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.
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.