Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Future of History Journals

The recent American Historical Association Annual meeting in Chicago featured an unusually large number of panels devoted to the discussion of digital history, thanks in part to an NEH-funded grant program at the University of Nebraska "Sustaining Digital History" (

One panel discussed the future of history journals. In it panelists and members of the audience wrestled with the question of what form future history journals featuring and/or including digital materials might take. Many participants identified Southern Cultures, an online publication of Emory University Libraries, as a potential model for future development. This led the discussion to identify academic libraries as potential allies in the development of other historical journals with digital content. Several individuals participating in the discussion suggested that academic libraries could act as hosts or sponsors of individual journals, much like Emory does for Southern Cultures, providing them with editorial staffing and web hosting in exchange for the prestige/recognition associated with the publication.

As someone who works in a library, I had to concur with the participant who pointed out the academic libraries are as short on funding as any other part of academia these days. There certainly are not spare funds floating around to be devoted to journal publication.

I did not make a relevant point at this time, but should have. To wit, the major source of academic libraries' financial difficulties is the rapidly rising cost of journal subscriptions, especially those published by international concerns like Elsevier. In the past decade a handful of companies have purchased a majority of academic journal titles and established an oligopoly. As foreign corporations they are not subject to American anti-trust laws. At the same time that most colleges and universities, and certainly public institutions, have faced very significant reductions to operating budgets, the costs associated with providing faculty and students with access to scholarly journals have risen at a high rate. Subscription prices have climbed by an average of 8-10% per year, per title in the last decade.

The future of digital history journals is closely linked to the above phenomenon, which librarians often call the crisis in scholarly communication. If academic libraries could somehow provide their users with high-quality academic journal content without paying publishers' extortionate subscription prices, many might indeed be in a position to support a journal like Southern Cultures.

The best way to get out from under the costs associated with the publishers' oligopoly is to promote the development of open-source journals, i.e., publications that make their materials available online free of charge. Scholars often mistakenly identify open-source journals with the undermining of peer review and scholarly rigor. While there may be distinctly substandard publications out there making their contents available free of charge online, the existence of Southern Cultures and other similar titles attest to the fact that open-source publications can and do meet scholarly standards. Of course well-known journals that have accumulated great prestige in the course of a lengthy publication history remain very attractive to scholars seeking recognition for their work, or tenure and promotion. There are cases of the editorial boards of well-known journals decamping for a new, open-source publication, however, seeking to address the crisis in scholarly communication.

Beyond this larger issue, open-source publications can offer several advantages to historians seeking to produce and publish digital scholarship. Most open-source journals are born-digital, meaning that they produce no analog, or paper, version of their publication.   Where old-line journals still producing analog versions might struggle with the question of how to mesh digital materials with their traditional format, online-only open-source publications represent a natural forum for the integration of digital history materials.

The development of open-source journals can also provide historians with access to a wider audience than that provided by a traditional, for-pay journal. Work published in for-pay journals is presently only available to subscribers, including individuals and libraries providing access to their patrons. Materials presented in formats like Southern Cultures,  in addition to freeing academic libraries from large costs, can reach the immense population using the World Wide Web. Indexing by Google Scholar and other similar services can only serve to improve citation rates, which many institutions are increasingly including in the promotion and tenure evaluation process. Open-source, online publication can also help historians to reach laymen.

Many academic librarians are currently trying to promote institutional repositories (online resources featuring scholarly publications and other academic materials produced by the faculty of a single college or university) as a means by which they might disseminate such faculty work as copyright law will allow beyond the realm of subscription-only formats. Institutional repositories provide colleges and universities with an opportunity to provide various user groups and stakeholders, from potential students and alumni to potential donors and state legislators, with an accounting of their scholarly output. They mesh well with educational institutions' increasing attempts to establish the positive brand identity necessary to assure their survival and growth in the future. As one might expect, the best place for institutional repository developers to find faculty publications are open-source journals, which do not seek to constrain access to their materials.

My point here is simple: online, open-source formats present a viable way forward for the development of history journals including sophisticated digital content.  In addition to presenting a ready platform for digital scholarship, they can enable historians to reach a broader audience than subscription-only journals, and help academic institutions to begin to fashion means by which they might mitigate, or even overthrow, an economic model for scholarly communication that is untenable in the long run and severely restricts their ability to innovate in this medium.