« Haftorah Vayeshev | Main | Oy Chanukah »


It occurred to me, the other day, that there’s an odd little cultural shift that’s taken place in undergraduate academic life. In my day (before 1990), as I expect for a generation or more previous, a lazy student would find it substantially easier to do the minimum amount of research for a particular topic in books, rather than in journals. Oh, if you wanted to be diligent, there was the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which involved looking up a topic, and then getting a citation, and then probably looking up the journal in the card catalogue and going and finding it or maybe paging it or even working with microfiche or microfilm. But if you were at an institution with a reasonable library, and you had one title or author to get you to the right place, you could easily pick up three or four books from one shelf to make up your sources for a short paper. Easy as pie.

Now, though, from the comfort of your dormitory, you can not only search for citations but get the actual text of a zillion articles through ProQuest or Ingenta or JSTOR or ABI/INFORM or Educator’s Reference or PubMed or the publishers’ sites. Some of the databases have the citations hot-linked from one article to the next, so you can just brip-brip-brip! download a whole paper’s worth of resources. And suddenly, all the steps that had been previous invisible, because they were assumed to be a natural part of doing any research, are gone: you don’t have to physically go to the library (which might involve walking, or using your Human Transport Device), you don’t have to learn any catalogue system at all (because the search engine will work on keywords), you don’t have to research when the library is open, you don’t have to bend down to look at a bottom shelf or stretch to the top shelf, you don’t have to physically lift a stack of books, and you don’t have to risk being distracted by any books on any topics other than your own.

I don’t think I ever cited a single scholarly journal in my undergraduate career. I did get a high score at Addams Family Pinball, though. And I read a lot of books. I wonder if there has been (as I expect) an enormous increase in citations for scholarly journals at the undergraduate level, and at the same time a precipitous decrease in citations for books. On the whole, I suspect that would be a Good Thing, although of course there are drawbacks and disadvantages. I’m not, of course, saying that books are outdated, or that the bricks-and-books library has outlived its usefulness. Books are still books, and there’s a cachet there, even for undergraduates. But I suspect that journals and journal articles are where much of the serious scholarly advance occurs, and that even a limited exposure to that while still undergraduates would give students an idea of what their fields are like at the next level, while there’s still time to avoid graduate school.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


V, I generally think you've hit the nail on the head here. I would add that many of the steps of the (former?) research process that were NOT transparent -- searching indices; finding appropriate subject terms in thesauri; following citation trails; parsing out obscure call number systems (the "Old Yale" classification system was a particular bugaboo of my graduate career, never mind SUDOCS); collecting, sorting, and prioritizing citations and obtaining their respective sources (does any undergraduate actually use ILL any more?) -- now are not only transparent, but nonexistent to the current undergraduate, who can just clickety clickety click without really thinking about what she is doing. I think the quality of undergraduate research suffers as a result.

I was going to disagree with your last paragraph until I got to the last sentence. Heh. How true, how true. I definitely agree that the citation of books has dropped, but disagree that this is a Good Thing, especially for the average non-haute-liberal-arts-college undergraduate. Often books are written at a more general level than the excessively specialized journal literature and thus are more accessible to an 18-22-year old. The decrease in the citation of books is also due to an understandable laziness (just try explaining to a harried sophomore, "no, you don't have to read the whole book, just this one chapter that's exactly about your topic!" Good luck...) and to (drumroll)...

...the faculty. I can't tell you how many assignments I've seen that specify that students must cite X number of scholarly journal articles, with no provision for books. Yeah, thanks a lot, Prof. Never mind that the average sophomore is no more prepared to read the scholarly discourse in physical chemistry, deconstructionism, music theory, or post-Keynesian economics than my 3-month-old; that's what professors ask for, so that's what students cite, to (IMNSHO) the detriment of their educations.


Ooh, I want everyone I know involved even remotely in undergraduate education to read this. It's vitally important to how academic life is structured far beyond undergraduate education as well -- at a time when monographs are becoming far more difficult for publishers to justify publishing, and when tenure committees are being forced to reconsider the value of electronic publication (i.e., assign some non-negligible value), and when libraries have slashed budgets for monograph acquisitions, and when journals have made a transition to electronic access that books are unlikely to equal any time soon, I think we're at the tail end of the academic monograph as a significant mode of publication. So where will the explication, exploration, and synthesis that scholars have put into monographs go? Will journals publish more serious review articles? How will journals adapt to their new role as purveyors of information to students rather than peers? Will there be a new class of journals that focus on reaching a less trained audience while still limiting themselves to a (relatively) narrow academic subject? I'm excited to see how it all shakes out. Less excited about the prospects for my backlist.

Michael wrote:

"How will journals adapt to their new role as purveyors of information to students rather than peers? Will there be a new class of journals that focus on reaching a less trained audience while still limiting themselves to a (relatively) narrow academic subject?"

Answers: They won't, and No.

Why? Because there's no academic whuffie in publishing with an intended audience for undergraduates. In many disciplines, there's actually negative whuffie associated with it.

Sure, there's currently no whuffie in writing for a student audience, and that certainly makes some authors less willing to write for that audience. But the journals are no longer under the control of the academic fields. They're under the control of the publishers (who care about what they can sell to libraries) and the libraries (who care about justifying their budget with circulation and access figures, which means they care about library users actually using the library). If a publisher creates EsotericaLite and bundles it with their other Esoterica journals (forcing it into libraries) and libraries discover that undergrads actually use EsotericaLite, then the value of EsotericaLite goes up to the libraries and the publishers. And there will be plenty of authors who are willing to write for EsotericaLite, because it's better than not getting published at all or because EsotericaLite actually pays like textbooks do or because they don't care about whuffie.

Researchers don't create new journals. Publishers do.

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.