Or, "What is the purpose of academic journals?"
[Please note: This is a question that has been on my mind for a while, so this is the first part of what is likely to become a multi-post series. It has been on many other, smarter, more experienced academic minds as well, as you will see from the links in each post.]
Tyler Cowen and John Sides have both given some attention to a paper Julie Suleski and Motomu Ibaraki, both of The Ohio State University. The paper (here, gated--Tyler notes the irony) looks at three questions:
1. How many scientific papers that were published in peer-reviewed journals made it to a mainstream audience?
2. What percentage of papers was represented in the mainstream news media?
3. Since the number of papers published has increased, has the number of papers reported on increased?
Rather than answer their questions--not all of which I'm sure are particularly relevant, for reasons that should become obvious later in the series--I will
selfishly merely use this as a jumping off point for some reflection on the purpose of academic journals. My own research as you know is in the area of social sciences, but I will attempt to make remarks that are applicable to the academic community in general, and offer a disclaimer when I have social or political science exclusively (rather than primarily) in mind.
The first principle to keep in mind is that disagreement saps energy. In Christopher Groskopf's inaugural post over at Hack Tyler earlier this year, describing his decision to move from Chicago to Tyler, Texas, he explained that he was going in with the expectation that he would have "to spend a great deal of time actively disagreeing with people." Christopher stated this with full awareness that the energy devoted to disagreement would not be considered productive in the traditional sense (I say this with respect for both his decision and his project). People tend to exhibit a basic understanding of this principle when they express disdain for partisanship in Washington, wishing that politicians would "stop arguing and get things done," but I for one am fine if they keep arguing and do very little else--but I digress.
This same energy required by disagreement draws upon reserves that could otherwise be put toward creative pursuits. If you think of a finite supply of resources--say, a 24 hour day--any one of those that you devote to arguing with someone detracts a unit of the resource that could be spent painting/writing/filing taxes/whatever. The point is not that disagreements are always bad. Indeed, sometimes disagreement and creativity are complementary; for instance, Galileo's disputes with the Catholic hierarchy were necessary. But could he have gotten more done if he were permitted to spend more time looking at the stars and less time arguing with bishops? Probably. The point is that people who are engaged in creative/productive pursuits will want to avoid debates over matters that they regard as settled or trivial in order to move on to new problems that they consider a better use of their time.
Having to retrace every step along the development of the modern scientific method, while not a debate per se (it was, but that isn't the point), would be a distraction or a waste of time. At some point these settled or trivial matters accumulate, words take on technical meanings, and the discourse of the problem-solving or -exploring community becomes too sophisticated for the general educated person.
Basic rhetoric tells us that any piece of language consists of three primary elements: audience, purpose, and genre. By directing their writing to an audience with whom the author shares at least a minimum of basic assumptions about the world, the pursuit of knowledge, and the professional conduct of contemporary scientists, authors are able to significantly reduce the effort required to generate their reports/articles. Rather than retrace each of the elements learned in their decade-long process of becoming scientists that are crucial to the topic at hand, they can simply address individuals who already share that common pool of basic science education, and can thus read the article intelligently without a lot of background. Thus, more time can be spent at the frontiers of research rather than retracing old arguments. Thomas Kuhn describes this process in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:
In the sciences (though not in fields like medicine, technology, and law, of which the principal raison d'être is an external social need), the formation of specialized journals... [has] usually been associated with a group's first reception of a single paradigm.... No longer will [the scientist's work] usually be embodied in books addressed... to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead they will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them. (1996: 19-20, see also p. 163ff.)
This argument is simply stated, and of course its implications are nontrivial (which is not to say original with me), but that's why we have the rest of this series.