Don't Mourn, Organize! A Rumination on Printed Scholarly Journals at the Edge of the Internet

Christopher L. Tomlins, February 1998

Editor's Note: This essay is a revised and abridged version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History, in Minneapolis, October 17, 1997.

I am the editor of a scholarly journal, the Law and History Review, a position that today demands knowledge that extends well beyond the scholarly and the editorial. Specifically, to protect the fragile resource that I have in my charge, I must possess sufficient knowledge of the absolute, irrevocable, and accelerating transformation of the environment of information dissemination. That transformation poses fundamental challenges to printed scholarly journals, but also offers them major opportunities. They can accommodate transformation best by flexibly altering their form, as the need arises. But journals should be careful not to compromise their traditional scholarly role. Not only do they perform functions of continuing value to the academy, in practical terms those functions are what enable scholarly journals to enter claims of continued relevance in the new information environment.

The Law and History Review was established in 1983 by the American Society for Legal History (ASLH) "to further research and writing in the fields of social history of the law and the history of legal ideas and institutions." As the creation of a learned society, regular appearance of the Review is one of the principal services that the society offers its members, and some 70 percent of our subscriber base consists of individual members. The ASLH, created in 1956, and its journal are relatively youthful as learned societies and their publications go. Peak scholarly associations in the humanities, such as the AHA, began to appear in America with growing frequency from the last quarter of the 19th century. By the turn of the century, they had become creatures and propagators of professionalism in the academy, itself an expression of a general tendency to occupational reorganization and the creation of knowledge monopolies. In the discipline of history, as elsewhere, the motive for scholarly association, and the essential goal of association publications, was to sharpen historians' claims to a distinctive occupational identity and expertise: To be distinctive, that is, from what other scholars might be doing in roughly cognate disciplines like political science and sociology, but also from most of what had previously been expounded as history—whether the musings of dilettante amateurs, the rantings of sensationalists, the earnest antiquarianism of "buffs," or the murmurings of the mob. By the end of the second decade of the 20th century, history had been successfully decreed serious business. Historians were no longer to be educated as gentlemen but trained as professionals.1

Scholarly journals were established as mechanisms crucial to the definition of that early professional identity and to communication of the distinctive practices that would constitute it and thereby bring discipline, as it were, to scholarly—and, some would add, cultural—disorder. The first editor of the American Historical Review, J. Franklin Jameson, put it thus in 1902. It was not the primary mission of the journal, Jameson said, "to evoke originality" or "kindle the fires of genius." Its most important job was "to regularize, to criticize, to restrain vagaries, to set a standard of workmanship and compel men to conform to it."2

Almost a century later, it seems to me that some, though by no means all, of what Jameson offered as an explanation of the meaning of the scholarly journal continues to be applicable to discussions of its function. Personally, I see less merit than Jameson did in enforcing orthodoxy, less danger in cultural variety and experimentation. But he and we live in very different eras. We take for granted, or at least as common ground, many basic scholarly norms that he and his peers saw themselves as fighting tooth and nail to establish—norms for the form of argumentation, the use of evidence (and what constitutes misuse), and for elementary causal sensibility. All this is what he meant by workmanship. Journals have in the past, do now, and should continue to accommodate variety. They should also offer disciplinary leadership, or at least influence, rather than simply attempt to compel regression to a mean. They can do all of that precisely because over the last century the scholarly profession has become thoroughly educated in and socialized to practice the basics of its craft so thoroughly.

Now, as then, scholarly journals are creators and exemplars of current practice. They are created to disseminate scholarship that is authoritative in three senses. First, the journal's editorial practices certify that the scholarship is as reliable as the collective expertise of the professionals who produce and judge it. Second, it represents knowledge that is definitively attributable, that has achieved a unique representation for which an author and an editorial process are identifiably responsible. Third, it is authoritative in the sense of being authorized for inclusion in an archive, for that is what a scholarly journal also is.

Scholarly journals, then, exist to promote original scholarship, to accommodate it in its variety but also to influence its general direction and shape, to certify it as worthy of note and trust to whatever audience is reached, and to preserve it as such.

Pursuit of all these roles has also given scholarly journals another incarnation that is becoming increasingly explicit these days. They are bundles of resources that can be mobilized in the rapid commodification of information that dominates late 20th-century culture. The bundle consists of a site where information is created and from which it is disseminated; an audience, the core of which manifests a deep commitment to remaining attentive; a subscriber list; a backset; a reputation; and a trademark. These may appear comparatively modest wares, and they are fragile, but they are valuable and are known to be.

Both incarnations of the journal—authoritative professional voice and resource-bundle—are deeply implicated by the current turn in scholarly practice toward electronic distribution and retrieval of information. In some quarters within the academy, the implications have been seen as sufficiently momentous that the scholarly journal as such is thought likely to disappear within a decade. Some find this a cause for celebration, others for head-burying despair. As the editor of a journal still in its teens that was launched with high hopes and has consistently added value to the scholarship in its field, I have time—figuratively and literally—for neither reaction. The first I think is somewhat faddish, and I find its presentation unconvincing: its proponents' pronouncements of journal-death tend to be vague and utopian—they tend to assume away all obstacles that might interfere with the realization of the prediction. Their discourse is largely self-validating and self-referential.3 But the second, obverse reaction I find just as irritating, because it tends either to defeatism or myopic denial; in either incarnation it obstructs opportunities to learn from the electronic medium's own forms of scholarly discourse, to be excited by them, to shape them in turn with our fund of experience, and to struggle creatively on both terrains to turn current developments to mutual advantage.

As this indicates, I am sufficiently optimistic about current possibilities that I do not think I shall be the last editor of something called the Law and History Review. But this is not because I see the Review and its peers as emanations of a law of nature that scholarly journals exist indefinitely. They came into existence for particular reasons and the question that confronts them is whether those reasons retain validity, or if not whether there are sufficient alternative reasons for their being. Simply to present a convincing argument that under current circumstances there is no inherent reason why the journal form should cease to exist does not for one moment mean that it will not cease to exist. I recognize, in short, an absolute obligation to respond to the development of electronic publication.

One can divide the meaning of that development into categories of threat and opportunity. The threat is less of the print journal's dramatic collapse than of its slower-developing but irreversible irrelevance. Scholarly journals that do not begin changing now in ways that respond creatively to the online environment will no doubt still be around in 10 or 15 years. But their capacity to perform their key disseminating and authorizing functions efficiently and usefully will be significantly impaired and their audience will by then be rapidly wasting away. They will have become a fringe technology, a curiosity. They will no longer have value to add to professional discourse.

Creative adaptation could actually enhance the journal's authoritative and authorizing role. We have entered an intellectual environment in which the immensely expanded accessibility of information produces an equally immense need for efficient means to distinguish between what is useful information and what is not. Michael O'Malley and Roy Rosenzweig have described "the lack of hierarchy" that any Internet search currently reveals "between the traditionally sanctioned and well-funded" and the "unfunded and unsanctioned"—the web page posted by the Library of Congress sits next to that of "the unsanctioned undergraduate" or the "lone lunatic." They call such juxtapositions "one of the most exciting and most unsettling features of the web."4 In fact, both scholars and the general public have always been confronted by the necessity of choosing among myriad items of information. The way that choices are made is through personal experience, inculcated expertise (training), and, crucially, by privileging information from particular sources that the user believes possess a high degree of integrity. Over the next decade scholarly journals must work to preserve and accentuate that privileging for their scholarly audiences. Not coincidentally, this is also the role that best exploits the journal's incarnations as scholarly authorizer and bundle of valuable resources. I have absolutely no doubt that to continue to play its preferred role—as a scholarly authority—the journal will have to prove itself attractive as a supplier fit to be included in the general commodification of information. Not surprisingly, it is in that latter realm that I see the most formidable difficulties for the journal.

The Journal as Commodity

Let me try briefly to deal with these issues in order, and let's start in the internal world of the academy, with the mainstream journal and its alternatives.

It should be obvious, even to those who don't dabble, that the online environment is not the wave of the future, it is the wave of the present. In the past 15 years we have seen the phenomenon of computer-assisted electronic information dissemination and retrieval penetrate deep into specialized areas—such as legal information—as well as particular scholarly disciplines where the electronic forum has long since demonstrated a convincing ascendancy. Computer science and high-energy physics are the normal examples cited, but economics is another area of deep penetration. Crucially, in these areas digitized information dissemination and retrieval fit well with preexisting professional cultures and have provided an efficient way to overcome obstructions in the flow of information. Elsewhere, the penetration of electronic information distribution and retrieval has proven to be less systematic, but it is growing rapidly. With the immense upsurge over the last four years of popular knowledge about and use of the Internet, the phenomenon has become irreversibly part of contemporary popular culture—the World Wide Web, then, is not a nineties version of the 1970s CB radio craze. However, its current incarnations are in many cases provisional. The only thing that erodes faster than an industry standard is the hypertext link that rots out from underneath your little arrow. And for all its glitz, the web's technologies—particularly its forms of representation and its interfaces—are often unwieldy. Several months ago I went to read a paper that has attracted considerable attention in the law school world, "Last Writes? Reassessing the Law Review in the Age of Cyberspace," posted on the web by its author, Bernard Hibbitts of the University of Pittsburgh Law School (http://www.law.pitt.edu/hibbitts/lastrev.htm). I suffered so many of the medium's clichéd frustrations—inadequate software and hardware at my end, excessive download times, transmission interruptions, a zip file that wouldn't unzip and so forth—that I eventually borrowed the bound volume of the New York University Law Review, where a version of the piece had been published, and photocopied it. It makes a good story, but that's not the point. The medium itself is with all of us, perhaps crude now but in the future likely to exist in forms of a sophistication currently unimaginable.

Amongst those who have committed themselves fully to the medium, there has been a tendency to celebrate it as the liberation of scholarship. In "Last Writes," Hibbitts provocatively predicts the demise of the student-edited law review, calling upon legal academics to self-publish on the web instead and rely on a form of post-hoc review—in the form of author-invited, author-posted commentary—to sort the wheat from the chaff. Relying on his account of how legal scholarship is generated and published, and from my own, fortunately more limited, encounters with the law review world and its rather unique editorial practices, I see no particular reason to defend it from his critique. I am less confident than Hibbitts, however, that post-hoc review would provide the quality control he recognizes is a necessary authorizing element in a world of routine self-publication. First, I doubt that attracting negative comment, or no comment, would ever discourage further self-publication. Nor, necessarily, should it. "Original" scholarship is precisely work that disputes a canon, and for that reason may be dismissed as inappropriate. Second, it seems to me the likeliest practical outcome in a self-publication/post-hoc peer review system would be frantic competition to attract any form of positive comment, an outcome not likely to enhance the integrity and originality of the scholarly discourse. Finally, I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of self-published work would attract any comment at all, and that provenance would predict most of the outcome. Thus I suggest the system might accentuate current tendencies toward scholarly cliquishness and self-justifying solipsism, and, overall, generate more sludge than the law reviews currently do.

But even if I am right, post-hoc peer review is not really the core of Professor Hibbitts's case. The core is a pretty convincing critique of the efficiency of the basic systems for delivering knowledge in law's scholarly and professional worlds. Nor is he alone. Coming from backgrounds primarily in information and behavioral sciences and high-energy physics, people like Stevan Harnad and Andrew Odlyzko have praised the unmediated knowledge flows that self-publication and online information dissemination and retrieval make possible, noting their potential to subvert the conventional structures of scholarly publishing that they criticize as outmoded, inefficient, even illegitimate.5

Approaching these opinions from the humanities/social sciences, it is important to bring certain caveats into play. First, and most familiar, as a matter of strategy one must resist the assumption that the practices and culture of the physical sciences are appropriate to the world of the humanities. In their world the premium is on rapid exchange of the most recent information and experimental data. Old data and old arguments matter little (except to the historian of science). Law to a very appreciable extent also values and privileges recency of discovery and argument. Speed of circulation is not nearly as important in the humanities or most of the social sciences, because the passage of time alone almost never renders it superfluous.

Second, it is quite clear that scholars in the sciences have sought new structures for knowledge creation and dissemination (and the law, if we take Professor Hibbitts' contribution into account), because modes of publication and dissemination in those fields are—or were—not simply inefficient, but positively oppressive. Part of the original motivation for scholars in the sciences derived from the extraordinary elevation of prices for serials in the sciences, and the consequent circulation inefficiencies that began in the early 1970s.6 And Hibbitts is motivated in part by the indignities that tyro student editors visit upon legal scholars. In the humanities and social sciences, there is no parallel to the extent and degree of these concerns. Instead, the primary drive to the creation of new outlets and new information flows comes from the creation of new genres of scholarship produced by the splitting-up and reconstitution of existing disciplines and subdisciplines. The challenge to journal editors and scholarly societies in the humanities and social sciences is therefore intellectually manageable—we must recognize and respond to innovation in scholarship and preside actively and creatively over the evolution of the disciplines. If we fail to meet the challenge the enterprise will fail. If we meet it our chances improve. There is no guarantee of success, but the problem is an intellectual one, hence not beyond the resources that we have available.

However, recognizing and accommodating cultural and intellectual distinctions among genres of scholarly practice will not by themselves determine how electronic information dissemination and retrieval plays out in humanities scholarship, or the place of the journal in them. Nor, I think, will the issue be determined on the terrain of technology. There are obvious technological advantages to online distribution of information, but there are also obvious technological advantages to print distribution. Current print journals, for example, can already claim to be efficient and attractive delivery systems for knowledge. They are infinitely portable and browsable, and they are searchable within limits. They require no expensive hardware, software, or linetime to use. And they become the property of their subscribers in a far less ambiguous sense than an electronic image does, downloaded and printed or not. Print journals are not free to the initial subscriber, of course, but neither is their electronic counterpart in any real sense and it likely never will. Cost of first copy is currently estimated to be the same in both media and the more elaborately electronic journals exploit the possibilities of their medium the more the real labor costs (not to say permissions costs) of first copy production are likely to increase. Artifactual reproduction and dissemination costs are clearly lower in the electronic medium than the print, but subscriber processing costs, particularly for institutions, are currently probably higher. Obviously the fixed costs of access are high. So while cost considerations favor the electronic medium the current differences are substantially less than one would think. 7