For those who have felt this way, even a little, I highly recommend an article in this month's Review of General Psychology:
Information overload, professionalization, and the origins of the publication manual of the American Psychological Association, by Sigal and Pettit.This article traces the history of the original APA's instructions for preparing manuscripts, and it is fascinating. Concerns with publication standards emerged in the early 1900's, but the the manual itself was not conceived until after World War I. It was the last gasping breath of the era in which one could hope to have at least cursory knowledge of everything happening in the field; when, for example, a Ph.D. candidate could be reasonably tested on any psychological research published in the prior 10 years. As the field expanded, this expectation was impossible to maintain... unless... perhaps... something could be done to make the articles more similar, so that they could be grasped more quickly. That is, the original function of the manual was to make the life of the reader easier, and thereby speed the consumption of published material.
There was also an intention to help the editors and publishers. As the number of articles expanded, the old publishing system became overloaded. Did you know, for example, that the journal editor or publisher was typically expected to come up with the running head for a paper, and to write the abstract?!? Not only was this work increasingly difficult to manage, but it often lead to visceral anger on the part of author's who ended up with misleading abstracts and headers.
When things really got underway, several odd moral judgements entered the fray. For example, compliance with uniform writing standards were seen as a way to level the playing field of publication, "circumventing the authority of established brokers." On the other hand, uniform standards could be seen as stripping the life out of scholarly work, destroying the necessary context for creative expression. Titchener particularly detested the trend towards standardization, and the article is littered with scathing quotes that cannot help but make you smile.... especially with knowledge of how much more rigid the most recent manuals have become. For example, Titchener tells those working on the first manual:
Let any one who wants to run a journal do so, in his own way and with his own personality. If we insist upon cramping his style and insisting upon arbitrary form, censorship, and the like, we may make uniform pages, but we kill the life of science.Others feared we you could not write important work in the short formats being proposed. For example, if we limited articles to a measly 7,500 words.
The first guidelines published publicly were in the form of a seven-page article in Psychological Bulletin. Originally it was supposed to be pamphlet produced by a private publisher, but a last minute offer to put it in the Bulletin serendipitously made it the APA's intellectual property. It would be another 32 years until the first "Publication Manual" was printed, and as we all know large fortunes are now made off of each printing. In that time professional standards and expectations changed tremendously, and they have continued to change since.
I don't want to go into any more details, as the article itself is well worth reading. Though it is clearly a historical research piece, it touches on issues that are profoundly contemporary. What role should journals have as gatekeepers of the publication world? What are the jobs of author, editor, and reviewer? What are the vices and virtues of short reports as opposed to full length articles? And most importantly it leads us to question how the ways in which we write help and hinder the transmission of knowledge on a large scale.
I have a feeling this is the type of article in which different parts will jump out at different readers. So if you get a chance to look at it, please let me know which parts jumped out for you.
Also, on the non-professional front, there is a lot of polarized discussion about the recent events in Newtown, Connecticut. I don't think I it makes sense to discuss those events on this blog, and so I have written some thought elsewhere.