7.x >> Special Electronic Publication Issue >>
A brief history and technical overview of the current state of JAC Online, with a few observations about how the Internet is influencing (or failing to influence) scholarship: Or, who says you can’t find JAC Online?
This article has two purposes. A number of people have asked me what has been involved in producing the current version of JAC Online, and so the electronic archive’s history and technical development is presented here for them. In the process of working with JAC Online, I have come to some tentative conclusions about the role electronic research plays in scholarship, the significance electronic publications hold for paper publications, the question of e-publication and tenure, and how much technical knowledge is relevant to current and future scholarship in the humanities. I present these tentative conclusions in the context of my experience as an online editor. It is important to emphasize that my experience is limited to a single journal and my role with that journal is limited to that journal’s needs, and thus what I say is local knowledge. But like a lot of people I see all knowledge as local, even in cyberspace. To create the context for what I will suggest about the current state of online scholarship, I will first recount the history of JAC Online.
In 1997, Todd Taylor, then a graduate student at USF, thought it would be an excellent idea if JAC1 had a presence online. He set up a site on the USF English server that consisted of a statement of purpose and, eventually, a handful of journal articles reprinted in HTML. But being engaged in many other activities, including traditional publication practices, Taylor had only so much time for the project. In 1997, at the CCCC, Lynn Worsham asked Jacqueline Rhodes and Janice Walker if they would be interested in taking over the project. Over the course of the next two years, Rhodes and Walker re-designed the interface for the site, added a search engine feature, and put online the contents of Vols. 11.2-16.3. They also included the tables of contents and abstracts for 17.1-19.3. Equally important as the start of the archive was their decision to pursue something called Reviews Reviewed, an online forum for authors to respond to their book reviews. This feature promised to make JAC Online more than a mere archive.
When I assumed the online editor’s role in January of 2000 I had plans to further this initiative. But the first order of business was to create an information system that could handle twenty years of JAC in a way that could be easily passed on to another editor in five years time. With the help of Jack Nerad, GSU English’s computer specialist at the time, we settled on an Athlon chip-based server running Red Hat Linux2, Apache 1.3 Apache3, Perl 5, HtDig for a search engine, and Wusage 7.0 for a log reader4. The server cost around $1200.00 dollars and was more than adequate to handle the bandwidth. Two years later, this server is still more than adequate, and I don’t foresee it becoming obsolete during my tenure as online editor. The English Department also provided the services of a Graduate Assistant for a semester and the promise of such on a fairly regular basis. So far I have had an assistant every semester I requested one.
Once the information system was up and running, the next task was to electrify the back issues of JAC. Lynn Worsham secured copies for me of the very earliest issues, which rounded out my set, and I turned to scanning pages using Visioneer’s PaperPort 5.0 and a $100.00 flat-bed scanner. The process was tedious, to say the least, and the results were in some cases almost virtual parodies of the original, but I was able, in my spare time, to get serviceable copies into Word files at a rate of roughly a volume every two weeks. From Word to HTML appeared simple enough at first, due to Word’s “Save as HTML” feature, but I soon discovered that the style sheets these transformations relied on were too Netscape antagonistic to remain viable. So, in the end, RTF versions were turned into plain HTML using Word’s “Compact HTML” conversion utility, which is a free download from http://www.microsoft.com. Although I began the archive using FrontPage 2000, I quickly abandoned it for Macromedia’s DreamWeaver because it makes much cleaner code, can clean up Word to HTML debris, and doesn’t populate the server with crucial but inscrutable files and directories. DreamWeaver also communicated with Linux and Apache more smoothly and more securely than FrontPage could.
The archive, from the first issue in 1980 up until 1997 (the editor has decided that in order to keep the archive from competing with journal sales, a three year gap in publication is necessary) was available online within a few months, but the copies were of varying quality. It has taken 2 years and the labor of 6 different people to clean the archive to its current state, which is perhaps one final proofreading from being a virtual re-presentation of the journal itself.
But the enterprise has completely revolutionized the training I try to provide rhetoric students with now. The electronic practices I have learned doing JAC Online have filtered into many of the writing classes I teach, and I have created a new graduate class in digital rhetoric (http://rhetcomp.gsu.edu/DIS). The question all these changes raises, is how much technical knowledge of electronic communications practices is relevant to current and future scholarship in the humanities. One can, as most have, simply farm the electronic archive of a journal out to an organization like Project Muse (http://muse.jhu.edu/). But then one loses control of the archive and its destiny rests in the hands of larger interests. Also, whatever additional benefits in terms of the increased circulation or prestige that might accrue to the paper journal as a result of it’s own website are acceded to another organization. From my perspective, however, choosing to ignore the need to learn technical knowledge on the grounds that others can provide it ultimately undermines scholarship in the rhetoric of electronic communication because it perpetuates the theory/practice split. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, try to tell others what to do. Theory of visual design is nonsense coming from someone who doesn’t know how digital imagery interacts with server technology. And rhetorical theory of online communication written by people for whom email is communicating online is just a waste of electronic space. If you want to talk about it, you have to do it. The historical antecedent for the tendency to theorize in the absence of practice or to absolve oneself of that situation by making theory a practice in and of itself is found in Isocrates who taught others how to argue while admitting he himself was too thin-voiced and timid to practice in the Agora what he taught on the edges of it. So we have long had a situation where rhetorical practice and rhetorical theory operate independently of each other. This bifurcation could worsen now that electronic communication takes so much additional technical knowledge, but I think we must create courses and professional avenues for technical activity or risk abandoning rhetorical practice itself because with electronic communication, the media is the message, as the old adage goes. And the tendency in e-publication is to distinguish the system designers from the content providers and thus to leave arrangement and delivery in the hands of the systems people, leaving just words in a disembodied context to the content writers.
One technical detail that I have learned along the way, which is crucial to anyone contemplating an electronic archive or large-scale online document set, is that a relative style sheet for every kind of document is critical to the portability and consistency of the archive5 . Because the very clean HTML files that I inherited used inline markup, and because at that time I was only becoming aware of CSS, I created the archive entirely with inline markup, which blended the style with the content and made for a very slow process adding in a relative style after the archive was complete, which meant editing each file by hand, search and replace being too unpredictable, given the various markup practices that had been used by different people.
While creating clean and consistent HTML copies proved incredibly time-consuming, designing the information architecture6 proved surprisingly simple. I chose to use folders labeled to reflect the volume and issue numbers, with subdirectories called Articles, Reviews, and Reviews Reviewed. So, jac/1/Articles/1.htm refers to the first article in the first volume while jac/10/Articles/2.htm refers to the second article in the 10th volume. The obviousness of this structure makes it portable (whoever inherits the archive will be able to find their way around easily enough, and savvy browsers can easily figure out how to climb up and down the tree).
The redo tried to accommodate more browser differences and user preferences by offering several different interfaces. The surface of the site was simply an image of a recent cover and links to the different features of the site. On the archive page, one has the option of reading the tables of contents from all of the volumes in a single file. It takes fifteen seconds to load, but it looks just like a table of contents would, without page numbers (they will be there soon), and each title is linked to its corresponding file. Alternatively, one may use a drop down option box to choose a volume and issue by date and then see the table of contents for that selection. This is much faster load time, but you need to know what you’re looking for. The keyword search method is by far the most popular way to use the archive, based on the Wusage8 reports.
In addition to the archive, JAC Online has several features designed to make it possible for users to interact with the archive and the site in general. There is a place where one can leave one’s email address and url (http://jac.gsu.edu/cgi-bin/eddress.pl). This “Rolodex” feature is an electronic equivalent of the list of names and email addresses like what has appeared in the back of Rhetoric Review for years now; the difference is that people can click on the address and instantly send an email. Including a space for one’s url makes it easy to peruse the online presence of scholars who wish to make that presence known. To date there are 86 names and emails on the list (far fewer urls, interestingly enough). The script that runs this “rolodex” is essentially a guest book script with prescribed fields and an alphabetical sort. Users cannot edit the information they enter. It would be easier to maintain the Rolodex if users could write to it, but that would potentially compromise the server’s security. And security is preferable to ease of use when it comes to public servers.
The other attempt to address the issue of writing in the margins of a computer screen is called 20th century marginalia. The idea here is to make it possible for people to publicly annotate the articles in the archive by submitting to the online editor a form that includes the user’s annotation and a description of where they want the annotation to appear. I have received maybe seven of these to date and in the end have done nothing with them because, in most cases the commentary didn’t seem to add anything. Several of the suggested annotations did seem to engage the text in interesting ways, but in the end I decided not to include them because cleaning the archive of errors and omissions was my chief priority. The process of writing in the margins is not automated because it seems imprudent to leave the archive entirely open.9 It would be possible to provide write to access via some login mechanism, but the archive’s purpose, as I currently perceive it, is to provide access to past articles rather than to engage them directly in debate. In other words, based on my sense of how people use the archive, what users want is to look up a quotation, find a source to quote, or gather an idea or opposition to an idea to base a “real” publication. However, I do think that a marginalia feature might be interesting if more people were engaged with the same text simultaneously. And so I have left the form active on the server, thinking that perhaps this kind of activity might eventually become significant.
There was also a threaded discussion list at http://jac.gsu.edu, but it was never used and so to streamline maintenance of the site, I removed it after a year. On a more positive note, the “tell a friend about this site” feature is used a couple of times a semester. What the marginal success of these interactive features suggests to me is that most scholars are interested in JAC Online for its archive. There are enough list serves and bulletin boards and electronic journals available to fulfill those needs, or there is little need for such forms of electronic communication, which is likely the case given that there’s no room for such communications on an academic vita.
Perhaps the complaint about online scholarship that I have heard most often is that because “anyone” can “publish” online, the content online is suspect and intellectually diluted. See the review of Cliff Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil at http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/03-01/gloss.html for an example of this line of reasoning. Judith Axler Turner’s response that online journals provide the opportunity for creating a trusted brand name that will allay suspicions about quality by creating institutionally supported and peer reviewed environments, while perhaps true, leaves the complaint uncritiqued and it’s a point that badly needs critiquing. I find it disturbing that an expert in a field would evaluate the validity of an argument on the basis of the press that published the piece or the reputation of the author. If a person understands a discipline, he or she can assess the quality of the work by analyzing the data and evaluating the arguments. Who came up with them, when, where, and why, are merely arguments from prestige and someone who knows what he or she is doing would never let their assessment rely on arguments from prestige. Indeed, if one has to rely on assumptions about the press or the journal to evaluate research, one has no business doing research in the field. If, on the other hand, you have no idea what you are doing, then of course you have to rely on signs of reliability like degrees and pedigrees. But this is not the situation with online journals that are targeted at expert audiences.
JAC Online, at any rate, is not an online journal, but rather the website that supports a journal. And this is perhaps one way to increase the prestige of online research. By providing searchable access to the back issues of a respected journal, a website can provide ready access to viable information. The more sites of this variety there are on the net, the more consistently useful online research will be. In turn, the usability and accessibility of the site serve to promote the paper journal by increasing the chances that work that appeared in its pages will be cited.
What I’ve learned about the relationship between JAC and JAC Online was underscored for me recently when I received an email from Raymond A. Mazurek, who was completing an article for publication in TETYC and wanted the page numbers for several articles he was quoting from JAC. He had read the articles online but wanted to quote them as from the paper volumes because he hadn’t seen very many online citations in his reading of scholarly journals. (I haven’t seen that many in my reading either). He suggested that resistance to the new media might be responsible for this. And he may be right. Lynn Worsham asked me a few weeks earlier if it would be possible to put page numbers in the archive—suggesting that others have asked her for page references or at least that dealing with the real and the virtual simultaneously can be imagined to produce some dissonance. It may also be that people are just less familiar with online citation conventions and so reach for what they know. And then again perhaps scholars of this generation perceive online textual research as somehow inferior to the “real” thing. What is clear, however, is that what people want from JAC Online is a simple way to search and quote from JAC the journal. In other words, by and large, what people do with the online version is what they would do with JAC if they had every issue ready to hand. The fact that the textual archive makes every issue ready to hand is a major convenience and one that probably makes JAC a more common reference than it would be otherwise, but users are not doing anything “new” with the interactive possibilities of the electronic archive.
This doesn’t bother me as the editor of JAC Online. In truth I am participating in the outcome by focusing my attention on cleaning the texts in the archive. Nevertheless, my own sense of how we currently use the Internet for research is that we use it to accelerate the traditional process of scholarship—not to transform it but merely to increase the speed with which we do the things we have always done. It is true that the Internet has added a new set of topics to the conversation and there are some new academic degrees arising from the Internet as a subject of scholarly attention, but my experience with JAC Online, though it is merely one electronic resource, leads me to suspect that acceleration of traditional practices is what most scholars really want form the Internet. It is the infrastructure of the academy that enforces this, I think. Only peer-reviewed research is validated and therefore most people have no incentive to pursue new forms of scholarly communications. I know a couple of young scholars working in new media today who were denied tenure on the grounds that their work didn’t qualify as scholarly publication and I suspect that there are others who are at risk. I had a conversation a year ago with a well-established scholar during which I praised one of his junior colleagues for the interesting things the younger scholar was doing online. “Yes,” he said, “It’s interesting stuff. Now if we can just get him to publish something.”
Let me underscore, however, that continuing to learn about and teach electronic communication practices while also legitimating online publication and encouraging new forms of electronic scholarship is critical to the development of research in the humanities. Paper-based practices will persist, but they will become decentered as more and more journals go online, to save production costs and speed delivery of the most recent research to the people who use it.
Grenquist,Peter. "Why I Don't Read Electronic Journals:An Iconoclast Speaks Out." Journal of Electronic Publishing 3 1 1997. http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/03-01/Iconoclast.html.
Stoll, Cliff. "Editor's Gloss: Silicon Snake Oil." Journal of Electronic Publishing 3 1 1997. http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/03-01/gloss.html.