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This year’s plenary Oxford-style debate at the Profession and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) Annual Conference had as its proposition, “The journal and the contributing reference book are no longer valuable as the unit of professional content distribution, and will die.”

Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners and I debated Brian Crawford of the American Chemical Society and Michael Fisher of the Harvard University Press in front of a large crowd in Washington, DC, yesterday. Thane Kerner of Silverchair moderated the debate.

The format provided each debating team with two seven-minute segments to make their arguments (one per speaker), an interrogative section with questions from Kerner and the audience, then a matching set of two-minute closing statements.

Prior to the debate, a text-message polling system was used to take the temperature of the room. At the start, 56% felt that reference books and journals would endure, 35% felt they would perish, and 9% were unsure.

Crawford and Fisher defended the role of expertise, stressed the relative immutability of the functions of the reference book and journal in both academic life and intellectual output, spoke to the power of the tenure and promotion system in a publish-or-perish culture, and underscored the importance of trusted brands in an information realm that is exploding with choice.

O’Leary and I observed that while research reporting and reference works are still important, their containers are changing, evolving from time-limited and space-limited entities into updated, boundless, and interactive forms we’re still exploring. These changes will change editorial and authorship functions, and are already changing how readers access and evaluate content.

Many familiar themes were sounded during the debate, including:

  • Expertise vs. elitism
  • Trust networks vs. brand power
  • Linking vs. referencing
  • Crowd-sourcing vs. editorial control
  • Motivations vs. inducements
  • Timeliness vs. thoroughness
  • Relevance vs. trust

It was a lively debate, and I especially appreciated the good spirit in which Fisher especially took some ribbing from yours truly when his tongue-in-cheek comments invited the occasional attempt at a zinger. The entire debate ultimately seemed to revolve around defining terms and framing the issues, like most things. We found ourselves conflating ideas, arguing while agreeing, and doing all those normal, messy things that emerge during an active dialog. It was pretty fun and enlightening.

Ultimately, the status quo prevailed, with the final vote reflecting little movement in attitudes — 59% that reference books and journals would endure, 36% that they would perish, and 5% remaining unsure.

One of the most interesting aspects was after the debate, when the audience, liberated from the constraints of public disclosure, made some private points. One that stuck in my mind was a comment about flaws in the journal form, especially the requirement of the structured abstract to include an element labeled “Conclusion.” This person observed that a group he’s working with feels this is an artifice that leads to statements that may be too strong, definite, and absolute given the data, and we discussed perhaps a new label might be “Inferences.” Another audience member was a little exasperated by the inertia of the voting, exclaiming something I’ll paraphrase as, “If what’s going on now isn’t enough to make you think these things will change, you are not paying attention.”

O’Leary had a most memorable closing to a debate for a topic like this, quoting from Salman Rushdie‘s “Haroun & the Sea of Stories” to underscore his point that a better future for information is eminently possible:

. . . about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure, the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun.  He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity. . . . these were the Streams of Story, and that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale.  Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe.  And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns.  It was not dead, but alive.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


14 Thoughts on "Will Reference Books and Journals Survive? A Debate"

Any chance this will be put on the Web for viewing? I agree that definitions matter here, because the journal system has already changed a lot. For example, Google Scholar is now part of the delivery system, perhaps a big part. Might it be that what everyone is really wondering about the survival of, is the journal as a business unit?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t filmed. (Or fortunately — I’m not telegenic.) In any event, yes, definitions matter, especially when it comes to agreeing that things like editorial discretion, prior review, and the like are not predeterminants of journals or reference books — you can have other forms emerge (like this blog) which embrace those qualities. Is a documentary film any less “scholarly” because it’s not a journal article? Or is this all about tenure and promotion, a cynical game we’re playing with journals and books as the proxy money in the game?

Lumping journals and “reference books” together into a single debate is silly – the two are completely different entities, with different purposes and different economic models. Journals aren’t going anywhere; publishers have far too much vested interest in them and the publish/tenure system guarantees an unlimited supply of content forever, even if their economic production models change a bit around the margins.

Reference books are a different beast entirely, and there’s not a lot of agreement even on what defines them. Ask random scientists and you’ll get conflicting answers about that; some conflate them with textbooks, others monographs, and others won’t know what you’re talking about because they’ve never used one. If we define it as a work (often in multiple volumes) comprised of contributed specialized reviews on a particular topic or theme, it’s really not much different from a monograph, other than bigger and more expensive. Even works billed by publishers as “encyclopedias” and “handbooks” tend to be like this today, and they are of marginal utility. Just because the editor arranges the reviews in some kind of alphabetical order doesn’t make it an encyclopedia. Their value lies in individual chapters rather than as an organized whole. However, their content is less discoverable than that in review journals, because they are seldom indexed or cited. Add in a four-figure price tag, and you can see that they ought to be doomed because their sales are plummeting along with library budgets.

As a librarian I have long since stopped buying these doorstops, in any format, and nobody misses them. I have repeatedly advised publishers to stop bothering with them, to no avail. They are expensive vanity projects with a vanishing audience and a wholly outmoded format. You would think market forces would kill them off, but inertia is a mighty force in publishing.

Kent, there’s no question the models of scholarly publishing are evolving, and the old “reference book” model for journals or reference books is problematic in a number of situations. These old channels will not go easily into that good night and I anticipate that the “family” will fight pulling the plug and keep them on life support as long as possible. Let me use just one example involving those of us who publish evidence-based practice guidelines.

Typically guidelines have been articles or groups or articles published in journals, and then updated perhaps every several years, because journal articles are typically archival and static. The issue is that guideline evidence and recommendations can change based on new therapies, FDA recalls, etc, and therefore may need periodic updating. The traditional journal channel doesn’t allow for that because of the static and archival nature of journals.

So the easy solution is to make them more wiki-like, right? Publish on the web, update them at will, make them a living document. Well, not so fast, because the journals and societies that pay for the guideline development WANT to publish the guidelines in their journal for many reasons, including prestige, or in order to benefit from the citations for Impact Factor purposes, and perhaps even to generate revenue from selling print copies or electronic journal access to the guideline within the journal imprimatur. In addition, the authors of the guidelines want to be published in scholarly journals because they can list that on their CV as a peer-reviewed publication (with emphasis on the Impact Factor of the publication) and be recognized by their institutional review boards when up for tenure, promotion, or compensation change.

So all the stakeholders need to come to consensus (pun intended) to move the process and the publishing model forward. The question is will they do this voluntarily, or will they be forced to by the end-users?

Steve, that’s a good example. Yes, guidelines are hard to do and important to get right. But there are multiple groups writing guidelines on the same topic, and updates are frequent. Why is updating guidelines more often at odds with a print value proposition or citation strategy? Brief, frequent printed summaries of guideline updates would seem to drive interest in print and citations, especially if multiple players move to do it.

I think the familiar container-assembly path is seductive, and innovation diverges. We need a level of abstraction above the container to see what’s now possible. A wiki with a new “Guideline Deltas” feature in print? Readers and citing authors would eat it up.

Sorry I missed the debate. I wanted to participate, but due to an impending career move, couldn’t make it to the meeting.

The points I would add involve thinking seriously about the purpose of the journal article–what is it specifically meant to do, and comparing that with the other new sorts of opportunities for transmitting information that are opening up. There are great things that can be done with wikis or blogs or data repositories, but none really serve the same purpose as the journal article.

I tend to see these things as “in addition to” rather than as “replacing”. The argument is much the same as I made in a recent blog posting, that the new things will take over in areas where they are best suited, and the journal article will be honed to do what it does best.

What is said about reference books above is certainly not true of the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. None of these statements are true when applied to it: “Their value lies in individual chapters rather than as an organized whole. However, their content is less discoverable than that in review journals, because they are seldom indexed or cited. Add in a four-figure price tag, and you can see that they ought to be doomed because their sales are plummeting along with library budgets.” Maybe print reference works have outlived their usefulness, but online, and open-access, reference works still have a valuable role to play.

For journals, I’m inclined to think that so long as the “brand” remains intact, there is no good reason to group articles into issues. They can simply be identified by date of publication and released whenever they are deemed ready by the editor and publisher.

I think the debate hinges on questions of semantics and definitions: What is a “reference book”? What is a “journal”? If you’re talking about a physical object made of paper and ink, then it’s a different debate from continually published online object delivered via the web or an app. Is the online OED a “reference book”? Is Wikipedia?

You’re absolutely right. It was interesting to try to center the debate around the concept of the “container,” because then the response came back, “Well, Wikipedia is a ‘container.'” Well, I guess, but if something is so vast and expandable as to exceed all possible inputs, it’s one heck of a container. Also, the fixed aspect of print was quickly surrendered.

A reference work (rather than, say, book) is a species of content. Its nature is defined by its purpose, not by its container. The question about the future of the reference book and the future of reference overlap but are far from identical. The question of book vs. non-book in reference is really one of authority and quality, as well as ease of access, quality of writing, organization of information, comprehensiveness of content, and editorial vision.

I appreciated being asked to join this debate, and I was happy to have Kent leading our charge.

The value of a journal article was never really debated (we might have all agreed that the article is the right unit of appreciation). I think what could have been better described was the purported value of a journal – an aggregation of articles. It’s still unclear to me why that particular container should survive.

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