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The Trouble with TRB

The Transportation Research Board , a unit of the National Academies, hosts an annual conference in Washington, DC every January. This year attendance exceeded 11,000 (both professionals and academics), so I was told when attending last week. It overflows three of the largest hotels in the city, and so must from some respects be seen as a success.

One trouble that TRB has is quality control. The organization is divided into committees. Some committees have strong leadership and a high volume of paper submission (with a scarce number of slots), and so are able to exert quality control on the papers that are presented at the conference and ultimately published in the Transportation Research Record. Other committees don't, dragging down the average quality, and discouraging some from submitting research to TRB.

A second, related problem that TRB has is its low citation rate compared to other journals. Few papers published in other journals cite articles published in TRB.

An advantage that TRB's publications have is their open-ness, I retain full copyright on anything published there, and TRB doesn't make the same claims on my intellectual content that some for-profit publishers do.

However, TRB has yet to make its publications freely available online, continuing to produce paper copies and charge for electronic copies (except to those participating in the conference).

There is no faster way of increasing availability of content, and making it useful, citable, and thus cited, then making it freely available online. The physics community has learned this with arXiv.org, a e-print archive, described here. TRB would be a perfect host for a similar institution in transportation research, if it could only find the imagination to host a free, publicly-accessible pre-print archive (basically the conference submissions, but other papers as well), that was properly indexed. The physics journals accept papers that are hosted on arXiv , so later publication is not a problem.

The journal Transportation Research Record is a separate problem. Credibility is established through history. It is not that most TRR papers are wrong, just that they are not given credit because TRR does not act as an effective enough filter against the mundane. In part this is because TRR tries to be all things to all transportation, each committee gets its slots. Other journals within transportation tend to specialize, while TRR's sister publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is much more selective, though relatively general within the sciences.

It should be noted that PNAS "is notable for its policy of making research articles freely available online to everyone 6 months after publication", which helps increase readership and citations.

TRB staff seems to be compaining of recent budget cuts. Without discussing other aspects of the organization, but focusing on TRR and the conference if the organization cannot obtain value from the research that thousands of volunteers produce (for free) and review (for free), and could be distributed for free (minus some server and bandwidth costs), while charging over $200 per head for a conference attended by over 11,000 people, something is wrong in its management structure.

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