Publication Date

February 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


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 ( 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

All these are major issues to negotiate, misjudgment on any one of which could put a journal in jeopardy. None, however, is likely to be the fundamental issue that decides the future of the journal as such. They are essentially management decisions, the quality of which may determine the fate of any individual journal, but they are not so basic that they will determine the future of the journal as such. For example, there are no inherent technological difficulties or barriers that would prevent me as the editor of the Law and History Review from deciding tomorrow to jump from print to electronic dissemination. If the Review wanted to become a wholly electronic journal it could. The question is whether it should, and this is not a technical issue but a matter for an editor’s managerial judgment. Similarly, attendant cost questions are of deep significance—particularly the implications of the extended period of parallel (print and electronic) production that I think is going to be an inevitable element in any print journal’s process of reinventing itself. Again, however, there is nothing here that is in the last instance going to determine the fate of the journal form itself.

What will determine whether a journal such as the Law and History Review has a future, and by extension scholarly journals as such, is whether the functions it performs are perceived to have continuing value irrespective of the medium it appears in. Here I am quite optimistic. First, because the editorial process is integral to the production of scholarship (it adds value). Second, because lately the proponents of online publication seem to have been moving toward precisely the same conclusion. What I find particularly interesting about much of their discourse as it has developed over the past couple of years is the relative etiolation of its utopian aspect and the reappearance of two older phenomena: authority and form. The discussion of electronic scholarship has become largely a discussion of the ways to acquire the authority and relative stability that print publication gives paper scholarship. To refer once more to Bernard Hibbitts’s assault on the law reviews, his solution is not actually free-form anarchy at all but the conservation of the law article form in an authoritative archive which would be supervised by the American Association of Law Schools and could “set and enforce minimal standards of access and conduct to ensure that only authorized individuals—lawyers and academics, for example—submit materials to or register materials with the archive.” The object of the arrangement would be “to preserve the necessary decorum of academic debate.” Other proponents of electronic publication (Stevan Harnad, for example) have begun to emphasize how the standards of edited print journals—from peer review through copyediting—can be just as much a feature of electronic publication as paper. In the current generation of electronic publications, some of the most successful—the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research—are those which present themselves as only one or two removes in appearance and internal practice from paper journals.8 All of these seem to me to be examples of a convergence of possibilities that replaces eliminationist discourse with the construction of a basis upon which print and electronic publications find that they have quite a lot in common. As proponents of electronic publication have come to recognize the need for form and authority in scholarly discourse, the discussion has passed precisely to that of function—crudely put, to the ways of adding value.

The form, of course, may change over time. In becoming electronic, humanities journals might decide to become more of an aggregation of individual items than they are at present. But there are already electronic journals of that nature, which have little if any issue structure, and simply post articles as they become finalized to the satisfaction of the author and editor. At this stage there seems to be no particular popularity for article-by-article publication among would-be authors, at least to judge from those electronic journals that practice it. For instance, this appears to be the experience of the Chicago Journal of Theoretical Computer Science, published by MIT Press. There is much, in fact, to recommend the enhanced identity that periodic regular publication of whole issues lends to the individual items gathered. They attain an added profile or cachet as the collective representation of a field of study, and they affirm through that participation the value of broadcast communication, and of common association within a scholarly field whose bounds are wider than any individual item’s sectional appeal or an individual author’s ambition. Journals, like broadsheet newspapers, are an antidote to intellectual solipsism, and when editors can achieve real integration of content the whole definitely becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Nevertheless, making strategic choices about what kind of publication best serves a field are what individual editors are for. The fundamental point is a distinct one. Namely, that the trend of discussion in the academy is generally reaffirming the virtues of the edited form of scholarly discourse. This endorsement of editing’s role in enhancing and authorizing intellectual communication suggests in turn a convergence of electronic and print cultures from which both can profit whatever modes of presentation the edited form actually takes.

By contrast, the view from outside the academy is quite different and much more forbidding. Here the journal exists only as a bundle of commodifiable resources. Here the journal’s biggest assets are its subscription list, its backset, and its name and reputation—the value added by its capacity to place its stamp of authority on this or that fragment of information. These resources should not be discounted, but on an individual basis they are dwarfed by the scale of current dealings between information suppliers and subscribers. In October 1997, for example, the newsletter of OhioLINK, the consortium of Ohio university and college libraries, announced that the consortium had contracted with the Anglo-Dutch publishing conglomerate, Reed Elsevier, to obtain “electronic versions of more than 1,000 of the most-used research journals” (published by Reed Elsevier), at an annual cost of $6.3 million. OhioLINK prices the cost of the same journals in print form if subscribed to by all participating libraries at $46 million annually. Notably, Reed Elsevier, itself the product of a 1992 merger, has recently merged with Wolters Kluwer, another very large international publisher of scholarly books and journals, to create an even more formidable concentration of information distribution capacity, particularly in the science, technology, and medical research arena.

Obviously individual journals have no voice in decisions being taken on this scale. Yet the decisions themselves are likely to change dramatically the mode of delivery of their most valuable product—certified information—from the relative certainty of subscription sales to something far more contingent. Henceforth, the relevant considerations for a journal are going to be who your publisher is; what “stable” of journals that publisher produces; whether the publisher plans to sell online access to its journals as an aggregated bundle subscription (thereby replacing individual title subscriptions); and whether subscribers to online information will also, or alternatively, obtain access on demand, and if so what the unit of pricing will be—a volume, an issue, an item, a fragment of an item, and so on. For example, Reed Elsevier–Wolters Kluwer also owns Lexis-Nexis and is thus happily positioned to supply information to purchasers either by domain-subscription or on demand by fragment.

Current negotiations between publishers, aggregators, information services, and their institutional clients are setting new terms for the furnishing and form of supply of information (and, no less important, are deciding what it is that is being furnished—user ownership or user access). These negotiations will determine the real future of the academic journal, because they will determine the forms in which information will be stored and made available. It is here that the scholarly societies and their journals are weakest, and where organization is most essential. It is encouraging that last year the AHA and the OAH (with funding from the Mellon Foundation) facilitated a conference of history journal editors in Bloomington where many of these issues were discussed and an organization of history editors formed. Even so, given the scale of commercial organization in the scholarly information field, our presence remains insignificant.

Commercial decisionmaking will create hierarchies of availability among the many academic journals that collectively constitute so much of the scholarly discourse of the humanities. Already those discriminations are in train, as demonstrated by the decision of the Mellon­funded J-STOR project to archive electronically and sell access to only a particular set of high circulation journals. Journals like the Law and History Review could continue to exist indefinitely outside the upper echelons, say in the form of an electronic newsletter. But in that world our place in the library would be marginalized, becoming the equivalent in effect to all those free publications that heap up on the far side of the entry desk. That is one of the unpleasant prospects that smaller scholarly journals face.

The Impact of Electronic Publishing on Scholarship

This essay has concentrated on the impact of electronic distribution on the journal as a form for the presentation of scholarship, but we should also give our attention to the impact of the electronic medium on scholarship. Here one can see immense opportunities for joint learning in the forms of presentation that exist between print and electronic forms of publication. In many journals one can already see signs of a desire to open ideas and research to greater dialogue between authors and critics, through commentary or discussion forums. This seems to be a clear response to the popularity among scholars of online discussion groups and their success in highlighting the value of interactive communication. One can also see that spontaneity and participation have limits—that carefully prepared exchange has its value. But no one can deny that the urge to dialog one sees in journals has received an enormous boost from discussion networks.

That, however, is just the surface. Peter Boyce of the American Astronomical Society wrote recently of the richness that a sophisticated use of hypertext links to references, citations, and archived data and video could bring to an electronic article, noting, “These articles are not dead words on a page, put down once and subsequently left alone. They are living entities, updated as often as needed to remain fresh and accessible by the current software and technology.” Most established humanities journals are just starting to ask whether and how to provide electronic delivery of their current pages, but in Boyce’s estimation these would just be Potemkin electronic journals, mere “fossilized words” on a screen. He describes how the Astrophysical Journal has been transformed by retrospective HTML tagging, which connects supplementary databases of 20 years of abstracts and back issues of most major journals in astronomy, with both backward links (references) and forward links (citations) carried within each article, plus access to databases of astronomical information. “As new browsing tools become available,” Boyce writes, “the entire corpus of the publicly available electronic journal can be rederived from the richly tagged archival copy maintained by the publisher. In this way, we have a journal which has to be maintained on a regular basis. But more than that, we have a journal in which the links make up a substantial portion of the value of the articles.”9 The journal becomes a living, vibrant entity, in which the linked back issues become a required part of every issue.

The Astrophysical Journal can be the wave of the future for history too—at least for certain applications. The obvious beneficiaries, as Boyce’s example stresses, are those whose research lends itself to electronic text’s infinite openness to searching and recombinative linkage. Anyone who has visited Edward Ayers’s Valley of the Shadow will have seen how that future works. Its multiplicity of environments and levels, all manipulable and searchable, offers an immensely enriching experience.

The sheer depth and breadth of hypertext referencing and the search and manipulation capacities of web sites like the Valley of the Shadow enable historians to surpass print in its capacity to present data. However, the electronic medium seems less friendly to linear argumentation and explicit interpretive narrative, which remains the intellectual basis of so much of what scholars in the humanities and social sciences do. At the conference of history journal editors, Ayers commented on the gradual disappearance of explanatory argumentation from his site. The more the site became an archive of manipulable research material, the less point there seemed to be for its creators to tell its story. After all, its archival logic is largely that of a gateway to resources from which all visitors, and not just the project’s designers, could construct their own stories.

Ayers’s experience illustrates both the immense descriptive capacities that web­mounted history possesses and the possible limitations it offers to the further development of history as authoritative explanatory discourse. Both characteristics seem closely related to the medium’s subversion of linear argument by its deep archiving capacities. I am concerned that in our rush to the web we are creating a renaissance for antiquarianism-albeit a richer and more sophisticated variety than we have ever previously known. When I look at the Valley of the Shadow, for example, what I see is an implicit representation of the coming of the Civil War in which abstraction—the linear explanatory capacities of national politics, economics, and macro-historical developments, for example—have no obvious place. As in the physical experience of Colonial Williamsburg, the recreation of a locale in which the passive “visitor” may become peripatetic “participant” can be exciting and meaningful history. Whether recreation can or should be the principal object of historical scholarship or academic effort—whether it is the “end” of history, in all that phrase’s meanings—needs urgent debate.

There are other limits to what we should learn from the culture of electronic publication; or perhaps we should at least learn wariness to go with our excitement. Historians are less inclined to disdain “fossilized words” than astrophysicists, perhaps because historians know words never die and hence do not fossilize. We deal at least as much in meanings as observations, and consequently recognize that words are susceptible to the same endless interpretation, argument, and ambiguity as images. Because of that we are careful with them. In his lyricism, Boyce talks of the journal as an organic evolving entity, its contents endlessly open to update.10 But its role as archive is equally important—and one must be careful in opening archives to revision and update. Scholars need to recognize that what we discuss must have, for the purposes of intelligible discussion, fixity. I can think of nothing more deadening of historical enquiry and imagination, nor, frankly, more bankrupt as an exercise, than the indefinitely provisional conclusion, the publication that is a permanent draft, a bet always hedged. The temptation to airbrush one’s previous shortcomings, so that in version 1.6 of my essay they have been disappeared, like inconvenient politburo members from atop Lenin’s tomb, disturbs me.11 So here is another argument—my last—for the survival of the journal form. It is an argument for the preservation and propagation of the best forms of print cultural practice in its scholarly incarnation—for the authority of certification, but also for the accompanying willingness to fix and record for ever more one’s scholarship as such, warts and all.

The function that scholarly journals perform is the provision of authoritative sites for the production of knowledge—knowledge that is certified, that is unchanging in form presented, that is archived, and hence that is debatable and worth debating across whatever the available spectrum of argumentation may be. This trademarking capacity may indeed be precisely what saves them in a world of increasingly commodified information. But it matters less in the long run whether journals perform that role in paper or electronically, for sale or for free, quarterly or continuously, than that they continue to perform that function. By doing so they give scholarly communities concrete signs of their reason for being, they help provide some of the social glue that holds them together, and in their small way they promote and add to human knowledge. Without them, scholarly exchange of reliable information and honest opinion would be significantly more difficult—even chaotic, to use a Jamesonian word—than is currently the case.

Christopher Tomlins is senior research fellow of the American Bar Foundation, Chicago, and has been editor of the Law and History Reviewsince 1995. He is the author of The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960(Cambridge and New York, 1985); Law, Labor and Ideology in the Early American Republic(Cambridge and New York, 1993); and editor, with Andrew J. King, of Labor Law in America: Historical and Critical Essays(Baltimore, 1992).


1. See generally, Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge and New York, 1991), 53–300. On the historical profession see John Higham, History: Professional Scholarship in America (New York, 1973), 6–25; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge and New York, 1988), 47–60.

2. Quoted in Novick, ibid, 52. I am indebted to Michael Grossberg’s own discussion of these issues in “History Journals in the Twenty-First Century,” Perspectives, May/June 1997, for guiding me to Jameson’s statement and more generally for its own assessment of the current scene.

3. See for example Andrew Odlyzko, “On the Road to Electronic Publishing” [revised version, April 30, 1995], Euromath Bulletin 2 (June 1, 1996).

4. Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web,” Journal of American History 84:1 (June 1997), 136. See also Gertrude Himmelfarb, “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet,” Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1, 1996), A56.

5. See, for instance, Andrew Odlyzko, “Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The Impending Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journals,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 42 (1995); Odlyzko, “On the Road to Electronic Publishing”; Stevan Hamad, “Electronic Scholarly Publication: Quo Vadis?” Serials Review 21:1 (1995); Stevan Hamad, “Implementing Peer Review on the Net: Scientific Quality Control in Scholarly Electronic Journals,” in R. Peek and G. Newby, eds., Electronic Publishing Confronts Academia: The Agenda for the Year 2000 (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). For a useful summary, see Rob Kling and Lisa Covi, “Electronic Journals and Legitimate Media in the Systems of Scholarly Communication,” The Information Society (November 1995), 11: 4.

6. Kling and Covi, “Electronic Journals and Legitimate Media”; Sandra Woolfrey, “The Economics of Journal Publishing and the Rhetoric for Moving to an Electronic Format,” in ACLS Background Materials, CAO Meeting, Kansas City (November 1995). See also Stevan Hamad, “Implementing Peer Review on the Net: Scientific Quality Control in Scholarly Electronic Journals,” International Conference on Refereed Electronic Journals, Towards a Consortium for Networked Publications (Winnipeg, 1993).

7. See Fytton Rowland, “The Need for Information Organizations and Information Professionals in the Internet Era”; Robert H. Marks, “The Economic Challenges of Publishing Electronic Journals”; and Janet H. Fisher, “The True Costs of an Electronic Journal,” all in Ellen F. Duranceau, “The Economics of Electronic Publishing,” Serials Review 21:1 (1995), 84–90.

8. Kling and Covi, “Electronic Journals and Legitimate Media”; Jacques Leslie, “Pixelating Peer Review is Revolutionizing Scholarly Journals,” Wired 2:10 (October 1994).

9. Peter B. Boyce, “Perpetual Access,” on (September 3, 1997).

10. Boyce, “Perpetual Access.” See also M. Ethan Katsh, “Law Reviews and the Migration to Cyberspace,” Akron Law Review 29:2 (Winter 1996), 115–21.

11. On this point, see also Howard A. Denemark, “The Death of Law Reviews Has Been Predicted: What Might be Lost when the Last Law Review Shuts Down?” Seton Hall Law Review 27:1 (1996).

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