The Journal of Southern Religion and the Challenges of On-line Publication

Randall Stephens

A few weeks back Paul posted his comments from our AHA roundtable: "American Religious Historians Online." (His thought-provoking remarks can be viewed here: "Blogging and the (Non-) Democratization of American Religious History.") So . . . I, too, post my comments below. Was a very rewarding session--even though, because of the early time of day and because we were slotted at the end of the conference, there were barely more people in the audience than on the platform. (At one point I swear I saw a tumbleweed role up the isle in the cavernous ballroom.) Still, we had a great exchange/Q&A at the end of the session.

“[T]he internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck,” Alaska Senator Ted Stevens assured the Senate Commerce Committee in June 2006. In an oration that would launch a thousand jokes, Stevens lamented with frustration: “I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially. It’s a series of tubes. ”* (Listen to the genuine article.)

Even beyond the walls of the capitol and its tangled tubes, there’s much bewilderment about newish computer technologies. For the uninitiated neologisms and strange metaphors seem to PodCast MyFace Tweets over firewalls of confusion.

Other internets-related matters have long puzzled academics. What role do on-line journals play in the marketplace of ideas? Do web-based publications have the same heft as print ones? And even more seriously, can you trust or put stock in on-line content. We tell our students to be wary of Wikipedia,, and the like and we tell them to use some discernment when wading through a sea of dubious electronic content. Questions of reliability and credibility pop up at every click of the mouse. A 2002 piece in the Onion ran: “The Information Age was dealt a stunning blow Monday.” “[A] factual error was discovered on the Internet. The error was found on, a Brady Bunch fan site that incorrectly listed the show's debut year as 1968, not 1969.”*

The Journal of Southern Religion, is, of course, a far cry from Still, potential authors, readers, and tenure review committees harbor some doubts about the JSR and any number of other peer-reviewed on-line journals.

The JSR is a niche publication, serving a small, but vibrant subfield. An inaugural conference for the journal held at Emory University in 1999 featured Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter, and, most importantly leaders of the field like Paul Harvey, Donald Mathews, and Sam Hill. In the early years the journal was under the capable leadership of Rodger Payne, John Corrigan, Beth Schweiger, and Briane Turley. Now it rides on under the direction of Bland Whitley, myself, Lee Willis, and Art Remillard. From the start it was an open-access publication.

The Journal of Southern Religion was ahead of the on-line scholarly publishing trend. “A journal started today,” wrote Jennifer Howard in a 2009 essay in the Chronicle, “is likely to be online-only and open access. And more and more readers now discover bits and pieces of any journal's content—an article here, a book review there—through electronic databases and aggregators like JStor, Project Muse, and Ebsco.”* Indeed, the JSR, linked through libraries around the globe, has long had heavy traffic, attracting hundreds of unique hits every day.

Now in its twelfth year of operation it has published the work of prominent historians, literary critics, and religious studies scholars. Ted Ownby, Mike Pasquier, and Tracy Fessenden have served as guest editors. We have spent the last five years or so discussing how to take full advantage of the on-line format. Until front-lit screens get much better or someone markets smart paper, digital journals can really offer something more. The JSR now includes a wide array of articles, reviews, review forums, essays, film, and interviews. Not long ago we launched a section titled “An Author's Reflection.” Authors of recent books on southern religious topics describe their initial interest in a subject, the twists and turns in research, some findings that were surprising, and reflect on the field and where their research led. So far, Paul Harvey, James Bennett, Amy Koehlinger, and Charles Irons have composed pieces for this. (Steven Miller’s is in the pipeline.)

For all the JSR’s success and its promise for the future, several problems continue to loom. We share some of the difficulties other digital journals face. We do not receive the steady stream of submissions that a print journal does. Because of limits to the number of historians working in this subfield, we have fewer peer reviewers we can tap. Authors usually receive two or three reviews back, not the fabled 6 reviews of the Journal of Southern History or the 506 reviews rumored to have come back from the American Historical Review to some unfortunate pre-tenured professor. Representatives from promotion review committees still contact me to ask about the number of submissions we receive paired with the number of articles we accept. And I suspect that the presumed impermanence of on-line material keeps many a promising scholar from submitting his/her work to us.

That leads me to a larger point about how the JSR is different from traditional publications and how it might branch off in new directions that will fully take advantage of our elastic format.

In the summer of 2009 Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas wrote in Perspectives on History about the tremendous digital resources available since the 1990s. “[R]esearch techniques and tools were being transformed by the new media,” they noted, “would scholarship also change? If so, how, and in what ways?”*

We’ve been asking similar questions. We have toyed with the idea of integrating a comment section to the end of articles, reviews, and interviews. This works well enough for the Chronicle of Higher Education, though it does have its pitfalls. Anonymous posters with monikers like monkeyLover1971 use the forum to savage their opponents and to grand stand. At its best, though, a comments section could carry on some conversations in essays and even help reshape content.

In some ways, internet journals have to catch up with more recent fast-paced outlets like blogs. The speed at which information can travel challenges the slow steady pace of peer-reviewed publications. But maybe that is a good thing.

One of the big stories that came out of the 2009 MLA conference, observed a reporter from the Chronicle, was that the event, “put on display how digital media have ramped up the pace of scholarly communication.” One MLA member remarked “The lesson digital humanists learn, especially by using Twitter, is that scholarly conversations move quickly now, because they can, and one had therefore better be as quick as possible to join in that conversation. Monthly or quarterly journals and annual conferences used to be the way that scholars talked . . . among themselves, but now it's e-mail listservs (yes, still) and, better, the much more public blogosphere and twittersphere.”* These remarks may amount to putting the digital cart before the cyborg horse, but they do deserve further consideration.

In addition to the new pace of scholarly exchange there are recent technological advances that make innovation easier than ever. We can now place video lectures onto the JSR site using incredibly affordable HD cameras and free services like YouTube. Virtual conferences could be broadcast using Skype conferencing or Google Video’s forthcoming conference feature. Video interviews, which we have in the works, and roundtable discussions on teaching southern religion can also be filmed and posted.

I hope in the future that the JSR will better facilitate students and teachers. But this takes time and virtual elbow grease. The site already includes an extensive resources page that highlights dozens of history, religious studies, literature, and news sites. We have also discussed posting syllabi from readers and board members, along with PowerPoint presentations, outlines, and other teaching tools.

Unlike print publications, the Journal of Southern Religion can produce full-color, high-resolution photographs, high quality videos, illustrations, and maps. (The journal is also not limited by page-count). Our 2008 special edition on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, edited by Pasquier and Fessenden, featured a variety of photographs and works of art. In 2009 Eric Bain-Selbo’s article, “From Lost Cause to Third-and-Long: College Football and the Civil Religion of the South,” included embedded YouTube clips of rowdy SEC sports rituals.

I would like to see contributors, and even us as editors, make much better use of visual and interactive content. In conclusion, let me offer a few examples, or a sort of wish list: A sociologists might illustrate his/her essay with interactive maps, using multiple overlays created with Google Maps; A photojournalist and an ethnomusicologist could employ film and audio in an essay on regional religious music; A historian writing about religion and the civil rights movement could include excerpts from video interviews and 1960s-news footage. At present, a fairly skilled computer user can create his/her own graphically sophisticated documentaries using iMovie along with Keynote. The list of possibilities could go on, and seems only limited by our imagination, if not our tech savvy.

But perhaps it is still difficult for us to imagine how we might employ new media and how we can best take advantage of rapidly changing technologies.


szegedben said…
Few recognize how much effort goes into developing and maintaining the site. The current editorial staff does excellent work with limited resources. In 1997, many of us thought the shift from paper to digital would occur relatively quickly. Our predictions have not panned out.

The new media do offer many exciting opportunities ranging from the prosaic audio-visual, e.g., "podcasts" to geospatial analytic media involving advanced GIS, VR, and immersive. The problem has been, and remains, labor intensity. There simply are not enough resources available to take JSR and other well-managed online journals to the next level. Perhaps the situation will change as the shift to digital slowly unfolds.

A million-dollar grant would probably suffice.... bkt
Randall said…

Thanks for the comments. Agreed.

We're still looking now and then for that grant!