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Amodern 1: The Future of the Scholarly Journal

BEYOND THE JOURNAL AND THE BLOG

The Technical Report for Communication in the Humanities

Nick Montfort

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My response to this situation has been to write scholarship of the sort that would usually be presented in a journal and not publish it. In January, I started a technical report series at my lab, the Trope Tank. This Trope Report series is available in print at the lab, can be downloaded from the lab’s website, and is Creative Commons licensed to allow any sort of redistribution, commercial or non-commercial, that includes attribution and preserves the reports’ original sharability. As of this writing, there are four reports in the series, two by me and two which I authored with a visiting scholar. Affiliates of my lab proofread the reports and we have some discussion of them before they are issued, but there is no editorial or peer review process. Technical reports have never been considered publications in the sense that peer-reviewed journal articles and books are, as is discussed in more detail later. Of course, I do not represent the ones in my series as such.

On the one hand is publication as it is recognized by the academy, for instance as it participates in tenure and promotion evaluation. On the other, there is communication that serves the intellectual purpose of fostering what Vannevar Bush called the “great record” of scholarship and research. What if these are indeed two separate hands? What if technical reports, which have existed since the early 20th century, succeed quite well at the latter while not participating in the former? If that is the case, what needs to change? If that is the case, is starting a new, peer-reviewed journal the most reasonable intervention to make at this point? This paper presents the argument that the technical report is a vital format that can be of further help to the humanities, as it already has been in in many fields (including ones with some humanistic connection). While my own experience is with technical reports in creative computing, my discussion is general to the dissemination of scholarly writing for others who are expert in some humanistic field.

Given the role that technical reports are ready to play, this article goes on to argue that journals, instead of assuming they will be the sole channel for article-length scholarship, should focus on the few special benefits that they can offer to scholarly communication.

Some Definitions

The technical report is defined as a format and genre in many guidebooks, some scholarship, some international standards, and numerous dictionaries and encyclopedias. It is also defined in the many technical reports that are about technical reports.1 The technical report is a prominent instance, if not the prototype, of “grey literature,” unofficial written work disseminated by organizations whose primary business is not publishing. This category of work has been the focus of a recent, active subfield of library and information science work. Online, there is a Grey Literature Network Service that was founded in 1992. Grey literature has been discussed at international conferences since the first one in Amsterdam in December 1993. Since 2005, The Grey Journal: An International Journal on Grey Literature has been published in Amsterdam by the organization that runs the conference series.2

There are ancient documents that report in technical language on the status of projects. But the technical report as we know it originated in an industrial and governmental context in the 20th century, initially accompanying the development of the aeronautical and automotive industries and then blossoming further in the research environment that followed World War II. The technical report is an outgrowth of the military/industrial/academic complex and of modernity.3

The classic treatment of technical reports is the 1975 Use of Reports Literature by Charles P. Auger, who developed a definition and a detailed taxonomy of the type of documents that appear as reports. These are worth returning to. For now, three more recent definitions, from different sorts of sources, can be used to characterize the current understanding of the genre. First, the full definition given in the international standard ISO 5966, presented in 1982 and withdrawn in 2000, is:

scientific and technical report : A document describing the progress or results of scientific or technical research, or the state of a scientific or technical problem.

NOTE – Such a report presents sufficient information, systematically or chronologically, that a qualified reader can judge, evaluate, or propose modifications to its conclusions or recommendations.

Such a report is prepared for a sponsoring organization or person and generally constitutes one of a numbered occasional series for internal or wider distribution.

Hering and Hering’s more recent and extremely practical guide to writing technical reports offers a simple definition: a “report about technical subjects” that is “written in the ‘language of science and technology’ (special terms and phrases, display rules etc.)”4

Mount and Kovacs, writing about sources of information in science and technology, describe technical reports as “documents prepared by organizations to provide specific information about specific projects or programs of interest to knowledgeable people.”5

These definitions agree that technical reports are for those with training and some degree of expertise: the “qualified reader,” one who knows the “language of science and technology” and is “knowledgeable.” Seen on the epistemic scale of information genres, the technical report is neither on the literary/journalistic end, nor in the “informational” middle of the axis – where Guillory places the memo, the form, and the report (without any “technical” qualifier).6 Instead, it belongs to that fraction of the writing of modernity that is on the scholarly/scientific end – that which seems to be the most “intrinsically interesting.” The technical report, however, strongly related as it is to bureaucracy, going in the terminological guise of an informational document, and filled with technical detail, may appear as one of the most boring formats in this otherwise interesting category.

Mount and Kovacs continue to explain that technical reports are “generally aimed at knowledgeable people (rather than the layperson).”7 The technical report as a genre is thus distinct from the memo, which is aimed at readers within an organization – or simply aimed at the organization’s filing system. Additionally, it is distinct from the genre of the white paper, even though it is not difficult to find documents labeled as both. White papers are similar to consulting reports, and they are usually written by experts.8 However, they can make a business case or to explain technologies to non-experts; they do not need to be written to document technical research or processes for an expert audience.

Two of the three definitions make it clear that technical reports are about technical topics, research, and projects. Mount and Kovacs, whose book is focused on sources of science and technology information, do not say this explicitly in their initial description. They later write that technical reports are “usually concerned with scientific and technical projects, but the term can apply to reports written in other disciplines, such as sociology, finance, and education.”9 Although my own work deals with technical topics from a humanistic perspective, the opening that is provided by this definition, and the discussion of the technical report as being for expert readers, suggests the possibility of a genre of reports, by experts and for experts, on any scholarly or scientific topic, whether it is technical in a narrow sense or not.

The first and third definitions, which are more concerned with organizational contexts, explain that technical reports are prepared by organizations and that the audience for them is a sponsor of some sort. Individuals may be the ones who actually write them, but they are written and issued within an organizational framework. Since they are organizational records of organizational activity, they are more strongly related to a particular archive than a journal article would be. They show the workings of the organization both in what they report and in how they report it – with their particular sort of cover, title page, and numbering scheme. These aspects remind us that while technical reports do not have the “special” context of a journal’s special issue, they do have a context: The research being undertaken by a specific group, within a specific institution and usually in a specific place.

Of course, while technical reports are “archival” in the sense of being part of a particular organization’s output, they are much less archival than journal articles in the sense of being preserved by libraries and made available through official channels into the future. This is a problem which may be alleviated to some extent by improved digital access to reports and new online preservation efforts. It will, however, certainly require continued attention and effort.

Auger describes the unusual but telling case of a document that denies being a technical report:

A factor which complicates the issue is the existence of publications which have all the attributes of reports (issuing organisation, author, date, typescript format, card covers, etc.) but which paradoxically bear the specific statement ‘this document is not a report’. Such warnings are ignored by the user, who assumes that if a document looks like a report then it is a report, and may be quoted as such.10

Just as stamping “THIS DOCUMENT IS A REPORT” on the title page of a book or the top of a journal article does not suffice to make these items into technical reports, a document that materially and formally presents itself as a technical report cannot disclaim its status with a simple notice. The technical report is not a pure textual genre but one related to paratextual, formal, and material qualities – and, as well, to the context of being developed within and issued by some institution.

The Ecology of Scholarly Communication

The people who are communicating critical insights, scientific results, and theoretical frameworks as well as doing other intellectual work in journal articles are also undertaking other communications of intellectual importance. From the least to most official, some of the major public forms of communication are tweets, blog posts, formal and informal discussions at conferences, and books. These form an ecology of scholarly communication, with the different forms and systems interlinked and overlapping in some ways and differentiated in others.

There is a growing body of scholarly and scientific literature about Twitter which, for the most part, articulates aspects of this system that are obvious to anyone who has a Twitter account or even reads tweets. In some cases this research also provides quantitative details, although these often have no implications. At the risk of restating the obvious, but with consideration for anyone who may have only a passing familiarity with the system, here few aspects of Twitter that are significant for scholarly communication:

  • It is open, unlike certain other social networks, in the sense that one does not have to be someone’s follower or even have a Twitter account to read a particular tweet.
  • People build up an idea about a particular person/account – whether a person is usually joking or serious, for example – and consider that context when reading tweets, enhancing what can a 140-character message can do.
  • Public or potentially public conversations occur between people/accounts, who address each other with “@” followed by an account name. Questions are posed and answered.
  • Various resources on the Web are linked in tweets and, thanks to facilities for shortening URLs, comments about these are often included alongside the links.

Twitter does support significant scholarly conversations; these aspects of the system help to explain how it does so. When there is a shared context, as when attendees are tweeting about a conference, the discussion can be particularly meaningful and can express some sense of the event to those who are elsewhere. Twitter can be used to get into arguments and to damage one’s reputation, but it seems unlikely that tweets themselves (as opposed to the study of Twitter) have contributed to any scholar’s tenurability in the way that published journal articles have contributed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a form known as the “blog” was of some importance to academics. The blog’s reverse-chronological list of posts, which were usually significantly longer than 140 characters but significantly shorter than journal articles, would often contain short scholarly discussions, writeups of conference presentations by the blogger or by others, and the embedding of or links to media objects that were being comparatively discussed. A space for comments after each post allowed visitors to the blog to contribute thoughts, ask questions, and otherwise extend the discussion.

I am told that some blogs still exist today.11 People who read these almost always do so via a feed reader, however, which aggregates different posts that are of interest to the reader and – while still technically allowing comments to be read and contributed to particular blogs – discourages the view of blogs as “sites” with distinct designs and communities of readers. Most people find that tweeting is easier and at least as conversational as blogging.

Conferences also serve scholarly communication in the humanities, offering academics a place to chat and, in the best cases, promoting significant discussion based on presentations. In many humanities contexts, as distinct from scientific ones, presenters are selected based on short abstracts that can explain whether an interesting topic has been selected but are too brief to exhibit scholarly ability or critical insights. So, conference organizers often must consider the reputation of presenters when making decisions about who to include.

Of all official methods of scholarship communication in the humanities, conference presentations and papers have the lowest status. The journal article is much more acceptable, but does not have the status of that great totemic monolith of thought, the monograph. This is in no way a necessary ranking. In computer science, where presenting late-breaking results is essential, conference presentations and papers in the conference proceedings are the most desirable form of publication; a journal can accommodate a tutorial or extended discussion which is not as cutting-edge but may still be important; and writing books is a curious diversion almost always reserved for those who already have tenure.

The pace of work and the push to exceed previous results is one factor here; It’s said that while physicists stand on each other’s shoulders, computer scientists step on each other’s toes. But the detail and depth with which conference reviewing (of full papers that have been anonymized) is done, and the fact that major computer science conferences are archival and have published proceedings which are very often cited, is also important.

One of the benefits of making interdisciplinary connections is the opportunity to appropriate useful academic processes and methods of communication from other disciplines, in whole or in part. Even if computer science as a discipline is not ready to bow to the juggernaut of the humanistic book, there could be something in that extensive mode of communication that is worthwhile for disciplines such as computer science – just as the serious reviewing and carefully edited and published proceedings of a computer science conference may offer humanists something to think about and work with.

The current discussion, however, is about how a different format – the technical report – may be worth appropriating. This quick sketch of the scholarly landscape of communication is enough to show that there is no other format or genre that accomplishes the same thing. The technical report is as fast as a speeding blog, as detailed and structured as a journal article, and able to be tweeted, discussed, assessed, and used as much as any official publication can be. It is issued entirely without peer review. On the one hand, this means that it cannot be considered vetted and used immediately for credentialing purposes.12 On the other, no peer review at all may be better than having only the superficial glance that is usually given to a short conference abstract in the humanities.

It could possibly be that the technical report proves better-suited to the application of engineering and scientific methods, and to reporting on the results, than to humanistic writing. However, the format of the journal article has proven apt for humanistic as well as scientific and engineering publication. If there is some aspect of or some mystique to the journal article that makes it appropriate for scholarly communication universally while the technical report lacks applicability in the humanities, advocates of the journal article should identify what that is. Otherwise, it seems worth trying out the technical report format in the humanities.

The communication environment today includes a still far too small number of online open-access journals which support the publication of scholarship. Along with these, there are other journals that, by restricting access to subscribers only and prohibiting an article from being posted elsewhere on the web, support what I call the anti-publication of scholarship.

By “anti-publication,” I do not mean to indicate a process that eradicates writing from the record entirely, some type of erasure or total anti-publication. Furthermore, it is clear that today’s journals are often closed because of their connection to historical publishing practices, academic societies, conferences, and so on. A commercial anti-publication founded this year in a field where open access is the norm is certainly tremendously more culpable than a venerable, traditional journal that has not yet found the motivation to change its model or a specific way to do so. In today’s world, though, it is fair to call anti-publication any process which makes an article less available than it would otherwise be.

Scholars today can very easily give everyone in the Internet-connected world access to their work by placing it on the Web and letting it be indexed by search engines. It is, of course, no longer necessary to ship paper journal issues to libraries, as it once was, and to have a system of cost structures that supports such manufacture and shipment. There are still costs associated with producing a journal, and these costs must somehow be borne, but they do not increase when an interested reader in Appalachia or Africa accesses an article. Some of the burden a journal must shoulder is supported by volunteer academic labor that goes into reviewing and editing; it is particularly disappointing that in the current system, many people volunteer to serve companies that then legally and technically restrict access to their volunteers’ own writing.13

By placing an article in a journal that restricts readership, scholars make a communication-related choice to anti-publish, locking their work away and hiding it from readers. There could be several reasons for anti-publishing. A scholar may believe that placing a work in a closed-access journal is necessary because the credentialing function of such “publication,” and is important so that this scholar can earn tenure. Or, a compatible reason: The scholar may believe that the article is of no worth or interest and does not need to be read, just written. These reasons do not have much, or maybe anything, to do with communication, however.

A final part of the scholarly communication ecology that is worth nothing is the ready availability of bibliometric data through for-pay services such as those provided by Thompson or through that well-known free corporate service, Google Scholar. Certainly, biases exist in these systems, the source articles and citations are not cleanly and perfectly represented, and even the best and cleanest information about citation does not perfectly represent the impact of different scholarly writing (particularly across disciplines). Nevertheless, there is more high-quality, useful quantitative information about citation than ever before. While some journals have higher esteem and higher standards than others, it will be hard in the coming decades to ignore the impact of a widely-cited paper that appears in a bottom-tier journal – or in no journal at all.

Faster, Deeper, Better

Looking at the discussions of technical reports in the literature, I argue that the disadvantages of the technical report format, which are not great to begin with, are significantly diminished in the current ecology of scholarly communication and will continue to dwindle.

The benefits of technical reports were extolled long ago.

Those who write and issue reports do so because such documents offer a number of advantages over other means of dissemination, including greater speed, greater flexibility and the opportunity to go into considerable detail if necessary. … Over the years reports have come to constitute a section of the literature ranking in importance with journals, books, patents and standard specifications, and the time has come to grant them full recognition.14

And yet: “The problem is that ‘technical reports’ are a part of that fugitive literature which is so difficult to store and retrieve, and scientists consider them interim reports.”15 Does their interim nature mean that they are more lacking in detail than official publications are? No. “A comparison of technical reports and journal articles, with regard to the comprehensiveness of each, showed the technical reports to be, for the most part, much more detailed and complete than the journal article versions of the same material.”16

So, the format provides for both more rapid dissemination and greater depth of discussion than the journal does. What can be covered is more flexible, determined by what is interesting to note and discuss about projects rather than by the way a journal, or a special issue, is framed. The only major problem is that technical reports have historically been hard to access. It has been noted (Banks) that this problem is going away as the access distinctions between grey literature and official publications collapse, thanks to the Web.

“Collapse” may be too weak of a word for it. While journals such as Amodern make their contents freely available, for each open-access journal today there are many dedicated to anti-publication. Thanks to the artificial barriers journals have erected online, the accessibility of recently-published technical reports is already greater than that of recently-published journal articles. The distinction has not just been removed; the status of these two communications has been inverted.

One could grasp at the last straw of the journal’s possible superiority: By using peer review, they ensure a stamp of quality and show that published articles are important contributions, something which would be hard to otherwise discern from external signs. This would be true, but widely available and continually improving bibliometric systems have the ability to expose how often an article has been cited, giving a reasonable external measure of its impact.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that technical reports are already being issued in the humanities, not only by my own lab, but, using the thinly-veiled disguise supplied by the term “pamphlets,” by the Stanford Literary Lab.17

In a World of Technical Reports, What Would Journals Do?

Technical reports have been an extremely effective way to communicate and can be an interesting new way for the humanities. Even if issuing technical reports is part of the way forward for the humanities, this format will not solve every problem and address every scholarly communication need. It’s reasonable to ask the “WWJD?” question, then, and to consider what journals can still offer us and what they should focus on.

The very top journals in the sciences (Science, Nature) actually provide editorial services to assist authors in communicating their results effectively and according to the journal’s style. This seems like an extreme idea for a humanities journal, but if journals did this, they could allow for clearer communication by scholars whose English is not perfect and for better consistency and adherence to a common style in every case. Offering a service of this sort would provide something that a technical report series did not, and is certainly worth considering.

Although peer review is no longer necessary for externally determining the impact of a piece of scholarship, it can still be used for what some consider to be its primary purpose: to help improve an article. The difficulty here is that genuinely helpful advice and assessment is harder to provide than a snap judgment; a journal will have to work harder to find reviewers who are dedicated to helping their peers and who are able to find time to engage deeply and sympathetically with scholarship that can be improved.

There is no longer as urgent a need for journals to provide a place for publication on particular topics. While the Web is not an entirely smooth space, scholarship can be presented anywhere on the Web, and those who wish to build on, discuss, or critique it can connect to it by linking. Although the editorial status of the journal is still certainly special, there is more of an ability than ever before to juxtapose existing work and contextualize it in various new ways. While this purpose of the journal has diminished, a journal about a topic which has recently become interesting, or which is focused on a new scholarly approach, or which sustains a conversation about about a topic or approach of lasting interest, could still help to encourage important scholarship along those lines.

As should be needless to note at this point, it is an absurd exercise to start a closed-access journal during or after the year 2012 – a project on par with starting a registration-required scholarly blog. Although the open-access options are still far too few, irreversible trends are already in motion. Those scholars who actually care about communication and impact will at least prefer open-access journals if not submit to them exclusively. For a while, libraries, at least at major universities, will maintain their costly subscriptions to closed-access journals – or, more likely, to bundles of journals that maximize profit for publishers. Scholars who are at such universities, and who undertake the login rituals needed to locate and access articles in such journals, will still read at least those articles of obvious importance. But over time, closed-access journals, unable to compete even with the availability of the “grey literature” of the Web and certainly unable to hold up to the open-access journals that are superior at delivering their communications, will inevitably become the refuge of resumé-padders.

The journal is not an wholly obsolete concept, but one that must be transformed to remain relevant to today’s scholarly ecology. Perhaps the most difficult new attribute it must take on is one that Amodern has from birth: Open access. Journals also must transform their idea of peer review, though; instead of being an obligation, a device for credentialing, and an agonistic procedure, it should become a more helpful and collaborative process that is truly devoted to the improvement of scholarship. There are still, certainly, ways that journals can open up new opportunities for discussion and can provide editorial help that will help scholars develop and inquire into new areas and will be more inclusive.

I hope Amodern can help in some of these regards, and I’m looking forward to joining that effort. Right now, though, I need to go write about a topic too radical for any existing journal to consider. It’s time to work on my next technical report.


  1. Despite the urge to produce another “yo dawg, I hear you like technical reports” document of this sort, this current discussion was originally intended for this journal. 

  2. If a technical report about technical reports is amusing, isn’t an officially-published journal about unofficially-issued literature even more amusing? 

  3. Richard D. Walker and C. D. Hurt, Scientific and Technical Literature: An Introduction to Forms of Communication, (Chicago: American Library Association, 1990), 104-109. Brian C. Vickery, Scientific Communication in History (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2000), 152. 

  4. Lutz Hering and Heike Hering, How to Write Technical Reports: Understandable Structure, Good Design, Convincing Presentation (Springer, 2010), 1. 

  5. Ellis Mount and Beatrice Kovacs, Using Science and Technology Information Sources (Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press: 1991), 48. 

  6. John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” Critical Inquiry 31 (2004). 

  7. Mount and Kovacs, “Using Science,” 49. 

  8. Leslie C.Perelman, Edward Barrett, and James Paradis, The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), §2.4.6. 

  9. Mount and Kovacs, “Using Science,” 49. 

  10. Charles P. Auger, Use of Reports Literature (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books,1975), 6. 

  11. Such as mine, Post Position, at http://nickm.com/. 

  12. Because technical reports are not peer-reviewed and not officially considered published, there is no problem with submitting a technical report directly to a journal, since there has been no previous publication of the text. The status of the technical report as an unofficial document is sometimes misunderstood or can be subverted by the institution issuing it, however. An institution might mail technical reports to well-known labs or to libraries, hoping they will be added to the holdings and that this will bolster the issuing institution’s credibility. Or, people might believe a technical report from a well-known institution is authoritative and important simply because of the name of that institution. 

  13. If you oppose such practices, you can join me and more than 12,600 academics in boycotting possibly the most egregious anti-publisher, Elsevier, at http://thecostofknowledge.com/. Many others have not only signed up, but also left comments explaining their opposition to this type of system and to Elsevier in particular. 

  14. Auger, Uses, 3. The sentence I have omitted from this quotation is a very telling one that reveals the military/industrial/academic context in which technical reports developed; it is, however, one that is best treated in a side discussion. Auger wrote: “Another important reason why reports have attained importance as a separate medium of communication is because of an initial need for security classification which prevents their being published as conventional journal articles.” This advantage it is not directly relevant to the discussion of the technical report as a 21st-century form for the humanities, and hopefully will not become relevant, but it shows that the technical report’s ability to be a strong form of open publication (rather than anti-publication, or part of a system of information classification and control) is historically contingent, not something inherent to this format. 

  15. William D. Garvey, Communication: The Essence of Science (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1979), 59. 

  16. Garvey, Communication, 60. 

  17. In arguing that the technical report is a good format for the humanities, it would be remiss of me not to name at least one specific technical report that has informed my own humanistic work, if only in a note. Even though the technical report has not been at all widely adopted in the humanities, relevant reports have been issued, including those from Carnegie Mellon University’s Oz Project, led by Prof. Joseph Bates. The Oz Project applied computer science, dramatic, and other ideas to the development of interactive fiction and interactive drama. As a specific example, I offer Technical Report CMU-CS-90-158, “GLINDA: Natural Language Text Generation in the Oz Interactive Fiction Project” by Mark Kantrowitz. The report is technical in nature, and is about natural language generation for literary, gaming, and text-based simulation purposes. It is quite relevant in the fields of creative computing and digital media. It may have been officially published, but, unlike some other Oz Project reports, it does not bear an indication that it was. I sent off for a paper copy as an undergraduate, before these technical reports were made available online. I cited and discussed this technical report in my undergraduate thesis, my book Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, and my dissertation, which is about my own natural-language generation system for interactive fiction. 


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