Online Communication Research in 33 Mass Communication Journals, 1993-2003


Thomas Gould

[WJMCR 7:2 March 2004]


Introduction|Research Questions|Method|Conclusions


In a recent issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Tomasello suggested that the Internet was not attracting the appropriate amount of attention from communication researchers.1 She came to no broad conclusions regarding the Internet-focused research articles she found in five major journals between 1994 and 1999, except that the numbers were low, 4% of all articles, that journals seemed to be �slow on the uptake� in accepting such articles, and that research often �lags behind the diffusion rate of the technology.� Tomasello concluded that a broader study would be necessary to validate her speculations.

Mass communication research dealing with the Internet and World Wide Web offers an excellent opportunity to track the changes of focus within a discipline. In just the past decade, online communication has captured the attention of researchers in all “channels” of mass communication. And, as print, broadcast, advertising, and public relations rush toward a fused medium, the web offers researchers a new channel rich with possibilities.2 Furthermore, given the online world�s rapidly changing features, mass communication researchers are finding they are re-examining published conclusions sooner than required by any previous emerging medium. Thus, while it has been only a few years since Tomasello explored the nature of Internet research in communication journals, it is time we visit the subject again and in greater detail.

The purpose of this article is to answer Tomasello�s call for a broader examination of Internet communication research. This article also updates the author�s own work presented in 1999 to the conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. This study examines the total online communication research articles by year, the fields of research, the theories applied, the research methods used, the pattern of author publication, and the frequency of publishing in 33 journals over the period 1993 to 2003.

This work is not intended to be a mirroring update of Tomasello�s work. In expanding the �net� of journals, some trade offs were made, as, indeed, Tomasello did in her research. For starters, Tomasello used a broader definition of communication. This work examines �mass� communication research of the online world. In addition, it focuses on online communication research not on such issues as how to teach web courses, though these are useful. Tomasello found more than 969 articles relating to the term �Internet� in a search of Social Sciences Abstracts in December 1999 dealing with �a diversity of disciplines, most notably in the areas of business, demographics, law, and policy studies.�3 Thus, one task at hand is to strike a balance between �communication� and �mass communication� if only to make the resulting product manageable and more meaningful.

Rationale: The Importance of Online Research in Mass Communication

It has been said that the only way to know where you are going is to know where you have been. Understanding what online areas have been the topics of research can assist in defining new areas of research, either by pointing out areas of initial inquiry or those areas not yet investigated. As noted by Tomasello, self-assessment of the areas of research that have attracted attention is a common practice in communication studies. She goes on to cite studies examining the frequency of published qualitative research, the value of content analyses, and the impact women have had in communication research.4 The intent of studies like Tomasello�s, and this one, is to inform the academy of what research has taken place, e.g., a portrait of the studies focusing on online communication that provides some sense of direction, either leading to additional work in the same area or new ideas outside of the norm.

But it�s only been five years since Tomasello�s work was published. Some might suggest this research comes too soon after her work, though, notably, it covers almost twice the years of her work�11 compared to six.

Yet, a lot happened in those additional five years. Fundamentally, time moves faster online that in the offline world. The rule of thumb is that time and change on the web are measured in �dog years��one offline year equals seven online. This makes the accuracy of predictions by futurists, such as Negroponte, a mixed bag. The Internet, after all, is a quick-moving target. For instance, Negroponte�s concern in the early 1990s that slow processor speeds and limited network speeds would severely reduce the type of content shared online seems quaint in this age of broadband access and gigahertz CPU speeds. Within a decade of Negroponte�s dire assessments,5 CPU speeds doubled five times and high-speed access spread much faster than expected, with more than 68 million Americans logging on via broadband connections in March, 2004.6

One sign of acceptance of the Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, as a routine research topic is that authors seem to take less time in recent articles explaining the history of either medium. Consider that Fredin and David in 1998, while musing on the debate over the Internet as �the medium of the future,� took time to define terms such as �browsing.�7 On the other hand, just five years later, Singer jumped directly into a discussion about online coverage of elections without explaining what the web is, how it works, or little more than a cursory definition of the subject of her research: online newspapers.8

In addition, the decision by communication journals to present special issues devoted solely to the Internet or the web may also be on the decline, indicating an acceptance of the topic. The Journal of Communication in 1996 devoted one issue to the Internet. The journal did not do that again in the following 30 issues. The journal did not abandon the Internet as a suitable research topic. It simply blended articles addressing online issues with those dealing with other research areas. The autumn 2003 issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly featured five of 11 articles on the Internet and web. The issue, significantly, was not titled as especially online-oriented.

Among the authors mentioned by Tomasello, it is Newhagen and Rafaeli who best advised mass communication researchers to address online communication.

This problem of having the critical dimensions of a new technology hidden from view also can be seen in the current trend among publishers to dump text into a computer network and call it an �electronic newspaper.� If journalism does not come to grips with the impact those architectural differences have on the way people use information, it may have trouble finding a home on the Net.9

Several other researchers have suggested online communications should be a focal point for scholarly activity. Donato argues that �A research platform is launched, from which it becomes possible to greatly expand the medium.� He goes on the suggest that �researchers should have taken a more active role in brainstorming the system design.� Donato sees the role of the mass communication researcher as a guide�part prophet, part partner�who, rather than standing and waiting for something to measure or interpret, plays an equally important part in predicting innovation.10

But online communication is not just a futuristic subject for researchers or a subject to be watched and measured. It is also a partner in conducting research. As Couper notes, �Clearly, we stand on the threshold of a new era for survey research … Whatever one�s views about the likely future for survey research, the current impact of the Web on survey data collection is worthy of serious research attention.�11 He goes on to argue that, in order to refine the methodology of web surveying and to eliminate the downsides such as poor response, researchers must be involved in the technical aspects of online survey construction. He points to the creation of online panels recruited by companies and universities as an example of more involvement by researchers in cultivating the advantages of the Internet.

Biocca,12 as well as Newhagen and Rafaeli,13 have made similar arguments that communication scholars should be involved in not just watching and measuring development, but in creating new technologies and new applications from existing technologies. This evolving and revolving relationship of research to creation and back again to research, is especially well defined by Vassello. In 1999, Vassello, director of the Office of Information at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, suggested a scheme he called the �knowledge continuum.� In this model, he concludes that �the processes which contribute to the creation of new knowledge in the research environment form part of a continuum which has no beginning or end.�14 In this circular design, researchers are part of the creation and then users of digital libraries. The involvement of researchers in the design of the very subject to be studied, in this case a digital library, is key to the process of research itself.

The role of researcher can also be called on to define the subject itself, in some ways refining the differences between two media often confused�the Internet and its sub-set, the web. Several definitions have been suggested by researchers as to what online communication actually is. Perhaps it is, as December suggests, a conglomeration of various media.15 Perhaps, it is a mass medium capable of carrying text, audio, and video.16 Perhaps, on the other hand, it is, as Lessig suggests, an end-to-end network that carries packets, oblivious to what is in any one particular packet.17

Whatever the definitions, mass communication scholars see the combination of the Internet and web, hereinafter �online communication,� as not simply a new channel to study, but as the connection of all �channels��print, advertising, public relations, and broadcast. Given the packet nature of the Internet, what Lessig would call the “code layer,�18 online communication does not distinguish between any mass communication channel in the transfer of data. It is, as noted by Lessig, one and the same.19 The distinctions between the traditional channels of communication�the advertising commercial, the public relations video release, the print news story and the broadcast program�are not as clearly delineated today online as they were a decade ago. It is the researcher at the �end� of the Internet�s sender-to-receiver data transfer�notably, not a �connection� in its past sense�who discerns one communication format from another, commenting on the methods used to create it, measuring its impact, and proposing its future. And, as all media channels fuse within this one channel, the importance of studying this new communication only increases.

Research Questions

This study attempts to answer two questions:

1. Among 33 mass communication and communication journals, what is the proportion of online communication research articles?

2. What is the nature of the research in these articles, that is, what is the pattern of the fields of research explored, theories applied, research methods used, authors, and journal publication?


Journal Selection Criteria

One of the features of the web is the perception that all sites are created equal if not in impact, at least in screen size. It is the very egalitarian quality of online communication that has sparked much of the discussion among futurists, such as Lessig, Negroponte, and Shapiro. As Shapiro noted in 1999, the advent of the web is the advent of publishing anarchy�the uncontrolled, unorganized ability of anyone to present a site roughly the same size and quality as any other site, including those of the �mainstream� media.20 This not only occurred �out there,� but in mass communication with online publications like Web Journal of Mass Communication Research.

Given the relative ease�especially in terms of cost�with which online journals may be created and published, the question of how to define which journals are the �leading publications� is not simple. Research such as this and that of Tomasello21 requires the line be drawn somewhere. In similar research by Cooper, Potter, and Dupagne, the choice of journals was based on circulation numbers (higher than 2,000) and a blind review process that rejected four of every five submissions.22 Kamhawi and Weaver�s standard only slightly differed, requiring a circulation of at least 1,500.23 Measures of acceptance rates and circulation, according to Garner and Dyer, presume that readership models acceptance and that rejections model quality.24 Tomasello used basically the same approach, narrowing the selection of journals based on Social Science Abstracts.

In all of these cases, however, the underlying economic issues libraries now face were overlooked. It is common practice in the publishing industry among such companies as Elsevier Publishing to �bundle� less popular journals with more popular ones, thus forcing libraries, a leading subscriber of most academic journals, to purchase a multi-journal package. This calls into serious question whether using circulation numbers is an accurate reflection of the actual value of the journal by the library or journal readers, especially if it is simple sent �along for the ride.�

In addition, the ongoing migration and creation of journals online calls into further question the value of circulation. For example, how would one evaluate the circulation of an online journal that is accessed by the user without any involvement of the university library (such as the Web Journal of Mass Communication Research)? As more and more journals migrate to the web and payment and access issues change, how will we rank the more significant journals?

This argument might seem more appropriate in another setting, but it can be addressed here, albeit briefly. Rather than adopting a standard that likely will face serious challenges and changes in the future, this research focuses on a wider collection of mass communication and communication journals with an eye on the emerging reality that all, st some point, will exist, in part or altogether, online. It was decided that two approaches would result in a more all-embracing census: reputation and editrorial board status.

Colleagues were polled at four major universities on which journals they felt were significant. These professors represented all of the traditional tracks or sequences within university mass communication programs. In addition, all of the journals cited by Tomasello were included. These journals were restricted�except in one case, that of Media Studies�to those conducting peer review. This was an intentional step taken to track additional styles of research being conducted. No doubt, other journals might have been added. But this effort of 33 journals must be seen as a significantly broader selection than the eight chosen by Tomasello.25

In addition, it must be noted that there are several advertising journals represented here. This reflects the larger numbers of advertising journals published. In fact, additional journals dealing with the more business aspects of advertising could have been included. However, it was judged that the inclusion of these would have overwhelmed the effort to keep this research within the confines of journalism studies and would have introduced a business school element that could easily have resulted in severely skewed results.

Article selection criteria and measures

This study uses a fused definition of Internet-based mass communication based in large part on the previously cited writings of Lessig, Negroponte, and Shapiro. An article is considered to be focused on online communication research if it deals with communication carried through a many-to-many network with the applications necessary to handle the information processing located at the ends or edges of the network. This definition includes such forms as the web, electronic mailing lists, bulletin boards, newsgroups, chat rooms, online virtual reality games, and video/audio teleconferencing, as outlined by Tomasello.26 It does not include online telephone technologies or one-to-one e-mail. The effort here is to distinguish speech communication research from mass communication research, though the line is admittedly hardly bright. Yes, some telecommunication technologies can involve one-to-many transmissions and, in the case of teleconferencing, many-to-many communication. This is, however, rarely an issue of online communication, as much as it is telephony. The two are not synonymous. At the same time, electronic mail in mass form was also not included, since this is, in most cases. a one-to-many form of communication.

In addition, the intended audience of the article is taken into account. If the article is intended for researchers, it is included; if it is intended for mass communication education, it is not. However, the initial researching did find sixteen articles dealing with online communication and journalism education.27

An additional criterion included in this research is the field of mass communication research addressed by the published research. Traditional curricula and fields of mass communication such as advertising, broadcast (television and radio), mass communication law and policy, print/photography, and public relations are measured, as well as one for the web alone. Purists may suggest that these areas are a mix of physical transmission (broadcast and web) with topics of study, such as advertising, print and public relations. However, the focus of this research was not on the physical layer of the Internet, an area that would include technical issues regarding broadcast and web. This research focused on the content layer of the Internet. Articles dealing with broadcast in this layer would deal with issues such as online media credibility.28 In addition, the convergence or fusion of all of these communication fields into one reader/consumer experience is rapidly rendering moot the precise delineations between the forms and intent of the message.

However, some delineations are made in this research in some areas: advertising includes branding, but not business marketing; public relations includes promotion techniques, but not public nor interpersonal speech. These two excluded fields are worthy and interesting, but their inclusion would broaden the study beyond the central focus of mass communication. For example, substantial research has been published in dozens of law school journals regarding mass communication and new media. Tracking the changes in research over time in these law school journals is a worthy endeavor, but beyond the scope of this work. However, journals such as Communication Law and Policy are included given that some contributors are mass communication faculty.

This research intends to provide �scholars with an overall sense of an area�s progress or current status,� as was the case for Tomasello.29 The �progress or current status� of an area of research is operationalized into five measures: total articles by year, field of research, theoretical approach, research method, primary author name, and journal. Not included in this research, but included by Tomasello, are author rank, affiliation, gender and the percentage of Internet to non-Internet related articles per issue. While of some interest, the issues of author rank, affiliation and gender would seem to be contrary to the very nature of online communication research, an area likely to attract new researchers. By way of example, Tomasello herself published her article while a graduate student at Florida State University. Neither her status nor university should factor in the evaluation of her work ,nor does the identification of either of these points of data shed much light on the future of this area of research.

As will be discussed later, gender is an area of research worthy of further study.

Unit of Analysis

Included in this research are articles that focus on online communication. Not included are editorials, book reviews, product or service updates, or outlines. Coders read titles, abstracts, and, in some cases, specific sections of articles, such as �methods,� to deduce the frequency of publication, the field of research, the theory applied, the method of research, the primary author and the publication frequency by journal.

Population Data

The nature of the data in this research is a full population. Given that this study is intended to update existing research, a pilot, as used by Tomasello, was deemed unnecessary. Articles were identified by using a keyword search within several electronic databases, such as Article First, Pers Abstract, Expanded Academic ASAP and others, based on the database that presented the most comprehensive access to a particular journal. The effort was intended to be exhaustive.

Search Terms

Selecting the search terms for this project posed no simple task. A variety of terms might have been proposed, including Tomasello’s search term, Internet, as well as online, new technology, World Wide Web, e-mail, global village, and interactive, to name a few. Adding to the complexity of the task was the worry that use of an overly broad term might draw in articles related only peripherally to online communications. However, direct examination of a fixed set of articles aided in determining the efficacy of the terms.

Journalism Abstracts, a compilation of dissertations and theses, uses an indexing scheme that shed some light on the relative overlap of search terms. Examining the indexes for the journal between 1993 and 1996 revealed that �new technology� was indeed the catch-all term used in 1993, with one thesis cited. In 1994, 18 research papers addressed �new technologies,� with no index heading for �Internet� or �web.� Of these, a cursory examination of the titles suggested that four deal with the Internet or World Wide Web. Two deal with online newspapers, one with access to online technologies, and one with organizational culture online. An examination of the titles in 1994 also provided some insight into the topics that the editors of the journal considered �new technology.� These articles deal with cable, advances in film, digital photography, and videotex.

By 1995, �Internet� was indexed, but not �web.� Sixteen papers were indexed under �Internet,� while �new technology� had 18 citations. Interestingly, of these 18 indexed under �new technology,� six were also indexed under � Internet,� while four that might have been indexed in that category were not. These deal with obscenity online, online marketing, news groups, and e-mail. In 1996, �World Wide Web� was used as an index term, with six papers appearing. �Internet� had nine, and �new technology� had 27. Of these under �new technology,� only seven might have been indexed under �Internet� or �World Wide Web,� but were not. These deal with online news (three), online information sources, online communities, newsgroups, and online television sites.

This data suggests that the terms �Internet� and �web� were synonymous with �new technology” in 1994 and earlier, but that both grew to be indexed in their own right after 1995. In addition, the term �new technology� included many subjects not directly related to the Internet or web, such as cable and digital imaging software. Thus, using a term like �new technology,� while more inclusive, resulted in more articles being captured by the search that are not related to the subject of online communications. It was found in 1996 that the words �Internet� and �web� were not synonymous, with very few articles indexed under both terms. It was also found that �online� and �on-line� generate results outside of the specific terms �Internet� and �web�

Finally, given the focus on the �many-to-many� definition of online communication used for this study, several articles in publications such as Journal of Communication are not included in this study. For instance, the 1996 issue of Journal of Communication that Tomasello referenced as a special �Net� issue, contains only two articles that meet the definition of �mass� communication. The rest focus on one-to-one communication. Rather than engage in a debate between what is �mass� and what is �communication,� a hotly argued subject, the author chose instead to focus on the more traditional definition previously cited.30Thus the search string �(Internet or web or online or on-line) and communication� was used to search the thirty-three selected journals.


Six points of data were gathered for each article: total articles by year, field of research, theory, research method, primary author, and journal. Field of research, as mentioned earlier, were coded as advertising, mass communication law/policy, print/photography, public relations, broadcast, and�a category that appeared in later years of the study�the web itself. Theory was coded as access, adoption/diffusion, agenda building/setting, policy analysis, information processing/uses and gratification, and social interaction. Research method was coded into the following areas: interpretive-policy analysis, interpretive-essay including history, survey-content analysis, survey-interview/case study, meta-analysis, model building, and experiment.

Intercoder reliability

Two coders were used. Agreement regarding which articles qualified as online communication research was 99.1%. Percentage of agreement for identification of primary author, 99.9%; identification of journal, 99.9%; research method, 97.4%; theory, 98.1%; and subject area, 98.7%.


The results are presented by year for each of the measures: the proportion of online research published by journal in Table One, the frequency, proportion of publication and the field of the research in Table Two, the theory and research method in Table Three.

Frequency and Proportion (Tables One and Two)

Online research publication exceeded 10% in four of the journals, with the relatively new International Journal of Communication Law and Policy leading the way with more than a third of its articles dealing with the subject. In raw numbers, Journal of Advertising Research published 59 articles dealing with online research, and, as will be seen later, advertising, in general, represents a strong area of interest for online researchers.

Table One: Distribution of Mass Communication Research Articles Dealing with Online Communication by Publication in Thirty-Three Journals, 1993-2003, including the Percentage These Online Articles Represent When Compared to All Articles Published by Each Journal. N=476Total Internet-
Related Articles% Compared To All Journal ArticlesCommunication Law & Policy3118.6Communication Quarterly113.4Communication Research103.1Communication Theory41.8Communications and the Law156.6Critical Studies in Media Communication136.1Human Communication Research41.6International Journal of Advertising20.7International Journal of Communication Law & Policy2337.8Internet Research: Electronic Networking Applications and Policy318.9Journal of Advertising176.2Journal of Advertising Research5915.4Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media267.6Journal of Communication163.9Journal of Communication Inquiry105.0Journal of Consumer Affairs41.4Journal of Consumer Marketing174.9Journal of Consumer Psychology124.1Journal of Consumer Research41.1Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising108.1Journal of Public Relations Research10.7Journalism History00Journalism & Communication Monographs36.3Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly499.5Mass Communication & Society32.3Media Psychology79.5Media Studies Journal275.0Media, Culture and Society51.4Newspaper Research Journal4010.8Public Relations Review196.2Public Opinion Quarterly10.3Visual Communication Quarterly33.9Web Journal of Mass Communication Research14.0

The proportional increase in publication presented in Table Two is consistent each year, with the exception of a statistically insignificant drop between 2000 (8.4%) and 2001 (8.2%). This slight drop may be related to federal legislation passed in 199631and 1998,32 as well as, laws under consideration33 that attracted considerable research interest. Also, more general policy analyses of national34 and international35 regulatory trends added to the increase in 2000.

Table Two: Distribution of Mass Communication Research Articles Dealing with Online Communication by Field of Research, 1993-2003, in Thirty-Three, including the Percentage These Online Articles Represent When Compared to All Articles Published by Each Journal in Each Field. N=476Year19931994199519961997199819992000200120022003By FieldOnline Advertising101515111011162231% of all advertising articles0. Broadcasting11001454114% of all broadcasting articles1. Law00258131322131214% of all law articles0. Print02334614715715% of annual print articles0. Public Relations00211732557% of annual pr articles0. Web50476151221132017% of annual online articles22. per year73122135565767636788% ear year0.

The much sharper increase from 8.8% in 2002 to 11.4% in 2003 may be a momentary spike in publishing or reflect a more substantial turn to online communication research. Revisiting this research in a few years may reveal whether this increase of 35.7% is sustained.

Field of research (Table Three)

Four fields were dominant: advertising (123, 25.8%), web (120 articles, 25.2% of the overall total), mass communication law/policy (102, 21.4%), and print/photography (76, 16.0%). Much of advertising�s high scoring can be directly related to the higher number of journals devoted to the field (eight of 33). Similarly, mass communication law/policy has three journals, and print/photography two. This should be taken into consideration when weighing the results by field. However, because some field-specific research appeared in general journals, such as Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, a simple rendering of the data as a function of the number of journals in each subject would generate misleading results.

Table Three: Distribution of Mass Communication Research Articles Dealing with Online Communication by Research Method and Theory in Thirty-Two Journals, 1993-2003, including the Percentage These Online Articles Represent When Compared to All Other Online Communication Articles Published Each Period. N=476By Method1993-19971998-20002001-2003Experiment (N=51)2.6%3.9%19.2%Interpretive Essay (N=95)47.4%24.3%6.8%Interpretive – Policy Analysis (N=105)18.4%28.2%18.3%Meta-Analysis/ Model Building (N=19)3.9%2.8%5.0%Survey – Content Analysis (N=75)7.9%16.6%16.9%Survey – Interview/Case Study (N=133)19.7%24.3%33.8%By TheoryAgenda Building/Setting (N=5)0.0%0.6%1.8%Access (N=9)2.6%2.8%0.9%Adoption/Diffusion (N=165)46.1%34.3%31.1%Information Processing (N=138)18.4%21.0%39.3%Policy (N=124)26.3%31.5%21.5%Social Interaction (N=32)6.6%8.3%5.5%Other (N=3)0.0%1.7%0.0%N=76N=181N=219

The timing of when fields appear is of some interest. For instance, research dealing with broadcast (22, 4.6%) and print/photography were the focus of researchers a year or two earlier than other fields. However, while an early subject of research, broadcast did not attract sustained interest over the period of the study. This may relate to the late appearance of broadcast-related technologies, such as streaming. On the other hand, public relations (33, 6.9%) received little attention over the years. This apparent lack of interest may relate to the many-to-many criterion used for this study, given that some public relations research focuses on one-to-one or one-to-many communication. Of particular interest is the consistently high number of articles coded as addressing web issues as a field of its own. Many of these articles focus on the web as a channel of communication that merges and/or spans all of the traditional mass communication areas. Others compare the web in relation to several mass communication fields such as public relations and advertising or broadcast and print. The focus of the research, however, is solidly on web as an entity in its own right. Additionally, while earlier articles tend to focus on the nature of the web,36later articles deal with the impact of the web on mass communication in a fused or converged environment.37

Research Methodology and Theory (Table Three)

The data show the early use of interpretative essays in large numbers of articles from 1993 to 1997. From 1998 to 2003, however, the category of survey-interview/case study rose to the top, representing the methodology of choice in 33.8% of the articles in 2003. This trend held for virtually all the journals studied, with the notable exception of the more qualitative Media Studies Journal, which suspended publication in the summer of 2003.38

It should be no surprise that adoption/diffusion (166, 34.7%) and information processing (137, 29%) are the dominant theoretical frameworks for these articles. Adoption and diffusion research deals with the early use of new technology. Significant attention was given to this area in the early 1990s, when the web was new and the interest of researchers was on how, when, and where the web would be adopted. Information processing appears later, after 1997, and in significant numbers. Information processing is a research theory that often requires a more complex methodology�such as experiments�intended to establish conceptually how users perceive online content.

While Tomasello identified only two authors who published more than one article, this research found 60 primary authors who appeared more than once. Of these, 39 published two articles, 10 published three, seven published four, three published five, and one, S. Shyam Sundar, published six, roughly an average of one article every two years.

As noted above, the number of journal articles per year dealing with online communication increased, to a high of 123 in the period 2001 to 2003. While some new journals were created during this period and one ceased publication, most of the increase seems to occur in established generalist publications, such as Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. The increase also appears to be related to a rapid increase in the publication of articles after 1996 in specialized journals, such as Journal of Advertising Research. In fact, these two journals�Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly and Journal of Advertising Research�published more than 22% of all online communication research found in this study. They also published twice the number of such articles as the nearest of their peer publications.

Interestingly, in each of the mass communication fields of research, one or two journals stand out as frequent publishers of online communication research. For example, Communication Law and Policy and International Journal of Communications Law and Policy published more than 50 articles. In the area of print journalism, Newspaper Research Journal published 40. And in public relations, Public Relations Review published far more, 19, than the other two journals in this category.

Examining the frequency of publication by year, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly published 10 articles in 1998 and 11 in 2000, while Journal of Advertising Research published twelve in 1997, nine in 2001 and 2002, and ten in 2003. In addition, International Journal of Communication Law and Policy published fourteen articles in 2000, the most for any journal in any single year of this study.


1. Among thirty-three mass communication and communication journals, what is the frequency and proportion of online communication research article publication?

This research presents a more comprehensive and complex view of online communication research trends than Tomasello found in 2001. It also found a higher proportion of articles dealing with online communication research, more than 11% compared to Tomasello�s 4%. In the first case, online communication research mirrors a pattern of how any new communication channel might be explored. The frequency and resulting proportion of articles reflects an adoption pattern related directly to the types of theories and research methods used. It is a classic step-wise approach to new phenomena described by many practitioners that demonstrates an evolution from discussion, to information gathering, to testing, to model building, to re-testing, to experiments, to model refinement.39 As to the higher proportionality, especially given the more narrow article selection criteria, the selection or journals may be revealing, especially in the area of advertising and law journals. Tomasello�s choice of Communication ResearchHuman Communication ResearchJournal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, and Journal of Communication (and the inclusion of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly as a pilot) reveals a distinct area of communications broadened by this research.

The slow start in published online communication research seen at the bottom of Table Two ends in a dramatic spike of more than a third in published research between 2002 and 2003. As researchers become more familiar with the medium and as the medium itself settles into a sustained pattern of use, interest in the topic would predictably increase. And given the converging nature of online communications combined with the web being considered a channel unto itself, it is likely overall research of online communications will continue to increase.

2. What is the nature of the research in these articles, that is, what is the pattern of subject areas explored, theories applied, research methods used, author publication, and journal publication?

Subject areas explored

While the amount of research devoted to advertising and mass communication law/policy could be ascribed to the abundance of journals in these fields, the increases are still of significant interest. Indeed, something must be driving even the creation of so many journals in this area compared to other mass communication fields of research.

The large number of advertising articles might be attributed to three factors.

1. Advertising, of the four channels of mass communication, may have had the most trouble �figuring out� how it fits into the web.

2. Advertising has a strong economic incentive to find its fit.

3. Advertising, of the four fields, is arguable more often described in quantitative terms.

Thus, as interest in researching the role of advertising and web increased, so did the numbers of articles. While brand advertising is still searching for its online role, as outlined by research groups such as CNET, DoubleClick, and Unicast,40 interest in tracking results in a more direct marketing “fused” model also continues to increase.41

In mass communication law/policy, several factors might relate to the increases in interest by researchers.

1. The application of existing and new statutes to online communication.

2. The challenge to regulatory agencies by a new and unruly communication channel.

3. The rapidly changing and evolving nature of the web itself, seemingly outpacing efforts to legally and technically define its boundaries.

The steady attention on mass communication law/policy as a field of research reflected the continued interest of researchers in the legal and ethical implications of online communications.42 As noted previously, had law school journals been included in this research, the number of articles dealing with online communications would have been overwhelming. While not part of this article, a study of the publication pattern of mass communication law and online communications research by law journals would be interesting.

Research methods used

Within research methods, it is especially interesting to note the rise in the use of experiments, from a few in the late 1990s, to a significant percentage in 2001 (18.8%), 2002 (21.7%), and 2003 (16.3%). This reflects the evolving research status of the web and includes a modest, though significant, increase in model building. In the area of surveys, the �counting science� of content analysis�while popular late in the 1990s, never rose to the level of use of interview/case study.

Again, as stated earlier, this eleven-year study found that policy analysis�the preferred method for mass communication law/policy researchers�remained consistently above 15% of all methods employed after 1996. The interpretive essay, while strong in the early years (71.4% in 1993), fell away after 2000 to a mere 6.5% of the research methods employed in 2003. This would seem to suggest that researchers are finished with discussing the implications of the web and are, instead, attempting to measure its impact.

Theories applied

It should not come as a surprise that adoption/diffusion theories dominated the early years of online communication research. This theory deals directly with the early use of a new technology. This is an area well-developed by researchers such as Rogers43 and in this study is consistently a favored theory. As one researcher notes, “An important part of the adoption process is the concept of relative advantage. Before [users] will be persuaded to adopt the innovation, people assess its advantages.”44 And adoption theory is especially well suited given the “super innovation”45 quality of online communications. In fact, the relatively recent birth and maturation of online communications over such a relatively short period of time provides researchers the rare opportunity to study diffusion/adoption theory�from introduction to diffusion to adoption.

Two other theories used consistently over the span of this study were information processing and uses and gratification. Researchers examined consumer behavior,46use of an online forum,47 the use of the web in times of crisis,48 and the role of online communication in the political process.49 A general theory of human cognition, information processing has been popular among researchers since the 1950s and is based in large part on Miller’s assertion that the human brain can only handle a small numbers of “chunks” of data.50

The use of policy analysis mirrors the pattern of mass communication law/policy, given it is the obvious choice for most legal research. The remaining areas of theory�access, agenda building/setting and a social interaction�attract little attention from mass communication researchers in this study. Of these three, the lack of research in the area of access is most problematic. Given the issue of asymmetrical connection speeds between rural and urban areas and in some areas within urban centers, one would expect more research along the path of Althaus and Tewksbury51 or that of Roberts, Wanta and Dzwo.52 Only six journal articles were identified as using this theory.

Author Publication

While research in the subject area of the web reveals interest in the fusing of online communication, researchers, by and large, are staying within their chosen categories of study and journals are remaining within their self-defined boundaries. Exceptions exist. But, in general, researchers seem to be examining the impact of online communications on their own fields of research, not as a converged or fused phenomenon.54

Sixty primary authors account for more than a third (34.7%) of the research of online communications in this study. This is far higher than that found in a study of offline publishing by Schweitzer in 1988. However, the frequency of publication by this particular set of authors was lower on average, reflecting the wider scope of journals surveyed in this study over Schweitzer’s.55

The issue of research as a reflection of institutional value raised by Schweitzer and Tomasello is not dealt with by this research, but could be in the future. As Schweitzer notes in his findings:

The results reported here should provide some useful information to administrators and faculty concerned with publishing activity. And, they clearly indicate which schools a potential graduate student might consider if he or she is interested in a school [that] emphasizes research.

The argument Schweitzer makes is substantially different than that offered by Tomasello. Schweitzer suggests that by noting where the most productive faculty work takes place potential graduate students can make informed decisions about where to study. Tomasello argues that the quality of the research is reflected by the quality of the institution to which the faculty researcher belongs. Setting aside this previously discussed issue of institutional “quality” being related to the quality of research, the idea that productivity of faculty in online communication research is related to institutional standing presents an interesting issue. While a full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this research, a brief survey of the institutions represented by the most frequently published authors reveals no pattern. Online communication research published in mass communication journals is occurring in the largest, most well established schools, such as University of Illinois, Michigan State University, and University of Texas-Austin, as well as the smaller, newer schools, such as Florida International, and Florida Atlantic universities. Other schools are also well represented in this research, such as Bowling Green, Cleveland State, Colorado State, Montclair State, Radford College, and the University of Maine. Overall, these multiple-published researchers represent forty-seven colleges and universities, two government agencies, and three private companies, with no distinct pattern, suggesting the issue of quality as defined by Tomasello may be moot.

Publishing by journal

In the early years of the study, two journals were most active in online communication research. Internet Research: Electronic Networking and Policy(hereinafter Internet Research) and Media Studies Journal published nine of the first eleven articles tracked in this study. In the case of Internet Research, the earliest research focused on standards,56 information processing,57 and case studies involving delivery platforms.58 Meanwhile, Media Studies Journal research focused on more general issues of the short- and long-terms impacts of the new communication “channel.”59 All were in the form of essays reflecting on the future of online communications to communities and society at large.

Since 1997, almost a third of online communication research appeared in traditional journals such as Journalism and Mass Communication QuarterlyJournal of Advertising Research, and International Journal of Communication Law and Policy. The scope of this research ranges far and wide and touches on all mass communication subjects, research methods and theories.

However, as noted earlier, while these and other journals are showing more attention to the subject of online communication, the interest is late in coming. Almost 20% of the online communication research published in the eleven years of this study appeared in the last year, 2003. While this tardiness may have been acceptable in the development of other new media, such as television, the lag in relationship to online communication is alarming. If researchers and journals are not prepared to react with more rigor to new media developments, this delay in tracking online communication will continue and perhaps worsen. The impact of this “online research gap” will be to make academic research seem even more disconnected from industry and lessen its relevance.


As concluded by Tomasello, research journals may be �slow on the uptake.�60Then again, the proportion of online communication research found in this study significantly exceeded that found by Tomasello, starting as early as 1997 (4.8%). In the last year of the study, the rate was almost triple that of Tomasello�s.

However, that mor than 11% of the research in 2003 was focused on online communication, the impact of the Internet and web at least seem to be far greater than the attention given to either by researchers. This is especially troublesome, because, as stated at the beginning of this article, changes within online communications are occurring very fast. If researchers are to stay even remotely in touch with what they purport to study (mass communication), then both they and the journals cited in this research will have to pick up their pace of publishing. This will require more nimble researchers, editors, reviewers and educators. Special issues devoted to the web are a nice feature, but tend to reflect a �separate status� rather than acceptance of the fused/converged nature of new media. For example, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly published five articles in its Autumn 2003 issue dealing with the impact of new media on mass communications. The following issue was devoted to �Journalism Ethics,� apparently not a new media issue given that not a single article deals with the ethical challenges within online communications.

Of course, a journal can only publish what researchers submit. The cursory examination of author institutions mentioned above suggests that major centers of journalism are not the source of much of the new research on online communications. While further study of this topic may reveal stronger participation by these journalism “leaders,” the picture painted here is of a field of research driven by individuals not departments.

Perhaps, as Kamhawi and Weaver suggest, the appearance of new web journals, such as Web Journal of Mass Communication Research might result in larger numbers of online communication research.61 While the list of journals examined in this research did not include three other online publications mentioned by Kamhawi, it is of note that the mission of the Web Journal of Mass Communication Research is apparently not to publish research solely about online communications, but to publish research online. Only one article was found matching the criteria of study.62As stated by the publication:

The purpose of the Web Journal of Mass Communication Research is to expand publication opportunities for scholars in our field. Our focus is research in mass communication. This means we are seeking reports of original investigations in any area of mass communication. It also means that an attempt to discover or develop new information about mass communication must be the central purpose of the research.63

Future Research

As mentioned above, an annual census of research within these journals should be maintained to trace future patterns. In addition, some examination of research publication patterns based on such issues as gender and research support would be of some interest.

In addition, the study of the factors surrounding the emergence and disappearance of journals, such as the creation of the International Journal of Law & Policy and the demise of Media Studies, would be useful. A subset of this research might address the impact of online delivery to publishing, as well as grapple with the issue of journal rating by university tenure committees.

The fusing of media is a given and is upon us; the issue of whether we are a relevant player in the description of its present and future is largely up to us. It could be argued that mass communication has always been largely a historical effort, a sort of rear-view mirror portrayal of the field. The challenge isn�t, therefore, in becoming a mass of futurists guessing new forms of communication, but rather assuring that our research maintains some relevancy to more recent forms of communication.

This study examines the trends in mass communication research in an area that promises to be important for decades to come. It represents one of the broadest efforts in terms of journals, methods and theories. Its findings, especially in the preference for some areas of research methods and theories, report trends that are and will continue to be significant. What is left for future analysis is the degree to which journals and researchers successfully focus on the changing and converging environment of new communication that does not distinguish among the traditional topics or channels of mass communication.

Thomas HP Gould is an assistant professor at Kansas State University’s AQ Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He would like to thank the reviewers and editors at the Web Journal for their advice and guidance, and his wife, Carol, for her patience and fortitude with the early iterations of this work. 

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