Monday, August 12, 2013

Sheila Cavanagh: “Value in Editorial Humanities”

Sheila T. Cavanagh

Why Buy the Academic Cow When You Can Get the Scholarly Milk for Free?: Locating Value in Editorial Humanities

1> For many years, I served as the editor of The Spenser Review, a print publication containing book reviews, announcements, occasional essays, and other information geared toward the international community of scholars interested in the work of sixteenth century English writer Edmund Spenser. In my experience, researchers working in this realm are passionate about this area of academic inquiry and deeply devoted to the creation and maintenance of intellectual community. Spenserians care about their subject and about each other. However specialized an interest in The Faerie Queene may seem to the broader world, the Spenserians who gather virtually, personally, and in print, take it very seriously.  As I have discussed previously, when I was editor of the Spenser Review, I was reminded of this fact regularly. When an issue was late to press, I would hear from many subscribers, worried that their copies had gone astray or that we had ceased publication: Spenserians clearly do not want to be left behind what is happening in their field or with what is happening with their colleagues.

2> Print publication is expensive, however. Despite many scholars’ continuing desire for hard copies of reading materials, creating, publishing, mailing, and storing paper issues of journals requires significant funding and can be labor intensive. Managing subscription lists and contending with lost issues, for example, requires more time than one might expect. The postal service, not surprisingly, has a tendency to mangle and misdirect copies with noteworthy regularity. Enthusiastic scholars occasionally try to obtain an issue from several decades ago and librarians sometimes want to complete a set for their institutional libraries, so journals need to keep back copies somewhere accessible. None of these tasks are arduous, but they take time and require some attention to detail. They do not include, moreover, the tasks common to both print and electronic publications, such as soliciting material, ensuring high quality submissions, formatting, and proofreading. Most faculty and graduate students, of course, report that time is always in short supply and that storage space remains limited. Printing expenses are also considerable.  All in all, creating and distributing a print journal requires significant amounts of labor and money. Electronic publications also require financial contributions and personnel - as will be discussed below—but the expenses involved for copies produced and distributed on paper have reached a point where the economic requirements endanger sustainability. My home institution, Emory University, was generous in its sponsorship of the Spenser Review, but the journal could not count on this level of support continuing indefinitely. Emory was supportive of electronic publication initiatives, however, so moving to a digital format while the journal was based in Atlanta seemed wise. Technological and library staff was available to assist with the transition and the university community contained many people familiar with electronic creation, access, and preservation.

3> Moving to an electronic environment prompted a predictable mix of reactions from our readership, ranging from delight, indifference, and sorrow about the loss of print. We tried to offset the inevitable concerns expressed by some subscribers by investigating an annual “print on demand” option that individual readers could choose. There was one common response, however --one that we had anticipated with fear-- that lies at the heart of the issues presented here. When the Executive Committee of the International Spenser Society discussed the switch in formats, the Committee wondered if this change would undermine membership in the Society and erode financial support for the publication. At that time, membership rates included a subscription to the Review. Part of the dues collected subsidized the Review, although they did not cover all the production expenses. Receipt of a mailed issue was one tangible benefit of membership. Understandably, the Executive Committee worried that members might see their dues as a subscription fee that they would no longer need to pay since the issues were freely available online. Nevertheless, free access rather than an electronic subscription model was chosen for both economic and philosophical considerations. Emory supports open access and the university’s continued involvement was predicated on this kind of delivery. In addition, the cost of having someone available to troubleshoot problems with passwords and other issues associated with electronic subscriptions would undermine the cost savings resulting from the initial move to digital. Electronic open access appeared to be the appropriate solution. As Editor, I hoped that this tight community of Spenser scholars would be sufficiently committed to the continuation of the information this journal disseminates to continue supporting it, even if they could obtain the content without paying the modest membership fee.

4> Not surprisingly, perhaps, these hopes were naively optimistic. As readers began to realize that they were able to access the Spenser Review without needing a subscription, membership numbers fell precipitously. While current and former members have not been polled, it seems reasonable to assume that the shift in publication media is a significant contributing factor, if not the sole reason for the decline. As newspapers and bookstores have also learned, the rise of technology has changed countless variables in the creation, dissemination and consumption of many kinds of information. These changes inevitably even affected the spread of information about a sixteenth century poet with a staunch academic following. As many news outlets have learned, people will pay for print, for an object they can hold and keep, but many consumers of electronic media demand that the Internet remain free.

5> Before moving on to the issues this situation introduced, I want to be clear that I am not singling out the Spenser community for any approbation. As noted, the International Spenser Society is a strong and congenial academic group, filled with people noted for their financial, intellectual, and personal generosity. They have a long history, for example, of inviting and subsidizing graduate student participation at their meetings and at their annual Modern Language Association luncheon. They are known for their savvy and considerate mentoring of junior faculty members and international scholars.  They invite entire audiences to join them at conference dinners, so that no one feels excluded, unwelcome, or at loose ends in an unfamiliar environment. The entire readership of the Spenser Review probably does not participate actively in this group’s intellectual and social gatherings, but those who do so are rewarded with congenial, collegial, and erudite encounters. Any problems associated with expectations about free reading material do not originate with this scholarly community. In fact, thanks to the energy, commitment, and skill of the leadership of the International Spenser Society, both membership in the Society and access to the Review are now free. The journal is currently housed at the University of South Carolina and the Society has been able to create a sustainability plan that no longer requires individual financial contributions. Members are invited to pay a voluntary membership fee that will help fund various Society initiatives, but this money is not deemed necessary for the perpetuation of the Society or the Review. In this instance, a predicted problem led to a satisfying conclusion, as the Spenser website indicates, As Doug Eyman, Editor of the digital journal Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology and Pedagogy noted recently, such enterprises are often “subsidized to an extent by our institutions,” although he also mentions the importance of the kind of professional acknowledgement urged below: “even though we don’t have income, we do have commitment and we do provide participants with rewards that work within the current academic structure,” While Kairos boasts a larger readership than the Spenser Review, similar issues face many, if not all, current academic journals.

6> This preamble, focused on the digital transition of a single modestly sized, niche, disciplinary publication, serves to introduce a number of issues needing attention in the academic community at large, if we are to preserve important aspects of the lively intellectual exchange that characterizes and perpetuates vibrant scholarship. As we know, there are numerous challenges facing higher education today, many of which appear to hit the Humanities particularly hard. There are significant competing demands placed upon everyone involved in college teaching and research, which do not need to be rehearsed here, since these issues are widely discussed. Many academics have noted, for example, that an increasing number of sessions at the Modern Language Association meeting now focus on professional rather than literary issues. As we struggle with concerns about contingent faculty, decreased employment opportunities for graduate students, unknown ramifications from the rise in online course platforms, and a host of serious economic issues, the concerns and tribulations specific to editors of small, specialized, academic journals may not figure prominently compared to other major issues facing the academy. The decision of the Appositions editors to provide a venue for airing some relevant pressing concerns is therefore particularly appreciated. Indeed, they undoubtedly face at least some of the issues discussed below.

7> The main point that I would like to urge in this essay is for faculty committees to reassess (once more) how editorial work is “counted” as part of the evaluations of professors and graduate students. There have been numerable voices raised in recent years in support of reassessment of many kinds, including, for instance, the importance of teaching, and of recognizing a variety of digital endeavors and significant service contributions. Campus Compact, for example, urges tenure recognition for faculty working on engaged learning pursuits, Although such changes have often been slow in coming, some progress has been made. Several universities and professional societies, such as the Modern Language Association, for example, have distributed guidelines for evaluating digital projects for tenure decisions,

8> These are promising developments. Editorial work, however, suffers from consistent devaluation that long precedes its transformation into electronic media. While theoretical discussions about editing have had moments of fashionability over the last couple of decades and considerations about the “history of the book” continue to proliferate, editorial work has a lengthy history of not offering much benefit in conventional faculty reward structures. Editing a collection of essays or a journal invariably demands a significant investment of time, intellectual energy, and money, but these activities rarely offer tangible professional benefits, unless they are associated closely with some separate measure of prestige. Being editor of the premier journal in one’s field, for example, or publishing a collection filled with new work by top tier academics, might attract respect from colleagues or peers—or might not. Rewarding the author of a monograph published with a prominent academic press requires no discussion; acknowledging an editor, even with the same press, is less straightforward.[i] Eyman remarks that his editorial work was well received during his bid for tenure: “I just received tenure at GMU (George Mason University) largely due to my editing work with Kairos, which my department, the dean, and the provost all deemed a worthy and valuable enterprise.” Such outcomes are clearly promising, although Eyman may have benefited from working for a university with a strong commitment to digital scholarship, as evidenced by its Roy Rosensweig Center for History and New Media, Institutions without such a significant digital presence also need to assess work of this kind, however.

9> The relative disrespect typically accorded to editorial work appears to emanate, at least in part, from a distinction made between what qualifies as “intellectual labor” and work of other kinds. Crafting a book length argument clearly requires substantial intellectual engagement. Editing and publishing a journal, in contrast, may appear (at least in part) to be “manual” or clerical labor or work of some other lesser sort, something the academy often does not rank as highly as other scholarly pursuits. Since editorial work is frequently a less valued professional activity, undertaking such projects may be perceived as risky, unwise or otherwise inappropriate, particularly for more vulnerable faculty. As noted, this disparity is not new. What may not be recognized, however, is the increasing technical skill level now needed (in addition to traditionally high levels of content knowledge) in order to produce a digital product that scholars will deem worthwhile. While editorial work has long been undervalued, the level of technical expertise needed continues to grow. The intellectual demands of this labor have always been high, but with electronic innovations, production knowledge requirements have increased exponentially. In addition, outsourcing this work is often prohibitively expensive. The costs associated with hiring or acquiring the relevant expertise can be considerable, but they are largely unseen. As editor of a digital journal with a modest budget, however, I was regularly reminded of the lofty expectations frequently associated with digital production. Everyone is bombarded daily with high quality Internet sites, filled with sound, images, links to other content, and many added features. As we all spend increasing time on our computers, our demand for high-resolution images and sophisticated functionality tends to rise, however unconsciously. Readers of the Spenser Review were unexceptional in this regard. After the journal became electronic, audiences understandably began requesting that the website offer increasingly complex digital tools. Research needs and personal preferences are best addressed, after all, when a website provides maximum adaptability. This makes sense.

10> Unfortunately, the time, expertise, and other factors that create such high digital quality do not readily emerge from a paradigm that discounts editorial work and resists paying for online content. The amount of time that a faculty member would need to expend upon continually updating computer skills can be prohibitive, particularly if this labor does not “count.”  The money required to hire graduate students or technical professionals with appropriate talents, moreover, is not insignificant, especially when an electronic journal does not receive subscription income. Staying abreast of technological advances and current with changing practical computer skills, as well as remaining appropriately informed about content knowledge and involved with intellectual advances in one’s discipline presents a formidable challenge. If successfully achieving such disparate goals meets with evaluative disregard or disdain, undertaking such endeavors soon become untenable decisions. There are limits to how much scholars can expect their colleagues (or themselves) to do without appropriate compensation of some kind.  This is particularly relevant for publications focused primarily on disciplinary content. Eyman notably comments on the challenges new technology poses to the editorial board of Kairos, a publication specifically designed to discuss such changes: “Right now we are seeing a surge in sites that use javascript and DHTML to add interactivity or animated design features (this is a bit of a challenge, since we then need to learn javascript well enough to edit it – and it often doesn’t play well with the Kairos toolbar that we use to brand the articles).” Similar issues increasingly face scholarly editors for whom technology is not a relevant subject area, however. The inevitability of this kind of intersection between scholarship and electronic advances requires the academy to foster more innovative responses than currently present themselves.

11> A related problem has engendered a solution with mixed results in the journalism business, but one without obvious transferability to higher education. Over the past several years, newspapers have grappled with an issue similar to that faced by the Spenser Review and other journals with open access; i.e., revenue declines that jeopardize quality and readership. For some time, readers resisted paying for digital content, but a controversial compromise appears to have been reached. The New York Times, for instance, has instituted a “paywall” that allows readers access to a limited number of articles per month before a fee is due. This procedure appears to be modestly successful for some electronic media outlets. Ryan Chittum, of the Columbia Journalism Review notes, however, that the Times still faces many of the challenges discussed here: “direct digital subscription revenue are just one component of a reader-focused paywall strategy. You can’t expect to slow print circulation losses and charge more for the paper when readers can get all your content online for free,” Notably, the Boston Globe lifted its subscriber only policy during the days surrounding the 2013 Marathon attacks, then gave considerable notice that the paywall would descend again after the crisis passed. Ron Nichols of the Nation praised the Globe for lifting the paywall, then criticized the newspaper for reinstating it, even as he acknowledged the Globe’s financial troubles: “It is no secret that this is an era when major media outlets are desperate to find ways to pay for journalism. In some cases, this really is because they are out of touch with their audience and because alternative media is simply more compelling. But, more often than not, this is because of a dramatic shift in media economics. Advertising revenues that once sustained vast newsgathering operations, with deep commitments to cover communities, states, the nation and the world, have collapsed. And online advertising does not begin to provide sufficient support to pay for the journalism even of popular news sites,” Despite recognizing the financial problems facing modern journalism, Nichols bemoans the Globe’s reinstatement of its electronic divide: “On Monday, the paywall will return. That’s understandable but, to my view, unfortunate.” As Nichols’ response indicates, understanding the economic rationale for strategies such as paywalls does not necessarily lead to their acceptance.

12> Paywalls seem even less plausible solutions for the similar problems facing academic niche publishing, however. While publications associated with major businesses may be able to charge fees for content access to individuals or libraries, the cost associated with such processes is likely to be prohibitive for smaller ventures. Disciplinary groups wanting to increase participation in their particular scholarly environment, moreover, would find little benefit from requiring payment for something they want disseminated as widely as possible. Needless to say, the Spenser Review is not the New York Times. Libraries and scholars are not likely to purchase access to individual segments of the journal; even if some would, this limitation would undermine the goal of widespread scholarly communication that fosters such publications. Entities like the Review are not going to restrict access beyond reasonable limits any more than they are going to draw substantial income from classified ads. Another solution needs to be found.

13> The proposal offered here fits within several initiatives already occurring in some academic environments. For academic publishing to continue fruitfully, however, especially for smaller intellectual markets, practices and policies designed to support such work need to become more widespread. As noted, over the past several years, professional organizations such as the MLA and the NEH have recognized the need for updated tenure and promotion assessment guidelines that include significant attention to various kinds of digital scholarship. Although a few universities, such as the University of Nebraska, Lincoln have independently adopted formal assessment policies regarding electronic research and pedagogy, these kinds of documents remain uncommon, As the need for such templates continues to grow, an unprecedented opportunity is emerging to simultaneously acknowledge the importance of editorial work in the academy. This time of significant reassessment of technology’s role in the professional lives of the professoriate is requiring faculty and administrators to reconfigure many conventional responses to academic work. This offers an ideal opportunity, therefore, to redress the prejudice against editorial labor that has long impeded the creation and circulation of academic research through edited volumes, journals, and related publication venues, whether digital or in print. Editorial work constitutes only one facet of electronic scholarship, of course. If scholarship is going to flourish in this age of diminishing resources for the Humanities, however, it needs to be incorporated prominently in the various initiatives underway to reconfigure professional expectations for promotion and tenure, such as the digital evaluation institutes sponsored by the NEH and NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship),

14> In addition to valuing and rewarding editorial work, savvy reconceptualizations of faculty positions can also offer new ways to encourage and support professorial involvement in the production of diverse scholarly publications.  Emory University is experimenting, for instance, with reorganizational possibilities involving digital theorization, development, and production. Dr. Brian Croxall, for instance, a Digital Humanities Specialist hired by the University Libraries, simultaneously holds a lectureship in the English Department. This shared position gives a formal institutional structure to the kind of digital/library/academic department collaborations that have been proliferating in recent years. In Fall 2013, also at Emory, Dr. Allen Tullos, editor of the digital journal Southern Spaces, will become co-Director of the Center for Digital Scholarship, holding a tenured position shared between Emory’s History Department and Emory Library. Like Croxall, Tullos will be officially charged with splitting his time between traditional faculty endeavors and digital scholarship.  Tullos currently holds a tenured appointment in the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA), a program being altered considerably after recent, controversial programmatic changes at Emory. The volatile issues surrounding these shifts are not under consideration here, other than to note that the creation of this fledgling hybrid position is part of the ILA faculty reassignment process. Since Tullos holds tenure in Emory College, there will be room for this new appointment to be negotiated and adjusted without the job security questions that might accompany an untenured post. While I am not in a position to speak on behalf of either of my Emory colleagues about these recent changes, such appointments appear to offer promising signs that some universities will respond creatively to the technological transformation of our professional landscapes. Hybrid faculty appointments offer one potentially beneficial solution to the complicated, evolving circumstances that affect scholarship as well as other areas of faculty careers.

15> The production and dissemination of scholarship has long benefited from the contributions of hardworking individuals who have not received tangible benefits from their endeavors on behalf of academic disciplines. Many current specialized journals began as newsletters created and distributed from individual professors’ homes or offices. The archives comprising the complete run of the Spenser Review illustrate such a journey, showing numerous stages, from typewriter through electronic transmission. Future publication models will probably evolve beyond the limits of our current imaginations, but in all likelihood, they will continue to rely upon both rewarded and unpaid labor provided by faculty, independent scholars, and students. As we struggle to support the Humanities, while reinventing higher education in the 21st century, however, the time is ripe for making such important scholarly investments professionally viable. The financial support available for these endeavors is never likely to be adequate. Monetary resources that are stretched tightly today cannot be counted upon to rebound tomorrow.  On the other hand, the value of intellectual capital –including editing and other publication-related activities-- can be realigned in significant ways by contemporary faculty and administrators. Articulate proponents of digital and other editorial scholarship can support this work of their departmental and disciplinary colleagues by appropriately revising tenure and promotion guidelines. We all rely upon the editorial creations of our peers. As the electronic revolution forces us to re-examine how we evaluate and value faculty contributions to many facets of teaching, research, and service, the time is right to correct the injustices levied against generations of editorial scholars. All of us depend upon the contributions of scholarly publications. It is appropriate and long overdue that we offer due credit for editors’ invaluable intellectual and technical expertise and the scholarship it makes available to us.


[i] Some institutions address editorial work in their tenure and promotions guidelines. Appalachian State University distinguishes between “3 year terms” for editors at first or second tier journals,
while Carnegie Mellon includes such work under the category “other considerations”: Candidates for appointment and tenure decisions may also carry out professional activities that should be considered: e.g., professional practice, consulting, public service, service in professional and technical societies and editorial work on professional journals and other publications,”

Works Cited:

Campus Compact Tenure Guidelines for Engaged Scholarship, Web. Accessed 5 June, 2013.

Cavanagh, Sheila T. 2010. “Spenser Goes Digital: An Open Access Journal is Free to the Public, but Not Free to Produce.” Academic Exchange 12. 2: Spring 2010, Web. Accessed 4 June, 2013.

Chittum, Ryan. 2013. “New York Times paywall growth slows.” Columbia Journalism Review, April 26, 2013, Web. Accessed 5 June, 2013.

Fister, Barbara (2013) “Kairos: Open Since 1996.” June 4, 2013, Web. Accessed 5 June, 2013.

International Spenser Society and Spenser Review, Web. Accessed 5 June, 2013.

Modern Language Association Tenure Guidelines for Digital Scholarship,

Nichols, John. 2013. “What The Boston Globe Got Right and Why It Should Change How Papers Think,” The Nation, April 20, 2013,

Web. Accessed 5 June, 2013.

Tenure Guidelines, Carnegie Mellon University,

Tenure Guidelines, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Web. Accessed 4 June, 2013.

Sheila Cavanagh is Professor of English and Emory Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Emory University. Author of books on Edmund Spenser and Lady Mary Wroth, she is also Co-Director of the World Shakespeare Project and Director of the Emory Women Writers Resource Project. Until recently, she was Editor of the Spenser Review.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Six (2013): Editions & Editing

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