History Journals in the Twenty-First Century

Michael Grossberg, May 1997

Editor's note: What follows is a revised version of remarks that Professor Grossberg made as part of a roundtable discussion on the dissemination of scholarship in the 21st century at the 1997 annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

As my contribution to the discussion about the dissemination of scholarship in the 21st century, I want to focus on the challenges facing history journals as we near the millennium. My experiences as an editor have led me to two basic conclusions.

First, the basic jobs of history editors and the fundamental mission of peer-reviewed history journals will remain much the same as they have developed over the last century. Editors will continue to assess and seek evaluations of article manuscripts, determine which books to review and the appropriate reviewers, organize thematic presentations highlighting significant substantive or methodological issues, and struggle with problems of format and design. And editors and journals will continue to be important regulators of professional knowledge and advancement. Indeed, there are reasons to think that both tasks may become even more significant in the future.

Second, as in the past, so too in the future, the means by which these tasks are performed will change and in some cases change dramatically. The most readily identifiable sources of change include electronic publication, intellectual changes in and outside the discipline of history, and institutional changes in the academy. As potent as the forces of change may be, however, it is important not to make too much of them and speak in terms of crisis. More than most scholars, historians should understand both the lure and the consequences of privileging the present with jeremiads of crisis. Instead, we should accept—indeed welcome—change. As Margaret Stieg wisely observed in a study of the development of history journals, "A scholarly journal is a living entity—it cannot remain fixed and unaltered without risk of obsolescence or irrelevance." 1

Our challenge is to determine the kinds of changes we want in our journals. Such determinations require a common understanding of what we expect from history journals and what importance we give to them as scholarly mediums. For that reason, we need debates among historians about the future of journals in our discipline. I want to help initiate those discussions by highlighting and assessing some of the most significant trends in history journals.

Electronic publication is the most obvious source of change affecting history journals. The most optimistic advocates of electronic publication predict a printless future in which electronic journals have survived an inevitable Darwinian struggle with the dinosaurs that are print journals. And clearly, digital technology and electronic journals have compelled us to reexamine our basic concept of a journal by raising fundamental questions about content and distribution. Useful as such inquiries are, my own hope, however, is that electronic publication does not frame debates about journals in the future. The message is far more important than the medium. In that regard, it is important to remember that one of the recurrent experiences in the past is the overpromising of the results of technological innovation. Microfiche and quantitative analysis are but two recent examples. And since the demise of print journals in the foreseeable future is neither likely nor a development to be welcomed, we should not allow ourselves to become captives of the modernization language of obsolescence and inevitability. Instead, we should focus our attention on crafting an effective relationship between print and electronic publication.

Comparison is one way to think about how to make the most productive use of each form of scholarly communication in the future. There is the obvious and critical question of aesthetics: a comparison of pages to screens. It is directly related to the issue of use. Historian and former journal editor Brett Fairbairn predicts that "when historians read for pleasure, for reflection, for discovery, or for primary research, they may continue to prefer the physical book or journal for an indefinite time into the future. But when they search the literature, when they look for scattered contributions on a given topic, they will turn increasingly to their computers." 2

Another point of comparison concerns journals as distinct disseminators of scholarship. In print, journals are completed works of scholarship filled with fully edited, finished pieces, produced and disseminated at regularly scheduled intervals. Electronically, journals are continuous forms of scholarly production, with essays and reviews in various forms of completeness and subject to various forms of editorial scrutiny. Similarly, the two publishing mediums produce contrasting forms of scholarly exchange. Where print gives privileged place to authoritative textual arguments augmented by illustrative graphics, electronic publication encourages multimedia presentations, hypertext, and interactive exchanges. Comparing these very different forms of scholarly communication raises critical questions about the character and value of editing, the means of validating knowledge, and the relative importance of timeliness in the production of historical scholarship. These issues will be critical in the future when some history journals will be published only in print, some only electronically, some with both print and electronic versions, and when, within common disciplinary conventions, each form of history journal will have distinctive features, standards, styles of argumentation, and forms of presentation.

Electronic publication, though, holds out the promise of changing not just the forms of production but also the power relations involved in producing journals. It feeds a democratizing impulse to challenge the gatekeeping roles of journals, editors, and editorial boards. Indeed, it holds out the possibility of rephrasing Carl Becker's famous aphorism from "Everyman his own historian" to "Every person his or her own history editor." However, this democratizing impulse could quite easily wither on the vine, or perhaps rather online. Historians have become, and will continue to be, dependent on journals as gatekeepers. The editorial and peer-review processes combine to validate scholarship, guide historians to what is significant, and legitimate as well as subvert subjects and methods. At a time when all of us complain about being overwhelmed by the prolific scholarship of our colleagues, it is very clear that historians demand not more information less well organized but less information more well organized. And that is a primary role of journals and journal editors. Thus one challenge in the future is to find ways to preserve the democratizing impulse in electronic journal publication with variations of online comments, posted drafts, moderated listserves, published manuscript evaluations, and other means the medium makes possible while also debating the implications of democratization for the way power is apportioned in print journals.

The continuing diversity of history journals raises another comparative issue. Print has proven to be a very supportive environment for the profusion of history journals; electronic publication may well be, as well. But it also may have quite different consequences for different kinds of journals. It may, for instance, provide even more support for the proliferation of specialty journals and doom general journals like the AHR. Much of my time is spent, for example, trying to find ways to lure specialists into browsing through the journal and reading articles and reviews outside their self-defined fields. Whether that goal can even be attempted with digital search engines wedded to specialized keywords is not clear. Conversely, it may be that the costs and character of electronic publication will feed the monopolizing power of general journals. Freed from the constraints of printed pages, journals like the AHR could combine general and specialty offerings electronically and undercut smaller journals. These quite divergent yet equally plausible scenarios suggest the very real and equally uncertain consequences of electronic publication for our journals.

One final point springs from the fact that at present most conversations about electronic publication and journals are driven and dominated far too much by the natural sciences. In the future they should become much more discipline-specific. The dominance of scientists over electronic publication is unfortunate because science journals and history journals are quite different mediums of scholarly exchange. Issues of timeliness, the importance of archival systems, the relative significance of monographs and book reviews, and kindred concerns vary considerably between the two. As historians, we and other humanists must make our own judgments about the place of electronic publication in our journals. Those decisions must also recognize and address the very real and quite significant resistance to electronic publication among historians and not dismiss opposition merely as latter-day Luddism that will inevitably disappear.

Though obviously very critical, electronic publication is not the only challenge history journals will face in the future. However, other important issues have been obscured of late by the dominating influence of electronic publication on all discussions of journals. Indeed, it is important to recognize that print journals themselves have been undergoing significant changes. The increasing use of graphics, dedicated theme issues, review essays, roundtables, interviews, film reviews, printed exchanges, as well as computer technology in journal production have transformed the contents and dissemination of journals. Equally important, developments such as the changing nature of journal markets and the evolving gatekeeping roles of journals are critical to the future of history journals in whatever form they are disseminated.

An old issue is particularly crucial to the future of history journals-precarious finances. Financing history journals has been a problem since their creation in the late 19th century. Today is no exception. Most history journals are published by historical associations and represent a major source of revenue for the organizations and an equally significant expense. And the journal is the major benefit received by most association members. However, falling memberships and rising demands for services have placed greater and greater demands on the budgets of history organizations. At the same time, journal revenues have been hurt by library cutbacks that have led to the cancellation of subscriptions and experiments with subscription alternatives such as the provision of journal articles on demand. A rapid rise in the numbers of history journals over the last few decades has also fragmented readers and thus revenues. Electronic publication promises to have an impact on all of these issues. In particular, the dissemination of journals electronically threatens the subscription base of association-produced journals by changing the forms of journal delivery and thus the means of payment, which in turn threatens the viability, indeed the very existence, of historical associations where subscriptions and membership dues are the synonymous and primary sources of revenue. The costs of acquiring and maintaining the equipment to produce journals either for print or electronically is also escalating at a rapid rate and entails budgetary outlays quite different from those associated with previous forms of production. Financial pressures like these combine to make the future economic well-being of all journals uncertain.

At the same time, new forces are also at work in history markets that will affect journals dramatically. The most critical of these are associated with the increasing commercialization of the academy and academic publishing. While journals have always had to be run as business enterprises to some degree, commercialization threatens to tilt journals even more toward bottom-line concerns. Commercial pressures are evident in the increasing tendency to treat readers and association members as customers, not colleagues, and to discuss and evaluate journals and other professional activities in the marketing parlance of products, focus groups, and market shares. Indeed, the advent of boutique journals designed to capture particular segments of the history market is a direct result of these developments. So too is the tendency to regard journal diversity as a form of unwanted market competition rather than as welcomed intellectual pluralism.

At the same time, though the volume of historical scholarship is growing, monographic publishing is shrinking as particular subjects and approaches become labeled as unmarketable. The monograph has become "endangered" as more and more presses decide to publish fewer and fewer monographs in fewer and fewer print runs on fewer and fewer topics. In turn, these market changes have encouraged the production of more synthetic, general work while undermining support for the production of building-block monographs.

Precarious journal financing and the increased commercialization of academic publishing are having and will continue to have dramatic implications for history journals. These range from relatively discrete issues, such as whether book review canons should be revised to include more places for syntheses and textbooks along with monographs to more profound questions about the role journals should play in the way historians respond to the marginalization of various forms of historical scholarship. Quite obviously, for example, work in fields and subjects deemed to have little commercial appeal has greatly enriched our understanding of the past; its loss or even diminution would impoverish us. However, attempts to limit our reliance on the monographic publishing market as the major determinant of what is important to publish about the past will inevitably raise questions about whether journals should be used to counter market trends by publishing scholarship in fields that the market marginalizes. Would, for instance, historians of the United States and modern Europe, who constitute the bulk of the AHA membership, accept fewer articles and book reviews in their fields in the AHR so that more scholarship on market-marginalized subjects could be published in the journal? In contemplating such an issue, it is important to note the results of a recent readership survey by the editors of the Journal of American History. When asked what they liked most about the journal, readers replied: cutting-edge articles in their own specialty; when asked what they liked least, they responded: cutting-edge articles in other historians' specialties.

Market trends also challenge our commitment to journal diversity. Much of the creativity in our discipline over the last few decades has been generated by the profusion of journals. A wide array of journals has become a means of fostering new ideas, methods, and subjects. Equally important, journal diversity is a fundamental prerequisite for peer review. As Fairbairn explains, "Being subject to vagaries of peer review is one thing when there are alternative journals to turn to; it would be quite another if there were a monopoly. A diverse and evolving constellation of journals is essential to the peer review system."3 Yet maintaining journal diversity and resisting the further commercialization of journals in the future will require not merely statements of opposition but searches for alternative sources of funding, intellectual and financial support by historians for the production and dissemination of diverse forms of scholarship, and the establishment of new forms of collaboration among historians, history editors, librarians, history associations, university presses, and scholars and editors in related disciplines.

Changes in the forms of journal production and in the nature of history markets are important as well, because over the last century, historians have come to rely on journals as gatekeepers of historical scholarship and historians' status. These roles will continue and may even expand as other publishing outlets contract. And they will do so amid the developments I have already cited and the intellectual ferment that characterizes historical scholarship today, especially what has been characterized in these pages by my predecessor, David Ransel, as the attack on modernism and its privileging of certain forms and subjects of historical scholarship and by AHA past president Caroline Bynum as the end of the Eurocentric domination of history.4

In the future, as in the past, journals will face the challenge of how to authenticate and disseminate historical scholarship in a fair, effective, and creative manner. And those challenges will inevitably provoke contests over scholarly standards and the role of journals in their construction and maintenance. In 1902 J. Franklin Jameson, another of my predecessors, summarized what he considered to be the basic mission of journals: "To evoke originality, to kindle the fires of genius is not their function, but to regularize, to criticize, to restrain vagaries, to set a standard of workmanship and compel men to conform to it."4 Whatever the judgment might be of the AHR's success in meeting Jameson's first two goals, his words make clear that journal editors, and the evaluators and reviewers that they employ, have always and will always impose standards as they decide which articles to publish and which not to publish; which books to review, which not to review; and which books to laud, which to dismiss. Such judgments about the nature and content of historical scholarship underscore the crucial gatekeeping role that journals play in the legitimation of historical scholarship, and consequently the reality that journals have long served and will continue to serve as both promoters of intellectual innovation and defenders of intellectual orthodoxy. They also reinforce the continuing need for journal diversity.

History journals in the future will also maintain their role as gatekeepers of historians, not just their scholarship. The publication of articles and book reviews, service on editorial boards, reviews of individual historian's scholarship, and related journal activities have become and will remain fundamental means of building reputations and careers. Of particular concern, at least for the immediate future, is the meaning of this form of journal gatekeeping in a period of intense intellectual ferment and in a contradictory era of dwindling resources and publication venues for some historians, yet expanding ones for others.

There are, of course, many other issues that can and should be raised. However, I want to conclude this call for a broad discussion about the future of history journals by noting that at present there are nearly 1,000 English-language history journals. In one way or another, their editors and readers must address the issues I have raised. Some of these challenges are old, some new; most are embedded in very nature of history journals. The collective challenge is to respond to the possibilities and problems facing history journals in a way that enhances our understanding of the past and our treatment of our colleagues and their scholarship in the present and the future.

—Michael Grossberg is editor of the American Historical Review and professor of history at Indiana University.


1. Margaret Steig, The Origin and Development of Scholarly Historical Periodicals (Univ. of Alabama Press, 1986), 5.

2. Brett Fairbairn, "The Present and Future of Historical Journals, " Journal of Scholarly Publishing 27 (1996): 70.

3. Fairbairn, 63.

4. David Ransel, "The Present and Future of Historical Journals," Perspectives (October 1995): 5-6; Caroline Walker Bynum, "The Last Eurocentric Generation," Perspectives (February 1996): 3-4.

5. Jameson quoted in Morey D. Rothberg, "'To Set a Standard of Workmanship and Compel Men to Conform to It': John Franklin Jameson as Editor of the American Historical Review," AHR 89 (1984): 961.