Media X Hopeful Pastures: Scholarly Journals and the Digital Future

Michael O’Driscoll


We live in what might be, perhaps, the most exciting and yet challenging moment in the history of scholarly publication and the management of academic journals. As Editor of ESC: English Studies in Canada, I often feel as if we teeter on a precipice of both promise and threat: the view from here is magnificent, across a narrow fissure hopeful pastures await, but at our feet plunges downward a very steep and dangerous decline. Scholarly journals are in transition. Digital technologies, economic shifts, disciplinary expectations, and institutional priorities are radically reconfiguring the mandate and modes of social science and humanities journals in particular, and the possibilities this presents should be met with an equal measure of expectation and caution. From the perspective of a well-established print-based journal, online publication looks on to the vista of open access dissemination, digital aggregation, and new opportunities for creative forms of knowledge production. In what follows, I would like to lay out more carefully what this means for both the journals themselves and for new scholars now just entering the academic profession.

But first, a brief review of the current situation. A journal such as Inquire joins the ranks of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scholarly publications just emerging onto the digital scene; many of these are newly founded enterprises, others are more established print journals that have migrated, or are in the process of migrating, to exclusively digital formats. The advantages of digital-only distribution are clearly evident. New media technology provides the ability to publish on an on-going basis, rather than being limited to a quarterly or some other conventional schedule. Journals can “push” content, and encourage lively and timely online exchange, feedback mechanisms, and opportunities for the collaborative production of knowledge. The multimedia options are impressive: live links to further resources, as well as image, video, and sound elements, can now supplement the standard journal article, while journals and their affiliate organizations can act as valuable clearing-houses for day-by-day announcements and calls for papers. Perhaps most importantly, digital technology affords broad and inclusive access to scholarship while ensuring relatively minimal production costs. In short, digital formats make for a much more efficient, dynamic, and responsive form of publication, and encourage highly creative and innovative approaches to research dissemination.

One of the most evident and important examples of such innovation is the widespread move to Open Access (OA). While the OA movement has been around for decades, the practice found its true impetus only with the advent of digital technologies that have made it possible for researchers, editors, librarians, and others to make scholarly findings available to anyone, anywhere, with a computer and online access. The principles of OA are fairly straightforward: publicly funded research should be readily available to the public, more accessible knowledge more readily begets important research, freely disseminated knowledge helps to redress disparities in the global economy by making current research available to the citizens of developing nations, and the economy of conventional journal marketing has far outpaced the strained resources of stagnant library budgets. John Willinsky, one of the leading voices in the OA movement and Director of the Public Knowledge Project, states the principle most cogently:

A commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of such work as far as possible and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it. (xii)

OA takes two major forms: journals which freely publish their contents (either immediately or with a pre-determined lag time; either wholly or in part), and individual researchers who “self-archive” either through personal websites, institutional repositories such as those already in place at many Canadian universities, or centralized venues such as the long-established PubMed and arXiv in the sciences, Project Erudite in Quebec, or its new English Canadian counterpart, Synergies. For a journal such as ESC (which is available through the PKP’s Open Journal Systems following a six-month delay from time of publication) OA promises a broader international readership, generates scholarly contributions from around the globe, and demonstrates the journal’s commitment to the democratization of knowledge. At the same time, however, OA does not contribute to, and conceivably even threatens, the journal’s bottom line.

And for transitional journals such as ESC (which still produces print volumes while also being available in digital format) the bottom line is of major concern. Digital aggregation (wherein certain commercial publishers such as Project Muse, EBSCO, and Proquest sell pre-packaged suites of journals to libraries and other institutions) has become a major source of revenue, and one that is seemingly incompatible with OA ambitions. At the present moment, digital aggregation accounts for roughly one-quarter of ESC’s operating budget, the balance met by major SSHRC grants, subventions from the journal’s parent organization the Association of Canadian and College University Teachers of English, institutional subscriptions, and royalty and copyright revenues. While a shift to fully digital publication would dramatically reduce the journal’s production costs, the membership of ACCUTE has been reluctant to give up its print copies, and doing so would eliminate the (admittedly dwindling) income from institutional print subscriptions. Furthermore, a decision to move to fully OA publication would likely bring an end to aggregate contracts, as well as copyright and royalty revenue, leaving the journal almost entirely, and perhaps precariously, reliant on federal publication grants and association subventions. Digital aggregation, furthermore, means not just substantial revenue, but also effectively and measurably brings readers to the journal numbering, annually, in the tens of thousands worldwide. For the time being, then, ESC—as with many similarly situated journals—remains poised between the print and digital worlds, reluctant to give up the security and effectiveness of its now habitual modes of dissemination, while nonetheless desiring the also fruitful and laudable outcomes of fully digital and OA publication.

New scholars take note: regardless of the mode of dissemination, the standard for academic publication (and the evaluated merit of academic productivity) remains the practice of double-blind peer review. Given the conservatism of academic institutions, the only way, at this point, to truly establish the value of any given scholarly publication is in regard to the process by which it receives disciplinary consecration and the established standards of the venue in which it appears. Certainly, other models have been, and are being, tested. The recent, and now famous, experiments of the Shakespeare Quarterly (SQ) are a case in point. For the Fall, 2010 issue of SQ guest editor Katherine Rowe elected to subject several pre-screened, but as yet unaccepted, articles to crowd sourcing: that is, a handful of scholars were invited to review and comment upon the articles online, and the exchange was opened as well to any other interested parties. The Editor reserved the right to determine the final publication of the revised articles that resulted from the process. The outcomes, as Rowe reports on them, were largely positive. While the process proved labour intensive and fraught with concerns about scholarly exposure, the experiment brought to the fore questions about expertise and accreditation, encouraged (rather than discouraged) collegial exchange, and generated meaningful and ultimately productive dialogue on matters of genuine concern to the discipline (Rowe vi-viii). While SQ was the first established humanities journal to take on such a challenge, such practices are far more common in the sciences and in media studies more generally, and if nothing else suggest that conventional methods of evaluation—as well as conventional methods of publication and dissemination—should be contested by those options presented by digital technologies.

Digital technology, then, presents incredible opportunities for new scholars and fledgling journals. That is to say, Inquire has it right: the immediate move to independent online and open-access publication situates the journal at the forefront of innovative modes of dissemination and lays the ground for an influential and financially sustainable enterprise. The CL Hub interface that accompanies the journal—and which provides on-going and regularly updated information, resources, and reports from scholars working in the field—is precisely the kind of value-added material that journals tied to a printing schedule cannot effectively offer. Just as importantly, as the journal grows and matures, it will be well-situated to respond to new technological opportunities, disciplinary shifts, and changing professional expectations. Such responsiveness, however, will require a true spirit of creativity and flexibility on the part of its editors—a willingness, that is, to exploit the digital medium to its fullest extent and to regularly review and consider best practices in light of the sure to change technological and academic environment. An Editor such as myself cannot help but be somewhat envious: one might well say that journals such as Inquire are already on the far side of that perilous gulf, already enjoying the hopeful pastures of the future.


Works Cited


Rowe, Katherine. “Gentle Numbers.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61.3 (Fall 2010): iii-viii. Project Muse. Web. 4 Feb 2011.

Willinsky, J. The access principle: The case for open access to research and scholarship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. The MIT Press. Web. 4 Feb 2011.




Michael O'Driscoll, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta and Editor of ESC: English Studies in Canada, has published on Derrida, Foucault, Whitman, Pound, and Cage in Mosaic, ESC, SLI, and Contemporary Literature. His publications include A Bibliography of the Black Sparrow Press (2003) and After Poststructuralism: Writing the Intellectual History of Theory (2002).



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

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at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
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