Improving the Journal of Digital Humanities

Twitter and the digital humanities blogosphere has been abuzz recently over an ill-fated special issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities (JDH) on Postcolonial Digital Humanities. I won’t get too much into what happened and why, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I respect both parties too much and feel I am too close to the story to provide an unbiased opinion. Summarizing, the guest editors felt they were treated poorly, in part because of the nature of their content, and in part because of the way the JDH handles its publications.

I wrote earlier on twitter that I no longer want to be involved in the conversation, by which I meant, I no longer want to be involved in the conversation about what happened and why. I do want to be involved in a discussion on how to get the JDH move beyond the issues of bias, poor communication, poor planning, and microaggression, whether or not any or all of those existed in this most recent issue. As James O’Sullivan wrote in a comment, “as long as there is doubt, this will be an unfortunate consequence.”

Journal of Digital Humanities
Journal of Digital Humanities

The JDH is an interesting publication, operating in part under the catch-the-good model of seeing what’s already out there and getting discussed, and aggregating it all into a quarterly journal. In some cases, that means re-purposing pre-existing videos and blog posts and social media conversations into journal “articles.” In others, it means soliciting original reviews or works that fit with the theme of a current important issue in DH. Some articles are reviewed barely at all – especially the videos – and some are heavily reviewed. The structure of the journal itself, over its five issues thus-far, has changed drastically to fit the topic and the experimental whims of editors and guest editors.

The issue that Elijah Meeks and I guest edited changed in format at least three times in the month or so we had to solidify the issue. It’s fast-paced, not always organized, and generally churns out good scholarship that seems to be cited heavily on blogs and in DH syllabi, but not yet so much in traditional press articles or books. The flexibility, I think, is part of its charm and experimental nature, but as this recent set of problems shows, it is not without its major downsides. The editors, guest editors, and invited authors are rarely certain of what the end product will look like, and if there is the slightest miscommunication, this uncertainty can lead to disaster. The variable nature of the editing process also opens the door for bias of various sorts, and because there is not a clear plan from the beginning, that bias (and the fear of bias) is hard to guard against. These are issues that need to be solved.

Roopika RisamMatt Burton, and I, among others, have all weighed in on the best way to move forward, and I’m drawing on these previous comments for this plan. It’s not without its holes and problems, and I am hoping there will be comments to improve the proposed process, but hopefully something like what I’m about to propose can let the JDH retain its flexibility while preventing further controversies of this particular variety.

  • Create a definitive set of guidelines and mission statement that is distributed to guest editors and authors before the process of publication begins. These guidelines do not need to set the publication process in stone, but can elucidate the roles of each individual and make clear the experimental nature of the JDH. This document cannot be deviated from within an issue publication cycle, but can be amended yearly. Perhaps, as with the open intent of the journal, part of this process can be crowdsourced from the previous year’s editors-at-large of DHNow.
  • Have a week at the beginning of each issue planning phase where authors (if they’ve been chosen yet), guest editors, and editors discuss what particular format the forthcoming issue will take, how it will be reviewed, and so forth. This is formalized into a binding document and will not be changed. The editorial staff has final say, but if the guest editors or authors do not like the final document, they have ample opportunity to leave.
  • Change the publication rate from quarterly to thrice-yearly. DH changes quickly, it shouldn’t be any slower than that, but quarterly seems to be a bit too tight for this process to work smoothly–especially with the proposed week-long committee session to figure out how the issue be run.
  • Make the process of picking special issue topics more open. I know the special issue I worked on came about by Elijah asking the JDH editors if they’d be interested in a topic modeling issue, and after (I imagine) some internal discussion, they agreed. The dhpoco special issue may have had a similar history. Even a public statement of “these people came to us, and this is why we thought the topic was relevant” would likely go a long way in fostering trust in the community.
  • Make the process of picking articles and authors more open; this might be the job of special issue guest editors, as Elijah and I were the ones who picked most of the content. Everyone has their part to play. What’s clear is there is a lot of confusion right now about how it works; some on Twitter recently have pointed out that, until recently, they’d assumed all articles came from the DHNow filter. Making content choice more clear in an introductory editorial would be useful.

Obviously this is not a cure for all ills, but hopefully it’s good ground to start on the path forward. If the JDH takes this opportunity to reform some of their policies, my hope is that it will be seen as an olive branch to the community, ensuring to the best of their ability that there will be no question of whether bias is taking place, implicit or otherwise. Further suggestions in the comments are welcome.

Addendum: In private communication with Matt Burton, he and I realized that the ‘special issue’ and ‘guest editor’ role is not actually one that seems to be aligned with the initial intent of the JDH, which seemed instead to be about reflecting the DH discourse from the previous quarter. Perhaps a movement away from special issues, or having a separate associated entity for special issues with its own set of rules, would be another potential path forward.

6 thoughts on “Improving the Journal of Digital Humanities”

  1. I appreciate the intent here, Scott — but candidly, I don’t have any evidence yet that there’s a problem at JDH. So far, I’ve heard the account of one aggrieved party in a personal dispute. When I’m writing history, that’s not the kind of evidence I use to reach a conclusion.

    Fortunately, there’s no reason why I have to form an opinion about this yet. Twitter likes things to happen quickly; it likes controversies with a nice tight 24-hour narrative arc. But that appetite has nothing really to do with fairness, social justice, or good scholarship — all of which take slightly more time.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Ted. Knowing what I do about the process and people behind the JDH, I too find the evidence presented insufficient to convince there was any content-associated wrongdoing by the JDH. That said, there’s still a problem, as evidenced by these past two days.

      The JDH’s organization lends itself to controversy if there can be doubt of whether or not explicit/implicit bias occurred, and this environment makes it fairly easy to raise that doubt and fairly difficult to prove anything one way or the other. As I see it, reforming the JDH to lower the likelihood of bias or doubt about it, founded or unfounded, while keeping it as close to the original goal as possible, will only make the road smoother going forward. Even if bias did not occur in this case, and even if the JDH staff has a lot of internal guards against it, changing policies slightly to ensure bias is systematically more difficult and visibly more implausible is a good goal.

      1. Well, people of good will can certainly disagree here, and I respect your point of view. But personally, I think it’s too soon even to frame this as a question of “doubt” about JDH procedures.

        I can also imagine framing the issue, for instance, as a question about the way power tends to be exercised in a one-to-many social medium. I don’t know many academic fields that rely on Twitter as heavily as DH does. It certainly has as much power in the field as JDH (which, frankly, is not a high-profile journal). Right now digital humanists seem to be dividing into camps of Beliebers and nonBeliebers, and I’m less inclined to blame any of the people involved — or any structure of ideas, or system of peer review — than I am to suspect that the logic of Twitter itself encourages the formation of “teams.” Twitter has some great affordances, but also some problems; I’m getting very wary of it.

        1. This is an extremely valuable point that I don’t think should be buried in a comment on some random blog post; I would love to see you flesh this out further on your blog. Actually, maybe a JDH special issue on the way medium informs DH practice…. *coughs*

  2. Leaving that issue to one side and reflecting on the scholarly goals of JDH itself, it’s not clear to me that the journal would be strengthened by more crowdsourcing. The DH community is already very reliant on a purely crowdsourced aggregation strategy in Twitter. If JDH is going to add any value to that, the value has to involve editorial judgement.

    I think the real problem JDH confronts is that there are actually lots of other outlets for the kind of content it was originally designed to aggregate (essays a little longer than, or more researched than, the usual blog post). In practice, a lot of academics who write material like that are sending it to The Atlantic or Slate, or the Chronicle. In some cases those publications are vacuuming up material that was originally published on blogs, just as JDH would want to do. I think there’s still a scholarly niche for JDH, and the editors have so far done a good job of finding it, but I can see how it’s a challenging task.

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