Academic, Info Tech

Scott Sommers discusses some of the shortcomings of the Social Science Citation Index. I would add that the problem goes beyond the fact that the index is so incomplete, or that the user interface can be frustrating and difficult to use: I think it is a more fundamental problem with the entire antiquated academic publishing industry. Lets put aside, for a moment, financial considerations such as copyright, and think about what might be gained if the latest technologies were used by academic publishers:

RSS Feeds

Some journals now offer to e-mail you the table of contents of new issues, but none of the journals I use in Anthropology offer RSS feeds. Better than a journal having its own RSS feed would be the ability to provide RSS feeds of all new articles on a given topic. I’ve set up my own RSS feed generator that lets you see whenever comes out with a new book (or any other product) which matches your search criteria, but there is nothing like this for journal articles. Apple now offers RSS feeds of new releases at the iTunes Music Store (they have good suggestions for RSS newsfeed software — both the mac and the PC).


Whenever someone using compliant blogging software references one of my posts, it is immediately attached to that post as a trackback.” The Social Science Citation Index tries to provide such a service, but why should the system require a private company to compile all this data when it can be done automatically?


Lets face it, Google has already become the number one research tool of academics. Unfortunately, because most academic journals are not available to be freely indexed online (even if it was just their abstracts), they don’t show up in Google searches. Personally, I imagine creating a new domain suffix .jnl” so you could confine a Google search to peer reviewed academic journals. As incomplete as the Social Science Citation Index might be, the other journal databases for the social sciences are even more incomplete. For one thing, you need to search at least half a dozen different databases because each one owns the rights to different journals, but many of them aren’t even up to date. You are lucky if publications from last year are included in your search results. Their search algorithms are also terrible, and it is difficult to save searches between sessions the way you can with a simple bookmark in Google.


I combined these items together because they all address the same problem. How often have you been handed a photocopied article on which someone forgot to write the citation? How much time have you wasted typing in bibliographic data? Sure, there are some programs that you can use for your computer to format your bibliographies, but they don’t solve the problem of data entry for journal articles. Reference Miner for the Mac lets me download Library of Congress or book information into Bookends, but what about journal articles? It is a nightmare. If you are lucky enough to find out which database lists a citation you might be able to import it with an import filter, but you’ll likely have to re-edit the data afterwards. Compare this with Apple’s iTunes which can automatically determine what CD you are using and download all the appropriate information about each song! Or programs like DVD Cache which can download information about movies from IMDB. Is it so much to ask that the quality of information available for my MP3s be available for academic research as well?

NOTE: There are some efforts in this direction, see here for links to numerous projects.

This last item is perhaps the one that will be hardest for scholars in the humanities to accept, because it would entail a loss of control. Wiki’s allow anyone to edit a document, creating truly collaborative projects with no clear authorship. The Wikipedia has already become a very valuable research tool with 214040 articles in the English version alone! I had some experience with Wikis when I set up the No War Wikki over a year ago. Wiki’s need not be open to everyone — you could limit user registrations to a select group if you like, but they offer a very different concept of publication from traditional academic journals.

I would love to see academics making more use of technology like those mentioned above, but I don’t see how they can afford to when academic promotion is so tightly linked to the commercial publishing world with its inflated costs and outmoded technology. The hard” sciences are way ahead, but there is also much more agreement about what an individual researcher’s contribution to the field is, so they don’t require the proof” of being published in a $100 journal that most libraries can’t even afford anymore…

Afterthought: Part of the problem is that most academics I know don’t read blogs or have their own blogs. E-mail lists are still the number one form of internet communication used by most academics in the social sciences and humanities. This is unfortunate, as I personally find web forum software to be much preferable to e-mail lists, especially since you can limit your e-mail subscriptions only to those threads that interest you. I don’t really need to have so much mail in my inbox every day! I imagine that as more academics start blogging the nature of academic publishing will change as well.

UPDATE: Yahoo news story on RSS feeds.