Journals, Journals, Journals

This month, APS’s flagship journal, Psychological Science, turns 25. To celebrate the journal’s silver anniversary, Sandra Scarr and James McGaugh — both APS Past Presidents who contributed to the first issue of the journal — reminisce about Psychological Science’s beginnings.

See below for a reprint of the inaugural editorial from Founding Editor William K. Estes.

Creating a Vision, Setting a Standard

By James L. McGaugh
APS Past President

Psych_Science_1990_CoverWhen we created the Association for Psychological Science more than 26 years ago, it was clear to all of the founders that several important tasks were both essential and urgent. One of those was the creation of appropriate journals. A first decision was to keep the list of journals short. As the focus of the new society was “psychological science,” the decision to give the first journal that name was easy. The purpose was to create a new journal that would attract and publish the best scientific studies of the nature of behavior as well as theories that provide understanding of behavior. It was not a copy of any existing journal; rather, it was a brash new journal that challenged psychological scientists to submit their best science — findings and ideas. And it is now abundantly clear that our early decision worked. Psychological Science has become, arguably, the best journal that publishes psychological science. Of course, we saw early on that it was destined to be successful. And many of us also saw early on that the name of the journal characterized the organization that created it. It is not a stretch to conclude that our society (then called the American Psychological Society) was renamed after our highly successful journal — and appropriately so.

The early success of Psychological Science was due primarily to the wisdom and energy of its founding editor, William Estes. He knew and fully understood the role of scientific journals in the history of psychological science: communicating findings and ideas as well as setting standards for judging scientific quality. He understood the need to communicate findings in papers that are both interesting and clearly written. He set a very high standard.

So at this milestone, it is appropriate to celebrate the success of Psychological Science and recognize the wisdom (and luck) of the founders of APS in launching the journal with William Estes as its editor. Of course, there have been many editors in the intervening years, but all have continued to maintain the high standards set early. And, importantly, the other journals subsequently established by APS have all emulated those high standards.

How Psychological Science Was Published

By Sandra Scarr
APS Past President

Psych_Science_1990_TOCWhen the American Psychological Society first came into being, one of the first decisions its new Board of Directors made was to launch a flagship journal to represent the aims of the organization.  Founding Editor Bill Estes and the Board shaped the nature of the new journal. I negotiated its publishing contract.

I flew to New York to meet with prospective publishers, all of whom were skeptical about the future of a new journal in a fledgling organization. From a small band of rebels in the American Psychological Association, APS had grown to about 1,500 members in 1988. The Board and Executive Director Alan Kraut believed we could grow APS to 10,000 in the next 5 years and to 15,000 in the decade to come.

In 1988, publishers did not believe we could grow to even 2,500 members within 5 years and so negotiated their contracts to print and mail from 1,500 to 2,500 copies of Psychological Science in the years 1990 to 1995.

The cost of Psychological Science was included in members’ dues. It was risky to sign an agreement with a publisher, because fewer members than predicted meant APS would pay more to the publisher than it collected from members’ dues. More members than predicted  meant those above the predicted number would receive their journals without cost to APS, which nonetheless collected their full dues. We had faith in our projections of membership.

Publisher’s pessimism yielded a very lucrative deal for APS, because our membership grew to 5,000 members by 1990, when the first issue was published, and more than 10,000 members by the end of the first journal contract. Additional funds generated by the publisher’s pessimism helped our fledgling organization move swiftly ahead.

Bill Estes’s opening editorial in the journal’s premiere issue reflected his visions for the publication and for the science of psychology.

Journals, Journals, Journals


William K. Estes Photo credit: George Sperling

The following editorial and sidebar appeared in the inaugural issue of Psychological Science, published January 1990. APS William James Fellow William K. Estes was the founding editor of Psychological Science.

There are seemingly countless journals in print. Why so many? and why another? On the occasion of inaugurating a new journal, we may well be expected to address these questions. For answers, let us take a look at the journal publication game in which our Society has just drawn a hand.

Ever since the appearance of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665, the journal has been the primary vehicle for communicating among scholars. Yet the very strengths and popularity of this format have created an untenable situation for academic libraries and the people who rely on them for information. (Astle, 1989)

The problem for the libraries is that the number of journals has been steadily increasing while journal prices are rising even faster, so that, in the face of ever-higher demand to make journals available to scholars, the number being purchased by libraries is actually decreasing.

The problem for users is that limited time and limited reading rates make it impossible to keep up with the literature. We constantly hear from our colleagues remarks like: “We’ve known for some time that, roughly speaking, nobody reads anything but preprints, the archival journal of choice … and secondary references cited in these two primary sources” (David Merman in Physics Today, cited in Astle, 1989).

Why doesn’t the market keep the supply of journals tuned to the level that libraries can acquire and scholars can read? The answer seems to be that the publication of scholarly journals, unlike magazines, is not reader-driven.

The enterprise is fueled mainly by the joint needs of publishing companies to profit and scholars to publish. The result is the proliferation of journals, even though many have only a few hundred subscribers, and the escalation of prices — these trends obviously holding as strongly for psychology as for other fields. Thus, there is reason to raise the question: What does the future hold for journals in psychology?

For clues to an answer, we might first look to the past. Doing so, we note first how inextricably the growth of psychology and the growth of its journal enterprise have been intertwined throughout the first century of their joint existence. As psychology began to split off from philosophy and physiology toward the end of the nineteenth century, the move toward autonomy was marked by the founding of Mind (1876) in England, Zeitschrift für Psychologie (1890) in Germany, and the American Journal of Psychology (1887), soon followed by the Psychological Review (1894) in the United States. Though I don’t have a statistical summary, I think the expansion of psychological journals must have tracked quite closely the growth in numbers and activities of psychologists since that period — in each case a shallow growth curve for five or six decades, then an explosive increase following World War II. My impression of the most recent decade is that the parallelism is finally weakening in that the increase in number of psychologists (judging from statistics on PhDs in psychology) is tapering off somewhat while the proliferation of journals continues unabated.

How, specifically, have psychology and psychologists been served by journals in this apparent symbiosis?

In summarizing the answers that occur to me, I shall distinguish service to psychologists as producers of information, to psychologists as users, and to psychology as a science.

Information storage and communication. Most conspicuous, of course, is the role of journals in the communication and preservation of the products of the work of psychologists. Journals are more durable than meeting talks and more timely than books — reasons enough to make them appear indispensable. These attributes clearly are evident to psychologists. In a study of information exchange activities of psychologists, ratings of importance of various sources of information by samples of American and foreign psychologists showed much higher reliance on journals than on books or communications at meetings in both samples (American Psychological Association, 1964).

The social and symbolic roles. The founding of journals often provides a signal of recognition of groups and movements. The emergence of psychology as an identifiable discipline in this country was marked by the founding of journals like the Psychological Review and Psychological Bulletin, whose contents have virtually defined the scope of scientific psychology. Somewhat later, major specializations began to take form, and with them major specialty journals for experimental, social, and abnormal psychology. Then, as disaggregation of psychology continued, each new subdivision has had to be legitimized by its own journal — the branching process continuing down to the current generation, which includes journals of mental imagery, nonverbal behavior, music perception, spatial vision, discourse processes, among seemingly innumerable recent entries, many of them associated with new societies.

Standard setting. Long before the appearance of research grants and their review panels, journals began to provide organized peer review of research outputs. The first fruits were improved standards for the report of research. The easy informality of earlier decades gave way gradually to increasingly uniform rules, tacitly assumed by investigators or set-out in fine print by editors, for kinds and depth of information to be supplied about methods and results, and for the organization of research reports until today writing Method and Results sections of a research article is much like filling in a tax form. But the growing influence of journal reviewers and editors has gone much beyond the standardization of reporting, extending to ever stricter standards for experimental control and, most notably, statistical analysis. The almost obligatory analysis of variance is to an important degree the creature of the journal establishment.

Certification of merit. A perhaps unforeseen consequence of journal reviewing mechanisms and standard setting is that meeting the standards has become a principal way of certifying merit for purposes of qualifying investigators for academic promotion and scientific awards. One of the most nearly ubiquitous criteria set by promotion and award committees for giving weight to research contributions is that the work be reported in “major, refereed journals.” It is hard to overestimate the power over the lives of scientists exerted by the editors and referees of journals.

Contributions to intellectual life. The appearance of Volume 1, Number 1 of the Psychological Review must have been an occasion of some excitement for psychologists of the mid-1890s. The diverse but quantitatively somewhat meager contents included George Trumbull Ladd’s APA address, brief accounts of current studies in the Harvard and Yale laboratories, a curious article by Sir Francis Galton on arithmetic by smell, a more staid contribution on infant language by John Dewey, and discussions of “The case of John Bunyan” by the philosopher Josiah Royce and of a disagreement with Wundt by William James. A book review section, remarkably extensive by present standards (making up a full 25% of the issue), presented a review of thirteen books on the nervous system by Henry Donaldson and of three on aphasia by M. Allen Starr. “Notes” remarked on appointments to instructorships, James Rowland Angell to Minnesota in philosophy (he would, however, offer courses in experimental psychology), and Howard Crosby Warren to Princeton, actually in psychology, and the “calling” of “Professor Stumpf” to Berlin.

The first issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, appearing some three decades later, was marked bysimilar diversity and not much more formal organization. The modest offering of articles ranged from new methods of heterochromatic photometry to test results on 1000 juvenile delinquents. Some were laid out in almost the modern style with Method, Results, and Conclusions, others presented simple, narrative accounts of research with no headings.

It seems likely that these and the other journals of the period were read as they came off the press and provided prime material for discussions and arguments over lunch or tea. In fact, the same was still true to a considerable degree when I was a graduate student around 1940. But no longer today. Current issues of the same journals present a much more formidable appearance, packed with articles that are typically long, similarly structured, and dense with information. One who scans a new issue is put off simply by the mass of material, suitable to be studied and referred to later, not to be read and discussed as it comes off line. The psychological journal has matured to be an impressive device for information storage, but at the cost of its function as a catalyst for the intellectual life of the academic community.

The future for journals. What next? The predicament we face is clear enough. Journals have become completely indispensable to researchers and teachers in psychology, but the number of journals needed to serve the needs for archival storage of knowledge, symbolic functions, standard setting, and certification of merit has grown so large, with no end in sight, that neither individuals nor libraries can meet the costs or provide the storage space to keep the enterprise afloat much longer. I have no doubt that some of the schemes that have been proposed for using technological advances will soon come into common use (Carabillo, 1966; Council on Biological Sciences Information, 1970). Perhaps the solution will be some combination of mailings of contents listings of journals to subscribers with the journals themselves existing only on disks, where articles can be selectively retrieved and transmitted electronically to users. Most of the functions of journals will still be served, but the picture is one of a cold and unexciting future. How will the science of psychology fare if the intellectual life of psychologists degenerates for lack of one of its main stimulants?

A way of mitigating the cold electronic future has been envisaged by those who conceived Psychological Science and nurtured its gestation — namely, producing a journal specifically to serve the missing functions. The journal should be designed

  • to be read as well as referred to,
  • to provide psychologists with a convenient means to view the range of work in their science,
  • to publish articles meriting archival storage but more readable and less dense in information than is typical of the more specialized journals.

As the vast array of specialized serials crowding library shelves is eaten away by the inexorable advance of information processing technology, a journal so designed may be the last to go. A holdout against the merciless demand for increasing efficiency, it may preserve some of the flavor, and, in current jargon, “user friendly” style of the early journals.

Helping psychologists keep up with their field would be a sufficient purpose for the new journal, but we mean to set our sights still higher and try to serve some functions that have been largely missed by the present journal armamentarium — promoting interdisciplinary knowledgeability on the part of psychologists and presenting scientific psychology to people outside our field. With this thought in mind, Psychological Science will welcome articles written for psychologists by investigators in related areas of neural, cognitive, linguistic, and social science and will encourage psychologists to try, on occasion, the truly formidable task of presenting psychological research and applications in a form comprehensible, perhaps even interesting, to educated nonpsychologists in government, industry, and academia.

It will not be easy for psychologists, shaped up by editors for a good many years to produce lengthy and detailed expositions of multiple studies, to come around to the style intended for Psychological Science. Experience during the months preceding this first issue confirms this supposition, but also has found encouragingly widespread interest in making the needed effort. œ


American Psychological Association. (1964). A preliminary study of information exchange activities of foreign psychologists and a comparison of such activities with those occurring in the United States. (Project on Scientific Information Exchange in Psychology, Rep. No. 10). Washington, DC: Author.

Astle, D.L. (1989). Suicide squeeze: The escalating cost of scholarly journals. Academe, 75, 13–17.

Carabillo. V. (Ed.). (1966). The national information problem. S.D.C. Magazine, 9, 1–15.

Council on Biological Sciences Information. (1970). Information handling in the life sciences. Washington, DC: National Research Council.


This was an exciting and refreshing article to read. It clearly spelt the nature of the problem that the discipline of psychology is facing in terms of publications. The route that PS envisages to take fairly represents the sentiments coming from the market of psychology. this approach aims to maximize the scientific,social, theoretical and practical impacts of psychological research.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Comments will be moderated. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.