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Notes and Queries, a journal first published 1849: fascinating, but decidedly quirky. It is still published today, but looks very different

Once upon a time, academic journals were a cornucopia of formats and styles. They were fascinating, as the above example shows, but sometimes bore little relationship to academic research. Nowadays in academia, everything is an article – and by article, we mean a highly structured piece of content. The last hundred years have seen a relentless focus on the academic article as the unit of learning, as well as the unit of assessment, for researchers. However you think as an academic, you are increasingly pushed towards publishing in article format.

Does this matter? Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner and co-authors, mostly from the Leiden Centre for Science and Technology Studies, looked at this problem, and, seemingly without irony, wrote an article about it. Helpfully, they also wrote a post on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, which is why you are reading this now. I wouldn’t have noticed the article if it hadn’t been for this plain-language summary. Their article is entitled “Does increasing standardisation of journal articles limit intellectual creativity?” – something I had never considered before.

Kaltenbrunner’s team established some useful stats about the standardization of articles. Articles tend to converge to the same length, the same number of references, and to have more than one author. Non-research article formats, such as essays and opinion pieces, have become less well used. The article itself is more highly structured, for example, the methodology is typically included in a separate section of the article.

The authors’ own research suggests that the academics like this convergence: it is easier to plan and to execute a piece of writing if the requirements are clearly known in advance. Using standard components for an article, for example, makes it possible to treat each section as a separate work package, and hence divide some of the labour among the team. Of course, as the researchers point out, that doesn’t make the writing or the submission process any less complex!

So where is the problem with standardization? The authors talk about “intellectual creativity”, by which I think they mean academic research, rather than the creativity that led to the writing of Hamlet. The authors believe it is potentially dangerous to keep to a standard framework; they use the term “black-boxing” to refer to a methodology that is assumed and not investigated further. They claim that unthinking “black-boxing” reduces diversity and variety.

Moreover, Kaltenbrunner and his colleagues talk about “gestural theory … a widespread practice of theoretical name dropping that serves to situate manuscripts in STS [they mean STM] literature through referencing, yet without substantively engaging with their work.” Like it or not, name dropping has existed since the earliest books – not just in recent academic articles. There has never been any shortage of authors wanting to show they have read the right books.

A different view

Quite the opposite view was presented by Kaveh Bazargan of River Valley Technologies, in an interesting presentation at the NISO Conference in September 2022. His presentation, Building Access, Openness and Sharing, argued that using standard technology, notably XML, can increase standardization and as a result promote open science. For Bazargan, XML structure provides one of the ways in which science becomes open, because then the full metadata is revealed for any article. His analogy was Michelangelo’s David, which exists in reality, but also as a collection of metadata when you take a photo of it, which enables it to be referred to. Bazargan’s analogy is not entirely successful, but works well for an academic article, since a PDF of an article can only ever be an imperfect representation of the full work, whereas the full work is contained in an XML version that contains all the metadata for that work. “The XML is the David”, stated Bazargan, which would have surprised Michelangelo, but we see what he means.

If you define the work of an academic article as the full text, together with all the associated metadata, such as the ORCID IDs of the authors, the well-tagged section headings, the name and date of the journal in which the article appeared, the date of the article, then the original article may be more than the work as originally conceived by the author. When John Smith writes an academic article, it doesn’t matter to him which John Smith he is, but it matters very much to his readers that they can disambiguate him from all the other John Smiths.

Standardization and books

The simple comparison of academic books and academic articles is instructive. It’s immediately apparent when you look at the structure of books that they lack much of the common framework that enables articles to be managed as part of the academic process. Books (and their chapters) lack abstracts. On the subject of chapters, books may contain sections; they may contain parts; they may or may not contain chapters; sections may be contained within parts. Chapters may or may not have a title. Some books contain “books” within them. The lack of standardization of books makes them considerably more difficult to use for academic purposes. How can you guide a reader to the relevant chapter of a book when you have no metadata to tell you where to find the relevant material?

I would argue that even journal articles are nowhere near as standard as they should be. There is no single universal system for tagging “research articles” as opposed to “review articles”, for example – a fundamental requirement for assessing academic content. Readers have to check by hand to make this simple distinction.

Who is correct?

Perhaps the two approaches to standardization are examining different aspects, and hence not entirely comparable. But I would tend to side with Bazargan, for the simple reason that digital publishing implies a structured approach to academic discourse, which includes such things as ORCID IDs for all the authors.

So I would argue that for academic purposes, a high level of structure facilitates intellectual creativity, by which I mean giving the researcher the opportunity to appraise the content quickly, to determine what the content is about, and then to respond to that content. The researcher are free to do what they do best, which is their research.

Equally, I would argue that “intellectual creativity” applies as much to the processing of the content at scale by machines. The plethora of AI-based tools that facilitate the discovery and appraisal of articles requires a systematic structure. That is just as creative, indeed considerably more creative, than using your brain on a long and unnecessary journey trying to work out which John Smith is which.