The death of the journal?
Currently much of academic publishing is organized around the production of subject-specific journals. But for how much longer? In the online environment the article tends to look like the more ontologically fundamental unit of information. Users can use search tools like PubMed to search across multiple journal titles in order to locate just those articles that are directly relevant to their specific research interests. Why should the journal in which an article appears matter if the article reports exciting and original research about a relevant topic?
The journal’s original role was largely about organizing and managing the physical delivery of research reports to readers, and then as research specialisms developed journals increasingly fulfilled the additional function of filtering research by subject. It is interesting to note, however, that in science three of the most prestigious journals – Nature, Science and PNAS – remain generalist titles. They provide a narrow horizontal slice through the vertical disciplines of science, which serves to identify – and hence confer credit on the authors of – articles reporting research of the highest quality. This reminds us of the journal’s importance in providing some sort of indication of research quality, which in an online context can inform a decision about whether to download and view a particular article.
It might seem that this quality indicating function is rather prosaic. Does it really take all the infrastructure of journal publishing to implement it in a way that is adequate to the needs of online users? Most researchers are capable of gauging article quality pretty well, after all. (The viability of the peer review mechanism depends in part on that very fact.) But even if readers are happy to make up their own minds about the quality of a reported piece of research, funders need some assurance that the work they are financing is worthwhile. Established journal quality metrics make this task somewhat easier.
If in future authors submit their articles not to journals but simply inject them into online information spaces then new ways of addressing the issue of quality will have to be found. Nature Publishing Group concluded after small-scale investigations that change to the status quo is not yet indicated. Even so, it does not seem especially fanciful to suppose that an online post-publication article rating system could be developed into an effective quality assessment regime – assuming that issues around self-recommendation and so on could be satisfactorily addressed, of course. There would need to be a community-level desire to make the system work, in terms of reader participation, but the relevant collective spirit is what underpins peer review now.
I suspect that over time this is the kind of direction the dissemination of research findings will head in. The journal will become increasingly virtualized and personal, in all respects secondary to the article and the article corpus. But it may take more time to get there than many maintain. The materiality of science means that it has outputs besides articles, and the knowledge it acquires about nature is made manifest in a range of ways – in new structures, datasets, and experimental methods, for example. Articles are vehicles of scientific knowledge about the world, but that knowledge has a non-verbal existence in scientific cognition and practice, and in objects besides scientific publications. (This reflects the notion that cognition about scientific topics is often non-verbal, being instead typically visual or mechanical in some way.) In some other subjects, however, the deployment of words in particular ways is effectively constitutive of the subject. Without the relevant patterns of linguistic logic there is nothing. I am thinking especially of some of the humanities, where particular forms of words are not just about a set of ideas, they actually come very close to being those ideas. And thus in the humanities research life arguably revolves around textual expressions and productions – including, centrally, the journal – rather more than it does in science.
(First published on the KnowledgeCraft wordpress blog on July 13, 2009)