From the Noteworthy column of the September 2006 Perspectives
The Golden Age of the Scholarly Article Is Now
Robert A. Schneider, September 2006
Many readers have undoubtedly realized what I am only now coming to appreciate: the balance of reading lists is shifting from scholarly monographs to articles. This is particularly true of syllabi for graduate students, who must be trained in the latest scholarship, which is often in article form. But I suspect it is becoming the case for undergraduate courses as well, especially as we begin to dig into the archive of now classic articles that are often well-suited for that level of study. What explains this shift, and what are its implications?
I think the explanation is obvious—so obvious that we might fail to acknowledge that it portends an even greater transformation. It is simply true that with the growth of electronic publishing, journal content is accessible in ways never possible before. And, as the archiving potential of JSTOR has made apparent, this includes the vast inventory of journals going back at least a century. Of course, web-based publishing and the dissemination of historical materials in electronic form have had an enormous impact on other aspects of our profession; one has only to think of the extraordinary—and, to my mind, extraordinarily sudden—availability of a vast range of primary documents for pedagogical or scholarly use. But unlike the general availability of documents, which has enriched and facilitated research and teaching without eclipsing other sources, an increasing reliance on journal articles has also offered an alternative to the monograph as the staple of our reading lists.
Only a few years ago, the situation was quite different. Speaking for myself, I was loath to assign many articles, even for graduate students, because the problems in accessing them were myriad: they were available only in the library, sometimes in remote or even off-campus locations; occasionally the needed volumes were missing; and students had to compete for their use through notoriously inefficient reserve desks. While producing course packs often circumvented these problems, it gave rise to others. Consequently, when it came to constructing a reading list, I usually thought first of paperback monographs, supplemented by a limited number of articles or excerpts from out-of-print books. The logic of this choice was pretty convincing: books were available for purchase; students could carry them to class; there was no excuse for their not having access to the assigned readings.
Now, however, the situation has been turned inside out. All the problems that one could have cited for accessing journals can now be ascribed to monographs; all the virtues of the monograph are now on the side of journals. Whereas at one time accessing journals required physical effort (or at least displacement), was often almost a competitive endeavor, and depended on their physical existence in one's library, now they are available with a click of a mouse. Whereas at one time students could bring articles to class only if they bothered to copy them from the journal or had them to hand in a course pack, now these readings can be printed out effortlessly (and usually at the expense of the library) or copied onto a hard drive. Conversely, monographs are no longer as available as they once were: they go out of print more readily; libraries everywhere are cutting back on purchasing books; students are less willing to buy them. In short, if you want to make sure students have the readings, assign articles.
The implications of this shift are most striking in the case of older work. All of us have experienced the sudden inaccessibility of important scholarship when books disappear from publishers' lists. Those teachers who have a research library on campus, of course, are fortunate insofar as copies of these books are usually available, although in limited numbers. With the advent of JSTOR, however, the scholarship of several generations is available as never before. But the transformation is more than quantitative in its implications. It's not just that more students and researchers can readily access more articles; it's that past scholarship is now a potential part of our reading and research in ways that should enrich our own and our students' appreciation of the historicity of the writing of history. For example, I have often attempted to assign the articles that made up the classic "Storm over the Gentry" debate that transpired in the 1940s and 1950s—especially the essays by R. H. Tawney, H. R. Trevor-Roper, and J. H. Hexter. Despite their importance and renown, these articles are not all that easy to find: one was published in the "Supplement" of the Economic History Review. These are valuable readings for graduates and undergraduates alike, not only for their extraordinary rhetorical power and combative style, but also for the clarity of the arguments and the sense they convey that something terribly important is at stake. Countless times I have photocopied and distributed them to my students—often, I confess, messing up the pages or cutting off some of the text. No more: now I merely list them on the syllabus, with a JSTOR link indicating their location. Others may differ, but I believe that our newfound ability to dip into the reservoir of older scholarship can not only deepen our bibliographies but also foster a finer appreciation of what contemporary scholarship owes to the past. We might even discover that work we assumed was rendered obsolete by today's research has in fact a lot to teach us.
Beyond its value as a means of encountering and thus appreciating scholarship of the past, I would suggest that the scholarly article deserves increased esteem for four additional reasons. First, as I've noted, articles are now both accessible and durable in ways that used to be ascribed to monographs and books. If you want your work to last, to have it read easily by students and colleagues alike, publish it in journals. This all may change, of course, once the Google electronic publishing venture comes to fruition: then books may be as available as journal articles are now. But this project is some time off, and how it will ultimately pan out is anyone's guess. Until then, the article rules.
Second, digitizing articles provides added value that, at least at this point, is not to be found in books. Unlike books, online articles are searchable; and with the advent of services that access a wide range of journals, they are searchable well beyond the confines of a single publication. Furthermore, these services are offering instructors the possibility of designing and constructing their own course packs from a large universe of digitally produced articles.
Third, with university presses increasingly reluctant to publish monographic, highly specialized material, journals remain the best outlet for original research. In the social sciences, this has always been the case. I can certainly understand historians' misgivings about going this route. For one thing, historical argumentation and reconstruction often require the sustained length of a book. But along with the venerable book, there has always been a privileged role for the article, especially when historians want to speak primarily to their peers. Too often we tend to think of articles as second-best, as incidental publications paving the way for the book. In this new environment, perhaps historians—including tenure committees—ought to rethink how we assign professional value to article-length publications.
This leads to my final point. We should consider articles as more than just good vehicles for disseminating specialized research; they are also well-suited for the kind of essay-length historical arguments that can have pathbreaking and paradigm-shifting effects. We all can cite the names of historians who have had their primary impact in our fields through essays. Indeed, some of the most influential historical interpretations have been expressed through the essay form, from Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" to Joan Scott's "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis." It seems to me that now more than ever—when specialization and specialized concerns have made synthetic work very difficult—the historical essay ought to be looked upon as a means of engaging with large questions, presenting bold interpretations, or perhaps thinking out loud about what direction we want our fields to take.
In short, it's a good time to write an article—take it from an editor of a journal, who, of course, has absolutely nothing at stake in the issue.
—Robert Schneider is the editor of the American Historical Review.