Why Journals (Mostly) Suck


For scholarly journals, this is the best of times and the worst of times. The past two decades have seen a massive explosion in the number of scholarly journals in all fields, and a parallel growth in their price.

Sounds like success. If so, that very success is pushing journals to the brink of their own extinction: libraries can't keep up with their proliferation and their cost, and across the country, academic libraries are taking dramatic steps to curtail the number of journals being ordered. It's natural selection time on the library shelves, and only journals with broad audiences or with unquestioned centrality to important fields can feel confident that they will survive in their present form. Others may manage to mutate into electronic form and survive that way.

In any event, a bloodbath is definitely coming.

Bring on the gore, then.

I can't think of anything more overdue in academia than a massive and wrenching transformation of the world of journals. It's not just a question of having too many or a question of the price of various journals (though some publishers have mercilessly exploited the presumed centrality of certain journals, especially in the sciences). The real issue is the content, purpose, and governance of journals. My comments below mostly address journals in the humanities and the social sciences--scientific journals are in some ways a different kettle of fish.

At least in the humanities and the social sciences, I can identify a number of types of journal article that we could do without.

Some of these types of article could be thinned out by reforms that have little to do with the journals themselves. The easy way to get rid of draft chapters or multiple-repeat articles, for example, is for colleges and universities to stop assessing their faculty in terms of the quantity of their publications and look instead at quality. One good article should be worth twenty retreads. One important if brief research note should be accredited in the same way we accredit a longer article. However, for journals in the humanities and social sciences to acquire some particular lasting value, to be something fundamentally different than monographs or anthologies, many of them will have to embrace a complete transformation of the way they work.


What are the most urgent reforms?

First, all journals need a strong editorial philosophy and identity.

It's not enough simply for a journal to claim to cover some particular field or speciality and act as if that coverage is sufficient reason for its existence. Such a justification only worked in the now-vanished era in which there was overwhelming consensus between scholars about where particular academic fields began and ended.

At this point, any claim to comprehensive representation of any field, to intellectual centrality, is almost intrinsically farcical. Some of journals nevertheless survive off of a kind of blackmail. They haunt contemporary scholars with the ghostly memory of their former power to define and structure a field or discipline, and so maintain a readership who read the journal superficially, uneasily, as a kind of seismometer which sketchily records major intellectual disturbances whose epicenter lies far away.

Journals need to stand for something on their own and remain aloof from specialties and disciplines. It's okay to have a particular subject matter, but that's not enough. Journals need to have attitude, perspective, argument. They need to have an angle, a polemical vision. As disciplines blur and specialties relentlessly intermingle, only a journal which connects particular affinities, politics and positions across the broad range of academic divisions- while also keeping a sharp, distinctive edge to the style of its connections-- can hope to forge a distinctive profile in the midst of a crisis of overproduction.

Second, the role of an editorial board needs to be strengthened and the importance of peer review needs to be reduced.

I have many friends and colleagues who have told me of endless cycles of revisions and delays demanded by journal editors who like a particular article but feel constrained by a somewhat negative peer review. Sometimes the editor seeks another peer review, and another one, until they get an assessment which is positive. Sometimes they demand revisions to match the negative review, even if the editorial board doesn't particularly agree with or care for the negative review.

Peer review is a complex institution and almost needs to be addressed in a separate piece. I think detailed, lengthy, aggressive peer review is an absolute necessity with book-length manuscripts: it is helpful to authors, publishers and to disciplines as a whole. I'm less certain that it works appropriately with regard to journals.

Junior scholars get very little explicit guidance from senior figures when it comes to interpreting reviews of their own work or writing reviews of the work of others. You sort of invent your own procedures as you go along, and slowly tease out over the years how your friends and colleagues deal with peer review. Until now, I have tended to write fairly detailed, argumentative reviews of journal articles--which I hold separate from my judgement of whether the article should be published--figuring that any feedback for writers is useful feedback.

Increasingly, I have come to feel that this more detailed assessment is a kind of frill that I can provide to the author if I'm so inclined, but that such an assessment is not my primary job as a reviewer. The primary job, I think, is to tell the editorial board simply this: are there major errors, inaccuracies or serious omissions in this article? And perhaps, minimally, I can also advise the editors as to whether the argument or results are novel or interesting within the confines of a particular specialized field.

The judgement as to whether the article is worth publishing, whether it has merit and fits the mission of the journal,whether it is interesting to read and so on should lie solely with the editors, in accordance with their disciplined sense of the journal's distinctive identity and slant.

At the least, some editorial boards need to reclaim this capacity from peer reviewers and reduce the role of outside reviewers accordingly. It may even be worth considering the elimination of peer review altogether. Yes, that can get you into hot water, as the editors of Social Text discovered when they gave the green light to Alan Sokal's hoax. Yes, it can lead to painfully self-indulgent journals which largely feature pompous, airy nonsense written by the close friends of the editorial board. But on the whole, the elimination of peer review would speed up the cycle of publication and allow editorial boards to shape the identity of their journals in accordance with a distinctive vision.

Third, authors should approach a journal article as a distinctive genre of academic writing with its own stylistic demands. Short pieces should be written deliberately AS short pieces, not merely as exerpts from longer work.

A novel and a short story are very different kinds of creative animals, and you'd think the same would be true for journal articles. But it isn't: they are written in the same heavily qualified and densely written prose that most monographs favor.

A journal article needs to get in and get out quickly and with intensity. Some kinds of works are peculiarly well-suited to journals: debates between several authors, commentaries, research notes, articles about material which doesn't properly fit into a larger monograph, and so on. Editors need to be more aggressive about making the journal form a distinctive kind of academic writing.

Fourth, journals need to speed up the publication cycle or abandon the kind of material that needs to appear promptly.

The easiest way to do this is to pursue electronic publication. In this format, journals could have timely reviews of books, update their material, and have interesting exchanges between scholars in the form of letters.

If you can't go electronic, don't do book reviews, or do book reviews only as review essays, designed to spark debate about the state of a particular field. Or do short "book notices" written by the editors so that they can be somewhat timely.

Eliminating peer review would speed things up as well.

Journals that refuse to reform in some fashion won't survive the coming shakeout--and won't deserve to survive. Nothing too bad about that: the academic world could certainly use a few less journals than it has. More importantly, we desperately need to move the publication of most journals into an online, cheaply distributed, format.

Of course, fewer journals means fewer publications, and so we come back to the inevitable underlying issue in academic life, namely, tenure. Fewer publications--better publications--means that senior scholars will need to learn to evaluate the work of their peers and their juniors in new ways.


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