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As Goes The Typewriter Repairmen... Posted on 12/17/2002.

I love coverage on the state of professional and academic journals. Because it can't help but detail the inexorable march towards the free electronic publication of all such papers. This New York Times article on the launch of two new peer-reviewed online journals (one biology, one medicine) is a case in point.

Before the Web, the journal publishers were in charge, because you needed their system to distribute the materials. Thanks to the Web, those publishers simply have no reason to exist (except maybe to keep back issues available). The degree to which there's no debate here is startling.

The print journals claim they need the subscription revenue to ensure quality. Pah. None of the quality-insurers get paid. Authors write the articles for free, and peers review them for free. It's all part of being an academic.

Because they have no real claim, spokespeople from the print journals make statements like this: "It sounds very sympathetic to say this should be available to the public, but this kind of material is only used by experts." This is a lie.

As a non-expert who occasionally treks through the essays offered by various academics online, I can testify that this material is used by all manner of folks. In fact, it's one of the amazing things about the Web -- it's breaking down barriers between academia and "the interested in layperson."

5 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Bid on Some Things."
Next entry: "Who'll Be The Next In Line?"


A student in my IA class at the University of Michigan surprised me a few weeks ago by expressing her frustration that 'so much important stuff about the practice of IA is scattered and buried inside personal weblogs, instead of being easily accessible as part of the journal literature.'

I suspect this perception does not stem solely from the fact that students have access to the journal literature (licensed by the university), but that there's an educational/cultural dimension.

Students are taught that the journal literature is important and of high-quality, and they're taught how and where to find articles within their field.

They are not generally taught how to find and use materials on the public Web...for example, most of my students have very little experience with or understanding of weblogs (these are mostly HCI graduate students).

So, I think change in this area will be slower than we might hope, due to the very different perspectives of academic librarians, professors and their students.
Posted by Peter Morville @ 12/17/2002 01:18 PM PST [link to this comment]

while few librarians would argue that the Web is changing scholarly publishing in important ways, to say that there's an "inexorable march towards the free electronic publication of all such papers" is a gross oversimplification of the complex economics of scholarly publishing.

having spent three years as a serials librarian (i.e. the person responsible for procuring journals for the library), I can tell you there is _a lot_ of debate about this issue in the academic library would. and I would not argue for a second that much of the commercial scholarly publishing business amounts to a shameless profiteering racket.

but scholarly journals do play a central role in academic culture. and to say that authors and referees don't get paid is somewhat misleading; publication in refereed journals is among the most basic criteria used in determining faculty compensation (in other words, they do get paid for publishing, just not directly).

since the early 1980s, librarians and publishers have been making all kinds of Panglossian predictions about how electronic publishing was going to change everything; yet those predictions perennially fail to materialize, and journal prices keep going up. why? maybe it's a conspiracy by the publishers (that's at least partly true). or maybe it's because print journals, for all their shortcomings, offer their authors something pixelated journals cannot: a sliver of physical shelf space - the illusion of permanence in the academic record?
Posted by alex @ 12/17/2002 03:13 PM PST [link to this comment]

"Scattered and buried"! In mere "personal weblogs"!! Perish the thought.

As if such weren't searchable, and generally a whole lot more accessible than, e.g. Springer-Verlag journals even *after* taking academic status into consideration.
Posted by Adam @ 12/17/2002 08:36 PM PST [link to this comment]

I agree to an extent with Peter's comment. Although access to information is important, we also need to have a structured approach toward assessing the quality and/or reputation of the author and publisher.

The advantage of academic journals, such as the JAMA or the Lancet or Nature, is that the long period of acceptance by practitioners and readers means that most people are aware that these are publications where worthwhile opinions and articles might be published. Obviously the reader can then make an informed judgement as to the quality of one or many of the pieces contained within.

The Web, as an immature publishing platform, gives the viewer added power, but little relational context at present. Search engine rankings are not necessarily indicative of the quality of a resource, and while blog entries allow some sort of collaborative reputation management, how do we trust the opinions of our fellow bloggers?

The internet is a very large network of opinions, and until we can assist users in judging what the "trusted" online resources are in a particular arena of knowledge, paid-for print journals are likely to continue to be an initial port of call.
Posted by Mark Thristan @ 12/18/2002 06:32 AM PST [link to this comment]

In response to the previous comments: Academics they may be, but anyone who, in this day and age, can't manage loading up, clicking Advanced Search and entering the name of the professor who you are interested in, or the topic you are researching. Man college standards are slipping...
Posted by Tom @ 12/29/2002 01:39 PM PST [link to this comment]

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