End the staid academic journal: an appeal

This started with keywords. If you’ve ever even cracked open an academic journal, you’ve seen a few “keywords” at the end of an abstract. That is, you used to. Many journals have dropped these. Because, what are they used for any more?

Abstracting and indexing services such as PubMed/MEDLINE have professional indexers who assign terms, often from a controlled vocabulary such as medical subject headings. For Google, words are culled from titles, abstracts, text and so on (this is also true of site search engines). Users search using the keywords they think will pick up titles, abstracts and text. Many publishers ask authors to “optimize” their abstracts by including words that would be typed into search engines by researchers in the field.

So, those keywords? Way of the Dodo. Authors do a lousy job of choosing them, so it’s fortunate they don’t matter. If you edit or publish a journal, why not get rid of them now?

But the keywords are just the tip of the iceberg. With a recent class, I was exploring the “highlights” requested by many Elsevier journals. These are like the abstract in five tweets; they may represent the future of the abstract. The first time I saw them, I understood immediately how powerful they were. As I scanned an electronic table of contents, the whole article was there in a thumbnail. More than keywords, less than an abstract. They draw you in beyond the title, lead you to the abstract, and then to the article.

Because it’s all about communicating and getting eyeballs on papers.

I’m hooked on all the HTML bells and whistles too — suggestions of articles in the same area, by the same authors, and so on. I get zoned going from article to article, time slipping by unnoticed, so engrossed in learning that I could forget… no, I never forget to eat. (But I can bring snacks over to the screen.)

If you work at a journal, and you haven’t done so yet, review everything you’re doing, and ask why. Does it work? If not, throw it out like that stuff in your basement. If you need new ways to make your journal work, find them.

Don’t think that it’s not broken, so you don’t need to fix it. So many journals are losing subscriptions, readers, and then authors. It’s a vicious spiral, and it’s partly about communicating in this electronic age. Journals need to be living and breathing. Once you cut down a tree and pulp it, it’s dead.

2 thoughts on “End the staid academic journal: an appeal

  1. Carolyn, what a refreshing post! Thank you. While we’re at it, let’s also encourage authors to make the content accessible for beings with disabilities (such as Google!) … you’ll get more reach and even better indexing.

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