Thursday, September 29, 2016

What's the point of an academic journal?


I find that I often read my academic colleagues' papers at and other similar repositories, or they send me their drafts directly.  I am not always aware of whether the paper has been published or not.  Sometimes I can see that I'm looking at a word-processed document (double spacing, etc.); other times the paper is so smart it's impossible to distinguish from a formally-published piece of writing (LaTeX etc.).

Reading colleagues' drafts gives me access to the cutting edge of recent research.  Reading in a journal can mean I'm looking at something the author had finished with one, two or even three years ago.  In that sense, reading drafts is like attending a conference.  You find out what's going on, even if the materials are rough at the edges.  You participate in the current conversation.

In many ways, reading colleagues' writings informally like this is more similar to the medieval ways of knowledge-exchange that were dominated by letter-writing.  The most famous example is Mersenne (fl. 1600), who was at the centre of a very important network of letter-writers, and just preceded the founding of the first academic journal, Henry Oldenberg's Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (founded 1665).

What am I missing?

Editorial control

What I don't get by reading private drafts is the curatorial intervention of a board of editors.  A journal's editorial board acts as a gatekeeper for knowledge, making decisions about what is worth propagating and what is not worth propagating.  The board also makes small improvements and changes to submissions, required since many academic authors are poor writers, and because of the natural processes of error. So, a good editorial board makes curatorial decisions about what to display, and improves quality.

Counter-argument: Many editorial boards don't do their work professionally. The extended "advisory board members" are window-dressing; the real editorial activity is often carried out by only one dynamic person, perhaps with secretarial support.  This depends, of course, on the size of the journal and the academic field it serves.  I'm thinking of sub-fields in the humanities.

Archiving and findability

A journal also provides archival storage for the long term.  This is critically important.  An essential process in academic work is to "consult the archive."  The archive has to actually be there in order to be accessed.  A journal - in print or electronically - offers a stable way of finding scholars' work through metadata tagging (aka cataloguing), and through long-term physical or electronic storage.  If I read a colleagues' draft, I may not be able to find it again in a year's time.  Is it still at  Where?  Did I save a copy on my hard drive?  Is my hard drive well-organized and backed up (in which case, is it a journal of sorts?)?

Counter-argument:  Are electronic journals archival?  Are they going to be findable in a decade's time?  Some are, some aren't.  The same goes for print, but print is - at the present time - more durable, and more likely to be findable in future years.  An example is the All India Ayurvedic Directory, published in the years around the 1940s.  A very valuable document of social and medical history.  It's unavailable through normal channels.  Only a couple of issues have been microfilmed or are in libraries.  Most of the journal is probably available in Kottayam or Trissur in Kerala, but it would take a journey to find it and a lot of local diplomatic effort to be given permission to see it.  Nevertheless, it probably exists, just.


A journal may develop a reputation that facilitates trust in the articles published by that journal.  This is primarily of importance for people who don't have time to read for themselves and to engage in the primary scholarly activity of thinking and making judgements based on arguments and evidence.  A journal's prestige may also play a part in embedding it in networks of scholarly trust and shared but not known knowledge, in the sense developed by Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge, The Tacit Dimension and other writings).


At the moment, I can't think of any other justifications for the existence of journals.  But if editorial functions and long-term storage work properly, they are major factors that are worth having.

Further reading



  1. (on behalf of LF:)
    Dear Dominik,

    thanks for this interesting post. I see your point and I agree that the function of gatekeepers gives journal editors (too) much power and responsibility. Moreover, one wonders whether the costs involved in the process of publishing in an established journal are really worth paying.
    However, you might want to consider early career colleagues,
    1) who still lack the discernment to evaluate the soundness of an argument in a topic they are not familiar with and may end up thinking that article A is as sound as article B, although this is by far not the case.
    2) who are unable to produce a final product of sufficient quality but have an initial interesting idea. Whenever I am peer-reviewing such articles, I am sure I can significantly enhance them and help their authors to ripe through the process. (Counter-argument: Peer-review could exist also without journals).

    Dr. Elisa Freschi
    Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia
    Austrian Academy of Sciences
    Apostelgasse 23
    1030 Vienna

  2. Dear Elisa, your points 1 and 2 come under "Editorial control", don't they?

  3. Dear Elisa, You make excellent points.

    Responding to 1), yes, a very junior scholar may need the imprimature of a journal like BSOAS, JRAS or WZKSA in order to feel that they are reading trustworthy scholarship. Trust is a fundamental issue in the growth and communication of knowledge, as I have argued elsewhere ( There are two problems with this. First, it is a centrally important job of a university to help students to develop their critical faculties so that they can tell truth from falsehood for themselves. Yes, a bit of help at the beginning, maybe. But very early in an academic career, I would sincerely hope that no serious junior scholar would any longer trust everything they read just because it was in the JAOS or similar journal. A second argument is that I can immediately think of several absolutely dreadful articles - riddled with error - that have been published in JAOS, WZKSA and elsewhere. Editorial boards and anonymous referees don't always do an adequate job, and bad scholarship sometimes gets published in otherwise good journals. A student has to learn - early - to stand on their own feet, intellectually. Uncertainties are best solved by conversation with colleagues and teachers, and by attending such wonderful occasions as coffee break conferences :-)

    About point 2, I think it's an excellent argument.