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The Journal of American History in the Digital Age: An OAH Panel Report

JAH in the Digital AgeOver the past two decades, digital tools have transformed the JAH’s publication and distribution processes. While still available in print, the Journal is now also distributed through online databases, social media, and its website. Additional initiatives such as this blog, digital history reviews, Teaching the JAH, and publicly available Editor’s Choice articles have expanded the Journal’s reach into the digital world.

In this light, the question at the heart of the April 18, 2015 panel “The JAH in the Digital Age” at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting was not “Should the JAH enter into a digital frontier?” Rather, discussion centered on questions such as “What implications does the digital age have for the JAH?” “What more does the JAH need to do to engage with digital historians?” and “How can the JAH serve digital history?”

Former JAH Assistant Editor Dr. David Prior read opening remarks that he had prepared in consultation with the other panelists: Edward Linenthal (Editor), Stephen Andrews (Managing Editor), Jeffrey McClurken (Contributing Editor for Digital Projects), and Jordan Taylor (Editorial Assistant). The paper focused on six issues: accessibility, peer review, defining digital scholarship, handling digitally-enhanced articles, categorizing experimental scholarship, and engaging readers through social media. For a more detailed discussion of many of these issues, please read the panel’s opening remarks, available here. We have also compiled tweets from the panel here.

David Prior’s opening remarks described the Journal’s staff and how it functions. The JAH employs more than a dozen part- and full-time staff members with tasks that include evaluating manuscripts, copyediting, commissioning and processing book reviews, developing special projects, and maintaining the Recent Scholarship database. The Journal derives its revenue from institutional subscriptions, advertising, and individual OAH memberships. Partnerships with Indiana University–Bloomington and Oxford University Press provide essential financial and logistical support. Finite resources mean that the JAH editors must weigh carefully what sorts of digital initiatives they take on. One implication of this reality is that the Journal is not currently considering an open access model.

The panel’s first topic of conversation concerned the implications of the digital age on the JAH’s longstanding peer review policies. Two problems are paramount here. First, the Internet might be seen to threaten the integrity of double blind peer review. A reviewer can easily unmask the author of a manuscript with a simple Google search. While double-blind review was undoubtedly problematic before the Internet, the problem has been exacerbated by the existence of personal websites, blogs, and social media. Second, how should the JAH send digitally-enhanced projects to reviewers? Many projects with a digital element include data sets or visualizations hosted on an author’s website. Should the JAH ask the author to temporarily scrub the site of personal information? Should the JAH place the website temporarily on their server to protect the author’s anonymity?

Several audience members raised questions about retraceability and obsolescence. Journals like the JAH strive to produce articles that are documented in such a way that a researcher in subsequent years could retrace an author’s research process and examine the sources used to make the article’s argument. As digital resources gain prominence in scholarship, the JAH faces new challenges. Due to the potential obsolescence of digital platforms, data sets can be lost, links can die, and formats can change. Consequently, sources and websites cited in the JAH might not exist for scholars who read an article years after it is published. Some panelists and audience members challenged fears about the mortality of digital content. They felt that due to the number of articles that rely on largely inaccessible manuscript collections or other sources, it is possible to overstate the reproducibility of non-digital scholarship.

Another audience member asked how the JAH uses digital media to expand its audience. There is an enormous audience of people across the Internet interested in informed scholarship on American history. The JAH has reached out to this audience in three ways. First, since 2008, the JAH has hosted a podcast featuring its authors and other historians. Each episode receives thousands of downloads per episode—no doubt many from listeners who are not regular JAH readers. Second, in recent years, the Journal has expanded its social media presence across Twitter and Facebook. In this way, the JAH allows followers to engage immediately with its exciting print and online content. Third, the OAH and JAH recently launched this blog, aiming, in part, to produce content for an educated readership outside of the historical profession. Several Process posts have already reached audiences that long form print articles never would. Though only a few months old, several Process posts have reached audiences that the JAH’s long form articles never would. For example, thousands of people found Dr. Heather Lee’s wonderful post on her research into the history of Chinese restaurants in America through social media. Some readers even reposted it on social media outlets such as Reddit, where it inspired thoughtful discussions and drew attention to other parts of the blog.

Finally, the panel discussion ended on the questions of what it means for scholarship to be “digital” and how the JAH can help to establish digital scholarship’s value for tenure and promotion decisions. This conversation dovetailed with those within the JAH about what to do as the lines among traditional monographic scholarship, public history, and digital scholarship blur. On a practical level, the JAH must determine whether a project calls for a book review, an exhibition review, or a digital history review. One of the JAH’s responses has been to develop a series called “Metagraph” that reviews monographs with substantial digital components and that features original JAH articles with digital components. In designing the “Metagraph” series, the JAH is also aware of the problem of value. Our discipline is still working through how to value and evaluate digital scholarship, particularly for tenure and promotion. Additionally, as Jeffrey McClurken noted, a perception that the JAH, as the journal of record for American history, is not receptive to digital scholarship would be counterproductive for both digital historians and for the JAH.

We hope the panel discussion at the OAH will be part of a larger and longer dialogue about how academic journals and the JAH in particular must meet the opportunities and challenges presented by the digital age. Please help us to continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section below.