Books vs Online Journals: Are We Compromising on Quality?

Hi guys! Here is the final installment of my academic assessment blog about Contemporary Cultures of Reading: Apps and Online Platforms. I must say that this has been an extremely interesting project to be part of and has taught me a number of things about the publishing industry but also about what people want to read on WordPress.

Just a quick side note before I begin: My initial worry with starting a public blog came from my fear that the community would be exactly like high school – no one would care unless you looked a certain way or said the right things. I admit in the past a few of my posts have conformed to my ideas about what I should be blogging about as opposed to what I actually wanted to blog about. I don’t have the kind of money to splash on designer clothes hauls and I actually don’t really want to do that. Yes I have an interest in fashion and at some stage that may feature on here – but only if I want to, not because I believe that’s what every (no longer) teenage girl blog should be about.

This project has allowed me to see that people actually engage best when I give them a topic to ponder. I’ve had so many positive comments engaging with the content and I believe I’m starting to find my feet as a blogger now – but my own definition of a blogger instead of what I believe people wanted to see.  I hope you enjoy this one as much as the rest!


The world of the online journal is still one that is relatively new to the world of academia. Even when my mum was studying for her degree towards the close of the 1980s, the idea of accessing academic information that wasn’t provided in a book or serial would have been an alien concept. This got me thinking about a much deeper question concerning the depths and quality of education. Before the days of the internet, undergraduates would be confined to using the material located within their university libraries; maybe once every so often you would be able to request a paper from a different institute to your own and have it posted to you.

Nowadays through internet databases we are granted immediate access to work completed by academics in America or New Zealand through a few simple clicks. A question that I, somewhat bravely, posed to my lecturer the other day was: “Does that mean that the undergraduates of today possess an ability to gain an arguably better and broader knowledge of their subject than the scholars of the days before the internet?” We certainly have the opportunities to access material that they did not at undergraduate level.

Yet is the information provided in online journal articles of a higher quality than that located in book chapters? Or does the ease of locating the text we’re after by searching key words in a PDF just another example of how we’re becoming lazy now that the internet can do half of the leg work for us?

I should begin by outlining the key differences between chapters published in an academic book and an online academic journal. Physical hard copies of books will always be required in academia as they lay the foundations of the works we must study. For example, someone on an English degree such as myself will undoubtedly encounter critical theory at some stage throughout their degree so maybe a knowledge of the key teachings of Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx would be key to gain the basic knowledge behind the theory. However, sometimes academics prefer their students to rely more on journal articles as they contain current research and up to date findings[1].

Academic books can also cover broader topics than a journal articles as they are given the breadth needed to expand on smaller ideas. However, to pen a full book can actually encompass a researcher’s lifelong work as opposed to a much smaller research article within a published journal article. Is it the case that the medium in which the information is published is chosen based on this? And does this necessarily mean that the information found in one format is better than the other?

One way in which we can attempt to resolve this debate is to consider the number of citations within academic authorship from book chapters, reviewed articles and scientific articles. The general rule of thumb is that a piece of academic work with a higher citation number is more than likely worth reading; whether that be to engage with or argue against a reference. However, is the accessibility of these works detrimental when it comes to citations? Are we potentially missing out on fantastic research because of the ease of logging into JSTOR or ProQuest?

This is demonstrated by Kent Anderson who cited the findings an Oxford Professor, Dorothy Bishop, in an article entitled: ‘Bury Your Writing – Why Do Academic Book Chapters Fail to Generate Citations?’ Within this article, he discovers that Bishop was surprised with her findings: ‘While she expected a difference between scientific articles and book chapters, she was surprised to find a large difference between review articles and book chapters — after all, book chapters are akin to review articles, just published in a thematic book rather than a subject-area journal’[2]

She then continues by focusing in on book chapters and hypothesising her reasons why she believes they are suffering compared to the journal articles: ‘there are three things that determine if a paper gets noticed: it needs to be tagged so that it will be found on a computer search, it needs to be accessible and not locked behind a paywall, and it needs to be well-written and interesting.’[3] From this we can judge that the main problem here concerns accessibility and circulation. Whereas journal articles can be retrieved through a number of keywords entered into a search engine, books remain in a sort of ‘packaging shell’[4] and therefore the content of their chapters are harder to access.

An additional problem concerning accessibility of material that we must consider is the fact that journals are broadcast to the public on a regularly basis as opposed to books. A publishing company may spend thousands on an initial marketing campaign for a book, yet once that is over then that’s it – it is assumed that you just know about it. Whereas journals can be marketed in several different ways such as through a subscription to an academic magazine. It is also an (slightly) easier process to get a journal article published than a chapter in a book and publication of lots of articles will increase your digital footprint and therefore attract more people to your profile of work.

This is a debate that will never have a straightforward answer as the question appears to be relatively subjective. We cannot ever say that one is better than the other or that one contains a higher calibre of material because that is ultimately down to the author as opposed to the medium. From a personal perspective, when constructing academic essays I always begin by scouring the physical texts from the university library. I couldn’t tell you why; although it certainly is not because I believe they contain a higher quality material than online journals. This is probably because I’m slightly overwhelmed with the access to online journals here at university and I really don’t know where to begin! At least with a physical library you are pointed to a specific shelf where information relating to your essay subject can be found.

I also tend to use books when writing about a specific literary movement, theory or text. However when I am looking to engage or argue with an opinion about said subject I will consult online journals for the ease of locating that specific niche argument. It seems as if I’m guilty of my own argument here! As I have previously stated, I don’t feel that you can collectively put all physical texts and online journals together and make a conclusion as to which is more useful. It ultimately comes down to your own ability as a researcher to compile the most relevant and highest quality sources relating to what you wish to say. From wherever they may be accessed from.

[1][Anon], ‘Research & Course Guides: Books Vs Journals in the Social Sciences: Getting Started’, Libguides.Stthomas.Edu, 2016 <http://libguides.stthomas.edu/journalsbooks&gt; [accessed 15 May 2017] (para 2 of 3).

[2] Kent Anderson, ‘Bury Your Writing – Why Do Academic Book Chapters Fail To Generate Citations? – The Scholarly Kitchen’, The Scholarly Kitchen, 2012 <https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/08/28/bury-your-writing-why-do-academic-book-chapters-fail-to-generate-citations/&gt; [accessed 14 May 2017] (para 4 of 18).

[3] Anderson, ‘Bury Your Writing – Why Do Academic Book Chapters Fail To Generate Citations? – The Scholarly Kitchen’ (para 9 of 18).

[4] Anderson, ‘Bury Your Writing – Why Do Academic Book Chapters Fail To Generate Citations? – The Scholarly Kitchen’ (para 13 of 18).


Hannah

xxx

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