From my old school files, Part 2: Excerpts from that research paper on the development of the scholarly journal

I have a few very interesting stories brewing regarding a couple of theological journals that have converted from subscription-based to open access (the library will become the publisher for one, and the other is based at an institution that, along with its library, strongly supports and promotes open access), and a society journal which is not open access per se (although they provide a web archive of freely available back issues) but recently reversed a decision to go with a commercial publisher.

I hope to have my research for these stories completed before too long. I have to confess, however, that since the end of the school year (despite the fact that I work throughout the summer) I’ve been feeling pretty lazy about writing. I know. That’s not good. Bloggers need to keep a forward momentum going so their readers will stay engaged.

So, if only to let you know that I’m still alive, I’m following-up with the plan I suggested in a recent post to excerpt relevant bits from the semester paper I wrote for my Foundations of Library and Information Science course back in May 2004. The paper is entitled The Scholarly Journal: Long Tradition Behind the Coming Change. I uploaded the entire paper here (PDF 141KB).

As I mentioned in my previous post, the paper ended-up veering away from the topic of open access, though it deals with many of the issues that have been pertinent to the developing logic of open access in scholarly communication, including the currently unsustainable economic model, peer review, and intellectual property.

Budget Crunch at the Academic Library

It turns out that the issue of economic sustainability surfaced in a very real way at University of Arizona while I was researching for this paper. I led off in this way:

The news was right on the front page of Arizona Daily Wildcat (April 9, 2004): “Library cuts new books from budget.” The article reported that beginning October 2004, the University of Arizona library will implement an across the board cut of 16 percent over the next two years to book orders and journal subscriptions. The cuts were described as “a move to combat inflation [of about 9 to 10 percent per year] and a lack of additional funding.” Currently, UA library’s budget is about $9 million. Unless the cuts are implemented, librarians fear they will be facing a $1.3 million deficit by 2006. The planned cuts include 7,000 new books, 3,000 journals and $250,000 for electronic indexes. One faculty member who was interviewed for the article insisted the cuts “will be detrimental to the research and teaching mission of the university.” Students interviewed seemed to concur. “A library is a key component of the university. Cutting back is a huge mistake if you want to keep the university’s standards up.” Meanwhile, University President, Peter Likins was reported as appreciating the dilemma of trying to fully support valued assets such as the library in economically tough times. “In recent years, everybody gets cut. It’s more a question of who gets cut less. This university has treated libraries and library materials as very high priorities.”

I found it especially interesting and not a little ironic that commercial publishers, who first hit on the idea of selling journal subscriptions directly to institutions in the years following World War II, thus creating a guaranteed revenue stream from a “captive readership,” were initially resistant to the idea of getting into journal publishing because they didn’t see any profit in it!

After elaborating a bit more on the historical and economic circumstances that precipitated this most recent “serials crisis” (famously enshrined in the “Monograph and Serial Costs in ARL Libraries, 1986-2002” graph on page 10 of ARL Statistics 2001-02 published by the Association of Research Libraries), I turned to the development of the scholarly journal as a conduit for research communication. The transition was captured in this excerpt and associated footnote, which anticipates key issues in the current conversation around open access—scholars taking ownership of their own intellectual property and having alternative avenues for scholarly communication (the notion that scholar-publishers could utilize the Internet to disseminate their research just like commercial publishers was really just starting to gain momentum in 2004, and print was still dominant), while continuing to assure quality of research through peer review:

There would be no journals to publish, or subscribe to, if there were no scholars and scientists conducting research, and desiring to report their findings to colleagues and contribute to the general store of human knowledge. Budget cuts also punish these primary producers of research. Every journal subscription that is cancelled potentially impacts communication and access between research producers and interested users. But the current journal system impacts communication and access in other ways, too. If there is a “captive readership” it would not be surprising to discover there are also captive researchers, and that commercial publishers are in the thick of it.

There are historical and practical reasons why the journal commands such a central place in the process of scholarly communication, and (ironically) why it became subject to commercial publisher exploitation. The present paper will look at some of these reasons as a preface to understanding the “serials crisis.”* Beyond this, the paper will very briefly introduce awareness of the rapid rise of electronic delivery that may be challenging the dominance of the print journal as the principal conduit of scholarly communication.

* Publisher bashing is fun, and in some circumstances even justified. But I do not really want to belabor the “serials crisis” debate. As I quickly discovered, more than enough bandwidth has been dedicated to it. My introductory comments are (probably more than) sufficient. Rather, what surfaced for me as I began my research on the ways the crisis is being addressed, was coming to an understanding of the long tradition embodied in the journal as the principal and enduring artifact of scholarly communication, and insight into the process of peer-review that is typically conducted through the journal. If only for my own benefit, this is where I decided to put my energies.

“Scholarly” vs. “Scientific”

The paper focused on the particular relevance of journal literature in the sciences. But I was really interested in understanding the development and function of the journal in scholarly communication generally. I consciously chose to use the term “scholarly” instead of “scientific” because of my humanities orientation. I wrote about this in a footnote:

I am persisting in using the term “scholarly” in speaking about journals and communication, even though much of the literature I consulted was oriented toward the “scientific.” I will generalize from this direction, being aware that my own orientation is in the humanities. Naturally, Meadows (1974) grants that “scholarship” exists “outside the sciences.” However, for him the “essential difference is that scientists consider their knowledge to be ultimately objective.…[H]istorians can…write on topics that have been dealt with many times before; yet their work will be counted original—even if it uses exactly the same data—so long as they present their own interpretation. But two scientists who use the same data and work within the same theoretical framework should arrive at virtually identical results” (pp. 35-36). Similarly for Mary Jo Lynch (1984), “scientific research” is oriented toward discovering “new knowledge” with “data collected from nature” utilizing the scientific method. She defines “scholarly research” as “typically done by humanists [and] often based on [finding and analyzing] previous published work [i.e., existing knowledge] related to the matter at hand.” But she adds that in scholarly research, like scientific research, “data are collected and organized in an objective way and analyzed according to systematic principles.” The scholar’s research also “involves disciplined inquiry which enables the scholar to make an original contribution to the knowledge base of a field” (pp. 368-369).

Lynch, M. (1984). Research and librarianship: An uneasy connection. Library Trends, 32, 367-383.

Meadows, A. J. (1974). Communication in science. London: Butterworths.

I highlighted why scientists came to prefer the article over the book, and (in a footnote) why humanists still prefer the book:

The scientific book also had long tradition of use, but its principle weaknesses were that it was too slow and too expensive, for both author and would-be readers. The format was also unwieldy for reporting on a single observation or experiment. Kronick (1976) makes the point that the “new philosophy” (à la Bacon) marks a “change in emphasis from constructing comprehensive world-views and all-embracing philosophical edifices, to an emphasis on collecting the results of observations and experiments.…The single observation or experiment has a unity in itself and the publications in which it results are likely to be short.…[T]he book…is not efficient for presenting the results of experiments or observations, because the author has to wait until he has accumulated a sufficient number of them to justify the publication of a book.” (p. 45)*

Kronick, D. A. (1976). A history of scientific & technical periodicals: The origins and developments of the scientific and technical press, 1665-1790 (2nd ed.). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

* As an aside, but related to the larger topic, humanist scholars are more apt to continue, as it were, “constructing comprehensive world-views” in their research reporting. Consequently, they would be making ready use of the monograph to communicate their findings. Though I haven’t seen the breakdown, there is a good chance that the University of Arizona library’s decision to cut 7,000 books from its 2004-2006 budget will, on balance, hurt humanities scholars more than scientists.

Although the monograph continues to be the gold standard for judging humanities scholarship (Can you demonstrate an ability to construct “a comprehensive worldview” or an “all-embracing philosophical edifice”?), I believe the journal article or essay is increasingly gaining a respectable place. This may be due to a combination of factors, including economic (the expense of publishing a low volume specialized study in book form), social (the desire even among humanist scholars to speed communication to solicit feedback from colleagues; reduced time and capacity of colleagues to spend digesting voluminous works), and cultural (less confidence in comprehensive systems). And even where a comprehensive (or at least, expansive) treatment is desired, there may be greater openness (by tenure and promotion committees?) to have scholars dole it out piece-meal in more easily digested article-sized chunks.

The Purpose of the Scholarly Journal and Peer Review

My research introduced me to a fascinating study by Nancy Fjällbrant (1997) entitled Scholarly communication: Historical development and new possibilities. Fjällbrant argues that the scholarly journal became a “closed artifact” because it provided the best overall solution to the needs of scholarly communication.

Fjällbrant alludes to four important aspects of academic writing: ownership of an idea, societal recognition for the author, claiming priority for a discovery, and establishing an accredited community of authors and readers (Scholarly communication section, ¶ 1). She continues: “Authors are concerned with the ‘reach’ and diffusion of their ideas and findings. Their success and/or influence depends on the extent of the spread and recognition of their texts.”

I have already referred to informal communication among scholars (e.g., “invisible colleges”). But formal means of communication have traditionally taken print form. The advantages of formal communication are listed by Fjällbrant:

1. information can be spread to a widely scattered group of readers;

2. detailed information, such as descriptions of methods, tables, diagrams, results etc. can easily be given;

3. printed documents contain information which can be critically examined and verified;

4. the documents can easily be referred to as and when required;

5. published documents provide a means for establishing “priority” of academic work, and thereby contribute to establishing academic merit for the author(s). (Scholarly communication section, ¶ 4)

According to Fjällbrant, the printed scholarly journal was better able to deliver the majority of these advantages to the majority of the stakeholder groups than any of the alternatives. Consequently, it became dominant and forced “closure.” This has been true for roughly three hundred years. Fjällbrant goes on to wonder whether new forms of electronically published and network disseminated scholarly communication will force a reopening of this traditionally dominant artifact.

Regarding the early development of peer review:

Addressing advantages #3 (verifying the quality of research) and #5 (establishing priority of discovery) above led to a parallel development of refereeing, or peer review. It was the learned societies that first pushed scientists from secrecy into the public by providing mechanisms to guarantee priority of discovery, to register a permanent record of the discovery (society archives), and to give “an authoritative stamp” on their work through the judgment of peers (Fjällbrant, 1997, Needs of various groups section, ¶ 4-8). This model was carried over into print form via the scholarly journal. An early example can be seen in Rozier’s diligent editorial policies for the Observations. As was noted above, not only was Rozier prepared to reject articles that lacked requisite quality and originality (negative control), he also implied a belief that the community of scientists would conduct itself ethically and objectively “as friends of humanity” (positive control). These were the values and safeguards—what Stephen Cole (2000) alludes to as “the norm of universalism”—that lent credibility and sufficient confidence to this format.

Cole, S. (2000). The role of journals in the growth of scientific knowledge. In B. Cronin & H. B. Atkins (Eds.), The web of knowledge: A festschrift in honor of Eugene Garfield [ASIS Monograph Series] (pp. 109-142). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Re-opening the “Closure”: Print to Electronic…and Beyond

Fjällbrant could wonder in 1997 about the prospects for electronic dissemination of journals in electronic format. Most prescient, she identifies “a shift in emphasis from [library] collection building in anticipation of possible needs (JUST IN CASE) to information access on demand (JUST IN TIME) delivery” (Problems section, ¶ 2). I responded that this “is a challenge to the long-held perception of the library as a repository for human knowledge.”

The day is now here. Just the other day I was reviewing our periodicals renewals list for 2013. If I wasn’t canceling a title (due to cost, or lack of demonstrated use) I was making sure we were able to receive it in electronic format. Print is now reserved for the casual reading rack.

A change in delivery format driven by user expectation and demand is only the start. But I left it there. I gave the last word to Kate Thomes (2002), who did provide a passing reference to open access:

We are moving from a known mature system of scholarly communication in the print environment to an unknown digital environment in which established practices are no longer deemed relevant or necessary. The stakes are high in changing the system both economically, for publisher profits and costs to higher education, and socially, for the potential benefits of open access to the scholarly record.…It took the ingenuity and intelligence of our predecessors to create the past system and it will require nothing less from us to create a new system of scholarly communication that fulfills its mission in the digital age. (p. 109)

Thomes, K. (2002). Scholarly communication in flux: Entrenchment and opportunity. Science and Technology Libraries, 22(3/4), pp. 101-111.

Posted in Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Peer Review, Scholarly Journals
2 comments on “From my old school files, Part 2: Excerpts from that research paper on the development of the scholarly journal
  1. arif jinha says:

    Dear Gary,

    Your blog is really nice! Really good and informative, takes a perspective on scholarship itself and historical context. I hadn’t read some of those sources you have, I would have definitely used that in my research. This is great.

    I’ve focused on this topic – basically history and future of the journal with focus on OA, with a global scope – for my MA thesis ‘Towards Global Open Scholarship’ (the MA is in international development and globalization). Also published an article on the history of articles (and journals) and quantitative result estimating the number of articles that exist and the growth trend. If you’re interested in the content and the sources (such as History of the Learned Journal by Brown, and all the work by Tenopir, King, Mabe going back to De Solla Price, etc.) – you can find the publications from my Scholar page – . Maybe it’s useful if you write more on the journal and OA. I got the chance to get quite in-depth about the scholarly system, OA analysis and arguments, economics, ideas, trends, etc., and not all can go in the thesis and publications. So if you have any interest to discuss don’t hesitate.

    Arif Jinha

    MA University of Ottawa (once I can pay the bill)

  2. Gary F. Daught says:


    Greetings. Thanks for your kind and informative comments. I totally concur that my initial look back in 2004 could very much stand an update, especially including open access. Although the historical perspective and some key ideas continue to be relevant, the landscape itself has been totally re-planted and re-populated in the interim. It is all very exciting.

    I want to encourage you in your research. I will look into some of your stuff.

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