Promoting a Public Face for Scholarly Journals

This is the third in a series of posts about each of the teams that will be attending SCI 2018, and their projects. This one was submitted by Stephen Robertson.

Photo of flower against a yellow background

What can be done to expand the online presence of scholarly journals to promote broader public engagement with the research they publish?

Attacks on academic institutions generally and the humanities specifically have increasingly inspired scholars to make their work more accessible to the broader public. Many intend for their work to contribute to the pursuit of social justice and, as articulated by the African American Intellectual History Society, to “shed light upon and critically analyze issues of relevance to the public.” Online platforms are promising options for reaching such goals, both by supplementing and enhancing more traditional forms of scholarship and by revealing scholars’ research and writing processes.

Groups of scholars and professional organizations have already begun engaging the public online. Nursing Clio, Notches, NiCHE, and The Junto are among the leading scholar-driven blogs; the African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives and the Society for US Intellectual History’s USIH blog are prominent examples of online publications by organizations. Scholarly journals, however, have been slow to engage with emerging forms of scholarly communication beyond digital delivery of articles and have played a limited role in promoting public engagement with scholarship.

Online platforms for digital versions of print publications give many journals an online presence, but one restricted to subscribers and controlled by publishers not editors. Beyond articles, those sites provide only editorial information. Some journals have a social media presence, generally limited to broadcasting the contents of each new issue. A small number of journals have begun to develop websites outside the paywall to promote and expand on content: for example, The Panorama from the Journal of the Early Republic; the Journal of the History of Ideas blog, and The Docket, under development by the Law and History Review. None of these sites yet involve significant interaction with readers, however.

And yet, journals are uniquely positioned to make distinctive contributions to promoting public engagement; as publishers, they have access to scholarship that scholars and even scholarly organizations do not, and can, thus, more directly connect audiences with research. Journals also offer an umbrella that makes public engagement less ephemeral and more visible, and a less professionally risky undertaking for scholars.

What often holds academic journals and societies back from developing accessible, public content is that change involves risk as well as the investment of limited resources—financial as well as human. It requires the use of digital platforms and tools that currently may not be part of a journal’s portfolio. Content for such platforms often differs from what journals currently publish, making the support and management of such content challenging. Moreover, the effort required to launch such public facing initiatives is just the first step; they also must be maintained. While a handful of journals have successfully developed some form of public face, it is not enough to make the risks appear manageable to others who might otherwise be interested.

Photo of glowing statues at nightWe will explore what can be done to reduce risk in creating a public face for scholarly journals, using history journals as a case study. We will ask a variety of questions, including:

  • How could journals promote public engagement using existing platforms—websites; social media; audio and video media; and annotations—and practices—online material that expands on the content of articles and the research and methods they employ; forums that connect authors and readers; author interviews; content shaped for non-scholarly audiences; and content that engages with contemporary issues and discussions?
  • How could journals compliment and engage with other scholars and organizations promoting online public engagement?
  • What resources and training would make developing an online presence more efficient and effective?
  • How can we make an online presence that integrates public engagement and scholarly publication a pattern of scholarly communication expected of journals?
  • How can we set realistic metrics for success?
  • What kind of reach can be expected in a crowded media landscape?
  • Are there ways we can work together to expand this reach and support rather than compete with each other for reader attention?

Our team:

Lisa M. Brady is professor of History at Boise State University and editor in chief of Environmental History. Her research examines the intersection of war and environment and her current project is a history of conflict on the Korean peninsula over the course of the 20th century. As editor, she undertook the expansion of Environmental History’s supplemental website ( and appointed its first dedicated Digital Content Editor to oversee such online-only features as “Field Notes,” peer-reviewed essays focused on the process and practice of doing environmental history. She also works closely with her publishing partners at Oxford University Press to promote the journal’s content through virtual issues (open access, drawn from articles previously published, curated around a timely issue) and other projects.

Liz Covart is the Digital Projects Editor for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary. In 2014, she founded Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History, which seeks to create wide-public awareness about early American history and the work of professional historians. As the OI’s Digital Projects Editor, she now produces and hosts Ben Franklin’s World for the OI and plays a leading role in the organization’s multi-platform and multimedia initiatives to engage multiple publics with scholarly early American history. These initiatives include creating podcast series to drive listeners to other OI media including articles in the William and Mary Quarterly and using the William and Mary Quarterly and other OI media to drive readers to the podcast. The OI Reader app makes these digital-to-print and print-to-digital efforts possible. It also makes it possible for the William and Mary Quarterly to publish native digital articles and articles with interactive components.

Seth Denbo is director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives at the American Historical Association, which has as a primary focus of its activities an interest in bringing historical knowledge to as wide an audience as possible. Over the past decade the association has promoted better engagement in public culture by historians, opportunities for historians working outside of academia, and better historical education more broadly. The Association uses its blog and other digital outlets to bring history to bear on contemporary society. Denbo has been involved with the association’s efforts to provide infrastructure for digital scholarship, including guidelines, training materials, workshops, etc. He also works closely the editor of the American Historical Review in exploring ways to engage to bring the scholarship in the journal to audiences outside the academy.

Robert Greene is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University and the book review editor and contributing blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians. As a member of S-USIH, Mr. Greene writes about African American and Southern intellectual histories, always with an eye towards writing for a public audience. In addition to his work at S-USIH, Greene has also contributed to the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog, Black Perspectives. He has also delivered papers at the first two AAIHS conferences, in Chapel Hill in 2016 and Nashville in 2017. Also, Mr. Greene has written for numerous public outlets, such as Dissent, Jacobin, Scalawag, The Nation, In These Times, and Politico. For all these outlets, and others, Mr. Greene has written about the intersection of history with current events and modern politics.

Catherine Halley is the editor-in-chief of JSTOR Daily (, an online magazine and newsletter published by JSTOR that provides scholarly context for news for a general, nonacademic reader. Based on the peer-reviewed, scholarly research available on, JSTOR Daily (@JSTOR_Daily) stories encourage lifelong learners to take a deep dive into news headlines and/or a step back to discover the origin stories of topics as diverse as fake news and potato chips. The magazine covers a wide range of subjects from arts and culture to science and technology, and draws on scholarship from fields as diverse as physics and sociology. All readers get free access to the scholarship cited in JSTOR Daily stories. Halley has taught academics how to pitch editors at non-academic publications and specializes in cultivating wider audiences for academic and otherwise arcane knowledge. Prior to launching JSTOR Daily, Halley was the digital director at the Poetry Foundation, where she launched the popular Poetry from the Poetry Foundation mobile app and used technology and social media platforms to create a popular audience for poetry.

Stephen Robertson directs the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, which uses digital media and computer technology to democratize history.  The Center collaborates with practitioners and audiences engaged with history in universities, schools, libraries, archives, museums, and communities. He is co-organizer of RRCHNM’s new annual conference and peer-reviewed online journal Current Research in Digital History. For his own project, Digital Harlem, Robertson has developed a blog to make the site accessible to users and present stories based on its contents. He also brings to the workshop extensive experience in developing and offering training in digital literacy and skills.

Follow-up Activities

The result of our meeting will be a guide to platforms and strategies for public engagement which we would disseminate online, and present at the journal editors’ breakfast at the 2019 American Historical Association conference. Depending upon the needs and approaches that emerge from our conversations, we could also pursue funding for workshops, online resources, and hosting and technical support to help journals create an online presence.

Prior to the Institute, we plan to undertake a survey of editors of historical journals through the American Historical Association and the Conference of Historical Journals to gather information on their specific interests, concerns, and needs in regards to developing a public online presence.

[ Photos by Alex and Steve Roe on Unsplash used under Unsplash free license. ]

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