[META] Breaking the primacy of print

I was brought on board to help launch TWC in part because of my expertise in the scientific publishing world and my background in production. I was a hard sell when asked to lend my time to the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) and to TWC. What convinced me was the open access nature of the journal, the Creative Commons copyright, and the notion of fair use that would permit the journal to embed video and stills. These are in striking contrast to the locked-down access, repressive reprint rules, and monetization of content that I see every day in the journal-publishing industry. When it came time to decide whether we wanted a print component available for TWC’s articles, like a print version or PDFs, I spoke out strongly against it. I argued for the primacy of the online version because TWC embeds media, like YouTube videos and screen caps. How could that be duplicated in print? It can’t. Better that there be only one official version, and that one online. We would strike a blow for online-only content!

Two years later, TWC is still online only, but it’s become clear that that ideal has a cost. TWC’s audience is made up of acafans, and lots of academics who might otherwise submit to TWC find that they ought not, because their university has rules that online-only publications do not count for promotion and tenure. Some publishers won’t send us review copies of books because they have a blanket policy that they will not provide books to online-only publications. It’s clear that the reputation of online-only publications is markedly lesser than print publications. Discussions have been going on for years about online publishing models and how to weight them for tenure and promotion: Robert B. Townsend’s “History and the Future of Scholarly Publishing” discusses the issue in the field of history, and the Modern Language Association lays out its suggestions in its Statement on Publication in Electronic Journals.

The academic articles in TWC are double-blind peer reviewed. This means that every article is read by two scholars in the field who are unaware of the identity of the writer, and the writer is shielded from the identity of the readers. That’s the gold standard in the journal-publishing industry. (Several sections of the journal, including the Symposium section, are editorially reviewed.) We naively thought that rigor, peer review, excellent editing, and overall high standards would trump mode of publication. But little has changed in institutional practices. It is too easy to replicate the existing model, or too difficult to permit an institutional committee to assess items on their own merits. They would rather offload their assessment to a proxy, such as publication in a prestigious journal or by a prestigious press. Why read the book if Oxford University Press published it? It’s Oxford University Press! Similarly, to assess importance, you might look at proxies that are meant to suggest importance in the field: you might check the journal’s acceptance rates; if in the sciences you might check their impact factor; or you might examine a listing maintained by, say, the MLA, and if it’s on the list, it counts.

To up our profile, we submit TWC to various indexes. These indexes are lists of vetted content that meets certain criteria, and being listed in the index is a way to show legitimacy and drive readership. Well-known indexes that most people have heard of include PubMed (for medicine) and ERIC (for education). TWC signed an agreement permitting EBSCO, a database aggregator, to list TWC. But our application to be listed in Scopus was rejected, perhaps because when we applied, only a single issue had come out.

(We’ll try again later.) To be listed, not only must TWC maintain its status as blind peer reviewed, but the journal must print a careful ratio of peer-reviewed content to non-peer-reviewed content to retain the status of “academic.” The indexing services seek to ensure quality by going down a checklist of current best practices in the journal-publishing industry and only listing journals that fulfill these criteria. Yet best practices have clearly not yet been able to adequately account for online-only publications, or online-only publications would not be treated differently by academic institutions during review for tenure and promotion.

When I fill out forms, surveys, and index submission forms related to TWC and its practices, it becomes clear how strongly the print model affects every aspect of what is considered the norm for publishing. I skip entire sections: I don’t know the number of subscriptions because we don’t use a subscription model. I can’t estimate readership because many of the user accounts are obviously spam accounts, and plenty of readers never create a user ID. We don’t offer different levels of access to different people. We don’t have office expenses because we don’t have an office, instead using freeware OJS to shepherd copy through the publication process. I can’t estimate readership for an essay because our copyright permits the author, or anyone else, to repost, which bleeds off readers and thus they aren’t counted by the software. We have no income from reprint or author fees because we don’t charge those fees. All the questions meant to assess readership and subscriptions are, with an open access model, nearly impossible to estimate. Ironically, the traditional journal-publishing world seeks to maximize impact by minimizing access, even though study after study has shown that people are far more likely to read and cite publications available in full online.

Despite these very real drawbacks, all of which are remnants of the print model, I stand by our decision to reject print in favor of online-only open access. We probably don’t need to be cited in indexes like Scopus because Google searches easily find us, with no block to obtaining full text. It has also struck me that my coeditor, Kristina Busse, and I are the perfect people to edit this journal precisely because neither of us is affiliated. Our jobs aren’t going to be affected by our work; working on the journal will never “count” one way or the other. That’s tremendously freeing.

I’m proud to be working on a publication that is on the vanguard of changing the journal-publishing model by testing models and ideas that permit the free and open exchange of ideas within a context of intellectual rigor. I am saddened that some authors will never submit to us because they can’t afford to, but I am also confident that within the next 10 years, that will change. And it will be because TWC, and journals like it, stood its ground.

  • http://justtv.wordpress.com Jason Mittell

    Let me just offer my support & gratitude to the online-only decision, as well as TWC’s other copyright and open access policies. As a TWC author and editorial board member, I want to invest my time & writing into forward-looking journals that are dedicated to sustainable models for getting work read, rather than charging high rates to academic libraries for limited access. While I agree that the unaffiliated independence of you & Kristina helps allow your work to proceed without fears of reprisal or “not counting,” it’s also crucial that those of us affiliated faculty, especially with tenure, embrace open access publishing, and model the precedents that will make the next 10 years more accessible and valuable to scholars of all levels. I, for one, have made the decision not to publish my work in any journals that don’t have liberal open-access policies, and I hope awareness of copyright, access, and the mechanics of publishing continues to be on the scholarly agenda.

    Thanks for the great work here to both of you!

    • Karen Hellekson

      Thanks, Jason! I could speculate forever on why people choose to submit to TWC: many do it to support the acafan model; others, like you, appreciate the open access model; and yet others have literally no other outlet to publish the kinds of things they want to write. And of course for many, their institutions don’t care where they publish.

      I remain hopeful that more schools will follow in the footsteps of faculty who have voted to send preferentially to open access journals. (This is really more of an issue in the sciences.) But when it comes down to it, people usually prefer to send their work first to the most prestigious journal in the field, regardless of its editorial policies. Some of the work we do behind the scenes is our attempt to see whether we can bring TWC to that level!

  • Francesca Coppa

    I want to take off my OTW Board hat for a moment and applaud this as a film and media scholar; I value TWC so much because it is a genuinely multimedia journal, and it allows scholars to have the images and video they need to make complicated and nuanced arguments. One of the biggest problems of the print-journal culture is the difficulty of effectively discussing film and video: you spend half the article describing the frame or the movement that you want to discuss! Not to mention that when it comes to new media, print journals want an image quality–300×300 dpi–that essentially prohibits the printing of still images from online videos, no matter how high the quality. So what kind of media journal can publish sophisticated discussion of YouTube and DIY video, vidding, anime, political remix? It has to be online journals like TWC!

    • Karen Hellekson

      Great point, Ces! The low quality of images that permits fast loading of Web pages is perfect for screenshots. But those images are far too poor in quality to be typeset. In Web publication, the bug is a feature!

      One of the things we regularly do when we talk with authors about their submissions is ask them to get an image in there somewhere, because they add so much value to the reading experience. Many writers have never had that opportunity. You can just hear them draw in their breath and go, “Wow! I could print an *image*!”

      I actually hope that TWC’s ability to print multimedia will result in some radical new form of argumentation, or some new kind of essay. We need to be thinking outside the box here!

  • http://cesy.dreamwidth.org Cesy

    Great article. I hope more academic journals gradually open up online, as it also makes research more accessible to people who are interested but not currently in academia full-time.

    • Karen Hellekson

      I hear ya, Cesy. Thanks for your remark. As an unaffiliated scholar, I am continually locked out of content I need, and it’s hard to obtain journal articles in particular. It’s actually gotten so bad that I wish more journals would adopt the moratorium model, so that at least really old back issues would become available, even if I’m locked out of the most recent few years.

  • Nicolle Lamerichs

    Like the others, I want to thank all of you for your hard work. This organization is truly valuable, not just for fan studies, but also for fan rights. It takes a good stand, multimedia/copyright wise, and I support it all the way. I bumped into the more practical problems of online publishing you mentioned as well when applying for your journal. We have ratings and whatnot over at our university that luckily do not discern between online/offline but just on the base of peer review from the field, but the categories/credits we have are pretty strict.

    I still have some other questions to ask your organization in terms of promotion/flyering and whatnot for a convention I work for that is very eager in supporting fan artists and their rights (the Dutch yaoi convention), might send a mail about that soon, because I read somewhere you are always up for people promoting the organization in some ways.

    • Karen Hellekson

      Thanks for your feedback, Nicholle–we don’t know what universities are thinking, and it’s helpful to hear people’s stories. The copyright thing in particular is a big deal to me.

      Re. your yaoi convention, yes, keep us posted. OTW swag may be available (little pins/badges, etc.), and TWC can e-mail you some flyers to pass out for our upcoming CFPs, if you’re willing to lay them on a table somewhere. We’d appreciate it!

  • http://nelenoppe.net/fanficforensics Nele Noppe

    Just another thank-you comment. The hard work and enthusiasm that you’re pouring into TWC is awesome, and I’ve no doubt that it will pay off. I think your unaffiliated status does help enormously. I submit to TWC -or am going to, at least- because my university’s ideas about what constitutes academic work and the proper venues for such are just so silly that I have to ignore them or end up feeling like I’ve sold my soul. But i can afford to kick shins because I’m a newbie with no permanent ties to one institution, and other options if an academic career doesn’t work out. Plenty of my colleagues are in very different situations. (I also submit to TWC because it’s extremely cool, as journals go :))

    • Karen Hellekson

      Thanks, Nele–I’ve heard from continentals in particular that the strictures they must work under are quite harsh for what “counts.” But when it comes down to it, you have to publish in the venue you feel most comfortable with. At the very least, the experience will be valuable, and who knows? Your publication may open some doors.

      And great attitude re. other options. I enjoy my work in the publishing industry and recommend it to PhDs. It was never teaching I valued, but control of my own time and mental engagement, and I have that.

  • Dana Sterling

    Thanks for the post, Karen. What cesy says about availability, about making the type of articles TWC posts accessible to anyone who’s interested, is certainly key to me and is one of the big reasons why I’m here. Building bridges.

    Also, YOU ROCK. As does Nina.

    • Karen Hellekson

      YES to building bridges! It’s hard spade work but I really do believe we are laying the groundwork for important change.

  • Jack Harrison

    I know that this comment will mostly echo things that have already been stated above, but I did want to offer my particular thanks and support to the whole TWC team for making these tough decisions and for making them in ways that seem largely consistent with fannish values. I think the problem of societal marginalization of online academic content is, in some ways, very much related to the societal marginalization of online leisure activities as fannish hobbies like gaming, digital role playing, and online circulation of transformative fanworks are consistently questioned and mocked but no one thinks twice about the energy put towards leisure activities like sports or gardening.

    Also, as a graduate student pursuing remix culture and practices as my primary area of inquiry, it has never made sense to me that I’d want to operate solely a lifeless paper format for my academic work when the cultures and practices I write about and take part in are so much more innovative, and although I have been warned by professors about how publication in TWC would be perceived, I hope that this is a problem that will change rapidly as people replace the current best practice standards in order to take full advantage of online publishing so that someday when I am a full professor, this conversation might already be behind us.

    Plus, here here for not needlessly using more paper!

    • Karen Hellekson

      Thanks for the reminder about fannish values–the copyright TWC chose is an attempt to reflect the fan values of remix. I also happen to believe that transformative artworks, like vids, are a form of criticism, just as much as a critical essay is.

      I do hate to hear that you’ve been “warned”; but I suppose it’s good to know how the print/nonprint dichotomy is perceived in the academy. Many people will end up in jobs where it does not matter one whit where, or whether, they publish, and fretting about it as a grad student strikes me as a particularly bad idea, esp. because when media studies types go off to interview, they will be asked about integrating multimedia in the classroom. In the classroom… but not in publication venues? (It’s more than print/nonprint; it’s also research/teach. Which is valued more?)

      I do hope that more tenured profs take on positions of responsibility within their college or university’s tenure and promotion systems and can effect change. Jason’s first comment is right on the mark: those within the ranks need to be supporting open access publications by privileging them.

  • http://deborah.dreamwidth.org/ Deborah Kaplan

    Thanks for this post, Karen. As an academic librarian/archivist, this is something we wrestle with every day. We are desperately trying to encourage our faculty to deposit in open access publications (real open access publications such as TWC, not the kind of constrained artificial open access that many of the traditional publishers provide). We want to do this both because we fundamentally believe in open information and open access to scholarly research and data, but also out of the selfish reason that University libraries cannot afford to continue in the current model. Unless academic publishing switches to a less expensive way of transmitting scholarly research, library budgets simply won’t be able to keep up. (And that’s not even regarding the fact that since editing, peer reviewing, and publishing in academic journals is all unpaid work, the traditional journals are making their profits without ever paying the primary labor force, for research which is often government-funded in the first place.)

    And yet unless the tenure committees start considering open access, online-only journals as valuable, what can we do?

    I think the worm is turning. In the sciences, at least, Biomed Central has had a real impact, and in computer science unpublished research that simply placed up on a researcher’s website is often considered to have a high impact by tenure committees. The social sciences and humanities are traveling at a slower pace.

    • Karen Hellekson

      I appreciate the librarian perspective, Deborah–thanks for writing!

      I am following the STM model closely because as it goes, the humanities will follow.

    • Mikhail Koulikov

      Definitely in the areas I’m most involved in (library science and information science in general, and social informatics/legal informatics in particular), I’d say the worm pretty much has already turned: Pre-prints, etc., are a standard practice, and there are plenty of online-only journals that are easily as established as the legacy publications. And for what it’s worth, I also recall seeing the figure that something like 95% of journals now offer online access.

      Of course, what this means, though, is that the definition of ‘scholarly journal’ has to be revisited. If it’s no longer necessarily format-based, what exactly differentiates the website TWC from, say, the website Salon or Slate. Of course, editors and authors and librarians may know, but will the average reader necessarily recognize and understand the difference?

      Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many online journals come out of the gate, go a couple of issues, and then die off. For what it’s worth, a decision to publish in print or to charge a subscription can be seen as a commitment to stick around for a while.

      My thinking is making TWC truly successful must continue being a joint effort. So far, this journal has been excellent about focusing on what matters in a scholarly journal, and I get the feeling that it’s already built up a fair amount of name recognition in and general good will from academia. For these to continue, though, just as us readers and authors must commit to focusing on the content of scholarly literature, not the format or packaging, the editors have to commit to maintaining a high level of content and making it clear that this is an academic journal in the form of a website, not a website that hosts some articles that happen to include abstracts and footnotes.

    • Karen Hellekson

      Considering how many print journals stop printing, change their format, or are insanely, egregiously behind (I’m a member of an organization whose journal is THREE YEARS behind), I hardly think online journals are unique in these concerns!

      We are doing everything right behind the scenes: submitting to indexing, permitting aggregation, and in general making the metadata available via some magic OJS plug-ins. We are doing our best to be library and archive friendly. We also subscribe to the DOI system, so permanence of hotlinks to our essays is important to us; this is actually unusual in the humanities.

      I don’t think anybody will confuse TWC with Salon or Slate. The audiences are clearly different, and that’s marked by site design and mode of presentation of data. We signal what TWC is and who it is for by prominently placing the names of editorial board members on our home page. The site is also not date bound (thus not newsy or bloggish), and we don’t feature shiny images or ads. OJS (the software we use) has a distinctive look that isn’t terribly customizable, and that’s another signal that speaks to audience and readership.

      Of course misreading of cues is possible. I’d say our content will speak for itself, but I really do think that TWC is not mixing signals and confusingly presenting itself. It’s hard enough appealing to acas and fans both! We want to be rigorous yet accessible, and that is a hard line to walk sometimes.

    • Nele Noppe

      Yes, yes on your remark regarding tenure committees. I’m not sure about other European universities, but the problem with OA in my university is very much in that area. We signed the Berlin Declaration regarding OA access and there’s infrastructure in place for researchers to put their work online, but whether a researcher participates in the OA push or not doesn’t actually matter when it comes to things like promotion and tenure. Those are still decided on the basis of number of publications in high-ranked journals and books written for prestigious publishers, and whether does are OA doesn’t matter in the slightest (wikis, blogs, translations etc don’t count at all). For most researchers here, practicing OA publication requires extra effort that doesn’t come with any “material” rewards attached. Universities should treat OA as a cornerstone of good academic practice, not something that the people on payroll are allowed to engage in on their own time if they feel like it. Doubly so if the research is funded by taxpayer money.

    • Karen Hellekson

      I can see the point about wikis and blogs: neither are vetted by peers. Both are more like service than like a publication. But it’s also true that both are sites of exchange of knowledge and expertise.

      In the sciences, preprints in many fields are acceptable, as is the posting of raw data. But in the social sciences and humanities, preprints are not acceptable, and previous publication in a blog means it can’t be submitted for publication. TWC follows this rule. From my POV, because I am very practical, it’s all about copyright and ownership problems. And of course articles that appear in TWC go through a round or two of revision, and then they are edited. We’d like the final revised, edited version to appear.

      I’m hopeful that more researchers will take OA more seriously. However, every agreement that I’ve read that faculty has signed has an opt-out clause, so really it’s just a statement of an ideal and will probably not affect actual behavior. People will still choose where to submit on the basis of prestige.

  • robin anne reid

    Excellent post! A year or two ago, my university funded my attendance at an Open Access Symposium where the discussion focused on such things as the U.S. federal grants requiring public access to results from grant-funded research, the differences between medical/science and humanities in regard to grants/open access issues, the importance of librarians in this whole issue, and the need for academic departments to take changes into account and change their blind reliance on hard copy only. It was a fascinating event.

    Since many universities, including my own, are state-funded and more legislatures are calling for transparency, open access to research done by faculty at those universities seem imperative despite the very real challenges that are involved (I only understand the tip of the iceberg, I’m fairly sure).

    (full disclosure, board member, and co-editor with Sarah Gatson of upcoming Race and Ethnicity in fandom special issue).

    When TWC first began, we’d just had a program review that among other things demanded more publishing at higher prestige journals, so there are real pressures put on faculty/departments.

    • Karen Hellekson

      Part of the “prestige” thing for TWC may also be its newness, not its publishing format: until we publish a few issues, it’s impossible to say how rigorous or good the journal is. That’s one reason we racked up such a fabulous editorial board.

  • http://j-l-r.org cyborganize

    The tragedy is that this OA online-only journal can only claw some modicum of legitimacy by hanging its hat on double-blind peer review, which is just as outmoded and bankrupt a system as print. Sigh.

    • Karen Hellekson

      That irony has not escaped me. We did talk about this when we launched TWC, but we ended up choosing expedience. It’s like the world can only handle ONE major perceived break from best practice (in TWC’s case, online only and OA), and because peer review is such a gold standard, we feared that people simply would not submit. There is also plenty of criticism for the handling of alternative versions of peer review, so alternative modes aren’t all tasty goodness either, transparency notwithstanding.

  • Pingback: Karen Hellekson: Breaking the primacy of print « beyondthejournal.net