are addicted to prestige.”  This addiction depends on journal brands and, I want to suggest, journal branding is a pretty slippery thing.

Most scholars believe that a journal’s reputation is primarily based on the editoral board.  If that board is populated by respected scholars, potential authors are inclined to believe that the review of their submissions will be useful and that others will be more inclined to see their work and view it positively.  A solid editorial board is at the core of academic journal goodwill.  So what happens when a board rebels against the journal?

Consider the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, which is published by Taylor & Francis.  A couple of weeks ago, the entire editorial board of this journal resigned in protest of decisions made by the editor-in-chief.  According to the reports, the disagreements that lead to the resignations were about fundamental matters that impact the quality of the journal, such as its approach to corporate-sponsored research.  The question, then, is what is left to a journal brand when the editorial board that forms the core of its goodwill not only leaves — editorial boards turn over regularly, of course  usually in an orderly process that preserves continuity — but leaves because they no longer trust the integrity of the journal.

Retraction Watch reports that, essentially, the publisher does not plan to change the direction of the journal and intends to appoint a new editorial board.  At the moment, the “editorial board” page on the journal website only lists the new editor-in-chief, whose appointment was part of what prompted the mass resignation. So what remains of the brand for this journal, if “consumers” cannot trust the continued quality of the articles, as evidenced by the resignation of twenty-two board members?

Brands are an important part of the promotion and tenure process, and concern over branding, essentially, is sometimes raised to challenge publications in newer, often open access journals.  Scholars sometimes worry that their open publications won’t get the same respect as papers published in more “traditional” journals.  But if these traditional journals can change the editorial direction and their entire editorial board overnight, what is the brand that promotion and tenure committees really relying on?  Will newer scholars now worry that publishing in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health is not sufficiently respectable, that P&T committees might look askance at such papers?

Branding is a delicate exercise, and brands can shift and change as consumer perceptions change.  Think New Coke.  If the scholarly community is going to rely on brands, we ought to pay more attention and not accept that a journal that was respected and respectable a few years ago is still an acceptable outlet today.

It is sometimes said that the fundamental scholarly transaction is to trade copyright for trademark.  We give away a valuable asset– the right to control the reproduction, distribution and use of the fruits of our academic labor — in exchange for a brand that will mean something to P&T committees.  In an ideal world, I wish we depended less on journal reputation, not only because it is slippery and subject to the kind of editorial revolution described above, but because even at its best it does not actually reflect the thing that really matters in the P&T process, the quality of individual articles.  This disconnect is most stark when an entire editorial board resigns and is replaced.  But if we are going to make this dubious bargain, it is fundamental to our responsibility to the scholarly community to know what the key brands are and to be aware of events that compromise those brands.

As a dean responsible for the tenure processes of a large number of librarians, I meet every year with the University Promotion and Tenure Committee.  The purpose of that meeting is to give me a chance to communicate important information that the committee needs as it evaluates candidates from the libraries — what is different about our field and what changes in our expectations and procedures they should be aware of.  I wonder how many deans in the health professions who are going into such meetings will have the awareness and attention to remind P&T committees that the brand of this particular journal has been fundamentally damaged — it simply no longer represents what it did a few months ago — and that that damage should be considered as they evaluate publications?  Will they talk about these events in faculty meetings and help their younger professors consider whether this new perception of the journal brand is potentially harmful to their academic careers?  That, I believe, is our responsibility.


Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith is a librarian, a lawyer focusing on copyright issues, a scholarly communications advocate, and the Dean of Libraries at the University of Kansas.

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