Are Journals Necessary for Scholarly Communication?

In short no, at least not in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, perhaps not even for the twenty-first.  Scholarly communication is a system that according to Marcel LaFollette formed between around 1880 and 1940 (in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.”  In Radway, J., & Kaestle, K. (Eds.), A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940, 2009).  It was not inevitable that such a system be centered around journals, however.  At least based on my current (and admittedly preliminary) thinking, journals were a mechanism organically developed between universities and scholarly societies for the purpose of mutual accreditation.  If I’m correct, then perhaps it is simply time to create a new mechanism that facilitates such accreditation.

In Andrew Abbott’s “The Order of Professionalization” in Work and Occupations (1991), he states that “journals appear relatively early in the rise of professional interest in knowledge, whereas enduring organizations appear relatively later in the rise of professional interest in association” (p. 359).  Therefore it is not the journal itself that helps to perpetuate the rise of professional knowledge, rather it is the organization.  In another one of Abbott’s articles, “Linked Ecologies” (Sociological Theory, 2005) he discusses how professions and related organizations (such as governments and universities) develop “hinge” mechanisms whereby the two institutions (or ecologies to use his term) become associated.  Such hinge mechanisms provide mutual benefit for both organizations.  Furthermore in Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines (2001) and System of Professions (1988), he discusses how scholarly associations and universities formed a kind of mutual dependency that might very well allow for such a hinge mechanism to develop.

Certainly in my work so far, the journal at least was relatively well developed by the late nineteenth century, though as Abbott states the journal in and of itself may not have been so important.  What rather seems to be important is when universities decided that journals and publication were a good way to determine that professors were eligible for things like tenure and promotion, and, conversely, for professional associations to perpetuate themselves by creating an accreditation system through university degrees and standards for professional posts within academic departments.  If I am correct in my initial thinking the journal publication system became the very kind of hinge mechanism that Abbott discusses.

What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  For years we seem to have been talking about ways of replicating the current journal system in some form.  Admittedly we are now talking about electronic versions of articles, and quantitative measures of assessing the content of such journals (through numbers like impact factors), but nonetheless we are still trying to re-create in electronic form a hinge mechanism that was developed over 50 years ago.  Given the current realities of universities and scholarly associations do we actually want to be replicating an accreditation structure from 1940?  Alternatively should we develop a new hinge mechanism that helps to solve current problems?  In Chaos of Disciplines even Abbott seems to suggest a change in career structures for academics would be beneficial (p. 149).  If history is any indication, such a change needs to be done in collaboration with professional scholarly societies.  Maybe universities and societies need to create a new hinge mechanism, one that does not include journals.

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