Why Academic Journals Still Matter

Times have changed. When I first arrived at university, a dozen years ago now, one of the most important places in the library was the display of the latest issues of hundreds of academic journals. It was by browsing those shelves at Bangor University and then at Oxford Brookes that I realised what kinds of History were out there to be studied. Reading lists for my courses, footnotes in the books I read and the recommendations of my tutors all sent me on the hunt for articles in older issues. That meant going down to the library basement and operating the huge handles that moved the bookcases in the stacks, opening an aisle just enough to fit in and browse the shelves.

The stacks that used to be in the library at Bangor University
The stacks that used to be in the library at Bangor University

Now, I know I spent more time down in that cool basement than most students. The easier option for reading many of those articles was to go online and use JSTOR to scroll through the list of volumes and issues to find a badly scanned in copy. But then, only in the new halls of residence buildings (known as “Hollywood”) could you plug your computer into the wall to get online. Once I’d moved into a shared house I had to go to one of the university computer rooms.

But times have changed and now those shelves have been cleared to make way for more computers and desks for students to sit at with their laptops, signed in to the wifi. Meanwhile the articles themselves have been set free. Free of the stacks and the pages, read most often as pdfs. Increasingly free of the library altogether, as more and more are made available as ‘open access’. And free of the journal itself, as those open access pdfs are found by a simple search engine. Which rather begs the question, do journals still matter at all in this digital age?

This question was raised by Katrina Navickas during a twitter debate prompted by my recent blog post outlining the different types of texts History students are asked to read, but not often enough actually introduced to with any explanation. As Katrina noted, newer ways of searching library catalogues not only mean you don’t need to go through the journal, but actually make it impossible to find an article that way. She quite rightly says this raises some questions:

Will this form of searching for articles reduce or diminish the identity of a journal? What impact will this have on journals that are carefully curated by editors? Does it even matter any more what order articles are in, or what their theme is? It certainly does matter in terms of submitting an article to a journal that is a good ‘fit’, but the reader’s experience is now one step removed from this older form of journal.

The twitter debate with Katrina, Barry Doyle, Mark Freeman, Jo Laycock, Daryl Leeworthy and Helen Rogers threw up a number of perspectives. Is the answer to the question of whether the journal still matters perhaps different depending on whether you’re an editor, an author or a reader? It’s also worth distinguishing between different aspects of the journal.

Volumes, issues and page numbers

Daryl suggested the move to primarily online platforms had removed any real purpose to publishing in issues (each printed edition of the journal, usually 2-4 of them per year) and volumes (typically the issues in year grouped together). As editor of Cultural and Social History, Barry said that, while much had changed, he said he still thought in terms of ‘issues’. The print issue does look good and allows for coherence in the compilation of articles. Yet, in practice, there has been a shift in how articles are actually published, with more and more content being published ‘early access’ online.

LSE political science prof Patrick Dunleavy says this is a real problem for citation of those texts as pagination becomes irrelevant. How can you cite the correct page if you don’t know what page the words you’re quoting will end up on in the printed version? He suggests the solution to this is to ditch traditional references, instead using a short quotation and to embed a link to the online version. Quoting their words directly is important, he says, because realistically we’ll all end up having to hit CTRL+F and search in the original anyway. While this might work very well for online writing that cites other texts available online, I’m not sure it’s so helpful for historians writing books that will cite documents only occasionally digitised.

There might be a simpler, less radical solution. What if the printed version of the journal simply dropped continuous pagination and started each article on page 1? That way there would be no difference between the page citation for the ‘early access’ online and final print versions. I find it hard to see how continuous publication and continuous pagination are really compatible.

The journal as a forum 

Stepping back to view the journal as a whole, it’s significance is somewhat different. Undoubtedly finding a journal that’s a ‘good fit’ with the work is important for an author. But I would also say that understanding this is part of understanding what you’re reading. We expect History students to think critically about the context and purpose of a primary source, so we should expect the same of a secondary source. The choice of journal – the audience for whom the historian imagines their work has relevance – tells us something about the kind of research they’ve done and how they conceive of the argument they’re making.

On my bookshelves I have copies of two very different journals next to each other – Cultural and Social History and the Economic History Review. I haven’t submitted to either yet, but what I would submit to each would be very different and would be examples of different aspects of my work. Readers, including students, should have at least some idea that one is more likely to dig down into my data and the other more likely to focus on the meanings associated with what’s shown in those tables and charts. This is not only about finding what you’re looking for but also about understanding where one article fits into a wider body of work and with what sort of debates the author is seeking to engage. This, as much as (dis)agreeing with Marxist or feminist interpretations, is historiography.

There are all kinds of reasons we might say academic journals still matter in terms of high-quality publications that matter for professional discussion and for demonstrating our contribution in exercises such as the REF. But ultimately, even as the nature of the journal changes dramatically, it continues to have importance to the scholarly reader as the most immediate context of what we’re reading. Once we give up on reading critically and thinking about context, we might as well all pack up and go home.


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