Professor of History and editor of Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies
University of Northampton
The world of scholarly publishing has transformed since I was a student a couple of decades ago. At the time, if I wanted to access an academic article I would have to travel to the university library, locate the History journals area in a huge building, and hope the volume I wanted was actually there.
Finding out about the article in the first place was no mean feat. Online search tools like Historical Abstracts did exist but, as the name suggests, it only contained abstracts rather than the full text access it has today. We mostly used paper finding aids, module reading lists and other people’s bibliographies. Using hard-copy journals therefore involved some rather specialised research skills – skills that we try to keep alive in our undergraduates today, although convincing them of their necessity is more difficult now that they have a world of online resources at their fingertips.
Scholarly research and writing is a very different business since the revolution in digital publishing. As editor of Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, I now have an insight into how it works from the other side of the fence, so I thought I would share some thoughts on this here.
As an editor, virtually everything I do is online. Wiley journals use the system ScholarOne, which enables me to manage all aspects of the publishing process in one place. This has several advantages, a key one being that all the various documents connected with a given manuscript – different versions, author biographies, abstracts, correspondence, referee reports, images, reproduction permissions – are kept together. For journals like ours that receive well over a hundred submissions a year, this is invaluable. It allows me to edit the journal from wherever I can get online.
It also makes it clear just how much of the labour to create an academic article takes place electronically. It would be possible to create an academic article without ever encountering a piece of paper. Historical research can be carried out solely on electronic resources; an article is written on a wordprocessor; it is uploaded to a journal system; referees access manuscripts and upload comments online; once accepted, the editor exports the manuscript files to the production office (in our case, in the Philippines); the production office send them to a copyeditor (in the UK) electronically, who liaises with authors by email; and eventually the article is published online, where it is accessed by other researchers.
Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies is published both online and in hard copy. The vast majority of our readers access the former. Every year, Wiley sends me a publisher’s report which lists the vast number of downloads from every region of the world. The number of readers of the paper copy is small by comparison. Members of our parent society the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies receive our four issues per year as part of their subscription, and many academic libraries still take the hard copies (the readers of which, unlike online journals, is impossible to quantify).
I still think that the hard copy is important, however. As an editor, I don’t consider an issue ‘published’ until the hard copy arrives in my pigeonhole. There is huge satisfaction to be had from beholding the finished product of many months of labour. Authors too enjoy seeing their work in hard copy: I know because they often tweet pictures of it! In surveys of our members, they report how they enjoy browsing the journal – and the book reviews section in particular, which is an important part of the academic ecosystem. Personally I much prefer reading in hard copy: I can just about manage a journal article on the screen, but I find the experience of reading an e-book much less pleasant and intuitive than a paper copy.
This brings to mind a recent interview that the novelist Will Self gave to the Guardian newspaper. Literature scholars might be familiar with it as his comments about the novel attracted much attention, but he also had some interesting reflections on digital reading and writing:
I’m completely digital. I barely read on hard copy any more. I was a relatively early adopter of digital reading and I could see that for neophyte readers it would be a disaster, because remembering stuff is more difficult; it’s like painting on water, which is what correcting on computers is like… But those of us who are digital immigrants, we carry with us the Gutenberg categories and ways of thinking about it.
In many ways, the current format of the ‘academic periodical’ is a hangover from older ways of doing things. The conventional journal, however, provides a useful means of organising our thoughts and the product of our labours. Articles may appear as soon as they are ready on Early View, but a quarterly curated issue lends a coherence and rhythm to the journal as a whole.
At the moment, academic publishing is in a transitional phase between physical and electronic publishing, and the movement towards the latter is inexorable. But as I noted at the beginning, the skills and techniques associated with reading books and journals are deeply engrained in academic life. The persistence of at least some ‘Gutenberg categories’ is likely, and arguably no bad thing.