The academic journal is obsolete and we don’t need to build its replacement. We have it already. We just need to recognize its value and to start recognizing its output. We simply don’t need journals and presses anymore. We have better right now. The traditional journal system restricts both the diversity of inputs and the reach of outputs of the scholarly enterprise. The new system that has replaced it multiplies both.
Journals were developed and published despite the considerable difficulties and investments involved because there were good reasons to have journals. Papers needed to be printed and bound together to be distributed. Field specific journals developed because it made sense to bundle related papers together for people who were interested in them.
Just as journals had initially been made possible by technological innovation, so has technological innovation now given us tools that do the job better than traditional journals. Many new academic publishing efforts that try to capitalize on those tools have so far attempted to replicate the journal or academic press form. There is in fact no need for modern academic publishing to replicate any form. There is already a system that allows us to do better than journals at attaining the central goals of academic publishing: dissemination and coordination of scholarship. The original journal format did not replicate anything. It was an innovative mechanism that combined newly available parts such as printing, cheap paper, reliable post, standardized Western vernaculars, etc, to pursue those core objectives: dissemination and coordination.
The journal model now actually inhibits dissemination and coordination of scholarship. Better, faster dissemination and coordination is actually happening without it, and perhaps in spite of it, right now, all around us.
In terms of dissemination and coordination of scholarship, the traditional academic journal was infinitely better than the peer to peer system of honourable correspondents and the local salon society that it gradually supplanted. But that system had evolved because it provided the best dissemination and coordination that available tools could produce at that time.
Using the post-journal technology available to us, we have now constructed a system that looks very much like the pre-journal system, with a few very important differences. We have peer to peer networks of honourable correspondents that our enlightenment predecessors could only have dreamed of. We have one to one, one to many, and many to one, instant worldwide communication. We have salons, private, public, with or without audience participation, again with instant worldwide distribution of content. We have archiving, curation, and portability of content such as never existed in the history of our species. And all of it is highly searchable and manipulable. Just to give one simple example, the biggest revolution in scholarship for me in the past 25 years is that I can now follow citations chains forward, and not just backward. Students consistently fail to understand how mind blowing that is, and to me this is a sign that they have internalized all this and have already taken the next step in the evolution of academic publishing.
As Jason Hoyt points out in response to Stephen Buranyi, a big part of the problem is that established senior academics won’t let them. For some bizarre reason, granting agency committees and tenure review committees, which we control, hold on to the empty shell of the traditional journal system while the real work of dissemination and coordination of scholarship is being done by an entirely new mechanism. People now write and submit journal articles that summarize the work they discussed, workshopped and posted online ages ago. They write and submit those articles not because it is necessary for the dissemination and coordination of scholarship, but because they need publications in established peer-reviewed journals in the increasingly faint hope that they will get grants and get jobs.
The reality is that their work was inspired by, proposed in, dissected by, commented on, revised and posted to the world though participation in this new online, worldwide, instant system of salons and honourable correspondents long before it ever got to a journal. The submission to the traditional journal, after all this, only mobilizes energy that could more usefully be spent carrying the work forward in our collaboration with peers in our networks of honourable correspondents and our online salons. Worse, the journal takes the evaluation of the work from the broad based review it has been getting to a very narrow set of reviewers. The traditional journal is the Merovingian King to whom the Mayor of the Palace brings a decree for signature. It exists only because the Dukes and the Counts believe it should.
We don’t need to build a brave new publishing system. We have one, and it works very well. For purposes of dissemination and coordination of scholarship, it is at least as much an improvement over the traditional journal as the journal was over enlightenment salons and correspondents. We, the senior scholars, surveying the land from our dais, just need to recognize that it exists. Granting agencies and tenure and promotion committees, which we control, simply need to start reading more widely, and valuing a greater diversity of contributions. This requires no significant change to the review process, and in fact, multiplies its value and power. We need to start evaluating contributions for their merits, whether they are tweets, blog posts,e- seminars, prezies, youtube presentations, or any other wonderful thing that the next decades will bring us. We, and everyone else, can only benefit from this.