Another sign of the death of the traditional scholarly journal



When I said “Blind peer review is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet”, I was thinking narrowly. At that point, all I really was advocating was for a more fruitful method of peer review, something we can certainly establish (and cheaply) in our current digital environments. Today, I would expand my comment: “The traditional scholarly journal is dead; its owners just don’t know it yet.”

It’s not the fault of the journals themselves. They are as good as they ever were. The problem is that they are operating as they always did but in a radically changed environment. On one side, publishing possibilities have expanded to the degree that the central places of many traditional journals have been eroded. Scholars can look to any number of venues for the latest research in their fields, not simply to one or two. On the other side, access to many traditional journals is now severely limited–online, at least (and it is online where many scholars now go for information even in narrow specialties). With companies like Sage, Elsevier, and Taylor & Francis charging a great deal for access to scholarship the journals they distribute have published, fewer and fewer eyes are resting on their essays.

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (behind its own paywall) by Jennifer Howard, “Dispute Over Right to Publish an Academic Journal Goes to Court,” quotes William C. Block, the executive director of the Social Science History Association about the contract between his association’s journal, Social Science History, and Duke University: “‘we simply wanted to assess the open market,’ Mr. Block said, ‘We have a great journal–what is it worth?’”

That’s the sign of the problem: in too many eyes, academic journals are now seen in terms of dollars first when the primary focus should be on presenting scholarship as widely and accurately as possible. Academic publishing has become a business… big business–and profitable (the product, after all, comes free, for the most part, to the publisher)–and business is focused on the profits, not on the needs of scholars.

Fortunately, given the expanding possibilities of our digital age, new ways of sidestepping the traditional journals are growing as fast as the corporate strangleholds on many journals. In light of this, I think the journal itself is in danger of being replaced by the anthology, especially as publishing possibilities for books become easier and cheaper. An anthology of chapters by notable scholars in a particular field will not even need a weighty publisher’s imprimatur in order to succeed. All it will need is a few “name” scholars and an editor with an established reputation. Even better, as I wrote the other day, the groups of scholars can provide their own peer review for the particular volumes, each contributor reviewing two others with an eye to strengthening the entire project. Such volumes, with their specific foci, can replace the journals of almost any field as the central repositories of contemporary research. They can also appear quite quickly and (through .pdf versions) can be distributed widely, costing almost nothing to create.

Of course, I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do think that the new type of anthology, the blog, the wiki, social networking and all of the other developing online possibilities for distributing scholarship are already making the traditional scholarly journal less and less important. It is propped up, I believe, only by promotion committees unable (yet) to see that traditional measures for academic promotion (peer-reviewed articles in first-tier journals, say, or even books from university presses) are no longer the best means for examining career trajectories. Once that changes, the journals that have not changed (or that hide behind paywalls, their contents available to smaller and smaller audiences) will begin to be buried.