Running an Electronic Journal: The Medieval Review

Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis
Western Michigan University

In 1995, I was asked if I wanted to become an editor of The Medieval Review, as it was moving to WMU and I had just gotten a job there. I had no idea what it was. I had experience using e-mail and the gopher, and was subscribed to some electronic discussion lists in my field, but had never experienced an electronic journal. Because it was presented as a great good thing, I agreed to do it, and have learned an enormous amount. However, because I was not present at the initial development, but came in after many things were already set up, my talk will be somewhat different from many we have heard, as I wish to focus more on ongoing issues in "running a journal" rather than on technical development.

I would first like to briefly describe what TMR is, and how it operates. TMR is a book review journal. We were founded in 1993, as an offshoot of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and were originally known as the BMMR. In 1995-6, the journal was moved to Western Michigan University, and in 1997 the name was changed to TMR. We now operate almost entirely independently of BMCR, except that subscribers can choose to receive reviews from both lists, and we do occasionally borrow reviews from BMCR and post them to TMR. I should also say that we are in close contact with the BMCR editors, and some of my information today comes from them.

We receive books from publishers (this is the part of operations that is NOT entirely electronic), we have a board of about 20 review editors from several countries who suggest reviewers for the books received; we contact potential reviewers and assign reviews; we edit reviews when they come in, before publication. Instead of printing reviews in groups, we send each one out as ASCII e-mail to all the electronic subscribers of the distribution list, as soon as we have received and edited it. Note that this is not a discussion list: only the editors can post items to it, not the readership at large. The electronic medium is ideally suited to book reviews, which, since they are not that long, can easily be read as e-mail. Once they have been posted, reviews are archived on a web site; they can be browsed by the date of their appearance, or searched by author, title, or keyword. Currently we publish about 200 reviews a year and have about 1600 subscribers to the TMR list, another 1500 on the combined TMR/BMCR list; the website averages 17-18,000 hits per month.

In thinking about how to talk about "running an electronic journal", I have tried to think of ways that our specifically electronic nature impacts the way we do things. It was suggested to me that I might compare the ways we operate with how print journals operate, but I must confess that, except for publication of my own articles, I don't really know how print journals operate. I am therefore going to focus on three main aspects or issues we encounter in running TMR: practical issues and costs, advantages of access to an electronic journal, and the theoretical question of whether we are really a serious academic enterprise.

Practical issues and costs

TMR is run by myself and Rand Johnson, my colleage at WMU in the foreign language department. Year-round, we have a student assistant who works for us 20 hours/week; the students have all been grad students studying medieval history, so the job is a TA-ship, and a rather desirable one. The TA represents the bulk of our costs, coming to $15,000/year, and he thinks that 20 hours/week is about right for the amount of work he has. Rand and I work for the fun and glory of it (i.e., we are not paid), although our teaching workloads are something of an issue. WMU is very supportive of TMR, as the administration, and especially the Medieval Institute, recognize that we bring honor and glory to the university, and we have been helped with computer equipment and other infrastructure requirements (such as e-mail accounts, etc.). Getting our individual departments to recognize the worth of TMR has actually been harder than convincing the administration.

At TMR, we operate almost entirely by e-mail; in fact, if we can't find an e-mail address for someone, we won't ask them to review. The reception and sending out of books are almost the only part of our operation that requires an office and a presence, not to mention mailing costs. This fact has a large number of advantages. First, e-mail is quick to receive and send, and essentially free. Our student assistant estimates that if he had to send letters and faxes, his workload would dramatically increase, and this would increase our costs. Another advantage is that, because we have set it up so that all e-mails coming into TMR are forwarded to myself and Rand, all three of us can read all messages, and deal with them as appropriate without a lot of paper-shuffling. Moreover, we can read them from anywhere, and do the work from anywhere that we have a computer, which is a great advantage when we are travelling, commuting, etc. The only person who has to be in the office is the student assistant, and even he can do much of his work from home if he wants. The one disadvantage that we see with e-mails is in our contacts with publishers; sometimes messages are not answered, and even when they are, if a contact at a particular press leaves, his e-mail trail with us may vanish also.

Our website: The TMR website is operated by the Humanities Text Initiative at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. We lucked into this; the connection had been made before we took over the journal, and HTI has used us as a guinea pig in their development of mechanisms for publishing electronic journals. We consult for them, and they run our website for free. This is an enormous advantage for us, for a number of reasons. First, our computer center at WMU is not terribly well run, and we would get almost no help from them if we had to run the website itself. Second, at HTI they have been and are developing all sorts of useful mechanisms for electronic journals, which they plan to market to interested parties. This means that the TMR website is at the forefront of this kind of development. The reviews are all tagged in SGML, and are submitted to the website electronically. We have automated the tagging so that it is very easily learned and done (according to our assistant, who does it). I must say that, as a result, we do not know a lot about the technical aspects of the website, but we have received excellent support from the HTI staff. We have deliberately kept our website fairly simple, for the benefit of users who do not have access to high-speed connections or up-to-date browsers (especially some international users).

The final interesting aspect of the journal is our expenses. For the first three years that we ran the journal, half of our expenses were paid by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to BMCR, half the assistant was paid for by the history department, and the remainder (a quarter of the assistant, mailing, supplies, etc.) by the Medieval Institute. When the Mellon grant ran out, the Medieval Institute picked up the tab for a year, but said that we would have to figure out a way of generating at least part of our expenses. The next year, another Mellon Grant was received to pay half our expenses for two years while we figure out how to raise our own money.

The raising of money is a tricky issue. We strongly feel, for reasons I will discuss in a moment, that we do not want to charge subscribers for service. This would be difficult in any case in the present environment; we could charge for subscriptions, but we would also have to figure out a way of charging per hit for the website, and that would be messy. Because our website and we are affiliated with universities, there are rules saying that we cannot advertise. Our strategy, which we are in the midst of seeing whether it is possible, is to ask if publishers would pay us a fee for our putting a link on a review, saying "to buy this book", and taking the reader to the publisher's website. The university lawyers have apparently agreed that we would be allowed to do this, and HTI says it would not be difficult to do, technically. We anticipate that if we could sell 100 $50 links per year, that would bring in $5000, which would equal a third of our costs. The more reviews we publish, and the more successful we are at selling the concept, the more money we would make. At this point, though, we are still in the process of asking publishers if they would pay for this.


One of the things I most enjoy about running TMR is getting responses from our readers. This are actually quite minimal; I know that what we hear is only the tip of the iceberg, and that our reviews have a much greater impact than we have data for. Nevertheless, here are my impressions.

One of the interesting things about publishing on the internet is that it is available to everyone. I feel that this is one of the big strengths of scholarly publishing on the web. Certainly we occasionally get an e-mail from a fifth-grader wanting information for a school project, but more often we hear from interested amateurs who enjoy our reviews, buy the books because they like the subject, and appreciate our availability. I don't suppose that libraries keep statistics on the number of "amateurs" who come in to read Speculum, or even that scholarly societies know this kind of information. I think, though, that by putting the data up for anyone to read, we help to demystify scholarly activity (or perhaps, on occasion, to mystify it). This is one reason why we feel strongly that TMR should remain free to its readers.

Among scholars, however, I think that we have some interesting impacts that don't happen so readily in print formats. First, our reviews are sent as e-mails to subscribers whenever they are ready. We rarely send more than two or three at a time. I wonder, but have never collected data on the subject, whether more reviews are read because of this. When I receive a print journal, I generally scan the list of book reviews and select the ones in my field to read. When I receive TMR reviews, I often delete the ones on books that don't look particularly interesting to me, but sometimes I will be captured by the first paragraph, and read on, especially if I am not in a great hurry at that moment. I think that this format encourages people to read more reviews than they otherwise would, and to read reviews outside of their subspecialty, and that can only be good for the scholarly process.

Second, I feel that the electronic medium encourages and facilitates a much greater degree of scholarly communication. Part of this has to do with our policies. We have no length limits for reviews, because we are not constrained by space, and therefore our reviews tend to be longer and more comprehensive than those in print. We allow authors to respond to reviews of their books, and we then allow the reviewer a counter-response. But more than the flexibility of our system, we hear of many more interesting instances of communication. We occasionally hear from readers and reviewers that reviews are forwarded from person to person. Sometimes reviewers tell us that the author of a book has gotten in touch with them and they have had an interesting dialogue. Sometimes people say they have had a review published and have heard from people they have been out of touch with for years. Once or twice, reviews have been re-transmitted to discussion lists such as MDVL-L, and dialogue has taken place there. All of these things are extremely important, and are made possible by the speed of the medium, and by the ease of using e-mail.


The last issues I want to touch on are theoretical: is electronic publication less "rigorous" than print? Are we a fully scholarly journal, or not? Should an electronic journal do the same thing as a print journal, or not? Since in assigning reviewers, we generally operate in the same way that a print journal does, we feel that of course we are. In fact, at TMR we have rarely encountered problems in this respect: I can think of only two instances in which someone refused to review a book because they didn't think we were up to their snuff. In most cases, we have been gratified to see that the larger segment of the academic community knows us and appreciates us, and that, when we ask senior scholars (for example) to review books, they often respond enthusiastically, or with what seems like genuine regret that they are too busy. I can say that we have never been insulted by any message or response we have received. I think that one of the reasons for the good response is that it is reassuring to readers that we are like a print journal, and don't do many things that print journals can't do.

On the other hand, the issue of electronic publication as less desirable because more ephemeral has also been raised, most recently in a discussion among the BMCR editorial board (to which we were privy). The BMCR editors asked their board whether they thought it might be a good idea to republish some BMCR reviews in a print journal that currently had no book reviews of its own. The consensus was that this should be undertaken only if a journal requested permission to publish a particular review from its author, but it was interesting to see some of the editors weigh in with comments such as "[this review] deserves to be enshrined in durable print, not just our medium of atoms and void," or "some reviewers prefer the ephemerality of this medium." Another issue raised was that the quality of BMCR reviews was not as high as it would be in a print journal, because somehow the emphemerality led to sloppiness?

I don't want to say that every TMR review is of the standards that I would necessarily like. I do think, however, that the issue of ephemerality is an interesting one. For how long will a website be durable? No-one knows; presumably as long as someone has an interest in keeping a journal running. It is certainly true that one can go into a (well-stocked) library and find copies of journals with short runs from the nineteenth century, although of course usually these are relegated to off-site storage. Still, they exist somewhere. I would like to think that TMR reviews will still exist somewhere in 100 years, even if the journal is no longer operating. That would make them as durable as print is today. And if the web still exists, and they are still on the web, the accessing them will be much easier in the future than accessing print journals of today, in any case. My guess is that electrons will turn out to be more durable than print, thus more worthy of enshrining great thoughts.

This file was posted on 3 May 2001.
Please send your comments to Michael DiMaio, jr.

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