Technology

Scholarly Journals in the Digital Age: One Editor's Reflections of the Moment

Robert A. Schneider, January 2011

Editor’s Note: This essay, and the one by John Thornton, were commissioned by the AHA’s Research Division to foster a conversation about the general issue of historians functioning in the digital environment, and what the AHA should be doing to facilitate these changes. Readers are encouraged to respond with their thoughts either through letters to the editor or through communications addressed to the Research Division (by e-mail to Robert Townsend).

I  have an addiction I share with many. While it’s mildly irritating to my spouse and children, it’s hardly dangerous as addictions go: I must read a morning paper with my breakfast. Again, as is true of many, my usual drug of choice is the New York Times. Living in the United Kingdom this year, however, has forced me to switch to a very different way of procuring and ingesting it—from the print edition that used to arrive at my doorstep every morning to the digital version that now appears on my laptop screen with a click of the mouse. And this new experience over a sustained period of time has been very instructive about the ways digital reading is different—in terms not only of the phenomenology of reading but also of how it can transform the textual object itself.

Perhaps the New York Times is something of a special case, but in the context of my larger concerns, this in fact serves my purpose. For there is an institutional, authoritative aspect to the Times that derives as much from its form as from its content, as much from its reputation, its venerability, and its stature among newspapers as from the way it delivers the news on a daily basis. A newspaper, especially if it has been part of one’s reading life over a long period of time, can become something of a trusted companion, whose features are as comforting and familiar as one’s own kitchen. And the Times is especially congenial in this respect, with its predictable daily differentiated sections, its familiar roster of columnists, and its behemoth Sunday edition. At least in its print version, the Times has formal qualities that organize or at least channel one’s reading experience, but not necessarily in restrictive ways. For example, it is difficult to ignore the range of articles on a variety of subjects, even while reading a particular piece. The news of the world or the nation intrudes into your range of vision, no matter how focused your attention might be. The various sections encourage one to move systematically through the paper, allowing assiduous readers at least to browse the range of news items; it’s difficult to miss or ignore what’s there. The structure of the paper can also accommodate peculiar reading habits: in my case it allows me to place an embargo on looking at the Arts section until lunchtime, thus giving me a fighting chance of getting away from the breakfast table while it’s still morning.

Reading the Times on my laptop is not only a very different experience; it also creates a very different New York Times. While the front page still confronts me with its visual drama, its calculated configuration of headlines, photos, and articles, it is quite easy to slip away from its grasp on my attention and into the list of items in the “Today’s Paper” tab. From there I effortlessly enter a slipstream of items, where I flit from piece to piece according to what catches my eye. Thus, while intending to read an article on the Tea Party, I notice, farther down the screen, a piece on the return to tennis competition of the 1990s champion Thomas Muster (which I must read). A glance at the “most-emailed” pieces reminds me that there’s an item from last week’s Science Times that I want to look at again.

Dick Cavett’s column catches my attention, especially as it includes a delightful clip of an interview with the just-deceased Tony Curtis. By then I’m well out of the purview of the print version—reading the often stimulating, if sometimes irritating Stanley Fish, dipping into the offerings from Reuters or the AP . . . and soon I’m no longer even within the ambit of the Times. By the time I return to “Today’s Paper” in order to go through the International and National news items, breakfast is long over.

What in the world do these personal ruminations have to do with the American Historical Review or scholarly journals in general? My point, in fact, is that there are aspects of reading journal articles online that are analogous to my own experience with the digital version of the Times. In short, in both cases, the reader is invited to deconstruct or even efface the larger context, with the reader’s awareness thus reduced to the object of the news item or article at the expense of the newspaper or journal as a whole. Many readers today access articles in newspapers not through their web pages but through a serendipitous series of links. Likewise, an increasing share of scholars and students alike find articles not by deliberately consulting the relevant journal but through a range of databases or other portals. Does this matter?

The answer to this question, it seems to me, entails acknowledging something of a paradox. As I suggested in an earlier issue of Perspectives on History (historians.org/perspectives/issues/2006/0609/0609not1.cfm), we are in a kind of “golden age” of the scholarly article. Never before have so many articles been consulted by so many. Indeed, we know from digital tracking of access patterns that in recent years readership, has steadily and dramatically increased, especially with the advent of JSTOR. The reasons for this are obvious: durability, accessibility, portability, price. In these terms, at least, the article trumps the monograph. But while the article is enjoying its moment in the sun—which is certainly good news for a journal editor—I’m not so sure about the status and fate of the journal. The article versus the journal? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to pose the problem this starkly, especially if we project ourselves into the future. For if the most usual way to discover and access articles is not through their journals’ web pages—not by consciously going to the journal as the gateway to its offering of articles—but rather through the ever-proliferating digital byways traveled by readers in the course of their searches—then this very process invites readers to remain unaware of the context that hosts the article. To parachute onto an article is to be exposed to a very narrow perspective on the scholarly or informational landscape. To assert this claim most dramatically: discovering articles through Google is the virtual equivalent of ripping them from the bindings of the journal.

Why, precisely, should this matter? Is this simply a self-serving complaint from a journal editor who egotistically wants readers to pay attention to us and what we do? Well—yes and no. For what we do and what we are, I would argue, are crucial. To make it easy for readers to remain unaware of the journal, even while they’re blissfully accessing the article with ease, is to thwart their awareness of the provenance of that article. Scholarly articles are not simply the result of individuals’ scholarly labors. They are the product as well of a series of processes usually provided by the personnel who make up the journal: there are editors, associate editors, copyeditors, support staff, and the like; there are outside reviewers recruited by the editors; there are members of the boards of editors, who usually also serve as reviewers of submissions, help set the journal’s course, or otherwise advise the editors; in the case of the AHR there is also a staff of assistant editors who process the 1,000 book reviews we publish every year. Furthermore, editors and boards of editors often commission articles or other projects—special issues, forums, debates, review essays, and so on—which make a journal more than the sum of its parts.
But journals are also more than the people who run them. Journals themselves have meaningful identities: they represent scholarly traditions; promote areas or periods of study; cultivate methodological, historiographical, or ideological perspectives; or have relevant institutional affiliations. Journals are also often sponsored and supported by professional or scholarly associations or societies, many of which have existed over many generations; and these too are bearers of interests, perspectives, and traditions that are basic aspects of the scholarly community. In short, journals are crucial institutions that, like universities and professional associations, contribute to the cultivation and dissemination of knowledge in particular and characteristic ways.

Now, for most academics of a certain age, the idea that one could somehow remain unaware of a journal while feeding on the knowledge contained in its articles surely would seem absurd. Many—perhaps even most—scholars still subscribe to some journals; some of us have spent a professional lifetime actually turning their pages. But for younger scholars and those of the future, it is quite likely that this experience will become entirely alien; some of my graduate students, while quite aware of the AHR’s contents, have never held a copy of it in their hands. My concern is that as new modes of discovery and consultation become dominant, an awareness of the very existence of the journal will fade, and that this will inevitably lead to a devaluation or ignorance of all that I have argued it embodies. In this case, something crucial will have been lost.

Unfortunately, arguing this claim means insisting on the institutional nature of the journal, and, indeed, of being at least disposed to thinking about institutions in general in positive terms. And yet, much of what we are witnessing in the current digital revolution aims precisely to undermine institutions as conveyers of information and shapers of knowledge. In part, this is simply a feature of the technological capacities now available to virtually everyone; and, insofar as these capacities have had the result of lowering the costs, removing the obstacles, and undermining the privileges that have historically restricted people’s access to the channels for both receiving and disseminating knowledge, they are to be celebrated. But this development is more than an inevitable result of technology; it is also imbued with ideological claims. There is a movement afoot in the humanities—in part a reaction to a perceived “crisis,” in part an almost utopian response to the potential of the web—that has embraced a model of scholarly publishing radically different from our traditional modes. In its broad strokes, this model is undoubtedly familiar to most readers. Suffice it to note that it sees scholarship and the production of knowledge as open, accessible, public, and “free”; unfettered by traditional gateway controls and vetting processes; configured in terms of readers’, as opposed to authors’, various uses; multimedia in conception; dynamic in content; and connected in every possible, every proliferating way to other web sources and material.

As attractive as this model surely is—and its advantages are not only apparent but already a part of most of our daily experiences—it does challenge the way scholarly journals, in particular, go about their business. Indeed, it threatens an essential function of journals, which is to serve as gateways for the publication of scholarship. Insofar as journals rely upon rigorous review processes in order to ensure—as much as possible—that what they publish meets certain standards and conforms to common understandings of what is “good and true” (with the implicit acknowledgment that these values are at some point arbitrary or at least culturally and historically contingent), they are increasingly facing a world in which this function is seen not as crucial addition of value, but as an obstacle, an encumbrance, merely an excessive, outdated commitment to professionalism and expertise. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Lest one conclude that this model is an invitation to either intellectual anarchy or a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” approach to indexing knowledge, its advocates point to common publication practices in the sciences or even the example of Wikipedia, where “ungated” publication has had surprisingly salutary results.

Does the journal have a place in this new digital age? Despite my somewhat alarmist tone, my purpose here is not to raise a banner against this model. I do think that we are misleading ourselves, however, if we fail to recognize not only what has been gained and what is promised but also what is at risk. There is nothing written in the constitution of the intellectual universe guaranteeing that rigorous review, criticism, and the imposition of standards will remain a part of pre-publication scholarship. But without the institutional support of entities like journals, such vetting is hard to imagine. (Or maybe I’m simply lacking in imagination.) In any case, in this new digital age, scholarly journals have to be more self-conscious and more assertive about their traditional role and functions. We must find not only new ways of doing what we have always done but also new ways of justifying it to a world increasingly accustomed to very different modes of receiving, accessing, and manipulating knowledge.

Robert Schneider (Indiana Univ.) is the editor of the American Historical Review. He is currently on sabbatical leave.