Scholarly Journals

Dan Allosso

Along with the rest of the subscribers to H-Net’s mailing list, “C19-Americanists,” I got an appeal today from the editors of Poe Studies and ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance. Washington State University is cutting their funding, and the editors are soliciting support. They admit that the administration’s move “is a fiscal one,” but the editors also suggest there is a bad “climate for higher ed” in Washington, and that administrators lack “awareness about the value of humanities journals,” and by implication, the humanities.

All these claims may be true. And these two journals are probably wonderful, and well worth continuing, even at the expense of cutting other WSU programs—which I assume would be necessary. But in light of the appeal's wide circulation to the mailing list, I think it raises some interesting questions beyond the immediate situation in Washington

Before today, I had never heard of either of these journals. I’ve certainly never held either of them in my hands, or read anything from them. So I’ve got to assume the editors are appealing to people like me in hopes we’ll feel a general sense of solidarity with other Americanists or humanities folks, a sense of antagonism toward clueless administrators, or a fear that our favorite journal may be next in line.

I do subscribe to a few journals (or rather, I get them as a result of membership), but I usually don’t read them in hard copy, even the articles that really grab my attention. Allan Kulikoff’s article in the June Journal of the Historical Society was very interesting (I blogged about it here). I read it online—can’t actually find my hard-copy June issue right now, but it’s still right there if I want to refer to it again.

I’m not suggesting that the Washington journals should be discontinued. Honestly, I think it’s criminally short-sighted how little of 21st century America’s money is invested in education. So yes, the journals should get funding and we should build fewer military drones. But it might also be a good time for those of us who support scholarly communication and refereed exchanges of ideas, to ask ourselves whether the way it’s always been done is the best way to do it now.

Since I don’t think anyone is getting rich writing for or publishing academic journals (correct me if I’m wrong), it doesn’t strike me that there’s an entrenched financial interest resisting change. So the question is, can we find less costly, more effective ways to do the things that journals do for the academy? Many journals are available online as a matter of course, with no increase in cost; so it seems reasonable to assume that online publishing does not add significant expense to the publishing process. I may be wrong, but it seems like a journal’s major expenses would be staff and printing/distribution.

Obviously, you can’t have a refereed journal without referees. But there seem to be important institutional interests supporting this process of validating and professionalizing fields of study. So I suspect there will continue to be ways to get this done—and to get it paid for. The function will be preserved, so it’s the form we’re worrying about.

Is part of the problem a continuing belief in the validation our writing acquires by being printed on paper? Isn’t this belief especially redundant in the case of peer-reviewed journal articles? Would the Washington journals be able to survive in electronic-only form? I don’t know the answer to this (I emailed them the question, and I’ll let you know what they say); nor do I know whether the Washington State administrators would be willing to negotiate, if they were presented with a lower-cost option than the journals’ current budgets. I’m just suggesting that it’s time to think about these issues. As I think the Washington State journal advocates implied in their letter to the list, our favorite journal could be next.