The Four Assumptions of the Publishing Apocalypse


<Image Apocalypse by New Man>

I have pondered before that referencing in academic papers is an anachronistic practice in a digital age. This came home to me again recently, and my reaction was almost visceral this time. I wrote an article for a journal recently (I know! What was I thinking?), and it inevitably featured lots of online references. I thought I had conformed to the loathed APA referencing style, but was then asked for web pages to specify "(n.p.) when page number not known and (para 4) when the quote comes from a particular paragraph in an online article."

Let's look at those requests: a) it's an online reference so page numbers are rare and b) who ever counts the number of paragraphs on a web page to find a quote? I mean, seriously, come on, does search not exist in this world?

But it's not the absurdity of it that bothers me. Nor is it the pointless, soul-sucking nature of putting references into a very specific format (after all much of life is pointless and soul-sucking). It's the assumptions behind these requests that really antagonise me. Let's look at what I shall lightly term the Four Assumptions of the Publishing Apocalypse:

1) The assumption of power: This says 'yes it may be foolish and anachronistic, but we can demand what we like since we are the publishers and this is your only recognised outlet.'

2) The assumption of quality: This claims that not only are they the only outlet, but their method is the only one appropriate for academic discourse. Failure to use their correct format for referencing implies a lack of academic rigour.

3) The assumption of immutability: This feels there is no need to change. They have begrudgingly accommodated online references (although the assumption of quality emphasises these are to be viewed as substandard), but in their hearts they feel that the paper method is the purest form, and anything else should be a subset of that. Thus we have practices suited to paper transferred online.

4) The assumption of proprietary: If the assumption of power says we can make you do what we like, and the assumption of quality states that we are the custodians of reliability, then this last assumption asserts that thou shall have no other publishing model than us: we own publishing.

Now if you believe any of these assumptions hold true, I congratulate you. For the rest of us, I know it's only referencing, but think about what it says. I value acknowledgement and giving proper credit, but I want digital-friendly ways of doing this, not practices that have been reluctantly twisted to accommodate digital practice and who bear the scars of this transformation all too readily.


  1. Nice post and all very true. I am a little perplexed, however, at the persistent compulsion to publish in paper. As you said, “What was I thinking?”. Given that the power to change the status quo has been evident at least since FirstMonday first started (May 1996, as a peer reviewed online journal, why do academics still publish in paper so that their University can spend tens of millions of dollars to buy back that content so that it can sit on library shelves? This reminds of those who complain bitterly about the Course Management System they have purchased (there is still some choice in that purchase, I hope, isn’t there?) and then drop a bigger bag of money on the table year after year. Nobody is making them do it. There are other ways to do these things… but alas, the cycle continues.
    On a slightly brighter note, have you tried Zotero ( for online referencing? I don’t use bookmarks anymore. I spend a few extra seconds filling the fields and then can reference in a range of formats when needed.
    My suggestion would be that Universities re-route some of the tens of millions of dollars they typically spend on subscriptions into open, online journals and put the balance into open education resources etc.

  2. Yvette Morey says:

    Excellent post that sets out the assumptions behind traditional paper-based journal publishing really clearly. The ill-conceived twisting of this system to meet digital publishing practices brings to mind a similar twisting of (static, individual, paper-based) ethical guidelines set out by professional bodies like the BPS in an attempt to address the multiple and fleeting nature of identity, ownership and authorship in digital and online research settings.
    In reply to the comment by Allyn Radford above: while Universities are fixated on assessment excercises such as the RAE, the impact factor of journals (and of course the old guard paper-based journals still carry the highest ratings) will continue feeding the compulsion to publish on paper.

  3. Martin says:

    @Allyn – I don’t really persist in it much (see but I had some study leave and thought I would write some ‘proper’ articles. One was for JIME (an open, modern journal which didn’t make these requests) and another for a more traditional journal (I had been asked to be on the editorial board but refused because it wasn’t open, but produced an article). Why do it? I think journal articles still have their place, and as Yvette says, even for me, there is some pressure to keep up a publishing profile.
    @Yvette – yes the angle is that ‘it’s the same sort of thing really, nothing’s changed, it’s just the same behaviour in a different format’. This is the immutability argument.

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