Open Thinkering


Journals, academia and the ivory tower.

This post will make more sense if you read this one first: You need us more than we need you. Further to the results of my reader survey, it will probably resonate more with you if you’re in Higher Education…

Academic journals on a shelf

So how did academic journals come about?

Until the late seventeenth century, communication between scholars depended heavily on personal contact and attending meetings arranged by the early learned societies (e.g. the Royal Society). As the membership of these societies increased, more people could not attend the meetings and so the Proceedings, usually circulated as a record of the last meeting became a place to publish papers that had not been presented at the meetings at all and moved towards what we now recognise as scholarly journals. (Wells, 1999)

So journals are a replacement for personal contact.

Are they good for anything else? Brown (1997) cites the following:

  1. distributed (many copies are stored in many places)
  2. scholars trust and understand the system
  3. journals have prestige built up over many years
  4. portable and easy to read

Which of the above benefits either (a) cannot, or (b) are not currently able to be replicated by another system?

Some would argue that an important difference between (for example) a blog post and a journal article is that the latter has been formally peer reviewed.

However, as even the editor of The Lancet points out:

The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong. (Horton, 2000)

Just how big do the cracks in the ivory tower have to get before the whole edifice tumbles?

Odlyzko (September 1997) points out that there was an “extensive resistance to print by scholars” in Gutenberg’s time which included calls to ban the new technology because only trash was getting into print and books were not as durable as parchment. The reaction to the Web of today’s scholars has largely echoed the reaction of scholars to the printing press in the 15th century. (Well, 1999)

Is the only reason we persist with journals and their articles is because they provide a convenient means to weigh the pig?

Image CC BY-NC-SA Lal Beral


Brown, S.A. (1997). Scholarly publishing using electronic means : a short guide. Newcastle: Northumbria University

Horton, R. (2000). “Genetically modified food: consternation, confusion, and crack-up”. MJA 172(4), p.148–9

Wells, A. (1999) ‘Exploring the development of the independent, electronic scholarly journal.‘ Sheffield: University of Sheffield

14 thoughts on “Journals, academia and the ivory tower.

  1. Hi Doug
    I think you miss one of the major fundamentals of what journals do: precedence.
    Back in the early days Scientists may have kept stum about their theories lest someone else stole their work and tried to carry it off as their own. Journals offer a record of who had what idea; when they had it; and what research they used as a basis for this. The formality and possible stuffyness/sluggishness of the whole process is actually very important to ensure scientists/researchers gain credit for the work they have done. Something like a blog post lacks this IP security, as unfortunately many bloggers do plagiarize extensively and aren’t always great at disclosing sources etc. So I’d argue Journals actively increase the motivation for good research to take place because they play a key role in a fair reward system for good research and critical thought.However, if you view their main purpose as a way to disseminate information then their inherent flaws are obvious. However, many abstracts now can avoid the peer review process and obviously blog posts can reach a wider audience at far greater speed.
    I also don’t quite understand what you are implying with the second quote: ‘The reaction to the web of today’s scholars’.. Not only is this statement 13 years old (so possibly before the point that all journals became online – which any half-decent journal nowadays with hyperlinked references etc.) but to me it doesn’t make clear whether the objection is the ‘web’ or the ‘peer-review/formal process’. I don’t think many traditional journal supporters would fear the web or fail to realise it’s revolutionary importance…but what they might object to is an erosion of critical and academic quality if we treat blog posts/self-publications in the same light as journals. The two methods of communication are complimentary but just have different purposes…if you want to be heard immediately and stimulate debate, then blog…if you feel you have come across something important enough that requires a lasting record, a secure attribution of credit and a greater likelihood to be discovered by future researchers working in the same field then clearly Journals still offer outstanding advantages.

    P.S. I don’t work in Journals and hate the mere thought of writing academic papers but I do appreciate what the whole process offers to researchers.

    1. I’m going to have to respond to this almost line-by-line, Stephen:

      “Something like a blog post lacks… IP security, as unfortunately many
      bloggers do plagiarize extensively and aren’t always great
      at disclosing sources etc.”

      Yep, so do academics unfortunately. See the quotation from the editor of ‘The Lancet’.

      “I’d argue Journals actively increase the motivation for good research to
      take place because they play a key role in a fair reward system for
      good research and critical thought.”

      Do you mean systems like the REF? Tenure track? Really?

      “I also don’t quite understand what you are implying with the second quote… Not only is this statement 13 years old.”

      Excellent, I hoped someone would call me out on using old research. In fact, I put together this post in about 5 minutes using a Wikipedia as my main research tool. I wanted to show in a follow-up blog post that making reference to journal articles tends convey an air of legitimacy that is not really warranted.

      “The two methods of communication are complimentary…”

      Absolutely, but one has a huge edifice which can be used as a stick to beat academics with (and exclude other voices).

      I suppose I can sum up my response to your comment as “journals may have advantages, but those advantages may either a) no longer be relevant, and b) be exclusionary.”

      Follow-up blog post to come before the end of the week!

      1. Thanks for the detailed reply Doug, very interesting and appreciated…I still think Journals play an important part in recording discovery in a formal manner – to me this will always be essential to motivate scientists researcher to spend lots of time doing the hard slog of research with often very little financial reward.
        Where I’m more cynical about them (and thus I think in agreement with you) is when publishing papers becomes a key part in ensuring an academic keeps his job (whether or not the research is valid) and thus you have an ever growing amount of papers looking for an ever growing amount of journals (of sometimes limited quality) which can also be exclusionary to those outside the academic machine.
        However, I still think its a central motivation for researchers that they receive recognition for the work they have done and I don’t think blogs/wikis etc can ever offer this is quite the same way…
        I don’t think I  can agree that their advantages are no longer relevant hough I can see how they may be exclusionary…however your log post has obviously stimulated an interesting debate and allowed me to make and receive an immediate response (which you’d never get with a journal article).
        On another note, more and more content is now being created…so the job of jornals/publsihing is becoming less about the actual ‘publishing’ which anyone can now do with a bit of work….but more about filtering content and making quality judgements…that may be exclusionary but this is kind of the point…anyway this is a whole other argument about the future of publishing, so I’ll end now. Thanks again for the response.

          1. Plus you would never get away with as many typos in a journal…(just re-read my last post)

  2. I’ll start with a bit of open peer review Doug- the first link is broken 😉

    You seem to be questioning 2 things in your post:
    1. Do we need journals / can they be replicated by ‘another system’?
    2. Is peer review a useful benefit offered by journal?

    In answer to the first, please tell me a bit more about this other system.

    With regard to the second personally, I am really pleased to see dialogue open up around peer review as practice raises important why? and how? questions.  I expressed some of my own views in this blog post and my commitment to peer review here   It’s not that I think peer review is without flaws – I just think that we should be a bit careful about throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Productive dialogue about the role of peer review and whether it should be abolished has to go way beyond a yes/no. What I suspect is that more research needs to be done on how, for example. scholarly societies can support research, scholarship and practice in a digital age.  I would love to contribute to such research and were I to get that opportunity I would start by doing a literature review to see what is already known.  For example, your 1997 reference made me think – what about improvement of published research via a review and editing process? what about the personal development of authors, reviewers and editors via review and editing process?

    Your next reference really made me smile “we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable,
    incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant,
    occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong. (Horton, 2000)” as I thought that if I were to substitute ‘blogging’ for ‘system of peer review’ how many of the attributes would I need to delete – accountable? any others?

    We only have to look at SOPA to see how the status quo will fight to reinvent itself for its own ends. The internetworked world will not eliminate sexism, racism, etc. – we have to struggle to make change in a changing world.  Power relations exist in the blogosphere juts as much as they exist in scholarly processes such as the publication process in journals.

    Come on now, let’s open up debate and dialogue 😉 there are no simple prescriptions or proscriptions
    as might be suggested by the last sentence of your post.

    1. Thanks Frances, I’ve fixed the incorrect link. I’d have to wait until the next issue if this post was a journal article, wouldn’t I? 😉

      Yes, I suppose I am asking those two questions, as well as a third:

      3. Is publishing in journals a good way of measuring an academic’s impact and/or ‘worth’?

      I don’t think that anyone could credibly defend the position that journals offer something ‘unique’ because of their structure. What they do offer is an established way of doing things and system that can be used (rightly, or in my view, wrongly) to measure the worth of academics.

      You accuse me (in a friendly way) of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Not at all and, in fact, quite the opposite. To extend the metaphor, I think that the baby is so precious that we need to *change* the bathwater to keep it fit and healthy.

      How would we do that? One way has been flagged up by a previous commenter: As I hope I showed with my thesis, opening things up for anyone and everyone to review your work can lead to unexpected benefits. The feedback I got from a general, unselected group was at least as good as (if not better in some cases) than that more formally from a small, selected group.

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