Does the form of traditional academic journals mean anything to students in the age of online access?

This question was sparked by a twitter conversation around George Gosling's excellent blog post introducing types of academic writing to undergraduates: 

George explains that there are four types of academic writing, from textbooks, monographs, journal articles and edited collections of essays. This is true and correct, but his explanation of what a journal article (and indeed a journal) got me thinking and debating with Barry Doyle, Darryl Leeworthy and Mark Freeman about how students view journals in the age of online access.

I've found that first year undergraduates get really confused about what a journal is, and what the difference is between a journal and a journal article. This is not surprising, as their first weeks at university are 99% the first time they've ever encountered such a specialist type of writing and publication.

In order to explain what a journal is, therefore, I (and it seems the rest of us academics trained in the pre-digital age), bring in a hard copy of a historical journal like Social History or Economic History Review into first-year undergraduate seminars. We explain it's like a magazine, with different articles curated by an editor, usually also with an editorial introduction, and book reviews.

What muddies the waters and continues to confuse students, however, is how they then search for a journal article using the university's online resources.

Before our university changed the system, the simplest way to search for a given article was to type the journal title name into the library catalogue. It would then go to JStor or equivalent, and give a list of issues. You had to click on the issue and date you wanted, and scroll down the list of articles for the one you wanted. i.e. very much like how we found journal articles in hard copy on the library shelves.

Now our university has moved to a more 'user friendly' search facility, which basically uses Google scholar to search for the article and link directly to it. They've made the library search page as clean and minimalist as possible, indeed a single box mimicking a basic google search. You can select advanced search, but as when using google, most of our students won't.

So if you (i.e. I) try the old way, typing in 'Social History' comes up with everything under the sun in relation to the term, rather than the journal title. The main way in which the system makes users search, therefore, deliberately, is by article title, as that is how Google Scholar finds them.

This got me thinking (and hence the debate on twitter). It is possible to find the article without having to look at the rest of the issue, or indeed even noticing the name of the journal.

Will this form of searching for articles reduce or diminish the identity of a journal? What impact will this have on journals that are carefully curated by editors? Does it even matter any more what order articles are in, or what their theme is? It certainly does matter in terms of submitting an article to a journal that is a good 'fit', but the reader's experience is now one step removed from this older form of journal.

The element of curation of individual issues is also diminished by 'early online access' to articles, often months before the 'official' print publication comes out, which are often listed separately on the journal home page (see for e.g. Journal of Historical Geography).


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