A famous anecdote is that the size of spaceships is determined by the horse’s behind. The reason is that the design of shuttles’ launching rockets were limited by the width of roads in which they had to travel to the launching site, which are a legacy from English roads, which were originally Roman roads, which in turn were designed to accommodate two war horses, where the widest bit is their rear end. So now the size of spaceships is limited to that.
This story is an apt metaphoric image of the genealogy of the academic (monographs and) journals system. The requirement to publish in journals is a heritage from the time scholars progressed from updating each other about findings with letters onto larger distribution techniques, allowed by the invention of the communication technology called print. Today, journals and books continue to enjoy the seniority among academic publications, especially in the (controversial) metrics that academics must now adhere to. But print is no longer at the forefront of communication technology, or the most advantageous method. Rather, like the bureaucratisation of academia, journals (and their evolution into e-journals) were institutionalised and are now the conservative bureaucratic evolution of an age-old system.
Of course, the advantages that peer-reviewed journals hold and offer their readership are obvious: a filtered, quality, scrutinised and proportionally-sized texts in set well-organised platforms. It is also faster to read in print than in almost any other method of taking in information. There’s also no need to explain the obvious advantages (and disadvantages) of alternative modes of communication readily available today. But it is nonetheless important to think how journals, and their conventions and significance are limiting and prioritising scholarship like the roads that were designed to accommodate the width of a horse’s backside.
Journals require scholars to produce worded (or other two-dimensional-symbols-based) contributions, at certain set lengths. They have space limitations that interestingly do not only set a rigid but understandable maximum word-count cap, but also adhere to a norm or to a formal or informal required minimum threshold, where shorter contributions are less preferred unless/until they are ‘developed.’ If you can make your point more succinctly, or have equally incisive but a shorter thing to say, many journals will ask that you to develop your idea (which will not always benefit the text), and would prefer other texts, in more suitable lengths, instead. This print constraint also functions now perhaps as a means for making the system more ‘fair,’ due to the way we count the yield of publications under the contemporary liberal and market-like meritocratic production ethos, so that we do not count a 3,000 word contribution as equal to that of a 10,000 words one. (Although the size does not testify for effort or quality, and can also be measured in references or word-count).
Then, length requirements work in tandem with the long production times (and costs) of print, and so asking one to ‘develop’ a text is also one of the many slowing mechanisms of print publications.
And not that slow means bad, but it doesn’t necessarily mean good either.
Finally, the issue of platform is also a political one. Most periodicals and books must consider the interests of publish houses (and other stakeholders), and they are also elitist, fencing and gatekeeping others, both in the language performed in them (linked with the cultural respect to the limited-resources and unchangeable print), and in the requirement of subscriptions, or even knowing about the text if you are not one of the lucky ones to enter university.
The above conventions are evolutionary constraints of producing a printed hardcopy, and scholars can equally work with, or develop, much less restricted communications methods, and give them the academic credit they deserve, according to their merit. Blogs, for example, while far from perfect, are a faster, cheaper, open to all, and readily available way of disseminating knowledge and ideas. Wiki and suchlike communal e-projects are also promising for exchanging and sharing knowledge and ideas than, say, hardcopy encyclopaedias and academic journals, and with not-huge effort they can also be rated or evaluated. But so long as the livelihood of scholars remains contingent on publishing in journals (and books), our scholarship will struggle to break from the width of its horse’s arse.