Blogs Elbow Up to Journal Status in New Academic-Publishing Venture

Twenty years into the Web, academic publishing has retained pretty much the same structures it had in the 19th century.

That’s the argument made by Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Most journals, he notes, will not allow comments on articles. Pieces can’t be revised after publication. They’re locked up behind digital gates, so no one can link to them. And multimedia work? Forget it.

But much scholarship thrives outside that system, Mr. Cohen says, in formats like lengthy blog posts and the “gray literature” of conference papers. On Wednesday, the professor announced a new publishing platform to showcase the best of that online work. It’s called PressForward. And its creators—the same people who developed the academic-research platforms Zotero and Omeka—hope to take advantage of the interactive Web but preserve elements of scholarly review.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is backing the venture with $862,000, and a variety of scholars, journalists, and publishers are advising on the project. So far, though, there isn’t much new material to see. The site’s one live publication, Digital Humanities Now, has existed since 2009. But Mr. Cohen promises that four other titles will be introduced soon. One will bring together content from the hugely popular THATCamp conferences. Others will be called American History Now, Data Curation Now, and Global Perspectives on Digital History.

The venture takes a page—or, better yet, an algorithm—from Web sites like Techmeme and The Browser that have come up with novel ways to filter quality stuff from the river of online content. Techmeme, for example, distills the dozen or so most important technology stories each day by looking at blogs and Twitter to see what people are linking to and talking about.

Digital Humanities Now already does something similar, automatically screening hundreds of scholars’ Twitter feeds to find articles, tools, blogs, projects, collections, and announcements of interest. (Mr. Cohen has added some editorial oversight as well.) Asked how PressForward will work, Mr. Cohen sketched out a pyramid-like structure that could fish content from the torrent of automatically retrieved items and bump the most notable works into more prominent slots, with community members able to curate the material and suggest revisions. Blog posts that rise to a certain level could get promoted on a home page and tweeted out to the publication’s followers. The dozen or so best posts from the past few months could get bundled into a quarterly review published online and possibly even in print.

Ideally, a blog post that wasn’t even submitted to a journal could make its way into a quality publication that merits a line on a scholar’s CV—and consideration when that scholar is up for promotion.

“What’s key is, it’s digital first,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s not something that is print first and then we put a facsimile of it online. It starts out on your Web site. It gets aggregated into a site that is run by the community. It might make it to some featured status for a day. And then, if you’re doing really good work, it will make it into a quarterly, best-of compilation that will act like a journal.”

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