Scientific articles and scientific letters

Scientific articles and scientific letters

‘The letter’ can be helpfully thought of as a proto-genre, not in a developmental sense (that it is in process of becoming a ‘proper’ genre), but that other forms of writing (aka genres) morph into it, and it morphs into others. ‘Proto’ is not really the right word, then, but no more suitable term seems to have been coined for this fascinating plasticity.

This has been influentially discussed by Charles Bazerman in Barton and Hall’s excellent edited collection on letter writing as a social practice. Bazerman points out that banknotes and patents both originated as letters, as did the academic article, written originally as letters exchanged between scientists of different kinds living in different parts of the country in an era long before there were professions of scientists or the other apparatus of academia such as peer-reviewed journals had come into existence.


Digital forms of publication have led to the reincarnation of scholarly letters between scientists, because permitting the exchange of ideas rapidly and in a direct way, contra the stultifying slowness and expensiveness of journal-production on paper, a form which also is resistant if not entirely unamendable to rapid dialogical exchanges. Conversations in epistolary form are not the forte of the print journal. Producing profits for publishers out of the hard work of academics is!

The example shown in the screenshot here is of the homepage of a prestigious publishing outlet for physicists. The articles that appear in it do not have direct address from person A to person B, but they are communicative exchanges between people separated in time and space, and there is indirect address. They enable person A to communicate their research to the rest of the alphabet, and they also allow the rest of the alphabet to respond and to do so rapidly.

There are no examples I know of – if there are, someone please email and tell me – where social scientists and humanities scholars communicate rapidly and semi-dialogically in this way while still producing peer reviewed and cutting-edge work. This raises the question of why we are so laggard when it comes to using new technologies and new software in innovative ways that enable us to communicate more directly, more swiftly and more efficiently with each other. And for those of us interested in letters, surely we ought to be thinking along these lines?

Last updated: 28 July 2016


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