Utopian Fantasy: Imagining the Form of an Online Scholarly Journal
As I have only been starting to blog in earnest for a few months, my experience doing so has given me occasion to reflect on the typical form of the journal article and scholarly publication. While many journals now have online editions or make their publications available through PDF versions, those online editions try to replicate the form of the print journal as closely as possible. One problem with this is that those forms, well suited for print, once applied to online versions, limit and obstruct the development of new forms of scholarly argument and critique.
It is probably inevitable that online journals will ultimately replace print journals altogether, but, in this interim period, I wonder if now isn’t the time to consider new forms of scholarly communication and publication. As people develop new wholly online scholarly journals, they often seem bound to the conventions of the format they intend to replace. I want to use this post as a way to speculate on some possibilities of form and format I have been imagining recently, and while I lack the time or the resources to put some of these imagined formats into practice, I hope to do so in the future. While I am limited for now to the restrictions on page editing on WordPress.com and by my own very limited coding skills, blogging some portions of my work on the Phantasy, the senses, the paramaterial, and skepticism, leads me to question the form I have been deploying within my posts.
So far, I have simply followed the conventions of print. I have used the MLA format for citation and have occasionally used ordinary endnotes. While one cannot really compare a blog to a journal, the experience has led to contemplating some of the practices of scholarly journals as well as their form. I have been imagining an online journal or scholarly publication platform that incorporates the freedom and non-linearity that less restrictive online forms might allow, breaking the conventions established by traditional print journals and books. Both the restrictions of WordPress.com and my own coding limitations render, for now, the impossibility of trying to create a form of scholarly article and process of publication I envision below. But, then again, this is a utopian fantasy and post anyway.
What follows is a list of features that I thought might be incorporated in a new format.
1) For all of our railing against the “stable text,” scholars often want and demand stable texts for scholarly publications. The idea of scholarly articles in print depends upon the idea that once peer-reviewed and codified, the article becomes a stable point of reference to which others can cite and refer. The problem here is that such articles contribute to an unrealistic idea of textual stability to which at least many literary scholars tend to theoretically object. What I’m imagining is an online journal or book that maintains a thorough history page so that one can track previous versions and note changes that have been made since the respondent referred to it. I could even imagine a scenario in which two articles that are speaking to and responding to one another can be integrated into one another through a series of hyperlinks or expandable menus. Such a format would allow for flexibility on both the part of the reader as well as upon the part of an author.
2) Footnotes, endnotes, and citations can be incorporated within the text as a type of expandable field within the body of the text itself. Some sites already use hovering to reveal the contents of a traditional style note, but I’m thinking of something much more developed here. Let’s say I’m writing about some topic but want to add a note that explains other scholars’ perspectives or offers a complicating factor that does not fit into the overall point of my topic. In this case, I could have the main text with an icon with something like “see more” within the body of my essay that expands to include the information and might be a point to link my later work or work from others on the same topic. When I ultimately switch to WordPress.org and have a broader range of coding skills, I intend to experiment with a citation and noting method based on the marginal glosses of early modern printed books. I hope to make a series of expandable glosses as well as pushing the citations to the margins of the block text and hyperlink them to online editions where possible.
3) By now, we all know the difficulty of citing websites and tracking down the content. When we do find references to online content, it is often difficult to find the passage or portion in question. This is part of the reason PDF files with specific page numbers are the best frame of reference at the moment. If all scholarly publications become virtual, I imagine that such methods of citation would become obsolete since one could theoretically link to the passage in question, in context, within the page itself to the edition cited. Another option would be to create a new standard of online reference points. As a way to create points of reference, we could return to the method of reference and citation found in translations of classical texts. Paragraphs and sections could be marked in the margins with a number system that would also allow for additions in the form of the expandable sections I mentioned in my second point. This method would allow for someone to find a particular passage in formats where hyperlinking is impossible (such as in print).
4) Because we are so used to the format of printed scholarly journals, we often find ourselves limited to a set number of pages that often means that some insightful points or tangents that might interest some readers but which must be truncated, cut, or buried in footnotes. Of course, such limitations are often useful. There are so many articles but very little time, and so the limitations of the traditional scholarly publication means that an author or authors must be concise and crop such extraneous limbs and outward flourishes. With the system I envision, however, one could have both short and long forms of the traditional essay. Instead of having a directly linear text of a set length, a system of expandable portions could allow a reader to follow an argument through a length most suited for their time and interests. Since I am playing a game of imaginary forms here, I could imagine a text which expands outwards from an abstract style block of text that could expand outward towards a full article length text.
6) While collaborative publications are themselves not uncommon, the limitations of print present the illusion of complete unity between or among collaborating co-authors. I wonder if an online format that allowed multiple perspectives on a particular topic might help develop new areas of inquiry and challenge the way in which collaborate projects work. New formats might allow for collaborative projects that can occasionally challenge or open otherwise closed areas of debate and engagement.
7) The practice of peer-review. Here, I will probably enter my most controversial line of inquiry. From my perspective, there are two major flaws in the peer-review process. The first is practical and the second more theoretical. The first is that it often takes an inordinate amount of time for a scholarly work to move go from manuscript to publication. While it often assures a level of prestige and through this approval method, it also means that scholars must wait for months or sometimes years before the work they have done to appear in print. The notion of approval and prestige brings me to my second more theoretical objection. While in the humanities and social sciences, scholars tend towards challenging broader social and cultural hierarchies and top-down practices of society generally, academics often defend the rigid top-down structure and practices within academia itself. As I see it, the peer-review process is a top-down hierarchy based on prestige and power. Since I am playing a utopian game in this post, I want to sketch out one possible alternative method of peer-review that might be a more bottom-up method. My fantastical online journal or publishing house could have a system in place which creates two connected yet somewhat distinct databases of submissions. After a rigorous screening process, a scholar could first post a submission to the journal which would keep the submission within a “pending review” category which would still be publicly available. Other scholars could then access its content and, if they feel the work is a legitimate and meets some system of criteria for approval, they could then mark the submission as approved or could comment on what needs to be corrected or changed in order to meet their standards of approval. The journal could, once the submission reaches some level of broader approval, it could then become an official Journal “publication.” In this process, I would like to see complete transparency involved on the part of reviewers and reviews alike. The responses would be publicly available and readable alongside the submission under review. Such a system, though I am sure it has its flaws, would create a peer-review process that would allow readers to see the reader review process in action as well as to take issue with particular individual reviews or comments while making the article quickly available, searchable and citable.
8) Open-access. No paywall. If there is a paywall, then many of proceeds go to authors themselves and their institutions rather than to Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. To be honest, that is the type of paywall many universities and academics could get behind, and, considering the exorbitant fees siphoned by the publishing companies. Imagine if paywall fees were commensurate with what scholars are paid for the publication of their work. Such a paywall might be acceptable.
With that, so ends my game of journal utopian fantasy.
N.B. Since writing this entry, Scott Selisker has informed me about the existence of the online blog Vector which already incorporates some of my imagined scenarios into its form and structure. I have yet to explore the content more thoroughly, but it appears to include non-static visual demonstrations and animations nestled within its textual matter. I look forward to checking out the format and find its very existence encouraging.