Bad Metaphors: Journals, Articles, and Pages

by PM

4 October 2012, 1516 EDT

As a graduate student at an urban university,
I envy this RA’s large office.

New technologies adapt terms from older tools, even when they’re curiously inappropriate. Consider “dashboard,” which we use now to refer to an easy display of critical information (as in Google Dashboard) or the control panel of an automobile. Originally, however, a dashboard was (per Wikipedia) “a barrier of wood or leather fixed at the front of a horse-drawn carriage or sleigh to protect the driver from mud or other debris “dashed” (thrown) up by the wheels and horses’ hooves.

 Clearly, that term outlasted its original meaning.

Nobody cares, of course, if words find new meanings, even to the point of rendering the original definition archaic. But the analogies that shape our technologies are subject to the same dynamics. Consider, for instance, my current work habits. My workflow for reading and notetaking involves highlighting the PDFs using iAnnotate, syncing the files to my desktop via Dropbox, and finally recalling them on my monitor when I write using LaTeX. 

Every stage of this process is inefficient and governed by obsolete metaphors.

So, first: I’m highlighting the pages of a document? “Highlighting” isn’t so bad; indeed, visually distinguishing important text is an efficient way of saying “this is important.” But why am I forced to use PDF–a 20-year-old file format whose entire purpose is to make documents on a computer look like their printed equivalents? This is a little like using my iPod to play very high fidelity renderings of a player piano: you can do it, I suppose, but the medium has quite a bit more to offer.

Contemporary modes of knowledge production require that scholarship has to be measured, which means that we have to chop it up into discrete units of knowing and prestige. (An aside: a Gchat typo the other day led me to coin the term “citatino,” which of course is the particle that bears the fundamental force of citation, which binds the academic universe together; a high citatino count is associated with impending or recent tenure.) Those units used to be books or, in some discipline, even book chapters; those units are now mostly deprecated (particularly in contemporary “mainstream” political science) in favor of articles appearing in journals.

This is lunacy. A journal was a periodical publication, one that was shaped by the requirements of publication and the economics of production; it used to be expensive to distribute knowledge, and particularly expensive to do it via the mails. That is no longer as much of a consideration. Today, instead, journals are practically free to distribute (even if many of us kill trees to read them instead of burning coal), and their space is limited in part by publishers’ requirements for print runs but more so by editorial bandwidth and considerations of prestige. 

Regardless of the open-journal movement, however, the whole metaphor has become pretty constraining. When I highlight the text in a PDF, I’m only using a fraction of what the 1980s-era supercomputer in my laptop (or iPad, for that matter) can do. Why not use r-Apache or another solution to allow me to directly interact with the models in the text? Why not provide an animated or multi-dimensional representation of the data? Why not have deeply embedded links to archival documents (something I’ve tried to do in my own working papers) so that readers can browse the entirety of the memoranda I’m citing? Why not, in other words, have “journal” “articles” that work more like … the Web? 

Measurement of quality and reputation is not a problem; PageRank-style algorithms (plus, of course, good judgment) could decide whether a 500-word blog post is scholarship or not; indeed, we might often find that quick, incisive, and rigorous short letters are more useful than 12,000-word articles stuffed to the gills with lit review boilerplate. On the other hand, as with The Phantom Menace Review, we might sometimes think that more in-depth and nontraditional engagements with texts, data, or theories are worthwhile.

I don’t think that the American Political Science Review should become a Tumblr.(*) But I don’t think that it should try to maintain a dead metaphor. Dashboards show us data now; we have to save ourselves from the horseshit some other way.

(*)Well, maybe. Everytime I hear that someone’s field experiment has disproven a longstanding theory, my reaction nowadays is, in fact: