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Visions of Communication

I'm not a huge fan of Weinberger's book, and the bit that Rothman quotes epitomizes much of what I find wrong with it, but the analogy that he makes to the relationship of journals and articles is fairly sound (although whether the articles in a given journal issue are "mostly-unrelated" or not depends on how you think about relationships).    We still use the volume/issue convention because we're comfortable with it, and we haven't really figured out an adequate replacement yet.  But if we were inventing scholarly publishing fresh, it's probably not the way we'd organize things.

When I spoke to Elsevier's senior managers two years ago, one of the points that I tried to make was that not only is "the journal" as a collection of articles quickly becoming an anachronism, the journal article itself is becoming less important as the primary unit of information.   And I argued that as things continue to evolve, the journal article itself will essentially disappear as it morphs into something much more interactive and dynamic.

It's not surprising that this view caused some consternation among some in that particular crowd (one of the other speakers -- a journal editor -- challenged it directly saying that the journal article would definitely be the primary mechanism for sharing scholarly information for a very long time to come), but it was clear that my views were shared by many in the room.

When I met with the some of the folks at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (as part of their library advisory panel) a few months ago, we had a great discussion about how their view of their content is shifting.  Like many publishers, they consider the electronic version, not the print version, to be the "publication of record", and, as is the case with many other publishers, they are shifting their publication processes so that articles can be made available as soon as the editorial work has been done.  They are also starting to experiment with incorporating multimedia into the article content.  The more that this happens, the more it will be impossible for the print version to adequately reflect the content of the version of record.   They're not quite sure how they'll handle this, but they are very clearly excited about the possibilities.

At my first meeting of the New England Journal of Medicine advisory board (January 2003), the point was made that they viewed their job as bringing research results to clinicians, not "publishing a journal".  For 150 years (give or take), publishing a journal was the best way to do that, but they know that they need to transform what they're doing if they are going to adequately fulfill their mission in the digital age.

In October of 2006, I did a presentation for the annual meeting of the International STM Association in Frankfurt.  As I commented here at the time, my talk was well received and the people that I spoke with clearly welcomed the participation of librarians in reimagining the future of scholarly publishing.  But it was also abundantly clear that they weren't going to wait for us to show up. 

I mention all of these dates because I've been very concerned for a long time that librarians have been late in getting to the table.  The contentiousness of the open access debates has been a terrible distraction and has highlighted how little librarians actually know about the publishing process.  So I was very excited, and am feeling more optimistic than I have in quite some time, by the energy in the room at the meeting of the AAHSL/publisher liaison taskforce in Chicago last Thursday.  There is much planning and follow-up yet to do, but I think we've planted the seed for a truly collaborative effort among librarians and publishers (and editors and authors) to participate in reshaping the scholarly communication enterprise into something that takes full advantage of digital media and serves the needs of scholars and scientists and students far better than the current systems have been able to.

I've argued for years that we cannot create the kind of future that we want in isolation.  It's not up to librarians and it's not up to publishers and it's not up to editors or authors.  It will require all of us, listening to and learning from each other with patience and goodwill.  The meeting in Chicago was a tremendous step in the right direction.


David Rothman

Scott, I'd love to hear more about your views of Weinberger's book. I found so little in it with which to take issue that I'd really, really value some good dissent.

T Scott

I hasten to add that there was much in the book, particularly in the second half, that I did like. I don't have it here in front of me, but what I recall from my notes is that I felt he misrepresented the status of classification and taxonomy in the print world in order to make the rhetorical point that in the digital world our concept of knowledge is completely different. He misrepresents Aristotle's views on classification (A. certainly understood that any particular object could be a member of a huge multiplicity of categories depending on which attributes you were interested in), suggests that Dewey's classification system was an attempt to corral knowledge into rigid categories when it was an attempt to come up with a logical structure for figuring out where to put physical books, and conveniently ignores the elegance of the MeSH tree structures which were explicitly designed to try to deal with the obvious fact that any concept exists in a multiplicity of relationships to other concepts. Where Weinberger is right is that in the digital age it is much easier to work more fluidly with this multiplicity of relationships, but when he suggests that this represents a radically new way of thinking about knowledge he goes over a rhetorical cliff.

My response to the quote that you use is that for most of the history of recorded music, the track was indeed the basic unit. The LP only gained prominence in the sixties, and recording artists took advantage of the form -- many LPs were still just a collection of tracks, but many used the longer form to create a more organic whole. It's not any different today -- the technology makes it easier to deal with tracks individually, but people who make music still conceive of it in a multiplicity of ways. Song cycles aren't going to disappear. To claim that the "natural unit of music is the track" is a nice rhetorical flourish, and it may have some metaphorical value, but I'm afraid I think that on a factual level, it's nonsense.

And again, I want to stress that I think it's a valuable book and one that every librarian should read and ponder and that you can get a lot out of it. But I'd suggest reading it with a good bit of scepticism and an awareness that Weinberger's enthusiasm and hyperbole have a tendency to carry him away.

Marcus Banks

Great to learn that the publisher's and librarian meeting in Chicago went so well. I've also grown weary of the contentious rhetoric about open access, but that seems to have run its course.

I still think there's a place for an openly peer reviewed librarian journal, with blog-like properties if it's not a pure blog. Of course, incentives to leave thorough critiques will be an issue. Another is the fact that some articles truly aren't ready for prime time upon first submission.

Do I know how to solve these problems? No. But some innovative combination of old-fashioned editorial oversight and use of newfangled "Web 2.0" tools seems like it will carry the day in the end.

This is a wonderful time for our profession--not a doom and gloom period--and more and more people are coming to realize that. And if nothing else, it's hard to find Aristotelian excurses in the middle of blog comments elsewhere!


Also glad to hear the meet went well. I have been pushing the concept that the journal issue (for sure) and the article (mostly) are going out as the delivery mode of most use. Got a much more interested response from some pubs at MLA this year of looking at peer review "on the fly." Why can't a paper be put out with an embedded "review level code?" D=I put it up; C=dept reviewed; B=society or other group reviewed; A=some particular review panel of note reviewed. Search by subject and review code B or above gets the higher level. Next stop is more the Amazon model where the reviewers are coded for "level of respect." (essentially the same as today's review panels - and just as well paid, too).

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