Is there a typical journal article in the field of science and technology studies?

Is there a typical journal article in the field of science and technology studies?

An intermediary report from an ongoing research project to study the co-evolution of publishing practices and intellectual debates in the field of science and technology studies.

When Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner, a researcher at Leiden University’s Centre for Science and Technology Studies, stumbled upon the Twitter feed STS Title Bot, he was immediately struck by its creativity and effortless verisimilitude. Despite being generated by an automated algorithm that has apparently been fed with data obtained through text mining, many titles could easily pass for actual publications in major STS journals. Browsing the recent inventions of the algorithm, one comes across such fictional publications as “Waste in the 21st century: (re-)classifying materiality, exploration and experiment” or “What is a bridge? Engaged circulations for (re-)negotiating movements”.

The disconcerting familiarity of these titles raised an interesting question: is there such a thing as a typical STS journal article whose very conventionality is a precondition for the effectiveness of the algorithm? Luckily, Wolfgang is working on a research project that could attempt a partial answer to this question, and apparently in the affirmative: a typical STS journal article is approximately 20 pages in length, has 50-60 references, and mostly cites journals indexed in Web of Science. The typical article attempts, moreover, to coin a new concept, one that is connected to the foundational STS literature but usually does not challenge this literature in a significant way, and draws on an in-depth, often ethnographic, case study.

These findings come out of a research project entitled “Changing landscape of academic publishing and its impact on interdisciplinary social science fields: The case of science & technology studies (STS),” funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Led by Kean Birch, a professor at York University, and with Kaltenbrunner as co-PI, the team moreover includes Thed van Leeuwen, another researcher at Leiden University, and Maria Amuchastegui, a graduate student at York University.

In addition to identifying a typical journal article, the ongoing research project seeks to discern how such a standardized format has emerged, and what implications it might have for the content of the research published in STS journals.

The research team are using multiple methods, including both scientometric approaches and interviews with 76 editors, editorial board members, authors, referees, and publishers associated with seven general STS journals. The informants come from around the world, primarily Europe and North America, but also Asia and Latin America, and are from different career stages. The research team also conducted a scientometric analysis of STS journal articles, focusing on both metadata and content.

So far, the metadata analysis has revealed several trends across a wider array of STS journals. First, it documents the growing importance of the Web of Science for scholarly communication in STS. The sheer volume of journal articles published has significantly increased in the last three decades, with two particularly pronounced upticks in the late 1990s and another in the late 2000s. Moreover, articles in the 1990s cited a significant diversity of types of publications, from monographs to edited volumes to articles in non-indexed journals. As of 2015, however, STS journal articles in the Web of Science predominantly refer to other articles of the same type, thus emphasizing the growing importance of the Web of Science for scholarly communication in STS.

Interestingly, the metadata analysis also shows that the article format gradually standardized. In the 1980s, there was much variance in page length and number of citations. Many journal issues contain shorter conceptual essays, position papers, and conference reports alongside very long empirical research articles of 60-70 pages, sometimes even split into multiple parts. Starting in the late 1990s, however, the amount of variance decreased, and a standard format with the previously mentioned characteristics began to emerge, converging at around 20 pages and 50-60 references.

A preliminary analysis of the interview transcripts gives additional hints at the epistemic shifts that have accompanied formal standardization. For example, in the 1980s and early 1990s, in line with the zeitgeist of postmodern literary theory, emphatically ironic writing, use of polyphonic narration, and other forms of experimentation with format were common. Nowadays, authors aim for more standard prose, a stylistic shift that may reflect the imperative to be cited. Several interview subjects noted, moreover, that nowadays there seem to be fewer “big ideas”.

What prompted these changes in STS publishing? One hypothesis is that the standardization of the journal article should be seen as the emergent result of a confluence of broader dynamics. On one hand, publishing companies trying to streamline the production of journal articles to lower marginal cost; and on the other, attempts by scholars to approach their research practice as an epistemic economy of scale, geared to manage various constraints and uncertainties in the daily conduct or research – for example related to funding, evaluation, collaboration, and the differentiation and growth of STS as a field.

What are the next steps in the project? The team is currently undertaking a fine-grained content analysis of the general STS journals covering 30 years of STS publishing (1990-2019). The following seven journals were included in the content dataset: Social Studies of Science; Science, Technology and Human Values; Science as Culture; Science and Technology Studies; Social Epistemology; East Asian Science and Technology Studies; and Engaging STS. To create the dataset, Maria Amuchastegui has written a custom Python script to scrape the contents from the PDFs and identify new epistemic concepts that have emerged in the STS literature. Combined with the material already collected, this will hopefully allow for a detailed understanding of the co-evolution of epistemic debates in a scholarly community and the publishing practices it simultaneously cultivates.

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