Deconstructing journals – and overcoming boredom

Journals have traditionally performed many functions. These include:

  1. registration: recording that a certain piece of work has been done by a certain author or team;
  2. quality control: discriminating between material on the basis of quality and publishing only the good stuff – often assessed by peer review;
  3. quality improvement: providing authors with feedback to help them improve their work through revision prior to publication;
  4. providing content – both (a) publishing it and (b) archiving it;
  5. promoting and distributing, for example through providing a brand and selling subscriptions.

In the era of print (more accurately, the era of print only), it made sense for these functions to be integrated. Not doing so would be likely to lead to complication. But, here’s the thing: in a digital age, this no longer applies. One can separate the functions: different parties may fulfil different functions – no single party need fulfil them all.

Below, I explore this point in more detail. First, however, I should acknowledge a debt. This post borrows the phrase ‘deconstructed journals’ from John Smith (University of Kent), who is the author of (to my mind) two classic papers: ‘The deconstructed (or distributed) journal – an emerging model?‘ and ‘The deconstructed journal revisited‘. This posts draws on those papers for its ideas too, though it does so rather loosely.

To return to the main theme: how can we deconstruct the journal so that its functions may be fulfilled by different parties in different places? And why might we wish to do this?

Consider four scenarios.

1. A journal may assess content (say, a paper) published elsewhere – for example in a university depository – and publish the outcome. For example, it might use a star system to indicate the relative quality of the content under review.

2. A journal might go further than this by publishing not only the outcome (the number of stars) but also the grounds for its judgement. That is, it might publish a review of the content in question.

3. The original provider might respond to the journal’s review – either in the form of further comments or by revising the content in question.

4. A journal might publish a table of contents, consisting of links to the pieces of content in question.

Such a system has several potential advantages. At the moment, journals operate a binary system (ultimately a piece is either accepted or rejected). This is crude and somewhat arbitrary (the editorial decision depends not only on a judgement of a paper’s quality, but also on whether it is better or worse than other submissions that the journal happens to have received at that time).

The extent of pieces of content are no longer dependent on the journal’s capacity to archive. Pieces that, because of their length or the nature of their media, require large digital capacity may nevertheless be considered by a journal, for the simple reason that the content in question need not reside on the journal’s server.

A much greater range of content may be considered. that is, pieces for review may not only be longer and larger than conventional papers: they might also belong to different genres. The scholarly paper is not the only form in which work of scholarly interest and value may be expressed.

Here we should note one of the failings of the academic journal industry. Many journals, in their notes for contributors or statements of editorial policy, already invite contributions in ‘creative’ or ‘non-standard’ formats – yet, so far as I can see, they tend to be unsuccessful in actually eliciting such contributions.

A distributed journal may consider contributions in a number of genres – for example, books and videos. And they may include that vast and rich array of stuff currently lumped into the category of ‘grey literature’ – reports, white papers, interim reports, conference presentations, and so on.

Indeed, perhaps I should above have put the word ‘journal’ in inverted commas throughout, since the resulting product might look very little like a journal as currently understood, even though it would be fulfilling and extending many of the functions of a journal.

In previous posts I have argued that (1) publishers typically fulfil (at least) two functions –  they co-ordinate services (such as typesetting and copy-editing) and they provide a brand – and (2) there is no necessary connection between the two. A deconstructed journal provides an opportunity for non-publishers (or not-only-publishers or not-primarily-publishers) to extend their brands by assessing other parties’ content. Learned societies and professional associations might be the ones to benefit here.

I wonder whether Smith’s papers might have been a little ahead of their time. Web 2.0 has now stimulated interest in, and resources to support, curation – a development with which the idea of a deconstructed journal is happily aligned.

I propose, in a subsequent post, to explore in a little detail a worked example of how a deconstructed journal (or whatever we might call it) might look. Here, however, I would like to finish with one further thought on the potential benefit of such a development.

I work in or with many universities. It’s evident from my professional interactions with academics that there is one huge taboo subject in academia, namely boredom. I meet many academics who have patently become bored with the field that they have been studying for decades. But they must never say so (hence the convention of greeting the dullest conference paper with the phrase, “Thank you for your very interesting paper”). I have no wholesale solution to that, but it strikes me that the boredom is exacerbated by the narrow preoccupation with journal papers. Currently, one must not only read and write within a circumscribed area: one must read and write in only one form within that area. Deconstructed journals might just make life a little more lively – for authors, editors, reviewers, and readers.

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About Anthony Haynes

Director, Frontinus Ltd Communications Associate, FJWilson Talent Services

3 comments

  1. Anthony Watkinson

    Smith’s original insight is better expressed in Raym Crow’s white paper on setting up institutional repositories (2002) on the ARL/SPARC site

    • Thank you, Anthony. The URL for Raym Crow’s paper is http://www.arl.org/sparc/bm~doc/ir_final_release_102-2.pdf.
      The paper helpfully provides an executive summary. In addition the two tables (# 1 and 2) on page 9 provide a clear, concise overview.

      It is worth emphasising that Raym Crow’s focus is somewhat different from John Smith’s (and my own). Crow considers deconstructed journals in the context of the case for institutional repositories. Such repositories have, rightly, become an established part of the research communication landscape.

      However, it is useful to consider deconstructed journals in a broader context. In such a context, institutional repositories are one form of content provider for deconstructed journals – but only one. Other potential content providers include publishers of grey literature (for example, learned societies, professional institutions, charities, NGOs), self-publishers (a category that has grown in significance since the papers published by Crow and Smith), and indeed other journals.

  2. Pingback: Monographer reaches 100: blogging on publishing, the creative economy, and micro-enterprise « Monographer's Blog

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