Perceiving Academic Journals

I started college in 2005, just at the cusp of learning management systems; things like Blackboard were in use, but most courses still had physical syllabi passed out on day one, and most assignments were still printed out on paper and handed in physically.

In the same way, online journals were increasingly popular at the time, and most of my research library training did involve learning systems like JSTOR and Project Muse and the MLA International Bibliography, but at the same time, it was very, very common that I would still need to pick up a physical journal volume from the library shelves to complete a project. At the material level, this taught me to notice journals as serial publications, to count through the volume numbers until I found what I was looking for, and to respect volume and issue numbers as a reliable indexing system.

Material experiences with reading in physical containers, ironically represented in a digital image (via StockSnap)

In contrast, for my students who have been on learning management systems for basically the entirety of their academic lives, including even primary school, if it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. If an assignment doesn’t have a due date on Canvas, it doesn’t exist, even if it’s on the syllabus (which is also on Canvas, of course). Likewise, while they are familiar with books as educational technology, almost everything shorter than a book (and many things longer than a book) is available to them digitally via remote access.

In the same way, they experience other serial publications in a fundamentally different and digital way. News articles may exist on newspaper websites, but they are primarily interacted with as individual objects that are shared discretely with direct links, apart from any physical reminders that they are contained inside something else.

My students’ material experiences with the library and its resources looks more like this (also via StockSnap)

This results in a fundamentally different experience of the notion of the academic journal and academic journal articles, and I think it’s definitely worth exploring what that means, because it affects how students engage in the academic discourse that it’s my job to guide them into.

Consistently, my students tend to refer to an individual article as “this journal” or “this scholarly journal” rather than “this article.” They also frequently forget to notice or mark down the volume or issue number of a journal when they do cite it.

At some level, I have found this frustrating. I’m frequently explaining that the journal is a bigger thing and the article is just a smaller part of it. I point to MLA 9th edition’s focus on objects appearing in “containers.” I explain the publication model for academic peer-reviewed journals and discuss the different genres that appear in them. And all of this does help, to some degree.

But ultimately, their understanding of academic articles as discrete objects that have their own life but are weirdly accessed through a specialized search engine (that is, the database interfaces) makes sense, because there’s no physical experience of finding a smaller thing contained in a larger physical thing on a shelf. Why should they pay attention to the journal, or the volume and issue number, when the thing they need is right in front of them, just one click away?

Recently, there was an article going around about how students have to be taught about file folder structures in computers. I share the experience of having to teach students about these structures, and to some degree this is exacerbated by the interfaces that current devices design that hide file folder structures. And the problem of journals vs articles shares some features: the terminology simply doesn’t reflect my students’ lived experiences of the material dimensions of the genres involved. It’s something like how the floppy disk has become frozen as a “save” symbol but most users’ experience is now entirely detached from the origins of that symbol.

Therefore, I’m not really surprised that students call the article a journal. They have no conception of the container. To them, it’s purely a thing that exists in the databases, to be summoned at will through the “full text” button in the database. The database, then, is the container, and that’s often what I see in their citations (yes, it is a container, but there’s another container too).

It’s the same way that they’ll cite images as coming from Google; that’s how they found it, so that’s the container. Since Google doesn’t force them to click through to view the image, they make no association with any other container.

Do I have a solution other than explaining the publication models that control peer-reviewed articles? Nope. All I have is the observation that it makes perfect sense that to them, the article is the journal, because that’s what their experience physically represents. And there really isn’t much reason for undergraduate students at the 100-level to pay much attention to journal reputations, editorial boards, etc., so there isn’t much reason for them to think of journals as containers and articles as existing inside those journals. They aren’t trying to keep up with the latest information in their fields yet; they’re just trying to catch up with the foundational concepts for now.

And that’s ok. I’ll keep explaining and gently correcting until our citation and publication practices catch up with our material practices.

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