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If Journals Were Online, There Would be No Vaccine

Office Water cooler (Margeaux Walter for The New York Times)

Remember the office water cooler? The office water cooler holds a special place in American lore. It is the place where people who work together in person (remember that?) gather together to share stories, news, and gossip. The sharing may be about a TV show from the night before, a sports or news event, or even be work-related. Regardless, these informal gatherings around the water hole help provide the social glue that keeps disparate people together in a single, shared community. This was before everyone brought their own water and drank it by themselves!

Another place of informal gathering was the office photocopier. It does not get as much attention as the office cooler, but it can be very important.


Once upon a time, there were two people at the University of Pennsylvania who worked in the same complex but did not know each other. The first one to work there was Katalin Karieko who had an idea that messengers RNA (mRNA) could turn the human body into a World War II factory powerhouse targeting diseases if handled properly. For years she had striven to no avail to make that vision a reality. Eventually she was demoted and she moved to the neurosurgery department.

Drew Weissman joined Penn in 1997 as an immunologist and physician. His focus was on vaccines against HIV among other diseases. Then, by fate, the two of them met. The location was, yes, the office copying machine. Back then, journals were not online. Therefore if one wanted one’s own copy of a particular article, one had to take the journal out of the library or from the department library if it maintained its own subscription for scientific journals. Drew and Katalin photocopied articles from these journals at the department office copying machine. There they began informal discussions about their respective work in vaccines. The rest as they say is history.

The two of them initiated a rather long process that ended up creating the vaccines that literally are life savers today. Now they receive all sorts of honors and recognition except from people who think the vaccines were an overnight success and rushed into production. These two people spent many years developing the vaccine. What took time was for the rest of the scientific community to catch up and understand what they had done.

Remember, for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. Now suppose journals were online and could be accessed from one’s own desk be it at home or at work. Would they have met? Would the vaccine based on their work have been created?


The issue of online journals was the subject of the editor’s column in March 2021 issue of The American Historical Review. The title is “From the Editor’s Desk: The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Alex Lichtenstein. He wrote:

Long ago, perhaps in graduate school, you may have cultivated the habit of browsing the periodical room in your research library, scouring the table of contents of the most recent issue of your favorite journals for interesting articles, and then even trotting over to the lumbering photocopier with a pocketful of dimes.

His specific audience is historians, but the comment applies to anyone who has conducted research at a library. You needed coins, then dollar bills, or finally a card one could purchase in varying amounts. Then you would commence photocopying, page by page.

The initial change of major proportions was when these journals became available online. Now you did not need coins, bills, or a card. You did not even need to be in the library.

But Lichtenstein is imaging an even more radical future for academic journals. He is imagining a time when scholarly periodicals whether printed or digital will become extinct. Instead, articles will be available online as they are approved in the peer review process with their being no production schedule. Why have editors package articles in a journal according to a production schedule with all the headaches meeting deadlines entails?

Lichtenstein acknowledges that his personal preference is for the bundling of articles in a periodic journal. However he acknowledges that many (younger) historians are more receptive to the idea of entirely untethered articles from the organizing principle of a periodical scholarly journal. In this scenario, articles would appear randomly based on no time schedule and not connected to any other article except perhaps for special online issues.

As a result the two people most responsible for the development of the coronavirus vaccine never would have met except at the annual Christmas party which would have had to be cancelled due to the virus anyway.  What are the advantages of isolating both people and scholarship if and when we return to normal? What will the new normal be?


Extracting information has its place. We extract information about plane schedules, movie times, driving directions, sports scores, stock prices… But what about news and scholarship?

I receive two daily newspapers and one weekly local paper. I do not read everything in them but I do turn the pages one-by-one. This should be obvious from some of my blogs especially when the unexpected juxtaposition of two articles catches my eye. I wrote about this just over nine years ago in Saving Cities: Learning from Melanie Griffith

One of my favorite movie scenes is from Working Girl when Melanie Griffith explains while riding up the elevator with Trask and Indiana, how she came up with the idea for the corporate merger. It wasn’t as if she had been thinking about anything even remotely related to it. Her insight derived from a chance juxtaposition perceived by a mind willing to learn and open to new possibilities.

She was reading a newspaper, thumbing through the pages when she chanced upon the notice about a radio DJ looking for a new home followed on the next page with a society notice about the wedding of the daughter of a media mogul. Voila, a eureka moment. That’s how thinking works. By contrast Sigourney Weaver was at a loss for words when posed the question on how she had had the idea which she had stolen. Thinking works in unexpected ways but two keys are a willingness to learn something new and the opportunity to do so through the presentation of new information and/or experiences (like a field trip).

True, this movie is fictional but it does express a way in which original thinking actually occurs.

Take for example, the very journal which Lichtenstein edits. The issue is over 450 pages long with many of the pages double-columned and in small print. No, I do not read the entire issue which I receive as hard copy. But I do go through it. Usually some articles and/or book reviews catch my eye that I would not have read if I were simply looking at an online table of contents. Now imagine there is no table of contents because all articles are individual. I suspect we all are familiar with the term “silo” and are aware of its dangers. On our own, it is very easy to dig deep into our rut and remain trapped by our paradigms. In my opinion, national organizations should work to counter that tendency, not to accelerate it.


Another water cooler or office copier setting is the conference or even a lecture. They provide opportunities for informal exchanges. For example, at a conference, I will peruse the book vendors. The eye glancing at a booth is quicker than the eye scrolling through an online list or catalog on a small screen. Plus you are moving about and not sitting still when engaging the available books. I suggest you are more likely to encounter an unexpected book in person then on a screen.

Then, of course, there are the personal exchanges. The people you may not have seen since the last conference. The new colleague they may introduce to you. The chance to chat about the session you just attended or talk you just heard even with a stranger who must share a similar interest because you are there in the same room and listened to the same talk. People chat before and after the session, over the reception if one or at a meal.

Keep in mind that many people attending talks and conferences may be academically isolated during the year. They may work for a small museum or historical society with little opportunity to meet with colleagues in similar venues to talk shop, commiserate, and learn. Similarly for academics who may the only one teaching a particular subject at a small college or university. I am not bad-mouthing the benefits of online programs even when we return to normal. I have been able to attend conferences and hear talks that would have been inaccessible, time-consuming, and costly to attend in person. Particularly, in the winter (even with global warming) there is a lot to be said for not having to go for a lecture or to take a late train back from Manhattan because there is the convenience of attending from home.

On the other hand, the vaccine never would have been invented or you never would have had the chance to follow-up immediately with the speaker about some idea that just popped into your head.

So my New Year’s resolution, let’s take advantage of the possibilities through online and virtual but not at the expense of the human need for personal connections and the benefits of chance and the unexpected preventing us from being limited to our ruts, silos, and paradigms.

Queens versus Manhattan: The Battle for America

Courtesy Conde Nast Store

New York City prides itself as being at the crossroads of the universe, the island at the center of the world. But when people say “New York City,” exactly what do they mean? For example, New York State government people like to tout the success and increased tourism in New York State. When so doing, they tend to mean increased tourism to New York City. Actually they tend to mean increased tourism to Manhattan and not to the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island. And they tend to mean not simply Manhattan. They mean midtown around Times Square and Lower Manhattan where the city began under the Dutch extending from the Battery up to Wall Street. Beyond that, they may also mean Niagara Falls (we seem to have forgiven Canada for the burning of the White House!) and Woodbury Commons, a historic shopping center.

People from the outer boroughs know they are not from the city meaning Manhattan often called New York. Remember the fierce fights when the 212 area code became restricted (see The Area Code Universe and Your Sense of Place). Now the people in the outer boroughs who lost the cachet of the 212 area code would immediately be identified as people who did not rate. Your whole identity could be summed up in a three digit number.

Our stories expressed this divide between the outer boroughs and the city.

Saturday Night Fever tells the story of Tony Manero, a 19 year old Italian American from Brooklyn facing a bleak future after highs school. Fellow dancer Stephanie Mangano dreams of the world beyond Brooklyn and plans to move to Manhattan to fulfill her dreams.

Working Girl updates the Cinderella story. Tess McGill is a 30 year could-be-Scottish-but-more-likely Irish American from Staten Island who works in Manhattan in a dead end job and dreams of better things through self-improvement. Her Irish American boyfriend has no such dreams and ends up marrying a local Italian American girl in what was then a mixed marriage. In the meantime, Tess succeeds in Manhattan and marries up because the force is with her.

The iconic image from Working Girl is the ferry ride to Manhattan (and not the one to Staten Island). Before her is Oz, a magical land. She successfully crosses the waters to this wonderland. She does so to the sound of Carly Simon singing “Bless the new Jerusalem.” Boston may have been the original city on a hill in America and Iowa has the field of dreams, but it is Manhattan that is the New Jerusalem. As part of her journey in this 1988 movie release, she gazes at the World Trade Towers not knowing that in 13 years they will be targeted and collapse.

Tess McGill ends up living the happily-ever-after dream in Manhattan while Tony Manero remains in Brooklyn and does not.

And then there is Queens. In the current issue of City & State NewYork, Ben Adler wrote “The Belligerent Style in American Politics: How New Yorkers Hijacked the Republican Party.” The article is about two TV characters from Queens, Archie Bunker and Donald Trump. The creation of the Bunker character did not work exactly as planned. Norman Lear expected the blustering bigot whose rantings were stupid and outdated to be the joke. He thought viewers would laugh at Archie. While many did, something else unexpected happened. Viewers laughed with Archie instead. They identified with his frustrations against the world around him and cheered the person who voiced what they thought but did not say.

Adler writes:

“All in the Family” proved that a portly, angry old white man from Queens could effectively articulate the anxiety about a changing society among social conservatives across the country, winning their affection in the process.

He notes that at the time, it never occurred to anyone that there could be a rich and famous real-life Archie Bunker who could go into politics and succeed. He concludes:

…Trump’s distinctly New York brand of right-wing politics not only attracted Republican voters: It has become the dominant paradigm of the contemporary Republican Party. Call it the Belligerent Style in American Politics.

Adler characterizes this attitude as the triumph of the outer boroughs (and white suburbs of former residents of the outer boroughs who moved out especially to Long Island). He depicts these people as nonideological but viscerally reactionary and perpetually enraged, longing for a bygone era and the strongman who promises to restore it. Maybe it is appropriate that Queens have a third-world airport given this desire for a strongman.

There is a certain irony in the focus of these sentiments on Donald Trump. There is probably no person in America who wanted more to cross the river from Queens to Manhattan and be accepted by the Manhattan elite. There is no one who more wants the New York Times to sing his praises than the boy from Queens who now occupies the White House. Manhattan is where he built. Manhattan is where he stamped his name on buildings galore. He was a longterm Democrat, a supporter of and contributor to the Clintons. He did everything he could to be visible. And he succeeded. The only thing he could not do was be accepted. Being a narcissistic serial failure who could not tell the truth did not help his cause. He had no future in the Democratic Party or among the elitists. So he tried elsewhere.

The Belligerent Style is now dominant. Rarely does one encounter it on CNN or MSNBC…although Cuomo from Queens sometimes edges into it. The Belligerent Style thrives on Fox. If you want pugnacious, Fox is your network. If you want “in your face,” Fox is your network. If you want a younger Archie Bunker who speaks better, Fox is your network. And since Republicans, like the Chinese, get their news from only one source, the state-authorized propaganda network, if you want to reach Republicans, Fox is your network.

Adler identifies the luminaries who have made Fox the political powerhouse that it is. “The belligerent style is embodied in its purest form by its talking heads, such as (Sean) Hannity and Jeanine Pirro [does her Lebanese descent mean she is a person of color?].” I remember her 32-seconds of silence when she misplaced a page of speech in her abortive Senate campaign. Her once-promising political career came crashing to an end. She seems to be making up for not speaking then. Adler calls her “a Trump attack dog.” Is that legal? One can call a man an attack dog, but is it still permissible to call a woman that? We need a ruling from the Thought Police.

As for Hannity, Adler describes “his on-air presence as reminiscent of an irate driver honking his horn on the Long Island Expressway.” Indeed, it would be foolish to ignore the importance of the physicality of the cable talk show hosts. Hannity is a forceful presence who sometimes seems to be leaping through the screen into your living room. When he calls upon viewers to “buckle up” before delivering his monologue, he means it. Strap yourself down, there’s a storm coming. Regardless of what his actual words are, it is clear that the refined talking head hosts on the other networks do not have that street-fighter presence. The same comparison may be said for the two candidates in 2016: one had a forceful stage presence who stalked his prey in the second presidential debate, the other was a well-behaved good little girl who did not resist. Remember JFK. Remember the first Clinton. We are not ethereal beings floating in the spiritual cosmos; we are real-live flesh and blood people. Democrats excite people based on their hyphen and identity, not because of their presence. The only person who attempts to communicate on this basis is Michael Avenatti.

Adler adds a comment about Southerners that may be partially obsolete by now. The news cycle can be faster than a magazine can keep up with. He addresses the issue of how the New York Belligerent Style plays in Peoria, that is, nationally, especially in the South.

Interviews with Trump supporters across the country – including for example, devout rural Southerners – routinely come back to the idea that’s he a jerk, but a jerk may be the only one tough enough to keep out undesirables and slay political correctness.

Adler cites a Washington Post report of a Southern Baptist saying “We need abrasive right now.” He notes the Suffolk County Republican Party Chairman echoing those sentiments when he said:

Trump speaks our language. He thinks the way we think. He talks the way we talk. He is breaking the political correctness of America.

Southerners now know that they are not immune from ridicule by the jerk. Despite everything he says about the Woodward, despite everything his network says about the Woodward book, the Southerners like everyone else know that the book is true, they know that it is accurate. They may think the anonymous author(s) of the New York Times op-ed piece should come forward, but they do not doubt its truth. Even his followers know he is an impulsive jerk prone to hissy fit tweets. What they did not know is how little he thinks of Southerners. Now they know. What will they do?

Note – Democrat elitists have yet to fully grasp the price Democrats pay for political correctness. Republicans are more concerned about the politically correct assault on America than they are about Russia’s violation of it. Perhaps the elitists do know and simply do not care, confident that the demographic deluge will sweep them into power…if it does not devour them first! The Democrats are still in the “Robert E. Lee” stage where hyphen identity trumps national identity. That shortcoming provides the Queens Belligerent Style unending opportunities to attack the Manhattan Deep State Elitists.