The Wave of the Future is… Reduced Functionality?

A recent article of mine was accepted (hurray!), and when I received the proofs, the email included a very strange apologia for replacing page numbers with meaningless hash strings: (Identifying information has been obscured to protect the guilty.)

[Journal name] now uses [electronic codes] instead of page numbers. The use of [electronic codes] supports [the publisher]’s transition from print, page-based publication workflows to a modern, web-first environment that reflects the future of journal publishing.
[electronic codes] are unique identifiers for an article that serve the same function page numbers have traditionally served in the print world. Your article will now have a unique identifier ([electronic code]) instead of a page number. The [electronic code] will become the primary means of citation, just as page numbers have been in the past. The [electronic code] appears as the last identifier in a citation, replacing the page number.
Let’s think about this a bit:

I entirely understand that many journals are viewed primarily online, and for the past twenty years some journals have experimented with abandoning page numbers.  It makes sense to have a workflow that best serves the common case.

But I was also struck by the fact that page numbers are ascribed a singular “function” which, according to this forward-looking journal staff, can be easily substituted with an electronic code.  I can think of several different functions that page numbers serve:

  • Indication where to find the article when you are holding a print journal
  • Ability to cite a single page within a journal article, rather than the journal article as a whole
  • On a CV’s list of publication, an approximate indication of how large an article is (e.g. 2-page opinion piece or 20-page careful groundbreaking argument)

Which is the “same function” to be served by this journal’s article hash strings?  Although they say “citation,” it appears from the suggested citation [not included above] that only one hash string is assigned to an entire article, so it will primarily be an article retrieval mechanism.  A single hash string for an entire article replaces, not the page numbers, but instead the article author, title, and journal; an additional electronic code must be appended in order to allow function #2, citation of a single section within the journal article (e.g. a paragraph number or a page number).  And a meaningless code appended to the end of an article does not fulfill the rough-and-ready approximation for article length in a CV list (although article word-counts could be substituted instead).  In other words, the electronic codes as deployed by this publisher will actually reduce the functionality of the page numbers, and largely be redundant with the author name, article title, journal title, and year.

If this is “the future of journal publishing,” that future is… reduced functionality.

This is a byproduct of the historical fact that print technology has been around over half a millennium, and so we have gotten very accustomed to print technology and its affordances, while the web has been around just over two decades and we are not yet accustomed to what we can do with it.  The long duration of print technology has shaped academic culture in ways that we only partially understand, and different people rely on different affordances of print culture, in ways that even publishers may be unaware of.  The assumption that a single technology (in this case, page numbers) serves a single function is a mistake called “functional fixedness,” and it is a barrier to intelligent innovation.

In the meantime, I recognize the operational value of having a single-string electronic code with which to call up an article, without needing extensive parsing.  I might suggest that a string of digits, with a dash in the middle, might be visually distinctive enough and could be combined with the journal title and year to create a unique hash referring to an article.  That electronic code would only need to be unique within a journal volume (year), and thus could look a lot like 321-337… perhaps an article’s page range.

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