Academic Journals and the Problem of Trust in the Digital Age

Lauren Schaffran

There has been a lot of discussion about the “digital age.” A Google search of the question “what is the digital age?” yields pages and pages of articles, ranging in topic from how to teach today’s technology-steeped kindergarteners to the problem of privacy. The fact that I just mentioned Google to prove a point in an academic paper, and (probably) no one thought twice about it, speaks for itself. No one can deny that the digital age has changed the way people interact with each other and with the world, including the way we consume information. But what does the rapid technological advancement of fairly recent years mean for the print-based institution of scholarly journal publishing? Is it possible for journals to continue on in print form as they have for years? Should journals be making the switch to an entirely digital format? Or is there a blend of the old ways and the new that would be best?

These are complex questions without simple answers, but in his article “The Costs of Print,” Michael Clarke argues that “print editions have, with a few exceptions, become a luxury that the industry can no longer afford” (Clarke). Clarke writes that the costs of the print-only format go beyond just the money spent to actually print the journal. There are also opportunity costs, innovation costs, and organizational costs, all of which deal not with money but with the content of the journal and the scholarly direction and vision of its publishing institution.

However, while he explains the non-monetary costs of print publishing fairly extensively in his article, Clarke’s conclusion that the industry can “no longer afford” to be print-only seems to be mostly based, in the end, on cost-benefit analysis. In his concluding paragraph, Clarke writes, “substantive growth will only come from developing new digital products and by tapping new markets” (Clarke). And this is probably true. But I don’t think that a stance as strong as Clarke’s—he seems to advocate that journals should go one hundred percent digital as soon as possible—can really be backed up based solely on monetary consideration. Not only does a stance like this make the assumption that we have a complete understanding of how to switch effectively from a print to a digital format, which is debatable, it also fails to consider an important question of the nature of academic journals: is money their most important consideration when making decisions regarding format and, consequently, process?

For academic journals, the question of whether to go digital has many potential consequences beyond just revenue. The process currently used by most academic journals is kept in place because these publications are meant to convey not just any old information to their readers, but quality information. In switching from a print-only format to a digital format, the process of publishing must necessarily change, and if journals aren’t careful when implementing this change, I think the quality of their articles may be at risk. In his article “The Scholarly Journal: Hindsight Toward a Digital Future,” Alan Rauch points out that the roles of all the people involved in the publication of a scholarly article, such as the editor and the author, would have to change to fit a new digital format, “including how the selfless and unpaid practice of ‘peer review,’ upon which we all count, may have to be reconsidered under a new paradigm of digital publication” (Rauch). For a print-based journal, peer-reviewing and careful editing are very important steps that help maintain the quality of the articles published, and with the change in process necessary to a new format comes the danger of lower-quality articles. The system of peer review doesn’t need to go away when a journal switches to a digital format—and it shouldn’t—but certain considerations need to be made.

The point is, a journal can’t just take the content that it used to print on a physical page and slap it into a format readers can see on their laptop and phone screens because of this fundamental truth: audiences view what they read on those screens differently than what they read on the page.

I’m young enough to have grown up with the Internet. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t Google the answer to any question I could think of. But I also can’t remember a time when I wasn’t warned with that phrase so ubiquitous as to be a cliché: you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. This is a widely-held and deeply entrenched belief, and that’s not without good reason. But it poses a problem for academic journals looking to go digital: audiences don’t (and can’t) always trust online content.

Online academic journal databases and aggregators do help readers establish a sense of trust that what they are reading is legitimate, but as Rauch points out, once an article appears in digital format it is likely to show up all over the internet: “papers (publications) can be found circulating the web as ‘free access’ items without the knowledge of either the author or the publisher, no doubt as a result of individuals’ pushing the limits of ‘fair use’ to an absolute extreme” (Rauch). So (at least with the way the digital process and the internet function today, anyway) it’s really just as likely that a reader will come across a scholarly article while simply browsing the web. In this case, an astute reader (whether the article truly has fallen prey to any of the misguided or uninformed editing the internet makes possible or not) will automatically treat it with a suspicion that would not be directed at the same article were it to appear in print format.

I don’t disagree with Clarke’s assessment that technology is moving ahead so rapidly that journals of an all-print format will eventually be entirely antiquated, but I do think that any foray into the world of digital publication needs to be made carefully and thoughtfully. Clarke seems to view the idea of supplemental online content with disdain, but especially for a journal taking its first steps into digital content, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. It introduces an academically-minded audience to online content without diving in headfirst and having to change the entire process by which articles are published. It’s partly a generational divide, and partly just that for some, but for some, nothing beats the credibility of a physical copy in their hands. No matter their reasoning, and regardless of the purity of its peer review system, a digital-only journal will not only lose a certain portion of its audience, it may lose credibility for even more.

Technology has evolved so quickly relative to the academic journal that we don’t yet have a process for creating and publishing one hundred percent digital content that is up to the same high standards as print content. So at least for now, I think the preservation of quality information through print media is not just an old-fashioned fancy but a necessary effort.

 

 

Bibliography

Clarke, Michael. The Costs of Print. The Scholarly Kitchen, 7 Dec. 2011.

Rauch, Alan. The Scholarly Journal: Hindsight Toward a Digital Future. Journal Identity in the Digital Age: A 2008 CELJ Roundtable. University of Toronto Press, 2010.

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4 Comments

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  1. I thought you showed great insight in this piece. You did a nice job of pointing out how comfortable we are in a digital age with the Google reference in the first paragraph. You’re right, it didn’t stand out at all. Using the Google example was a nice touch after already mentioning it earlier, and it made the paragraph feel more whole than if you had introduced a different example. Later you say, “audiences view what they read on those screens differently than what they read on the page,” which is intriguing because you wouldn’t think that there would be a difference. I think you’re right that even with the same content, the text will be looked at differently if it’s in print or online. The fact that we even have academic journal databases shows that you can’t trust everything on the internet because one of their purposes is to ensure quality and trustworthy content. I also agree with your final statement that preserving the quality we get through print is necessary. It makes me wonder why so many articles are still posted online when they have this stigma attached to them. When we write research papers we’re only supposed to look at websites ending in .org or .edu, but when looking something up in our free time we don’t automatically search for these sites. I think we may have to start carrying that mentality with us in the future if print goes completely out of style and we only have the internet left. Then readers will definitely be aware of quality articles, because of the “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” situation.

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  2. Katherine Lawin March 25, 2016 — 7:53 pm

    I’d like to take a moment to appreciate your use of Google (perhaps the most prominent example of the significance of the digital age in our daily lives) to “google” “what is the digital age?”—as this is a hilarious example of the “digital age”. I fully appreciate the irony, which you touched on by admitting the significance of mentioning Google in an academic paper. You raise very thought provoking questions initially in the paper, definitely hooking my interest, and the remainder of the paper proves to be a very insightful analysis of the place of print journals in an age in which Google is probably* our secret overlord. I would also like to note a particularly good pair of linking sentences between paragraph three and four i.e. your use of question and answer.

    You very clearly define important aspects of the current print-edition peer review process—ensuring quality of published articles—which, as academics, should be the first concern when considering a switch between print to digital publication. Especially to set the journal apart from the frankly limitless barrage of information (factual or otherwise) constantly present on the internet. I think that it is also important to understand that we, as consumers of these academic journals, have also changed. We have changed the way we consume and distribute information, hence the whole “millennials and their dependence on immediate gratification thing.” It is only logical that the internet has altered some of the basic human qualities of all generations to come. When viewed in this light, it is clear that print journals will have to change along with all of us, although this change does not necessarily need to happen in the near future. I think that your essay was very well presented analysis of the debate towards print journalism, perhaps as time passes we will see some examples of good and poor transitions from print to paper-free publication.

    * I’d say that the “probability” is close to 99%

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  3. This article made some really excellent points about the importance of print and the dangers of digital copies. You had some thoughts that were so true—audiences view messages on-screen differently than on paper and that academic journals have a lot to consider when switching to a digital format. I agree that journals have more to consider than money when thinking about format; if journals were all about money, their structure and content would have changed drastically to become a moneymaking enterprise. You also pointed out that many journals have no idea how to effectively switch to a digital format. I think this was made clear in some of the online journals that we looked at in class—many lacked the readability and cohesion of their print counterparts. The additions you made throughout, especially in your second to last paragraph, were solid. They really helped to further explain some of the questions that our class had after your presentation. Changing from print to digital has implications that cannot really be measured prior to a switch, but that will have measurable implications on readership and loyalty to a journal if the switch is not done well or meets with reader opposition. Overall, you presented very sound considerations for journals considering a switch, ones that I hope those in positions of power will consider before they turn completely after from print journals.

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  4. This is a tough topic for me! I personally love the feel of paper, and it makes reading such an enjoyable an experience. No matter what I’m reading I’d prefer print so I guess I’m a bit biased. Scholarly journals though are much easier to read in print form I think. Digital can be so cluttered looking so I agree with your conclusion that being careful and thoughtful about a change like that is crucial!
    I’m so glad you brought up the issue of money and cost! Money is definitely not everything, and if they were to base all their decisions on cost then they would lose things like you said, especially trust and quality. And it is hard to put money figures on those two things. For me, if they could figure out a way to use digital and print at the same time so people can still have their preference then I think it could work. But that really depends on whether or not they can figure that out. Some people seem to think if something must change then it must change completely! Your ideas seem way more balanced to me so hopefully they will do something like that.

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