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64th IFLA General Conference
August 16 - August 21, 1998
Code Number: 120-118-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Editors of Library Journals
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 118.
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
Critical Issues Facing LIS Journals: A Reader's View
Maurice B. Line
Chair, Editors of Library Journals
LIS journals suffer from gross over-production; while LIS articles are inter alia often repetitious, badly written, poorly presented, boring, unduly reverent, and parochial. Unlike books, articles are published with little consideration of their market, and there is no regular feedback. Selection of the useful from the useless is becoming more and more difficult, and means need to be found of making it easier.
I could make a claim to represent all four parties in today's debate. I edit one journal and one annual review. I have written some 300 articles for journals. While I was in the British Library my responsibilities included several publications, including one LIS journal. And I am a voracious - but highly discriminating - reader. I am aware that the criticisms I shall make as a reader may rebound on me in my other capacities. I am also conscious that this paper may be scrutinized in terms of my own criteria.
What I shall have to say about LIS journals is applicable to journals in most if not all other subjects. That makes the situation neither better nor worse: it is never an excuse for misbehaviour to say that others too misbehave.
First, there are far too many journals. Many of these are subsidized. In some cases subsidy is right: for instance, journals produced for librarians in countries like Hungary or Croatia with languages that are spoken nowhere else and so have a limited market. But it is often hard to see any reason for publication of a particular journal other than to give visibility to a local branch of a library association or provide a vehicle for articles that other journals do not want - a sort of bibliographic refuse cart. Very rarely do these last journals contain anything that is worth reading.
So why bother about them? If a local body wants to waste money and paper, why not let it? The trouble is that these journals are abstracted in databases such as LISA, and the abstracts often make it appear that they have something useful to say. If all the articles were worthless (in the sense that they say nothing that is not said elsewhere) one might dismiss such articles; but that might be unwise, because once a year or so an article that is actually useful is included. There is no way of telling whether an abstract has squeezed everything good out of an article or whether the article itself is worth reading.
Even in widely respected journals, there is a great deal of repetition. Take as an example the topic of libraries in the electronic society. I must have scanned at least 40 papers on this topic (and I confess I have contributed to it myself), and the chance of finding anything new is now very small. The same could be said about articles on the value of TQM in libraries, the possibilities offered by online catalogues, and many other subjects. Perhaps journal editors feel that their journals are incomplete without something on hot topics of the day.
It might be said that one does not have to read all this stuff, but there is always the possibility that a contribution will contain something new or perhaps offer a good synthesis. How is one to know in advance which are the pearls in a pile of ordinary stones? This problem of selection is serious, and getting worse all the time.
The main underlying reason for over-production is presumably the wish of individuals to gain recognition - though there is no fundamental reason why publishers should give it to them. The librarians who are best known in their countries, and certainly across the world, are those who have written a lot, rather than those who have achieved a lot. The two are of course not mutually exclusive; some doers are also good thinkers, and some thinkers are also good writers. But there are too many writers who are neither good doers nor good thinkers. The 'publish or perish' syndrome is particularly strong in academic circles; but faced with the choice of publishing or perishing I cannot help concluding that some have chosen the wrong option.
DEFICIENCIES IN WRITING AND EDITING
I have to say too that many articles are poorly written: badly structured, weakly argued, and often unclear. Moreover, the English sometimes leaves a lot to be desired (I have little doubt that this is true of articles in other languages). As an editor I find I have to correct the scripts of even well established authors who have English as their native language. As a reader, I am frequently appalled by sloppy editing which allows errors to persist. As for articles in English by non-English speakers, the editing of these often seems to be minimal. For a profession that is presumably concerned with literacy, this is really not good enough.
Another problem with articles is that they are often too long. This may be because the editor has asked for a paper of 4,000 words or whatever, so the author spins out his slender ideas to fill the quota. There is also almost a prejudice against short papers, as if they are not quite decent. I would like to see greater tolerance with regard to length of article.
Poor structuring of articles is all too common. There should be a logical order, and a clear sequence of thought. It ought to be easy to find one's way around an article - to pick out parts that are of special interest (or of no interest); since there is so much garbage around, it is important to be able to see quickly whether an article is garbage or not.
Not only are articles often poorly written syntactically and grammatically, but many are boring. When there is so much literature and so little time to read, one would have expected authors to pay special attention to the need to engage the reader's attention. However, little thought seems to be given to it by many authors. If most articles remain unread, the fault all too often lies with the author. Admittedly the field of librarianship and information science does not naturally make for exciting reading, and no-one expects LIS literature to read like a good novel, but nor should we put up with articles that read like bad journalism or dry accounts of research.
There are three main types of LIS article: reports of research; accounts of practice; and 'ideas' articles. The first must above all be clear and precise, and I can forgive a certain degree of dryness if these conditions are fulfilled. It has often been said that some articles in information science are virtually unintelligible to all but one or two working in the same field. I am personally not worried about this, so long as the author expresses complex concepts as simply as possible. By no means all authors do this; on the contrary, some wrap up quite simple concepts in such opaque prose that one is not sure whether they are trying to conceal paucity of content in a fog of obscurity, whether they believe that a special form of stately language is obligatory for research articles, or whether they are simply incompetent writers. Such papers should also point to possible practical applications of the research; otherwise the value of the research itself is reduced.
Research articles are also overburdened with references. Indeed, a research paper with only a few references is not considered respectable. Obviously statements of fact need to be supported, and the ideas of others acknowledged (though this does not always happen by any means). But I suspect many papers of being padded with references that the author has not read, and that the reader will certainly not read. Some research articles rely much more on original thought than on past work, and the only reference needed is a scan of the author's brain.
Accounts of practice
Accounts of practice must show how local experiments and their results can be of use or interest in other situations. There is no reason why these articles should not be interestingly written.
I mentioned the over-production of articles on popular topics such as TQM.. Some papers deal with the application of TQM in particular libraries, but I see little wrong with these, so long as they make an effort to draw general conclusions on the basis of local experience. Scorn has been cast on 'How I run my library good' articles, but these are often more useful than articles on 'How to run a library good in principle'. I sometimes think that LIS editors have forgotten that librarianship is a practical occupation. I might add that I have often wished to see articles on 'How I run my library bad', since one can learn at least as much from mistakes as from successes. If there is one new LIS journal I would like to see, it is the Journal of Failed LIS Initiatives.
As for ideas papers, these above all should be stimulating and imaginative. In all three types, poor presentation results in a smaller readership, less absorption of content by those who do persist, and thus a partial failure on the part of the author. Librarianship is among other things a process of communication; poor communication with other librarians is no more excusable than poor communication with library users.
I would also fault some writers for lack of courage. They consistently quote the great (and lesser) gurus of the profession with awe, as if gurus never talked rubbish. They seem afraid to challenge conventional thinking, perhaps because they have no original thoughts of their own. Like all other areas of knowledge and practice, LIS has its share of emperor's clothes, and authors should not be afraid to point out their absence - if, that is, they notice. Ancestor worship has no place in our literature; nor has worship of what might be called living ancestors, who for their part should welcome rather than discourage fair criticism if they believe that truth is more important than personalities. (In any case, they should distinguish between criticism of what they say and criticism of who they are.)
My final criticism of authors (for this occasion, anyway) is that they often appear unaware of anything outside their back yard (occasionally their own kitchen. Sometimes local developments are reported in apparent ignorance of similar developments elsewhere; secondhand ideas are presented as new; and research is evidently conducted within the intellectual confines of the country of the author, whose numerous references are restricted not only to writings in the same language but to publications from the same country.
ABSENCE OF FEEDBACK
One problem with LIS articles is that unlike books, which get reviewed, there is very little feedback on articles (though I like the starring system used by the Journal of Academic Librarianship in its bibliographic section). Citation measures are useless; they relate almost entirely to the research literature, and within that limitation they are biased towards certain types of article - for example, citation studies (if you want to be cited, write about citations). I would like to see some surveys carried out that ask librarians how much professional literature they read (I guess we would be shocked at how little that is), what articles they have read in the last month, which if any articles have made an impact on them in the last five years, and why. At the end of such a survey, we might well be asking 'what is LIS literature for?'
If and when most LIS literature is accessible online, publishers will be able to find out which articles are read and which are not, and will doubtless do so. That will be only a start, as it will not answer the other important questions. It could also be positively misleading, if publishers use the information to reject articles that are very little read without enquiring further. An article reporting important research may be of value to only three or four people, but that value may be potentially greater than the value of a widely read but trivial piece.
One big issue for the very near future is whether articles, and if so which articles, need to appear in printed form - or rather, whether the printed form should be generated at the publisher's or the user's end. Since I gave a paper on this topic last year, I will not address the subject again. I will only repeat that the printed form has advantages that online access does not, including the ability to quickly sift good from bad and useful from useless; and add that in an electronic world there is no need to fill up a certain number of pages, so that articles can be of any length (preferably as short as possible).
AN INTERNATIONAL ANGLE
I have been speaking from the perspective of an English-speaking reader. I would like to try and put myself in the position of a librarian from a country like Hungary whose native language is not understood elsewhere and few of whose population are familiar with English. As well as being kept informed of developments in Hungarian libraries, I would wish to have some idea of what is going on in the rest of the world, particularly in countries where librarianship was rather more advanced. I would want this information to be conveyed clearly and concisely, not in long descriptive articles. This seems to be exactly what Péter Szántó's journal TMT is doing. Such journals will never have a very wide readership, and may never recover their costs; but their value to the profession seems to me so great that subsidy is entirely justified.
I actually want to know more of what is going on in other countries, especially in non-English speaking ones. It was incidentally partly for this reason, and partly to save the time of readers who would never have time to read more than a small fraction of original literature, that Librarianship and Information Work Worldwide was established. (I might add that Linda Hajdukiewicz is responsible for its publication within Bowker-Saur, and both Peter Lor and Péter Szántó have written chapters for it.) If much LIS literature is garbage, LIWW might be described as compressed garbage.
If I had to name one big issue facing LIS journals, it would be that of selection from an overwhelming mass of material. There are no gaps in coverage of topics that I want filled, but there is a great deal of redundancy and triviality. Greater conciseness and precision in articles would be very welcome, and should be attainable if editors and publishers can stop equating size with value, but it would not by itself reduce the number of articles. It seems very unlikely that the total mass will be reduced. So the best hope must lie with critical abstracts and reviews that would enable readers to sift useful from useless, good from bad. Indicators might be attached to every article abstract for (e.g.) originality, practical usefulness, and readability;. This may seem invidious and subjective, but it is more or less what is done with book reviews. It is in fact already done by MCB University Press for its online journals, but one can hardly expect a publisher to be too critical of the articles he publishes, and it would be much better if it were done by another organization
I have accused authors of over-production, and of various faults in their products. I have accused editors of sloppy editing, and implicitly of insufficient discrimination. I have accused publishers of too often going along with wordy and half-literate authors and with lazy editors. Even though I have certainly not accused all these parties of all these things all the time, I have probably offended most of the audience, as well as many others. Nevertheless, if a prize were instituted for the least necessary article of the year (self-nomination by authors not allowed), I guess there would be many submissions.
I will end on a positive note, by naming three authors, each of whom fulfils one or more of my criteria in an exemplary manner. They all happen to be American, though two of them were born in Britain and did not emigrate to the US until they had established library careers in the UK. My shining example for clarity of presentation of research is Wilfrid Lancaster; for good and innovative thinking, always interestingly presented, Richard de Gennaro; and for entertainment value and disrespect of authority, Michael Gorman. Authors, please study and emulate.