Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. Juli 2001  

Electronic Publishing and the Future of Humanities Scholarship

Cary Nathenson (Evanston, IL)

I am grateful to have this dual opportunity to participate in the conference, Knowledge Networking in Cultural Studies, and, now, in its Web-based continuation. Rarely can one exchange ideas and experiences with such a multi-disciplinary, multi-national group. In the spirit of the Internet, I wish to present a topic for discussion rather than a finished scholarly paper, that is, an invitation and a request for help instead of static report that assumes a passive audience. This is, of course, the original purpose of all conferences, but in my discipline, German Studies, the trend has been toward reading isolated "units" of research and away from "works in progress," which are deemed unprofessional at best and an admission of scholarly inadequacy, at worst.

The frustration one may discern from my opening statements reflects the frustration that motivates my involvement in this project: a frustration with the state of academic journals in German Studies, specifically, and in the humanities in general. The problems are manifold, and, no doubt, familiar to most: excessive delays between the submission of an article and its publication, or, more often, rejection; the financial and logistical limitations of our periodicals; the arbitrary constellation of interests and expertise of editorial boards, etc. All of these problems have created an enormous bottleneck in our system for disseminating and debating research and teaching in German Studies. Such frustrations are significant enough in their own right; add to them the fact that it is nearly impossible to get - and to maintain - an academic post without a lengthy record of scholarly publication and the problems with our journals can become an existential crisis for academicians. I could continue to complain but that would grow tedious. Instead, I would like to use this space to describe an (admittedly, and purposefully) incomplete response to the problems of scholarly journals and to speculate on their much deeper and more troubling implications. I will argue that the problems are more than merely logistical: they stem from an antiquated model of scholars and scholarship dependent on isolation and hostile to collaborative efforts.

First, some background. In the fall of 1999, I initiated a new, Internet discussion "listserv" for German Studies: GSLIST []. The purpose of GSLIST is to provide an international forum for scholarly exchange among the varied disciplines in German Studies. My hope was that such exchanges would lead to a kind of "cross-pollination" in German Studies scholarship and advance collaborative research and teaching projects. Although GSLIST is well subscribed by a wide range of academics, it has not yet reached the level of discourse I had desired. GSLIST is thus underutilized as a professional forum, but it is also underutilized as an electronic medium capable of rapid distribution of messages, automatic and easily retrievable Web archives, and near-universal accessibility. So, last February, in an attempt to invigorate GSLIST and to redress the shortcomings of typical academic journals, I proposed using GSLIST as the site and mechanism of a new, as of yet un-named "e-journal" for German Studies. The proposal called for a journal that would take advantage of the unique opportunities of the Internet such as those I have just outlined; it would not, therefore, be like most current "e-journals" in our field that are little or no more than regular academic journals that are merely published on-line. Instead, I suggested a place for true hypertext documents with links rather than footnotes, multi-media content, but, most significantly (and least technological) of all, I proposed a journal where the primary criterion for publishing a piece is the article's potential for inspiring discussion, debate, and further research and teaching. Indeed, "printing" an article (so to speak) should become only the first step in its successful publication. The true measure of an article's importance would be seen in what happens after it appears in the e-journal. The record of an article's discussion - archived and accessible on the Web - would stand in place of the mere fact that it was published. This would, I admit, make the work of promotion and tenure committees more complicated, but wise scholars and departments will learn to translate the results of their publications even to such over-worked and inter-disciplinary bodies. Thus, the e-journal I proposed for GSLIST would be almost a mirror opposite of a traditional print journal: instead of an anonymously submitted text that is sent out to one or two anonymous reviewers, who, after several months will reject it or, if the author is so fortunate, require changes that will lead to a published, finite article a year or often more after it was written, rather our new e-journal would present appropriate texts very soon after receiving them to an audience of colleagues who would publicly review and discuss the article for as long as interest and creativity dictate. As one can see, the label "e-journal" is itself an inadequate shorthand for what should better be described as a scholarly "forum."

The responses to my proposal were a strange mixture of approval and rejection, which is only strange inasmuch as most colleagues simultaneously voiced both opinions. These ambivalent responses usually agreed with my assessment of the problem and praised the proposal, while at the same time expressed the conviction that such an e-journal is impossible. Their concerns were not, as one might suspect when dealing with humanities scholars, of a technological nature. This is important, because it signals a level of technological maturity among humanists that for a long time was thought unobtainable. Most of my colleagues use email as their primary means of communication among each other. Many of them have learned to create and maintain web pages.(1) I believe most of my peers would prefer to have their scholarly texts available 24 hours a day on-line rather than relegated to the dusty and often mis-sorted shelves of libraries with limited opening hours. We accept the Internet as a generally desirable fact of life; this is not, then, an ideological battle between print culture and virtual culture. The root of my colleagues' ambivalence lies in the messy contradiction between the form and function of academic journals.

In principle, journals - all scholarly publishing, really - exist in order to disseminate the results of academic endeavors: research and teaching. The journals are our vehicles for conveying what we have learned and what we argue to an audience of peers who, we hope, will make good use of this information, whether they agree with us or not. This seems simple enough, and, of course, it isn't. Since peers referee our most respected journals, the mere fact that an article has been accepted for publication is considered a mark of distinction for its author. Somehow, of course, we must determine who among us are deserving of recognition and advancement, and a scholarly publication represents one of several excellent measures of an academic's contribution to his or her field. It is an honor to be so recognized by one's colleagues, but what happens when this recognition becomes more highly valued than the article itself? What happens when the act of publication supercedes the reason for publication? This, I contend, is the situation today in German Studies, and, from what my colleagues in other disciplines tell me, the situation in the humanities broadly. Although they maintain the external form of a medium for academic exchange, our journals now function primarily as arbiters of scholarly worth and only secondarily to make known the results of our scholarship and to invite further contributions.

Such an environment nurtures a paradox that helps maintain the status quo. The most typical response I received from the members of GSLIST was that they desired a new and technologically improved means for disseminating their scholarship, but they would do nothing to help realize it because publishing in this journal could not advance their careers. This is not a conflict only facing technical innovations in the profession. Even if one wished nothing more than to create a new journal in the current mode, one would still need to overcome significant material and financial obstacles in order to print and distribute a traditional ink and paper journal. More importantly, one would first have to recruit an editorial board of sufficient stature as to guarantee that published authors would derive a professional benefit from their articles. But in a system such as that - in the United States at least - which creates only a handful of so-called "star" professors, there must also be only a limited number of those whose service on an editorial board would lend a journal the necessary prestige. (I'll leave it to my colleagues who are Walter Benjamin specialists to flesh out the problematic implications for the "aura" of such professors.)

The impediments to a successful e-journal or forum are more numerous and far-reaching. The most obvious problem - that electronic publishing is still considered an "alternative" medium - is actually the least significant problem. E-publishing is increasingly accepted as a relatively inexpensive and convenient alternative or complement to print journals. The Modern Language Association, the primary bibliographer of my field, accepts electronically published articles for inclusion. The MLA and other standardizing institutions have established guidelines for documenting electronic sources. It is only a matter of time before e-published articles, and even books, are accepted by academic promotion and tenure committees as the equivalents of traditionally published texts. But here an important caveat applies: e-published texts are today only accepted to the extent that they mimic the publication guidelines of traditional journals. Such texts are, in effect, print journal articles "merely" transposed onto an Internet format. Once again we witness that the medium itself is not the obstacle to e-journals.

So what is? To phrase it polemically: the main problem facing e-journals in the humanities is a problem of democracy. The true potential (and therefore also the threat) of the Internet is its universality. In theory, anyone, anywhere can be an "e-publisher." While this remains unobtainable for many in underdeveloped countries, this potential has been effectively realized for academics in the industrialized world. So, let's say, tomorrow everybody in German Studies who has an unpublished text that they consider otherwise worthy of distribution decides to put it on their web site. That would be very democratic, but not terribly practical. What if, however, the Germanists instead decide to upload their articles to 5 central sites well-known to all and regularly visited? How about if there is only 1 web site where all the texts are available? The practical issue is resolved, but are the texts now "published?" If one's goal is information distribution, then the answer should be "yes." If, however, journals function mainly to regulate rather than to disseminate scholarship, then none of these pieces would count as publications. This line of reasoning is intentionally a bit absurd in order to make the point very clearly: at the heart of the debate over my modest e-journal proposal is the question of who gets to control what is scholarship and who is a scholar. Currently, a tiny number of journals and publishing houses with less and less tolerance for texts that lack immediate commercial promise are solely in control of these definitions.

But before I am accused of promoting academic anarchy, let me demonstrate why even if all the editorial boards were to disappear overnight, we would not face a deluge of ill-conceived electronic publications claiming to represent democratic scholarship. As professionals, we tend to value the idea of a meritocracy. No one wants to see good work go unrewarded and mediocre scholarship published. If submissions were peer reviewed in a broad and open process, what possible motivation would a sane person have for submitting bad work? The British Medical Journal ( warns potential contributors that their "article may attract widespread and very public criticism and is likely to be rejected" for print publication. Despite - or perhaps rather, because - of their peer review process, the BMJ rejects 5 of every 6 submissions for publication. In the e-journal proposal, I suggest that articles would be judged by the responses they illicit (the worst possible response, I imagine, would be no response at all!). Under this model, where the measure of a text's value comes after publication and is left to the sole discretion of its readers, I highly doubt anyone would risk such exposure recklessly. (Studies have shown, by the way, that when students are asked to grade each other the failure rate is much higher than when marking is left to the professors.) Thus, while an e-journal would be more democratic in its evaluation procedure, there is likely to be no significant increase in texts "published."

Peer review is one thing. True collaboration, however, is quite another. I believe the truly radical aspect of the e-journal proposal is its insistence on collaboration. A peer review procedure such as employed by the BMJ and other, mostly scientific journals, would be desirable but limited. Peer review does open the editorial process to public involvement and public scrutiny. It is collaborative in that an article may be changed due to the suggestions offered by colleagues. The ultimate result, however, remains the finished article, as thus peer review and less public editorial boards alike valorize a notion of the text as a static and self-sufficient "product." Collaboration that continues after publication is more dynamic. Print journals cannot provide room for such collaboration for logistical as well as ideological reasons. If a text is not considered "done" upon publication, then the comments and critique it engenders become crucial to the value of the piece. There would be little or no value to a text that inspires no discussion, and therefore the collaboration itself would be the legitimizing instance for such an article.

This standard of collaboration challenges the anachronistic ideal of the scholar as "genius," an ideal that, incredibly, still dominates the humanities. (For those who complain that post-modernism and deconstructionism have "ruined" the academy, here is one vital domain where old models still apply.) The entire process that leads to the creation of a successful academic in my field - writing a dissertation, publishing books and articles, often even teaching - is based on the premise that the rising scholar is contributing in a unique and exclusive manner to the profession.(2) Collaborative projects are frowned upon; even the much-touted "inter-disciplinary" scholar is suspect as one who knows too little about too much. At many universities, in fact, the process of specialization is so far gone that scholars who attempt to contribute on multiple subjects within even one discipline risk reproach. My experience leads me to believe this is even more the case at Austrian and German universities where professors in my field might micro-specialize down to the level of one author's works.

A result of the "genius" model for academicians is isolation: isolation within the university at large and, often, isolation even within a scholar's own department. Here, the humanities stand in marked contrast to the research models of the physical sciences. To an outsider, at least, it seems that the sciences are more receptive to collaborative or team methods of scholarship that often even span academic rank to include junior and senior professors and students. I do not, however, wish to make the validity of my comments dependant on my sparse knowledge of life outside the humanities: that I do not know more about how scholarship is conducted in other disciplines is in itself a disturbing comment on the degree of isolation I am describing. Regardless, more experimentation in the humanities with project-oriented (rather than scholar-oriented) research and teaching stands to broaden our perspective and enrich our mutual academic experiences.

Of course, this is a very frightening prospect. For better or, I would argue, for worse, the "genius" model is our model, and setting it aside means jeopardizing a foundational principle upon which myself and all of my colleagues have built their professional identities. To replace it, or even just to augment it with a more collaborative approach would mean we must sacrifice part of who we are as scholars. But who are we, then, today? What is desirable about our stagnating isolation? Who benefits from our irrelevance? I simply do not see an alternative to abandoning the "genius" model in favor of a collaborative one.

This is a huge problem that will not be resolved by one e-journal or forum. A more moderate first step seems necessary. Recently, I relayed a compromise proposal for the e-journal that envisions a "pre-publication" forum. All of the benefits of the original idea would apply, but the goal would be to prepare texts for more traditional publication after our rounds of collaborative discussion. It is a compromise and therefore imperfect, but I hope - should we in fact be able to launch even this model of e-journal - it will continue the discussion we start here today.

© Cary Nathenson (Evanston, IL)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


(1) An excellent example of one humanist's use of the Web comes from my colleague in Classics at the University of Houston, Richard H. Armstrong [, last visited on 27 June 2001].

(2) Even the on-line German Studies journal, glossen, requires its contributors to sign an agreement swearing that the author "has created an original work" that has never before been published. [, last visited on 27 June 2001].

For quotation purposes:
Cary Nathenson: Electronic Publishing and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 10/2001. WWW:

TRANS     Webmeisterin: Angelika Czipin     last change: 02.07.2001