Publishing History Digitally

Last week Jennifer Howard posted a short account in The Chronicle of the decision of the Organization of American Historians to move its scholarly journal to the Oxford University Press. Normally, a routine change of publishers would not provoke the attention of the press, but Howard correctly spotted the real issue—the demise of the History Cooperative, which had previously published the JAH and several other history journals, including the flagship of the profession, the American Historical Review. What was this all about?

The story behind the story is the belated recognition of many humanities professional societies that they needed to join the digital revolution. Each of the major humanities professional organizations publishes at least one journal, and until a little more than a decade ago, all of these were print journals. But by the mid-1990s it was becoming clear that the future of publishing was digital, and most of the societies decided to produce both digital and analog versions of their journals. In those early days of digital publishing it was not so clear how to produce, much less to pay for, the electronic journals. The infrastructure of the digital publishing industry had not yet been put into place, and at first each of the professional societies struggled to find affordable publishing mechanisms.

Several of the history associations therefore decided to collaborate with the University of Illinois Press to develop a digital platform for history journals. The idea was that they could merge some publishing functions and share some costs, while retaining editorial control of their individual journals. Another attractive feature was that the several journals could be “bundled” for licensing to university libraries, while their contents could be merged in a single, searchable database. The History Cooperative, led by the editors and by the director of the University of Illinois Press, Willis Regier, thus seemed an innovative path into the digital world for several of the most important historical societies in the country.

But neither technology nor organizational behavior stands still, and what had once seemed an innovative idea came to seem outmoded within a decade. One of the reasons for this change was the emergence and articulation of JSTOR, the Mellon Foundation-inspired project to put hundreds of scholarly journals online. At first, the project was primarily aimed at the retrospective conversion of old print serials to digital form, with the most recent journals held back from digitization in order to protect print sales. But the demand for born-digital versions of the journals put pressure on the “moving wall” that JSTOR used to delay digital publication, and today most societies publish simultaneously in print and electronic formats. The large academic presses (Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago and others) routinely publish large numbers of electronic journals these days, so that digital intermediaries like the History Cooperative are no longer needed. What has been lost, as Howard noted in her post, is the collaboration of editors across journals. But of course what has been gained is a significant increase in the amount of digital scholarly information.

In history, at any rate, what has not really happened is the emergence of a significant body of truly digital scholarship. We have a plethora of electronic text, but relatively little digital scholarship—that is information uniquely available in digital format. Most e-journals are print journals in digital form. So there are still new scholarly horizons to be explored in this emerging digital age.


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