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From the News column in the February 1998 Perspectives

Conference on History Journals and the Electronic Future

Martin V. Minner, February 1998

Print will continue well into the future, but history journals should lay the groundwork for eventual online publication, according to participants at a recent conference on History Journals and the Electronic Future.

The editors of 25 history journals gathered in Bloomington, Indiana, August 3—8, 1997, to seek ways to evaluate electronic publishing from a disciplinary perspective and to assess the opportunities and problems it presents. The idea for the conference grew from a sense among history editors that the technological agenda was being set outside the historical profession—by the computer industry, by libraries and publishers, and by the scientific, technical, and medical fields. The American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians sponsored the conference with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The organizers invited librarians, publishers, experts in the economics and law of electronic publishing, and pioneers in online history projects to provide an introduction to the issues posed by digital technologies. Michael Jensen of Johns Hopkins University Press's electronic publishing initiative, Project Muse, urged editors not to think of the future in terms of a black-and-white dichotomy between print and electronic forms. The future of scholarly publishing, Jensen said, lies in a gray area between all-print and all-electronic forms.

Many of the participants expressed a consensus that print media will survive for three reasons.

  1. Print is portable; it can be read in a comfortable chair or carried along on a trip.
  2. Print is tactile; many readers prefer printed pages to a computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
  3. Print is browsable; the reader can make serendipitous discoveries by paging through a journal's articles and book reviews.

A Vision of the Future

While expressing a commitment to the future of print publication, the editors also learned what electronic media might come to mean for the historical profession. Speakers used several history projects available on the World Wide Web and CD-ROM to demonstrate how archival material can be made available electronically, how multimedia can enrich historical scholarship, and how interactive programs offer new opportunities for research and teaching.

Edward Ayers, professor of history at the University of Virginia, demonstrated Valley of the Shadow, an electronic project about two counties in the Civil War. He urged editors to think creatively about the potential of electronic media, pointing out that an electronic publication need not be limited to replicating a print journal. Features such as linked documents, interactivity, and nonlinear presentation make possible entirely new models of research and teaching. "What might scholarship look like," Ayers asked, "if we were not constrained by the paper we know and love?"

The consensus among the editors was that advanced techniques such as multimedia are not technically or economically feasible for history journals at present. However, a number of editors were enthusiastic about the implications of new technologies for historical scholarship, noting that search capabilities could be integrated into electronic journals, enabling readers to find articles by keyword or concept. Hypertext links could enable readers to obtain the text of a work cited by clicking on the appropriate part of a web page.

"Our culture has changed profoundly," said Richard Altenbaugh, editor of History of Education Quarterly, "the print journal emerged in one culture, and we are in another. I see us shepherding in a new kind of scholarship, and I'm excited about this."

Practical Concerns

In the short term, however, electronic publishing raises troubling issues about access, archivability, cost, distribution, copyright, and intellectual diversity. For instance some editors said it would be important for a library to retain archival access to an electronic journal if its subscription lapses, but they expressed concern that the hardware and software requirements might make electronic journals too expensive for some libraries and for scholars abroad.

All-electronic journals offer the potential for savings in the areas of printing and distribution, but they require additional costs for marketing, text preparation, and technical support. Given historians' preference for print journals, a number of editors voiced concern that any attempt at electronic publishing would likely involve an expensive combination of print and electronic forms. At the same time, they said it is unclear whether electronic publishing would generate additional subscription revenue.

Most electronic journals are currently being distributed through third parties such as university presses or commercial vendors, as either full-journal subscriptions, which provide the subscriber with the entire contents of a journal in electronic form, or per-item sale (referred to as "by-the-drink"), which allows users to purchase individual articles and book chapters in electronic form.

One concern raised about these distribution methods was that third parties who provide full-journal subscriptions usually engage in bundling—grouping multiple journals for sale as a unit. J-Stor, one of the leading bundlers of electronic journals, requires libraries to purchase its entire roster of more than 60 journals. J-Stor charges libraries an initial fee plus annual access fees. Editors noted that bundling might reduce a library's choices in selecting journals. Decisions about which journals to include in a bundle may be dictated by a third party's marketing strategy rather than a school's intellectual needs.

Editors also expressed concern that selling individual articles on a per-item basis would contribute to the commodification of intellectual work and subvert an editor's decisions about how to group and present articles in a journal.

Third parties such as electronic publishers and bundlers complicate copyright issues by adding a new factor to the information flow that traditionally consisted of author, journal, and subscriber. Third parties now negotiate with journals for electronic rights and in turn grant rights to libraries. Some third parties license use of a journal rather than sell the rights; they provide access but not ownership. The unsettled nature of international agreements, legislation, and pending court cases adds to the uncertainty about changes in copyright.

Fred Cate, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Law and an expert in copyright law, said editors should be sure they hold the rights to all material in the journal when granting electronic rights to a bundler. For both articles and book reviews, journals should require authors to complete a copyright release form giving the journal rights to use the material in current and future forms of the publication. As a result of this discussion, a number of participating journals have reviewed their copyright procedures and plan to require such a release for both articles and reviews.

Editors also warned about the possible impact of electronic publishing on intellectual diversity. The last 30 years of historical scholarship have generated a diverse range of journals reflecting a variety of cultural and regional interests, but the economics of electronic journal publishing threaten to reverse those gains. They noted that journals on American and European topics tend to have a larger readership and therefore offer publishers and bundlers a better chance to recoup production costs. To express this concern, Mark Szuchman, former editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review, drafted a statement expressing the editors' position (see sidebar).

Toward the Future

Armed with information about the technical, economic, legal, and intellectual issues posed by electronic publishing, the editors said they felt better prepared to make informed decisions about the future of their journals. "We have been empowered," said Augustine Konneh, book review editor of the Journal of Negro History. "The prospects depend on our own choices."

While most history journals are not likely to go online immediately, the editors largely felt it was important to take preliminary steps now. Preparation in the present could make an eventual conversion to electronic publishing smoother and perhaps ensure a journal's survival in the scholarly world of the future.

Conference participants identified a number of preliminary steps journals can take now:

  1. Negotiate with the journal's compositor or printer to provide an electronic copy of each issue in a standard format such as SGML. These files could become the basis of an eventual conversion to electronic form.
  2. Establish discipline-wide standards for tables of contents, abstracts, and subject searching. These measures would ensure consistent use of markup codes among history journals. Subject searching should permit the kind of logical conceptual topics found in a well-organized book index.
  3. Encourage authors to place supplementary material and data sets on a web site and include the web address in a footnote. This practice will train readers to look for material online and will make an eventual transition to hypertext links easier.
  4. Develop standards for citing electronic sources and encourage authors to cite such sources when relevant.
  5. Secure rights or licenses for all elements of the journal so that the entire journal can be reproduced by an electronic publisher.
  6. Join together to ensure that commercial science publishers do not set prices so high that history journals are squeezed out of library budgets.
  7. Emphasize to publishers and foundations the importance of preserving the intellectual diversity of scholarly publishing.

A Coalition of Editors

Participants felt it was essential to continue the conversations begun at the conference and to extend the discussion to other history editors. The group agreed to form a Coalition of History Editors for Publishing in the Future.

Editors envisioned the coalition as a small group representing a wide range of historical perspectives. The coalition is not intended to compete with large membership organizations. It initially consists of the conference participants, although the group plans to encourage other editors' participation in the near future. The coalition initially consists of journal editors, but it will grow to include representatives of other forms of historical media.

Members chose the words "Publishing in the Future" to reflect their choice not to limit the discussion to electronic media. Discussions of historical scholarly publishing must remain open to the opportunities and challenges posed by both print and electronic media.

The coalition scheduled its first follow-up meeting in conjunction with the American Historical Association's annual meeting in Seattle. The coalition is also planning a panel discussion at the Organization of American Historians' April meeting in Indianapolis.

—Martin V. Minner is a PhD student in history at Indiana University. He coordinated the Conference on History Journals and the Electronic Future and is serving as project director for the Coalition of History Editors for Publishing in the Future.