Why Do We Need Scholarly Journals?

Voxcorvegis, who is a physicist, asks the following question:

 Universities around the world are cutting back on their services in the name of “austerity.” One such budget frequently being slashed is the one for scholarly journal subscriptions. This, sadly, is every bit as true in the sciences as it is the Humanities, but what I can’t understand is why it is such a huge problem. You see, as a physicist, I cannot recall the last time I have actually had cause to read a scholarly journal for the sake of catching-up on cutting-edge research. This is because I read all of my papers on the ArXiv,  a website offered by the Cornell University Library upon which physicists (as well as mathematicians, statisticians, quantitative biologists, financial economists and computer scientists) from around the world post the drafts of their papers before publishing them in journals.

We don’t have anything of the kind in my field, although it would be great if we did. I feel like many of the older people in the Humanities are very reluctant to embrace technology. Some even need to be convinced that if a highly reputable journal moves to an online version from a print-only version, this doesn’t mean that the journal has lost in quality.

At the same time, the creation of such a database will not serve the issue of us needing subscriptions to journals. In Humanities, we are not looking for the most recent, cutting-edge research. The most recent sources are not necessarily superior to the ones published 20, 30, 40 years ago. If I don’t have access to articles from the 70s and the 80s, I’m in deep trouble in terms of my research. I need access to everything that has ever been published on a subject I’m researching.

Simply put, we are not a field where linear progress occurs. Rather, we move in a variety of directions at any given time. When I offer new insights into a genre, for example, those insights don’t necessarily cancel out the ones made by a scholar of literature who worked in the 1940s.

5 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Scholarly Journals?

  1. As a scientist whose library just got shut down (much to the chagrin of the international scientific community, incidentally), I tend to agree with you. I find myself always running up to the print library, because we didn’t have the electronic subscription, or, as is more common, the electronic version doesn’t exist. Additionally, my field moves rather slowly, and so important papers from the 70s and early 80s, before the internet thing happened, they just don’t exist in electronic form.

    Additionally, I subscribe to Science (the journal), because while it’s great to get exactly what I *need* for my research, I also really like to be able to look and see what’s going on outside of my immediate field, which is super important, because I like to know what’s going on in the rest of the scientific world. Interdisciplinary = important. Also, I might jump my blog into this conversation if you two don’t mind. 🙂 It’s a very interesting discussion. 🙂

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  2. The scientist who reads only unpublished papers runs a serious risk of becoming radically ill-informed. Those papers have not been refereed in many cases. They will never be published in many cases. They may contain gross errors. They will not provoke scholarly criticism and commentary.

    The reason journals are important is that they provide all those services. They cannot do it for nothing. Universities who shut down their main journals, electronically or in print, are not universities. They are vehicles for the expansion of useless staff and administrators who make no contribution to society. In fact over-staffed and under libraried universities in my opinion should be dis-accredited.

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