Is the journal article a dying format?

· by Brian Anderson · Read in about 4 min · (767 words) ·

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of an Andrew Gelman fanboy. He made an observation in a post the other day that caught my attention…

Nowadays journals are all about academic promotion and tenure. When people want to have scholarly discussions, they turn to newspapers, blogs, etc.

It prompted me to ask myself–am I in that camp? Do I eschew journals in favor of more dynamic content sources? The short is, yes—mostly.

In my opinion, there are three limitations to the usefulness of academic journal articles for research and for consuming content…

  1. Journal articles are static. This one is a little obvious, but once published, a journal article doesn’t change. True, erratums and even retractions are possible, but for the most part, once published a dialogue is impossible—you can’t engage the paper’s author through the content/format of the paper, and so consumption is purely a one-way street. Plus, there is not a clear mechanism for an author to provide updates to data and to his or her analyses absent a retraction or erratum, which may not be necessary.

  2. Journal articles just take too darn long to publish. Assuming that a paper is not rejected its first time at a journal, realistically there will be a 12-18 month lag between when the paper was submitted and when it appears online as a forthcoming article (and even longer to actually be ‘published’). That means the design, data collection, and analyses are likely to have happened two or more years before the paper is available online. Journal articles and the publishing process simply cannot keep pace with the rapidity of changes in research methods, design, and statistical software. Journal articles are long in the tooth as soon as they appear online.

  3. Journal articles lack richness in content. True, a number of publishers are adding rich content such as video interviews with a paper’s author(s), and most publishers now offer online repositories to publish supplemental material. But these resources pale in comparison with content available through blogs, interactive sites, and research platform sites such as ResearchGate and the Open Science Framework.

Now, that said, the journal article format does provide a more comprehensive look at a topic. There is a depth of analysis in an article that you are not likely to find in a blog or other online-only resource. Certainly when I am writing a (gulp!) journal article, I turn to, well, academic articles as the basis for a literature review and to position the paper within a scholarly conversation.

But when I am looking to learn about a topic, and particularly a research design, research method, or statistics topic, a journal article is generally the last place I look, if I turn to those resources at all. My go-to sources are Google, a trusted series of blogs, and sites like Cross Validated and github. For the reasons mentioned previously, journal articles generally don’t provide updates if the author made a mistake, they are typically written years in advance of online publication, and often lack code, visualizations, and other content to be practically useful and to provide timely advice.

Now that said, I do not agree with the comment that publishing articles are all about promotion and tenure. True, there are a number of prolific management and entrepreneurship scholars with a large number of publications and yet relatively few citations, which may indicate that the scholar’s work is not meaningfully contributing to a conversation. But I see think we are moving away from judging scholarly impact as pivoting away from simply counting Financial Times 50 publications. I think—or at least hope!—we are moving to a holistic view of scholarly impact that certainly includes high quality publications but also incorporates citations, a researcher’s h-index, media mentions, teaching content creation, and potentially social media content such as blogging and LinkedIn posts.

From this perspective, publishing in academic journals is a foundation for scholarly impact from which junior scholars in particular can quickly build on through other content creation channels. It’s a synergistic relationship, not a false trade-off between publishing in a journal and writing a blog. Importantly though, one will not get tenure by just writing a blog, but writing a blog can enhance impact, which may help in a tenure decision.

What’s the bottom line? I think the increasing use of social media and web 2.0 content for scholarly activities means that junior faculty especially need to develop the skills to publish in academic journals and to engage with the community of scholars online. It’s just another example of the changing landscape of the tenure-track faculty member, but an exciting one!