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Genres Leak, Being a Reflection on Michael E. Smith’s Essay on Semi-, Quasi- and Pseudo- Journals

On his weblog Publishing Archaeology, Michael E. Smith raises key questions about the status of a mode of scholarly communication for which he is in search of a name. To guide his thinking, he considers two actual web publishing projects in anthropology: (1) Anthropologies and (2) Anthropology of This Century. Committed to the centrality of the established peer-reviewed journal form (but eager to advance open access and also a blogger himself) he wonders what to call these journal-like publishing efforts. Noting that these publishing efforts have some clear similarities to conventional journal but that they are also, in some ways, different, the possibilities that occur to him include semi-, quasi-, and pseudo- journal.

I do not have answers for Michael’s questions all nailed down perfectly myself, but I doubt that semi-journal or quasi-journal or pseudo-journal will, in practice, stick. There are a great many experiments going on in scholarly communication and I think that we will eventually discover the right names for specific kinds of projects. I think that the label “journal” is likely going to continue to spread to refer to a greater diversity of communicative forms. For me, the key thing that we know now is that it is important not to conflate platforms with genres (or with quality).

At issue in Michael’s thought-piece is the blog-like quality of some of the projects that he has in mind. Sometimes this blog-like quality is a direct artifact of the fact that the project is being presented to the world on blogging software. I have some experience with the question and would like to unpack it.

Lets take Anthropologies as the starting example. Ryan Anderson is one of the anthropologists behind Anthropologies. I know from separate correspondence that Ryan and I have been having that he himself is uncertain about the “Journal or Not a Journal?” question. In this context, hopefully my remarks may be useful to Ryan and the Anthropologies team. Anthropologies uses Blogger. Does that make it a weblog? I do not think so.

Michael evokes some of the key hallmarks of the classic journal. Peer-review is crucial for him. An editorial board, a regular publication schedule, articles by scholars, submission guidelines, numbered volumes and issues are other key indexes of a full scholarly journal.

In a thought experiment, American Antiquity could tomorrow begin publication on the Blogger or WordPress software platforms. If all other aspects of its publishing work remained the same, it would be just as much a significant journal tomorrow as it is today. While this is a made up example, I am the faculty liaison for Folklore Forum. Folklore Forum is a student-run journal (like most law journals are) published by the graduate students in my department. Unlike the many start up journals popping up these days, Folklore Forum is ancient as these things go. It began in 1968 and for most of its history, it was published in beautifully bound and typeset print issues. Libraries and scholars from around the world subscribed to it. It is one of a number of relatively famous journals of a similar sort. Some have been longer lived than others, but it belongs in a group that would include Kroeber Anthropological Society Journal (at Berkeley) and other well-established student run journals in the human sciences. The important thing for this discussion is that Folklore Forum is a peer-reviewed journal with numbered volumes and issues, an editorial team, a business model, a preservation plan, and all the rest.

Several years ago Folklore Forum made some smart moves. The team worked with the librarians at Indiana University to move its large and rich back file into the IUScholarWorks Repository. This made them available digitally in an open access way. It also provided a high level of assurance re. digital preservation and it made this content harvestable by search tools like Google Scholar and the Open Folklore project. (Harvesting is facilitated by the use of the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting, a hallmark of software tools like DSpace and OJS.) So, all the back content is available free and robustly in a library-based repository. What about new content going forward? For this, Folklore Forum went out of the paper printing and subscription management business. This was an excellent thing, because the financial and logistics side of the work was a drag on the work of the graduate students publishing the journal. While learning business skills is not itself a bad thing, its not an ideal hobby to pursue in thick of graduate school. Giving up the fulfillment work meant that more time could be devoted to intellectual side of the journal (and to studying for qualifying exams, etc.), which is the key part from a student point of view. In place of bound paper, the students moved journal production to, the free blogging platform. If you consult the journal today, you will find the recent issues in their WordPress-based form.

As current issues become back issues, they can be moved into the institutional repository-based collection for preservation and all the other good things that repositories bring. For the current issues, WordPress has tons of advantages that recommend it as a journal platform. Great user statistics is one of these. Easy markup and formatting, along with easy linking, commenting, and tagging are others. Easy inclusion of images, sound files, video and other media are some additional advantages. Low (nearly $0) cost is another good reason to use WordPress for the journal.

In the context of Michael’s query, if Folklore Forum was a peer-reviewed (student) journal when it published two thick print issues a year, it should still be a journal now, despite the fact that blogging software is part of its publishing ecology.

Folklore Forum‘s editors were aware of the possibility of the path that they actually took because I had already been there ahead of them. When I was the editor of Museum Anthropology, I was directed by the leadership of the Council for Museum Anthropology to develop contingency plans in the event that it came to pass that Museum Anthropology as we had known it could not continue publication. This directive was the catalyst for the journal that became Museum Anthropology Review. The Wiley-Blackwell deal ushered in the current period of relative stability for AAA journals and Museum Anthropology is now doing well as a AAA section journal but, with the consent of the CMA board, I have continued to edit Museum Anthropology Review. MAR is today published using Open Journal Systems, an amazingly robust and sophisticated open source software package for the publishing of scholarly journals. But when it began, MAR was launched using WordPress. I learned a tremendous amount and got the journal going using the same scheme that Folklore Forum continues to use. While much was gained in the move to OJS (our OJS instance is managed by the IU Libraries as part of the IUScholarWorks Journals program), there were losses too.  There are things that are easy to do in WordPress that are hard to do in OJS. WordPress is an amazing piece of software. (I use it for the website on which I am writing right now.) [The current form that MAR takes can be found here. The old WordPress site still exists and can be looked at here.]

Like spray paint, tools can be made with one purpose in mind and then get re-purposed for other ends. WordPress was built for blogging, but it is used by some people as a straight content management system to make blog-free websites. It can also be used as an excellent journal publishing platform (especially if one knows how to make it play well with the broader open access journal ecology). With sophisticated plug-ins, WordPress is being used to publish innovative books and lots of other kinds of stuff.

Similarly, Open Journal Systems was built to publish open access scholarly journals, but it is now being used as an editorial back end for toll access journals that are not even published on it. (Kim and Mike Fortun used it as the editorial workflow system for Cultural Anthropology.) It can also be used to publish monographs. The software has been repurposed as the basis for Open Conference Systems, a conference management and proceedings publishing platform. OJS is even being used to publish toll access journals! (The software can be configured for this purpose, despite this being counter to the whole point for which the software was developed. This is how Ethnology, a key journal for sure, is published using OJS.)

For me, the take away of these examples is that it is important not to let platforms determine or color our understandings of genre. There are editorially reviewed journals and they constitute a different kind of journal from peer-reviewed journals. Alongside Museum Anthropology Review in the IUScholarWorks Journals program is Anthropology of East Europe Review. AEER is in its 29th volume and it moved from print publication to open access publication using OJS. It is a great journal edited by my great colleague Sarah Phillips. It has a strong group (the East European Anthropology Group and SOYUZ (the Research Network for Postsocialist Cultural Studies) behind it and a rich tradition. But it is not a peer-reviewed journal, its an editorially reviewed one. That’s its tradition and it is not unique in this status. Its a different animal from American Antiquity, but we still call it a journal. MAR is newer and peer-reviewed, AEER is older but not peer-reviewed. They both basically look and work the same because they use the same platform.

Is Anthropologies a journal? I do not get to decide for anyone but myself, but I would say that it is quickly moving in that direction. It could have a full editorial board next year. It already has a production schedule that it seems to be living up to. It has scholarly authors and scholarly readers. With less than a day’s work, it could have a fully developed set of submissions guidelines. If its editors wished, it could switch to peer-reviewed publication but we do not require this of other things we call journals. (Hence we say “peer-reviewed journal” when we need to be clear.)

There is a much more adventuresome conversation happening elsewhere. I’ll reflect on these more radical re-imaginings of the journal form, and of peer-review, on another occasion. (An example.) Relative to these broader discussions, the question of the name we attach to project such as Anthropologies and Anthropology of This Century is a relatively modest matter.

Edward Sapir remarked that “all grammars leak.” Inspired by Sapir on this point, folklorists love to say that genres leak also. Empirical work on genre systems worldwide confirm this. People are always messing around with the canonical genres that they inherit. While we often seek to protect and purify them, we just as often mix them, twist them, and hammer them into new shapes. The scholarly journal and journal article, like the scholarly book, the scholarly blog, the scholarly film, the scholarly website, the scholarly database, the scholarly poster, the scholarly pamphlet, and all the other modes of scholarly communication available to us are in the midst of a period of wild experimentation and ferment. This is one of my favorite aspects of doing the work that I do in the moment that I am doing it.

I do have a concern though. Projects/journals like Anthropologies and Anthropology of This Century need to develop sound plans for preservation. This is not impossible, but if they are going to help shape and circulate the scholarly record, they also need to figure out how the works that they publish are going to be around for the very long haul. This can be done, but it takes research, thought, and effort. As always, librarians are great partners in this work. In the meantime, authors who publish in such venues have the ability to self-archive their contributions in places like institutional repositories, thereby insuring that their contributions will stay available, even if the venue in which it was initially published is dismantled or abandoned.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating – especially after just reading at the NISO blog “what is a book?. As these genres go digital, we can do different things, but we still tend to almost visually classify things as a peer-reviewed journal article, a book, assuming a certain kind of flow and length and various attributes (references, chapters, creakily formal language). We mostly reproduce the attributes of print because we can recognize these things as journal articles, as books, when those things could look very different – in part because our academic rewards system continues to recognize only those things that were considered scholarly fifty years ago.

    There are many pseudo-journals and pseudo-books being published in an attempt to mimic the old formats rather than experiment, hoping to pass as scholarship by virtue of looking scholarly. And so long as we weigh scholarship by the pound, so to speak, there will be incentives to populate these fake journals and books rather than create something new and insightful. .

    Agree on the preservation issue – a big part of the scholarly conversation involves bringing past voices into the present, and if we forget to build preservation in as a feature as we invent new genres, we’ll be losing some of our freshest, most important voices.

    November 5, 2011
    • Barbara–thanks and thank you for all that you are doing. As always, your recent columns and posts have been great. I loved the OWS+libraries piece. –Jason

      November 5, 2011
  2. Jason – Very nice discussion! So, if I want to do another quick and off-the-cuff blog post, perhaps about Aztec pottery (on my fieldwork project blog), can I count on you to come back with a more detailed and thoughtful post? Just kidding. Your discussion here is very good, exploring a number of ideas and examples I hadn’t thought of. -Mike

    November 10, 2011
    • Thanks Michael! Maybe we can work together on pottery one of these days, although my getting your help on Yuchi (Euchee) pottery seems more likely and useful.-Jason

      November 10, 2011

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