Discovering Digital Medievalists

A short response on the Humanist Discussion Group about journal editing software was enough to send me on a discovery trip this morning to a journal about which I was previously unaware: Digital Medievalist. Many aspects of this online-only open access title are interesting, two of which have already been noted: online and open access. The layout of the title is clean and attractive; although the editor is reserved about some of the functionality of the journal management system being used, Open Journal Systems (OJS), my first impression of the site is positive, as is my impression of the submission system, reviewing procedures, and elaborate guidelines for authors regarding manuscript preparation.

In terms of article enhancement, the basic features and expectations of a hyperlink Web environment are present:  embedded links for navigating within an article as well as to sources outside the publication. Large-size color figures are used as opposed to the thumbnail size that can be popped up, now appearing in a wide range of online journals. Bibliographic entries also do not pop up when clicking on an in-text reference, but clicking on the link takes one directly to the entry. The journal has dispensed with issues and organizes published articles on an annual basis – another feature increasingly common among online journals. These are, of course, very minor matters of design, which have little to no importance in the larger arena of concerns. Above all, this journal and the related features of mailing list, wiki, and news service seem to provide an assortment of communicative features for what is probably a relatively small  but internationally distributed community of medieval scholars.

Another attractive feature of smallness **may** be the intent to circumvent the stranglehold imposed by academic institutions and other contributors to the community (e.g. individual scholars, publishers, assessment committees). Journals have become a misused device for measuring quality of scholarship through expectations for academics to publish in ISI titles with high impact factors, creating a culture of accumulating published articles in the so-called ‘top journals’. This approach is often imposed by assessment committees,  reinforced by institutions and departments, and adopted as ‘standard practice’ by tenured and nontenured faculty. It is of little benefit to any of the mentioned actors, including the journals that become ‘used’ by both individual scholars  and their institutions in the name of research assessment. I have no idea whether Digital Medievalist and academics active in that niche area of scholarship are able to avoid the assessment ‘rat race’ in which many of the rest of us are – by necessity – engaged, but I would like to hope so….

Back to enhancement, this journal probably does not subscribe to the ontology model promoted by SURF and, in fact, many other institutions concerned with persistent identifiers, resource maps, and general deconstruction of a publication into ‘objects’ that are stored in a database for purposes of access and retrieval, and ‘interoperability’ and interlinking – all the kind of concerns prominent in the work of Herbert Van de Sompel and many others (I mention Van de Sompel because he gave an enticing presentation (here are his slides) on this vision during the e-Humanities Group (eHg) Research Meeting, 16 June, along with a presentation by those of us involved in the eHg Enhanced Publication Project; see slides here.) One of the distinctions Van de Sompel emphasized is the difference between repository-centric and resource-centric architecture of Web-based publications. The present scale of Digital Medievalist may not require or make possible such concern (the journal has been in operation since 2005 and publishes, on average, five articles a year). But if I were launching a journal today, I think I would want to seriously consider these ‘under the hood’ features that make publication enhancement much more than clean design and hyperlinks….