Post-Modern Information Science and its "Journal"

Terrence A. Brooks

Graduate School of Library and Information Science

University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195



Changes in information technology cast a shadow on the fiftieth anniversary of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science (JASIS). Webified scholarship, disciplinary immaturity and topical incompetence limit the life expectancy of a paper journal serving a loosely structured group of scholars focused on information technology. The transformation of JASIS to a web site (JASISweb) has the advantage of supporting scholarly writing of hypertexts, as well as providing the products of personality, experience and context to the information science audience worldwide. Readers are invited to read the HTML version at the following web site: ( ).

Post-Modern Information Science and its "Journal"

Congratulating the Journal of the American Society for Information Science (JASIS) for a print run of fifty years provokes some gallows bonhomie. Three reasons seem to cloud the chance for fifty more:

For fifty years JASIS has validated the fledging intellectual discipline of information science. JASIS reflects the Modern information era when scholars sought tenure by publishing in journals, and universities paid twice for scholarly products (once as academic salaries, again as subscriptions to academic serials). The Internet has placed JASIS in the cross hairs of tumultuous technical and social change. In the Post-modern information era scholars will be publishers, academic review will be instantaneous with publication, and universities will seek to maximize their assets and vend a product. We may be witnessing the last days of the paper-based scholarly journal. This essay discusses three reasons why a paper journal supporting information studies has a limited future in the Post-modern period, and suggests the form JASIS may take as a Post-modern information science "journal."

Webified Scholarship

The primary motivation of scholars, most of who labor in grating obscurity, is to seek recognition for themselves and their work. They gain recognition by having their work approved by their peers. One form of such approval is the appearance of a scholar's work in a high-status journal.

Impatient scholars developed the scholarly journal as a speedier communications channel than the book. They will abandon paper journals when faster channels appear. That faster channel appears to be the Internet (Peek & Newby, 1996). The literature of physics has already shifted to the Internet in the form of the Los Alamos physics archive. [This embedded link illustrates the multidimensional nature of Post-modern scholarly writing. Readers of the HTML version of this paper may simply click on the link to visit the site. Readers of the paper version will need to make a note of the URL:]. The Los Alamos physics archive is a Post-Modern "journal" that is a primary means of dissemination of physics information. "Dr. Ginsparg, highly regarded as a high-energy particle theorist, did not set out to build a digital Alexandria. … He does not disguise his disdain for scientific journals, many of which he believes are unnecessary intermediaries, slow-moving and run by profiteers." (Hafner, 1998, April 21)

The scholarly workstation has revolutionized scholarly work. Today, one may assume that younger scholars in the industrialized world possess access to the Internet from their desks. Shortly, the generation of computer-shy older scholars will have retired. Meanwhile, a large proportion of the world’s scholars will become plugged into the Web. The active desktop metaphor of obliterates the distinction between local files and hypertexts on the Web. File transfer protocols permit scholars to share documents. Listservs, bulletin boards, newsgroups, chatrooms, electronic conferencing, etc., have turned the scientific community into a global village. The technically advanced scholar can turn his desktop computer into a web server. There is no longer a problem of disseminating hot, new information. On the contrary, there is now a crisis of attention. "Yes, America, it is possible to be too plugged in" (Kelley, 1998, D1) describes how the technically avant-garde seek refuge from the avalanche of information.

The scholar as publisher can now advertise and disseminate his work to the web public. The personal web site plays to the scholar's hunger for recognition. Students worldwide are attracted by a scholar's personal collection of documents and links. During the Renaissance, students would travel for months to be present at a lecture by an academic superstar like Galileo. During the Modern period, one had to subscribe to costly scholarly journals. In the 21st century the academic superstar scholar/publisher will transcend the constraint of the academic journal as well as the institutional constraint of the university by attracting digital pilgrims to his web site. We are about to enter the Post-modern information era when scholars will be information entrepreneurs.

University libraries and university administrators recognize that the digital revolution will reduce their costs. Extraordinary serials inflation are driving universities away from paper subscriptions and towards digital copies (Kiernan, 1997, September 12). Universities will seek to retain the intellectual capital of their scholars, instead of buying it back from publishers (Wilson, 1998, June 26). In the Post-modern information era, universities will work to retain the scholarly products of their faculty, package these as courses and vend these as products (Guernsey & Young, 1998, June 5). This practice has already been established in the Modern period by the Harvard Business School that vends books, business cases and other products of its own faculty. The Association of Research Libraries maintains a web site to chart the impact of changes of electronic scholarly publication on research libraries (

The digital revolution has also changed the nature of documents. Scholars can now accessorize their writing by including active objects like applets, scripts such as JavaScript and VBscripts, hypertext links, database interfaces, spreadsheets, images, etc. The typical scholarly product is now a hypertext, or a cluster of hypertexts. Scholarly journals can not compete with the Web in either speed of transmission or complexity of scholarly product. As older print-bound scholars retire, a new generation of Web-sophisticated scholars will seek Web-based channels of communication. For scholarly journals still clinging to the print paradigm, this is asteroid time in dinosaur land.

New information technologies create new operating environments. Paper scholarly journals face these challenges:

Does this mean that JASIS will disappear? No, as long as John Wiley is willing to support JASIS, it can continue to exist, even as a marginal, paper-based relic. The paper JASIS will, however, lose its role in the information community. It may continue to exist in name, but its function as a conduit for information science will have slipped away elsewhere.

[Historical note: In July 1998 readers may pay money for a subscription to JASIS, or read the full text for free at Wiley Interscience. This obviously unstable situation can not last long. The crisis is that the economic model of the paper journal does not transfer to the web.]

Discipline Immaturity

Information science lies at the intersection of computer technology and several humanistic studies such as psychology and linguistics. Serving this area requires a marketing strategy (Yes! even scholarly journals must have a marketing strategy). Publishers can create focused marketing strategies for differentiated consumer needs. Armed with a focused marketing strategy, publishers can fend off less-focused competitors. On the other hand, vaguely defined consumer needs inhibit the development of marketing strategies. Suppliers who vend similar products are always under threat. Does information science represent a highly differentiated market? Does it have an intellectual core that would prevent encroachments from computer science, communications, technical communications, management information systems, etc.? Can SIGCHI, SIGIR or IEEE easily plunder the readership of JASIS? Is JASIS operating as one of many suppliers to a poorly defined market? Perhaps the position in the crossroads is enriching, but the cost is poor orientation. JASIS would be under less threat if it were the sole supplier to a tightly organized field. The paradigm of organized intellectual endeavor is science.

The impulse to do science has been long standing. Twenty five years ago Goldhor (1972) spoke of finding invariant, universal causal relationships that connect variables such as books and readers. Cuadra (1982), Menou (1995) and many others have suggested research agendas (for example, "Research Agenda", 1981), but we still await the development of "normal" science (Kuhn, 1970, p.10). Carl Keren observed "I have the impression that only very rarely useful and nontrivial information emanates from the research published in our professional journals" (1984, p. 137). Gerard Salton was moved to demonstrate that the field of information science was not "moribund" (1984, p. 1).

The disciplinary immaturity information science stems from at least four factors:

Those who call for antiscientific research strategies must demonstrate that their chosen approach represents an improvement over positivist science. While such inquiries may successfully evoke in the reader of a research report some sense of what it is like to be a participant in a given social scene, they must nonetheless be shown to yield more valid and useful knowledge of the workings of that social world than science. (Sandstrom & Sandstrom, 1995, p. 191)

One characteristic may be that our measurements, and the relationships we investigate, are of a form that make them insensitive to conceptual weakness. That is, I am speculating that, at least in our most successful efforts, we have evolved modes of analysis that make sense even when we deal with poorly defined ideas. (Bookstein, 1995, p.75)

The field of information science has not matured into a recognizable linear science, thus the operating environment of JASIS highly volatile. Fashions in methods and conceptual shifts can rapidly splinter such a field, and present opportunities for specialized journals to partition the readership of JASIS. Our focus on new information technology is ironic. It is precisely new information technology that has current crisis for paper JASIS.

Topical Incompetence

Our eponymous expertise is information, but we reveal another heritage of librarianship by preferring to manipulate information containers rather than information contents. The essence of information is its meaning. What is the fundamental problem of information storage and retrieval? Finding meaning. What is the fundamental problem of relevance assessment? Determining meaning. Cleverly manipulating information containers in the hope of capturing meaning only illustrates the magnitude of our impotence (Swanson, 1988).

Meaning is created by language use. In their analysis of computers and human cognition, Winograd and Flores (1987) conclude, "nothing exists except through language." (p. 68). The situational nature of language complicates the determination of meaning: "Sentences in a human language cannot be treated as statements of fact about an objective world, but are actions in a space of commitments" (Winograd & Flores, 1987, p.105). The idiosyncratic nature of language prompts Pinker (1994) to point out the unpredictable meanings of phrases such as "kick the bucket", "buy the farm", "spill the beans" and so on. Before describing the use of electronic dictionaries, Wilks, Slator and Guthrie (1996) survey eleven ways in which the meanings of words can be established. None of the methods is authoritative.

The problem is that users want to retrieve on the basis on conceptual content, and individual words provide unreliable evidence about the conceptual topic or meaning of a document. There are usually many ways to express a given concept, so the literal terms in a user's query may not match those of a relevant document. In addition, most words have multiple meanings, so terms in a user's query will literally match terms in documents that are not of interest to the user. (Deerwester, et al., 1990, p. 391)

Information science has preferred a simpler approach to the relationship between words and meaning. Relying on a computer's ability to count words, Salton (1996, p. 333) claimed that "the language ambiguity problem is pretty well solved because the meaning of words becomes clear from the available local and global contexts." Luhn (1958) suggested that the frequency of word occurrence is a useful measurement of word significance, Subrahmanian (1998, p. 155) suggested that similar documents have similar word frequencies, and Bookstein, Klein and Raita (1998) suggested that content words clump together. These are just a few of the numerous suggestions for exposing the meaning of a document by manipulating words. Our strategy has been to leave meaning a fundamental primitive. When we attempt to assess how well we manipulate information, however, we run into the barrier of meaning:

The origins of information retrieval research can be traced back to 1953 . . . . the ASTIA-Uniterm test two groups . . . . In retrospect this was perhaps a rather inauspicious beginning, as the test apparently broke down in disarray over the question of relevance judgement. The two groups of testers were unable to come to an agreement over which documents were relevant to which question. (Ellis, 1996, p.1)

It seems that our fifty-year heritage of treating language as a computable object is an irrelevant skill set for designing a 21st century journal for information scientists. The Internet information revolution is transforming JASIS as you read this essay, but the pains of transformation can not be salved by anything we've learned so far. JASIS is exposed as any other journal to changes in information technology.

The Post-Modern Information Science "Journal"

The fifty-year print run of JASIS coincides with the Modern period of information science. Symbolically, the Modern period began with the Memex machine (Bush, 1945) and ended about fifty years later with the World Wide Web. In many ways the Memex machine reaches full expression as the personal computer on the scholar's desk. Linking all these machines via the web initiates the Post-modern period of information science. Table 1 outlines some contrasts between the Modern and Post-modern periods of information science.

The Post-modern period is characterized by free and plentiful information that originates on the desks of the world's scholars. By the year 2000, 75% of all data will be born digital (Forrester Research, 1998). Academic libraries are transforming to fully digital collections (Young, 1997 October). The "portal" paradigm supercedes the database paradigm:

Moreover, as television, telephones and computers converge into one integrated network of communications and entertainment, companies of all sorts see portals as a possible key to their future strategy. The power to funnel users to certain advertisers and content sites is worth millions of dollars in revenue. The search engines have become to the Internet what Windows is to the computer desktop.

(Hansell, 1998, June 19)

Clearly the "journal" serving the Post-modern information science community will be web based, not paper based. As the embedded links in this essay illustrate, authors will use active content that can be only fully utilized online. Given that changes in technology are the intellectual substance of information science, one can anticipate authors illustrating future scholarly essays by dynamically linking to interfaces, portals, web tools, etc. A paper journal in an academic field that turns on information technologies is simply noncompetitive. We must invent "JASISWeb."

What would be the relationship between JASISweb and the articles that now constitute the journal? The only reasonable economic model is to give these articles away free (Kelly, 1997). For example, this essay will always be freely available from my web site. By putting this essay on the web I am publishing it to the world. I am giving it away free. If I, the author, give the essay away free to the world, what possible economic model could a publisher employ? Who would pay money for a copy of this essay when it is available free?

Publishers get anxious at proposals to give articles away free because the prevailing economic model in the Modern period was selling these same articles. In the network economy, however, these articles are no longer are our product. They are merely advertising that draws a worldwide audience to the JASISweb products:

The competitive advantage of JASISweb is that the world considers us masters of information science. The world will travel to JASISweb to find the wealth of information science laid out before them: the people and their writings, exemplary tools and engines and the links that express the information science perspective. This is what we have been doing for fifty years. It is time to transform our journal to continue the task in the Internet age of the 21st century.


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Table 1: The Modern and Post-modern periods of Information

The Modern Era

The Post-modern Era




Orchestrate words, sounds, graphics

Not enough information

Too much information

Finding information

Filtering information

Information expensive

Information free

Linear growth

Exponential growth



Static, final version

Many changing versions

Letters to the editor

Chat rooms

Author intermediated by publisher

Author is publisher

Scholarly journal

Web site