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A friend raised the most fascinating question this morning, and I've been thinking about it all day. How do we explain journals to undergraduates? What is a journal, anyway? How do they work? Why do they matter?  

I had just been running into this with some students in a second-year biology course. The biology department does a great job of building up students’ understanding of how science is communicated. Students learn what the primary literature looks like and how to find and read articles in their first semester. In the second year, they delve a little deeper and write a practice literature review, weaving together a small handful of articles on a topic of their choice. In upper division courses, they will write about their own research and (as scientists do) will put it in the context of what we already know. It’s a nicely sequenced apprenticeship process.

But there’s one interesting point of friction in the second year. The lab manual asks students to do a bit of observational field work in the library. They explore the part of the stacks where books on ecology, evolution, or ethology are shelved and write a paragraph about what they found. They also are prompted to browse one of the biology journals we still get in print as part of the brainstorming process. And they're prompted to explore how journals work: how can they tell which articles are primary and which are opinion pieces or news items? What are some of the subjects of research covered in the journal they are examining? Looking at a particular article, what question does it raise and what are the results?  

A lot of students are thrown by this experience. They think they’re supposed to find articles for their literature review by browsing, but it’s really hard to find an article on the behavior of golden marmosets that way. If they ask for help, it’s usually framed as “how do I find whether this topic is in one of these journals?” That’s simple enough. We show them how to limit a search of our biology database by publication. But I think their real puzzlement is about why anyone would browse a journal. Isn’t that, like, totally inefficient?

Students don’t experience information the way experts do. Most of them have never held a journal in their hand. A recent Project Information Literacy study of first year students points out they have to learn what a scholarly article is; they’ve never met one before. But even once they’re comfortable with articles, they have a granular concept of how they work. You search for a topic, then click on the PDFs that look most relevant. The notion that articles are published in bundles of semi-related content on a regular schedule doesn’t enter into their process at all.

Before these things appeared electronically, the concept of “journal” was inescapable. You went to a shelf where all of the volumes of a journal were in chronological order. Now that they’ve been unbundled, there’s no obvious need to pay attention to the journal an article appeared in until you have to cite it.

For faculty, journals are a fairly fundamental category, and they have meaning. Journals represent a community of inquiry. Chances are, some of the names on the editorial board are familiar. They might even have some choice gossip about what happened when a new editor stepped in last year. They probably have an instinctive grasp of why an article is likely to be in one journal, but not another. These are all social practices, and students have had no occasion to engage in them.

Journals also play a different role for faculty than for most undergraduates. Sometimes you go to a journal to find an article you need, but just as often you’re scanning the table of contents of the latest issue to find out what’s new, to see if there’s something in it that you didn’t know you needed to read.

Undergraduates rarely have a reason to encounter information that way, unless it’s something that pops up in their Facebook feed or is trending on Twitter. They have tasks that typically require finding out enough about a subject to explain it and perhaps take a position or offer a novel interpretation. In some cases, they design and conduct an experiment and seek out related research to put their work in context. But rarely do they have a reason to pick up a journal or visit its website just to see what’s new. They’re still busy getting a basic understanding of what's old.  

I wonder if this is perhaps a significant gap in our understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish with libraries and the use of them.  I would love to be able to do something with purposeful browsing, or to help students learn how to set up their own information streams that help them see what’s new in an academic area that interests them. I’d love to do more to foster curiosity. But our busy lives discourage that. We want to check off tasks, complete projects, get stuff done. Produce gradable objects. 

Funny that this purposeful project-driven activity is typically conducted through software called a "browser." 

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