Here is how the academic journal market currently works:
Authors write manuscripts. Then, they submit to journals, which decide whether or not to publish their manuscripts based on editors’ tastes, referees’ evaluations, and a bunch of other stuff we don’t observe. Authors can submit each manuscript to only one journal at a time, which is responsible for the generally atrocious amount of time that it takes for a working paper to turn into an actual publication. The currency of journal publications for tenure and promotion is incredibly valuable. The present discounted value of a top publication for a new assistant professor is probably around a million dollars over his or her lifetime.
As a result, authors compete with one another to get into the best journals. Journals compete with one another to accept the best manuscripts, but that’s basically the only way that they compete.
I’ve often wondered why the academic journal submissions market works this way. This isn’t the only way to match manuscripts to journals. Looking at professional sports, in fact, gives us a very different model. Why don’t we have an academic journal draft?
Here’s what I have in mind:
Authors produce manuscripts and submit them to a centralized repository. Journals then make proposals to authors after having seen the manuscripts: “we promise to put this under peer review within 3 months, no restrictions on other journals reviewing it at the same time, 15,000 words to work with, and if accepted, we will make it available in on month, with 6 months open access and help publicizing it.” Or some other suite of proposals. It would depend on the journal and the manuscript, as well as the academic discipline. Basically, just like a professional sports draft, only instead of teams drafting players, we have journals drafting manuscripts. (The major difference is that the academic journal draft would not happen one journal at a time, once a year, but rather continuously.)
In this model, authors and journals would both compete. Authors compete to write the most attractive manuscripts, but journals also compete to offer the best review and publication experience. Journals might also discriminate among authors, offering some manuscripts better terms.
So why don’t we have a journal draft? It’s probably just a form a path dependence based on how the earliest journals worked, but I also suspect that peer review stands in the way of implementing the model that I just described. I cannot see how an editor could ensure vigorous peer review at the same time that s/he is trying to entice the author to choose his or her journal. And in fact, the process for submitting manuscripts to law reviews does look a lot like an academic journal draft, with one very significant exception—nearly all law reviews lack formal peer review.
There are of course other, much more elaborate proposals for reforming academic publishing. Their goal is better science, which of course I support too (regardless of whether those specific prescriptions would work is a separate question). But from an author’s or researcher’s perspective, the reforms to publishing are fairly minor. It’s interesting to think how about how a draft system would upend the entire academic publishing model, even if it probably could never actually be implemented.