How Obscure Journals Help Researchers Who Want To Innovate?

There are approximately 10 million full-time researchers in the world. More or less, they represent a mere 0.1% of the world population. And absolutely all of them spend countless hours trying to do one thing: Innovation. In one way or another, they are all attempting to discover new knowledge or new insights to solve old or new problems or to better understand old or new problems. Sometimes researchers are trying to gain a better understanding of a problem rather than trying to solve it. So, the two key questions are: Why should they care at all about obscure journals? And, What can they do with them to improve their innovation efforts?

Let’s start with a basic definition: What are Obscure Journals?

For this article, I refer to obscure journals as those that are published by legitimate and well-intended publishers, but that remain out of reach of most academic researchers because they are not sufficiently visible in any of the most frequently used search engines and journal databases. A second criterion is that they have not been included in the Scimago Journal Rankings (SJR) or Journal Impact Factor reports. Here the keyword is “visible” or to be more precise “sufficiently visible”. Let me elaborate, the most popular search engine in the world for scholarly researchers is Google Scholar, that’s it. It is extremely easy to use, broadly available and we have all got used to associate Google with information search. It has the broadest indexing scope of documents on the planet. Chances are that if a document is online, it has been indexed by it. However, one of the most important criteria that Google Scholar has adopted in ranking results is the number of citations that a paper has received. Well, here we have an issue!. The vast majority of papers that are published in obscure journals don’t have citations because they are not well known. The fact is that they have been excluded from the main journal databases, that libraries subscribe to. Hence, they will never make it to the first search results in Google Scholar. As a result, researchers that rely on libraries journal databases and Google Scholar will not be able to explore obscure journals.

Obscure journals matter only if the researcher wants to innovate. Else, no need to bother…

The aforementioned is a harsh statement, but it is true whether we like it or not. The incentive schemes that motivate many researchers are all about publishing in well-known journals with high impact factor and cinching as many citations as possible. Neither the former nor the latter have anything to do with the discovery of groundbreaking new technologies that may change the world. New technologies at their infancy are poorly understood and lack popularity. Thus, a researcher studying innovative technologies may find it hard to get published in high impact factor journals. And if they do, they may not get readership because their field of study has not reached critical mass yet. And since their tenure or research grants depend on citations and publications in high impact factor journals, they may abandon their work on groundbreaking innovation for something already popular and more socially accepted within the academic community. For example, let’s go back to the year 2007, and hardly anybody published papers about “Cloud Computing”. It wasn’t trendy and the few papers available on the subject were published in obscure journals. Wind forward to today and everyone is talking about that technology and you find many papers in high impact factors because it has readership demand. The point here is that most incentive schemes that reward researchers, encourage them to improve on current knowledge but not to create new knowledge from scratch. That helps to explain why the greatest innovations have mostly come from corporate researchers and entrepreneurship and not from academic researchers. In the corporate world, innovation is critical to surviving or otherwise, the competition will obliterate you, while in the academic world it is mostly citations what is critical to stand out and survive.

Finally, how do obscure journals help researchers who want to innovate?

Let me emphasize: “Researchers who want to innovate”

First of all, let’s clarify that there are two broadly defined types of innovation: sustaining and disruptive (you may read more about them in any of the books and papers from Professor Clayton M. Christensen from Harvard University). The former entails an incremental improvement on the functionality of an existing product, service or process. For instances, iPhone 2, iPhone 3, iPhone 4, iPhone X, etc. Nothing radically new, but each improvement leads to a faster, lighter or more comprehensive smartphone. In turn, there are two kinds of sustaining innovations: incremental and radical. The color TV, for example, was a radical sustaining innovation to its black and white predecessor. Disruptive innovations, on the other hand, enable people to do stuff that historically they couldn’t because it was too expensive, or inconvenient or required a skill they didn’t have. The wired telephone was a disruptive innovation to the telegraph technology in the late nineteenth century because it allowed ordinary people to communicate with voice over long distances for the first time. Commonly, disruptive innovations under-perform and are sort of clunky at the outset because they tend to be simpler and cheaper, and poorly understood.

Obscure journals are good to explore and discover new knowledge that is either too specialized or too new or just emerging. Neither the former nor the latter are liable to have large swathes of followers because if they did, then they would be published in well-known high impact factor journals instead. Remember researchers are motivated to chase after citations. Therefore, their authors find in obscure journals the most suitable receptacles of their work. Most likely, if they sent their work to a high impact factor journal it would be rejected if it hadn’t been already. Now, every disruptive or radical sustaining innovation is likely to be initiated with the kind of knowledge and insights found in obscure journals. Therefore, obscure journals expose researchers to the kind of information, knowledge and insight they need to create or understand future disruptive and groundbreaking innovations. 

It is in obscure journals where researchers are most likely to find the initial seeds of knowledge and technologies that today are too small or weakly understood but that tomorrow will change our lives. In a way, in obscure journals, researchers may find a little window into the future.

Researching obscure journals is not for everyone. It is mostly useful for those researchers, institutions, governments and businesses that want to create or understand the radically new knowledge and technologies that will shape our future.

Do obscure journals benefit all fields of research?

Absolutely no. They tend to be more helpful for some fields of study than others.

In my next article, I will share what I have found to be the areas where obscure journals are the best fit and must be used by researchers. 

Till the next article on the quest for innovation…


Walter Kny

CEO & Founder

InnoLibrary Global

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