Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 5: April 2009

Library Access to Scholarship

The Death of Journals (Film at 11)

No, I don’t believe journals are dying. I needed a snappy title for a set of topics related to access. Since these topics do relate to journals, in one case suggesting that they be replaced with a very different medium, and since “death of X” predictions seem to be all the rage….well, there it is.

Leading off with some semi-informed notions

I was thinking about the requisites for 100% success of either color of open access, setting aside for now the gratis/libre distinction. Here’s how it seems to me, noting that this may be a terribly naïve view.

         Gold open access (where readers can access refereed article portions of journals, from the publishers in final published form, at no cost) seems, in the long run, to require one success and one transformation: The near-universal success of gold OA journals and transforming author attitudes. As part of that success, by the way, I’m assuming some revolution in understanding actual publishing costs and reforming them. I’m assuming that charging author-side fees equivalent to the asserted “costs” of traditional journal publishing (which somehow seem to equal the total income of the journals) is not going to hack it in the long run. Transforming author attitudes? Because the biggest traditional publishers have managed to corral too many of the highest-”impact” journals, scholars need to look beyond the traditional impact factor when deciding on submissions.

         Green open access (where readers can access some version of articles from repositories at no cost) seems to require a different success and transformation: The universal success of institutional and topical repositories—and a different (and equally difficult) transformation in author attitudes. In this case, scholars need to believe that it’s worth their time to (a) make sure they have the rights to deposit papers in repositories and (b) take steps to do so.

Gratuitous statements by OA advocates to undermine topical-repository mandates and suggest that institutional repositories don’t cost anything to establish and operate don’t get us there—but help assure that we never will get there. There doesn’t seem much question that IRs are in trouble; that doesn’t bode well for green OA as the only or even the primary answer. And nonsense like the reintroduced Conyers bill threatens to undermine what progress has been made on what should be the low-hanging fruit for repositories: research funded by the Federal government, which—if it was carried out in Federal labs—would automatically be in the public domain.

Lately, I’ve been trying out FriendFeed—and some of my subscriptions are librarians who subscribe to scientists. That means that, one way or another, I wind up seeing more commentary from scientists (on FriendFeed and in linked blogged posts) than I’m used to. Once in a while, it’s truly discouraging—for example, a presumably informed scientist using “open access” (in scare quotes) to mean Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing as opposed to peer review. What does that tell me? That the continuing campaign to sell the absolutely false notion that OA journals aren’t peer reviewed is working where it matters most: Among the scientists. (In an earlier FF discussion, a scholar directly said OA journals wouldn’t count until they were peer-reviewed…and wasn’t immediately corrected.)

About the Conyers bill

I’m not going to attempt general coverage of the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, which has nothing to do with “fair copyright” and everything to do with undermining NIH on behalf of the big international publishers and their society-publishing allies.

What’s the point? Patrick Ross of the Copyright Alliance issued a thoroughly misleading statement speaking of commandeering, treating copyright works as public domain and violating publisher rights. After the hearings on the bill last year—hearings that raised important issues—Conyers reintroduced an unchanged bill, essentially ignoring all input and criticism. James Boyle wrote a charming imaginary dialogue as to how Congresscritters could ignore the combined views of Nobel laureates, most legal scholars, empirical evidence and everything else to favor the special interests of publishers.

There are side discussions that might be fascinating to discuss—but are, in the end, distractions. As usual, Peter Suber links to most important sources of commentary on both sides (or all sides) of the issue in Open access news (; searching for “Conyers” or “NIH” should yield most of the posts.

Are Print Journals Obsolete?

The first post noted here goes back a long way—to March 28, 2007, on T. Scott ( T. Scott Plutchak used the title “No more print?” and notes that the American Society for Cell Biology was considering discontinuing the print version of its journal and asking for feedback (in a post by Mark Leader).

Some of what ASCB said:

We welcome comments from the library community about the value of print journals and the adequacy of LOCKSS, Portico, and PubMed Central as archives of electronic journals. We are also curious about whether librarians would be interested in a print-on-demand option for obtaining archival print copies if regular print subscriptions were discontinued.

The impetus for discontinuing the print edition is a desire to reduce author charges, especially for color figures. The cost of producing the print edition greatly exceeds revenue from print subscriptions. Author charges (page charges and color charges) are the largest source of revenue for the journal. In effect, authors are subsidizing the print subscriptions.

Portions of Plutchak’s commentary:

At my institution, we’re canceling as much print as we can anyway. One of our criteria is the adequacy of the preservation/archiving plan, and I’m glad that Leader mentions several. I’ll confess to a fondness for LOCKSS, largely because of the philosophy behind it. The National Library of Medicine has a statutory responsibility to preserve the biomedical literature, and I have a great deal of confidence in PubMed as a perpetual archive. I’m not as familiar with Portico, but it seems to be pretty promising.  My advice to ASCB would be to participate in all of them. We’re still early enough into all of this that we don’t know what the best long-term solution will be.

We’re also concerned with perpetual rights to material should we ever end our subscription/license altogether. The notion of offering a print-on-demand option for archival copies is an intriguing one, although not one that I think we’d avail ourselves of here. As Leader points out further on in his message, ASCB considers the online journal to be the journal of record anyway and “[m]ore than 60% of the articles include supplemental data or videos online.” I’m not sure why someone would want to keep archival copies of the print issue under those circumstances…

We certainly don’t need to keep the print to satisfy our user base. Two years ago we stopped getting any print for our ScienceDirect titles. I did not get a single question, comment, or expression of concern from faculty or students. We’ve reached the point where librarians tend to worry a lot more about the print than the people who use our libraries do…

The rest of the post has to do with the low institutional prices for the journal (at the time, $578 per year for online access to about 5,400 pages per year) and why open access advocates lump publications such as this into an “all-or-nothing approach to open access.” I won’t get into that discussion here—and, in fact, I agree that any move to 100% gold OA should end with low-cost society journals, not begin with them.

I’m including this here because it’s clear that, for this class of journal in Plutchak’s library (and doubtless many others like it), print *has become an anachronism—but there do need to be reliable preservation mechanisms, including LOCKSS. (Based on the rest of the post from Leader, the print version of the online journal was substantially incomplete in any case.)

ASCB made the decision: In 2008, the print version disappeared—and in 2009, the journal went from monthly to twice-a-month publication, entirely online. The price? Still reasonable for its size: $514 to $714 per year, depending on category of institution.

FO: Open access journals

Jumping forward a year, we get this July 9, 2008 by Vernon R. Totanes (“Vonjobi”) at Filipino librarian ( The post is about several aspects of OA, but I’m excerpting portions relevant to this particular discussion.

In “Open Access in the Third World,” I predicted that “the traditional journal will eventually have to be abandoned” and that “in a Third World country like the Philippines, it is, in my opinion, the only way to go.”

That’s followed by comments on two sites listing online journals (he finds it unfortunate that there are two rather than one combined site) and a set of links from both sites with flags for those journals that make some or all articles freely available.

The message here is that, for some nations at least, online journals may be the only realistic way to publish peer-reviewed articles. For other nations and fields, print may already be a less-satisfactory alternative.

Paul Courant on informal peer review

Two important aspects of journals are the assertion of peer review for articles—and, for leading journals, a brand of apparent quality and importance. Take away the journal entirely and you may take away the second—but what about the first?

Paul Courant offers some clues in “On the meaning and importance of peer review,” posted sometime around October 12, 2008 on Au Courant ( (I’m not including all of his primary argument, which is that the academy, not publishers, pays nearly all the costs of peer review.) Excerpts:

Broadly, peer review is the set of mechanisms that enable scholars to have reliable access to the informed opinions of other scholars, in a way that allows that those informed opinions themselves to be subject to similar vetting.

Scholarship requires reliable and robust peer review, and the academy engages in peer review in a variety of ways, both direct and indirect. Peer reviewed publication is one method, and a fairly powerful one at that. If you read a paper in (for my field) Econometrica or the Journal of Political of Economy, you are reasonably confident that accomplished scholars in the field have made a judgment that the paper is of high technical quality and worth reading, and that experienced scholars have made a judgment that the paper is of interest beyond its narrow subfield…

Similarly, the appearance of an article in a leading specialized journal, or of a monograph in a prestigious series published by a scholarly press, conveys valuable information (at least to the cognoscenti in the field) about the quality of the book or paper.

The peers who undertake the reviews are genuine peers. They are scholars whose judgment is trusted by experienced members of editorial boards, who are themselves generally senior scholars in the relevant field(s). Such people engage in peer review pretty much all the time… They could no more not provide “peer review” then they could give up reading and writing. Peer review is part and parcel of what serious scholars do.

I’d guess (and I would love to see a serious study) that the fraction of time that scholars spend engaged in formal peer review of publications – journal articles and monographs — is less than half of the time they spend on peer review in total. Moreover, the work that has traditionally been done under the aegis of publishers is increasingly being done in other settings. In fields where it is customary to post working papers on the web, interesting papers generate a good deal of peer review in the form of commentary from peers…. Given that publication in the literal sense (making public) is now easy and cheap in the technical sense, it seems almost certain that informal review will grow relative to formal review…

A record of publication in strong peer-reviewed settings conveys valuable information to tenure and search committees, chairs, deans, and provosts. But the fact of the matter is that we pay equal attention to other reviews, including (for some fields) those required to obtain research grants, and (for some fields) post-publication reviews that appear in journals and other venues. We also take very seriously the opinions of ad hoc reviewers, inside and outside of our institutions, who prepare and evaluate the case for promotion and hiring. Take away the information conveyed by publication venue, and these tasks become more difficult, to be sure, but by no means impossible. And the essential part–close reading of the work by peer reviewers–remains intact.

That commentary may lead directly to the second subfocus of this section: Should professional journals evolve into blogs?

Why professional librarian journals should evolve into blogs

Marcus Banks argues this proposition in a February 10, 2008 post at Marcus’ world, focusing on a field that may be scholarly but usually isn’t all that scientific.

In the last few months I’ve attempted to lead the transition of the journal Biomedical Digital Libraries (BDL) from publication on BioMed Central to publication via the Open Journal Systems (OJS) platform…

[S]omething funny happened on the way to OJS: I became firmly convinced that the traditional journal model is antiquated for sharing research and knowledge among librarians. A better course is to develop and nurture excellent blogs, with multimedia capabilities and guaranteed preservation of the postings. This could be an entirely new blog that starts from scratch, or an established journal that evolves into a blog…

My arguments:

1. As…Walt Crawford notes, blogs are among the most vibrant library literature today. I agree…and believe there is no reason why all of the rigor traditionally associated with journals could not be maintained on a blog contributed to by multiple authors.

2. Peer review should be a post-publication process, rather than a pre-publication process that sometimes drags out for many months…

The argument for pre-publication peer review is that it filters out poor research. This is a legitimate concern when the research in question is about a new and potentially deadly medical intervention. Library research is not like this; peer review can occur via community conversation.


1. Most people will prefer to publish in established journals rather than an unestablished blog. Of course this is true, which is why the evolution to a blog paradigm would take a long time.

2. All of the supporting structures—from PubMed citations to tenure requirements—favor the traditional journal… This is certainly true now, but—ultimately—what is a scholarly journal but a means of communication among people of similar interests and backgrounds? Why can’t blogs achieve the same goals?

3. Blogs are ephemeral… The proof of the viability of a scholarly blog will be in how long it lasts. But even if the blog failed, that would be a function of a lack of commitment among the people involved…

One commenter, Jane Blumenthal, wonders whether blog authors—who might generally agree—are the same people as article writers, but supported the change: “One of my big frustrations is the gap between research or project and publication or presentation. What we read in our journals and hear at our meetings is usually at least a year old. Can we continue to afford that much time lag?”

Another, James Jacobs, sees a possible hybrid model, notes that blogs could include prepublication peer review and offers several additional arguments:

Blogs cut down the costs of publication/distribution (and can, if one chooses, be a revenue stream with google ads, sections for highlighted vendors etc.)

Blogs are more easily found and searchable in popular search engines

Blogs speed up community input, which makes articles all the more interesting, lively, and contextual.

Blogs are closer to the ideal of “scholarly communication” than paper journals with necessarily long publication cycles…

Is it really the case that open access journals aren’t readily searchable as part of Google and friends? Banks responded to prepublication review by noting that this still slows down access:

I can see no harm in getting those papers out earlier—philosophically, at least. Practically speaking, people don’t want to injure their reputations by offering up less than polished work. Who can blame them?

I’m calling for a professional shift that values speed of new ideas over polished presentation (while recognizing that the polish has a place too). This will be a long time coming, but I think it’s worth it.


David “Medical” Rothman gathered some reactions to Banks’ post in February 12, 2008 and February 25, 2008 posts at

         Dean Giustini liked the idea but noted: “My only reservation is when research methods are used such as randomization and the articles would need to go through peer-review.”

T. Scott Plutchak, a longtime journal editor, had reservations: “Although there is something appealing about this idea, when I think about the actual articles that I was involved in editing, I’m not at all sure that this would be a good thing… I’m not at all sure that it would be a service to the library community if all of those articles that I read through in their first iterations had simply been posted to a blog and opened up for comment. The few experiments that have been done in the last couple of years with post-publication review have not been overwhelmingly successful… Rather than providing vibrant post-publication review, I’m afraid that posting unedited articles for comment would result in much good work being buried and ignored. But the terrain continues to evolve rapidly, and the opposition of blogs to traditional journals is probably a false distinction. The traditional journal is rapidly morphing into something else, while adopting features that we associate with blogs (the ability to provide rapid responses being the most obvious)… Marcus is pushing the right questions, and everyone involved in scholarly publishing, at whatever level, should be thinking creatively about how to make the communication and discussion of projects and ideas more effective.”

         Banks responded to Plutchak’s post, in part: “I’m not wedded to the idea of a ‘journal as blog’ as we understand blogs now. My real hope is for much faster communication, and a recognition that some level of review can be post-publication.. ‘Peer review’ in this sense would be about improving the kernel of the original idea…The big difference is that comments would be public; to me that’s OK.” The conversation went back and forth in one of those comment streams that’s highly thoughtful—and might undermine Plutchak’s continuing assertion that open comments “will always draw a high proportion of junk.” With one remarkably juvenile (but brief) exception, that wasn’t the case here.

         The longest response came from Rachel Walden, who is a blogger, a medical librarian and an editor at JMLA (which Plutchak formerly edited). Some of her notes (excerpted from excerpts in Rothman’s January 25, 2008 post):

I don’t see any reason why librarianship journals…should be singled out as a specialty…so I’ll talk about this more generally.

1) I believe there is value in having a final version of a manuscript on the record. Getting things out quickly isn’t the only goal in publishing a paper, or shouldn’t be. A larger goal is to contribute to the body of knowledge on a topic, in a way that can be cited and referred to and built upon in the future…

2) “The argument for pre-publication peer review is that it filters out poor research.” Marcus seems to believe that this isn’t an issue for library research, or at least that the stakes aren’t high enough to matter. I would ask whether librarians seeking tenure and professional respect are really willing to hang themselves out there like this, simply assuming that what they’ve done is good enough for public consumption. Like Scott, I believe this simply isn’t true…

3) Peer review takes work. When a committed board of peer reviewers exists with a demonstrated interest in the process and a deadline for providing feedback, and an editor does the work Scott mentions prior to publication, it is a certainty that an author will receive feedback. Blog comments are an unreliable thing…

4) Related to #3, it would be important to determine whether a manuscript was just open to whoever felt like commenting (or not), or if peer reviewers would be assigned drop by and comment. Would they be allowed to do so anonymously? Could an editor comment anonymously?...

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done. These are just a handful of issues I see as barriers that would have to be considered. Ultimately, I think part of the question is whether we’re so determined as authors to put our unfiltered thoughts out there as fast as possible, or whether we’re really interested in being accountable and on the record and contributing to the professional knowledge base in a substantial way, even if it takes a little longer…

Rothman commented on this, noting an issue with wiki pages (but versioning means you can cite a sort-of-fixed version) and continuing:

When it comes to technology topics, I think that getting the information out quickly is especially important because the technology changes so dang quickly…

I think that library technologists would probably be mostly comfortable throwing their work onto the Web for immediate criticism and would, in fact, rely on their peers to examine their work critically…

So if Marcus moves forward…I’d suggest making technology its focus…

(Rothman cited one blog as a possible example, but that hasn’t worked out very well…)

Why blogs aren’t journals

Dorothea Salo posted this on May 26, 2008 at Caveat lector (, after seeing a post elsewhere that harked back to Banks’ posts. Noting Banks comment, “[W]hat is a scholarly journal but a means of communication among people of similar interests and backgrounds?” Salo responded (in part):

Aha. That’s what a journal was, way back in the day. It’s not what a journal is

Journals started because the round-robin letter-sending arrangements by which research results were communicated among gentleman scientists got to be too unwieldy to manage. They started out as pure communication vehicles. No peer review… This meant that quite a few of the articles were pure snake oil. No credentialing; gentleman scholars didn’t need credentials. No discipline boundaries, really; that had yet to shake out. Just pure, untrammeled 200-proof communication.

If this sounds like the blogosphere, especially the biblioblogosphere…well, it should. I would argue that librarianship has glommed onto the blogosphere far faster than other nominally or genuinely academic disciplines precisely because a lot of us are a lot closer to “gentleman scholars” than we are to today’s notion of an academic…

So what does that mean? Well, the gentleman-scholar eventually gave way to the professional academician, who suddenly had to defend his value in a marketplace if he wanted to get paid. So he had to mark his territory…, prove he could produce (publish-or-perish) and prove that what he produced was any damn good (peer review). All of this is fine and dandy, but it reduces the communications efficiency of the journal medium by quite a lot. It’s hard to yell out “Eureka!” in a modern journal. By design.

Enter the conference, the listserv, the preprint server, and yes, the blog. Just because the academy needs to puff up its CVs doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to communicate efficiently. Other means of communication came in to fill the void…

But there is a line, still, between the blog and the journal… Journals have beta-readers, people who read your stuff in order to help you improve it before it hits the newsstands. Blogs don’t.

I once read a peer-reviewer stating that the publish/don’t-publish decision was the least of his considerations as he read articles. His chief goal was to make the article better: clean up the logic, clean up the language, ask fruitful side questions, et cetera. Even at non-peer-reviewed publications, a good editor can do yeoman’s work as a beta-reader…

We haven’t figured out how to do beta-reading in the blogosphere yet. Until we do, that’s one genuinely important way in which the blog is inferior to the journal.

It’s probably not the only way. Y’all can find the arguments about long-form versus short-form blogging on your own. I do tend to think that the blog is hostile to the kind of extended argumentation that the journal article is good at…

There’s one other problem with blogs as a scholarly medium that I’m frankly appalled that a passel of librarians and library-school professors didn’t come up with: the scholarly record. Remember that? That thing that’s supposed to outlast ephemeral thoughts and ephemeral media? That thing that allows us to check that when X writes “Y said Z,” we can go back and read whether Y actually did say Z? That thing that academic libraries are partly in business to protect?

Yeah. That. A blog can disappear in a heartbeat or a DNS blip, irrespective of its quality… If pieces of the record vanishing altogether into the ether isn’t bad enough for you, I know bloggers who regularly redact their stuff, for matters far more important than grammatical miscues or adding corrections. Catching them out can be quite a trick.

We haven’t solved that problem, either. We’ve barely even made a stab at it. Until we do, blogs can’t do something genuinely important that journals (pace the problems of e-journals) do: persist.

I haven’t seen much more on this theme since May 2008. (It may be out there, but I haven’t noticed it—and it’s very difficult to search for, since the haystack of posts about blogs as personal journals hides the needle of blogs substituting for scholarly journals.)

You may notice that I didn’t interleave these excerpts with a lot of commentary. That’s partly because I think the discussion is an interesting sideshow in the larger circus of possible futures for scholarly journals, partly because I don’t write in scholarly journals. Nor, for that matter, do I read a lot of them.

Not that I don’t have some thoughts:

         Blogs as article carriers would seem to be OA by default.

         Blogs as article carriers don’t necessarily save that much in time or money as opposed to other e-article publication systems. I don’t know anything about Open Journal Systems; I do know there’s no reason a peer-reviewed ejournal can’t post articles the minute peer review, editing and layout are all complete, using the journal “issue” (if there is one) as an overlay set of contents pointing to already-published articles. You could do that on a protected wiki. You could do it on a blog. You could do it on almost any CMS. There is, in short, nothing magical about blog publication.

         You certainly can send an article through peer review before posting it on a blog—that’s how In the library with a lead pipe works. But that means having provisions to do so, and I don’t see that the blog medium really aids that process. Blogs are pretty good for post-publication review, as discussed by Banks. But I find myself on the side of Plutchak and Salo, both as a sometime peer reviewer and as an editor: Good peer review should improve the quality (editorial, logical and sometimes scholarly) of articles before they’re public. (Cites & Insights would be a better publication if all the copy went through some other editor—but it also wouldn’t exist, given the realities of time, energy and cost.)

         On the other hand, there’s peer review and there’s peer review. I didn’t quote one particularly telling comment in Salo’s post about the editorial quality of one supposedly peer reviewed ejournal—but it’s an opinion with which I heartily agree. Peer review can and should improve manuscript quality; that doesn’t always mean it does.

         The persistence issue is a real one—but here I’m not on Salo’s side. There’s nothing about blogs that makes them inherently more ephemeral than ejournals. I’ve seen peer-reviewed ejournals disappear without a trace because they lacked sound long-term archival solutions and ceased to be of interest. (I’ve written about such disappearances in the context of very early ejournals.) There’s no reason that blog-journal hybrids (jourgs? blournals?) can’t be archived. (Actually, to assure that a given version can always be retrieved, a wiki with automatic versioning might be a better medium.)

In the end, there are four related discussions going on here, I think:

1.      Does prepublication peer review offer enough advantages to prefer it to the immediacy of publishing on submission?

2.      Will postpublication review, through open comments or other means, offer the same assurance of quality that peer review should offer?

3.      Is a blog an inherently good or poor medium for article-length scholarship?

4.      Are blogs inherently more ephemeral than ejournals?

I don’t know the answers to any of those. I do know that blogs don’t inherently support some of the extra stuff that scholarly articles use heavily (endnotes, references, bibliography); there again, a wiki with appropriate extensions may actually be a better medium. (Yes, footnote plugins are available for WordPress—and MediaWiki also requires an extension to do references properly.)

There’s also a semantic issue. Could you publish a solid journal using WordPress with a few extensions? Almost certainly. Would the result be a blog? Well, it would use blogging software…

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 5, Whole Issue 115, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2009 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.