Academic Journals in the Digital Era: An Editor's Reflections

Ethan Kleinberg, December 2012

What is the role and place of academic journals in an environment undergoing massive and rapid change? Social networking, nontraditional scholarship, blogs, and open access publishing have all put pressure on "traditional" journal editors to ponder the future of our publications. Some, convinced that our traditional scholarly format is invaluable and irreplaceable, are skeptical of any innovation. Others contend that the traditional academic journal is a relic of a bygone era soon to be replaced by various online formats. Indeed, the recent publication of History and Theory's first "virtual issue," discussed in detail below, provoked quite a bit of online chatter proclaiming that the end of academic print publishing had arrived. But even those of us who have embraced a digital online format find ourselves bumping against the ceiling of inherited analog practices that continue to restrict what is possible in our new digital world.

It is both an exciting and precarious time for editors: exciting because of the vast possibilities open to us, but precarious because a false step could lead us to lose either our core value--publishing high quality, article-format original scholarship--or our readership, or both. To avoid such a step, we need to reconceptualize the place and function of the academic journal, maintaining what distinguishes it from newer forms of scholarship even as we employ those newer forms to serve our core mission. We must chart a course between the analog past and digital future of academic journals such that the academic journal functions as a hub, creating a social network of scholars gathered together around a shared interest.

But first, the central question: Are traditional editorial practices still relevant? In an era of blogs, open access, and iterative, multi-authored scholarship, is peer review and developmental editing still necessary? Yes—if they are done well. At their best, editorial and peer review allow all parties benefit from a scholarly exchange. All scholars who submit an article receive a thorough evaluation of their piece regardless of whether the article is accepted for publication. Accepted articles receive close attention and substantive comment from both peer review and editorial work, and even rejected articles receive constructive comment and critique that advances scholarship. In the end, the general readership benefits from the hard work of the authors who contribute articles or review essays, of the evaluators who provide thoughtful and substantive comment, and of the editors who work diligently on each article submitted. This ethos of "intellectual generosity," which treats each serious work submitted as worthy of consideration and comment, marks what is best in the traditional model of the academic journal. This simply cannot be duplicated by open peer review models, in which some articles are favored while others are ignored.

A second and far less lofty reason for continuing traditional editorial practices has to do with the everyday banalities of time management. For many scholars, the realities of balancing teaching, administrative duties, and scholarship make it unrealistic to dedicate the time to sifting through iterations of scholarship unless it is directly related to a current research project. Many scholars, possibly the majority, are looking for vetted expert material in finished form from sources they trust. To be blunt, they cannot put time into reviewing and editing; they want the finished product. For them, traditional editorial practices are still the best practices.

But we cannot return to a world governed by the logic and economics of print media or ignore the powerful presence of new forms of alternative scholarship such as academic blogs or podcasts. Nor can we simply shift our past practices part and parcel to an online environment and pretend that we have embraced and understood the changes underway. An academic journal cannot be simply a collection of articles bound only by a table of contents. Those days are gone.

An academic journal that embodies the best of old and new practices can be envisioned as a hub at the center of a social network for collaborative scholarship. To be sure the center of the hub must still be the published articles that emerge from traditional editorial practices; this is the core product that distinguishes the academic journal from other scholarly websites or blogs. But the new academic journal also employs technological advances and new forms of communication to further the core mission of scholarly dialog and intellectual generosity.

In the early 1990s, academic journals such as History and Theory used digital platforms primarily for wider distribution. However, this led to contributions from, and exchanges with, participants from around the world. We are now faced with an international scholarly community focused on and guided by the academic journal but serving also as a social network that promotes discussion and exchange far beyond the pages of the journal.

In the last year, History and Theory has been particularly active in this regard seeking to expand our intellectual social network via Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. We use peer networking to develop an active readership that can interact with article authors, and one another, in response to material published in the journal. We can then build on these relations by scheduling lectures, conferences, or events where scholars can physically meet, talk, and exchange ideas. One example was History and Theory's recent scholars exchange with the publishing arm of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences held in Beijing in October 2011.

But we also realize that the move from print to digital unhinges our original publication methods from the ways scholars access and use the contents of academic journals. One possible result of digitization is that academic journals will abandon the idea of having "issues" and adopt an iTunes model of distribution focused on delivering individual articles. This would be a mistake. The editors of History and Theory have been keen to preserve the coherence and thematic inflection that we see as one of the most important benefits of traditional editorial practices.

In our "virtual issue" on the theme "The New Metaphysics of Time," the editors of History and Theory brought together the best aspects of traditional and digital editorial practices. Freed from print publication's many temporal constraints, we were able to compress the elapsed time between previously published articles as well as articles yet to appear and place them in conversation and debate. The editorial function in this dynamic digital environment was to highlight a group of themes and a vibrant discussion that had developed in the recent past in order to help readers see the interconnections. This is digital editing aware of itself and poised to make readers take notice of something important that they otherwise would not have seen.

Aside from the yet to be published articles, any reader with a search engine could have assembled a "virtual issue," perhaps even one more tailored to his own research needs. However, it is the task of the academic journal to search for larger trends and developments and present them to the field as a whole. To this end we did not want to simply repackage articles as History and Theory's "greatest hits" or group them around an obvious thematic keyword. Instead, once we identified a developing trend around a coherent theme characterized by sharp disagreement in definition and application, we knew we needed to make this known to our readers. What's more, we were able to include articles that had been accepted for publication but had not yet appeared in print, thus using the digital format to cast both forward and back. The response to the virtual issue was overwhelmingly positive, with readers corresponding to suggest other previously published articles that could contribute to the conversation, article submissions to the journal that take up the question of "time" in new and fruitful ways, and even a seminar at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Studies that brought together scholars and graduate students from the U.S. and Germany to discuss the "new metaphysics of time" and the articles in the virtual issue.

As traditional academia comes to understand and define itself in this digital era, academic journals will play a more important role than ever. Journals are ideally suited to become international social networks of scholars to share articles, ideas, and practices across the globe. But if we hope to maintain our core function as something greater than an academic Facebook, we must retain our traditional practices of rigorous, productive peer review and robust editorial oversight of content and form in a way that encourages us to innovate and embrace new technologies that will alter that content and form, thereby challenging our previous ideas about peer review and evaluation. It is our responsibility to embrace this change and meet this challenge.

Ethan Kleinberg is executive editor of History and Theory and professor of history and letters at Wesleyan University where he is currently director of the Center for the Humanities.