Digital History

A New Modern History? Digital Journals & the Study of the Past

An international conference on digital history at La Tuscia University in Viterbo, (Italy), which took place on 16-18 May 2013, addressed themes that can contribute to the current discussion in the UK on open access and the role of the historian. The title of the conference was ‘A new modern history? Digital journals and the study of the past’, and speakers included modern historians based at universities in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the UK.  Some of the speakers are employed with permanent contracts in their universities, while others are young scholars with fixed-term contracts; most of the participants are involved in the editorial boards of online journals. The conference papers were divided into four areas of discussion: methodology and interdisciplinary issues; online history in Italy; online history – an international overview; and a workshop of modern history online journals. The papers and discussion addressed similar problems to those currently debated by scholars in the UK. In particular, the second and the third sessions demonstrated that the other countries under consideration at the conference are in some ways moving in an opposite direction to the one recently endorsed by the Research Councils UK (RCUK), which opens up some interesting comparisons and contrasts. The fourth session provided ideas for a project on similar lines to the one currently discussed by the Open Library of the Humanities and could thus encourage transnational collaboration. A first impression was that contributions by historians to online journals (journals that are only online rather than traditional journals with an online version) are more common in the other countries under consideration at the conference than in the UK. Most of these journals operate a system of refereed evaluation, are open access, and generally funded by universities, or hosted in university portals.(1)


The ‘digital turn’ has prompted in all countries under discussion a debate about the role of the historian in the digital age, the changes brought about in researching and writing history, the increased need for interdisciplinarity. In an HWO article on ‘The Digital Turn’, Tim Hitchcock and Jason Kelly emphasized the problems which limit both the author’s freedom and the dissemination of articles in traditional academic journals: because of the peer review process, the length of time that passes between the submission of an article and its final publication mean that historiographical debate develops frustratingly slowly; the subscription costs limit circulation outside academia; and strict rules about the length of articles undermine intellectual innovation.  The online version of traditional journals has not produced any changes, and this criticism lay at the heart of the movement for open access. However, as shown by many examples presented by the conference speakers in Viterbo, online open access journals often find it difficult to overcome these difficulties and to propose entirely new formats and languages. In the case of online journals, for example, the visual/acoustic aspects might be more widely used as they can be exploited more effectively than in the case of the printed journal. Much more could be done to make use of the potentialities of the web, for example it should be possible, one of the speakers suggested, to make text and documents interact, by inserting the documents themselves rather than using foot/endnotes.

The main problems in the development of digital history journals highlighted by most of the papers seem to be first the generational/financial factor, and second the evaluation criteria of universities and funding bodies. Online journals are mostly led by young scholars with a precarious professional status and with almost no funds available, which has a negative impact on portals and blogs that need to be constantly updated. The lack of technical and financial help is partly responsible for the failure, in many cases, of exploring new forms of communication, even when the initial aim is not to repeat the classic style of articles that are present in traditional journals. In almost all cases, online journals are created and run by young historians who need to find funds from their universities or cultural institutions. One key aspect that informed the debate was the role of institutions in investing financially in these projects, in order to make possible and effective their multimedia character and to make them easy to navigate. The universities’ evaluation systems are also responsible for the limited success of online journals. Particularly in the UK, but increasingly in other countries too, the decision by the government to rank journals and thus judge the quality of academics’ outputs on the basis of where articles are published, excludes online journals. Since producing an article – from the writing of the first draft through to the implementation of changes requested by referees and to the submission of the final draft – usually requires months of work, it is more likely that a historian, in order to get a permanent position or to progress in his/her career, will seek publication in one of the ranked traditional journals. This situation, besides limiting the freedom of the historian to decide where to publish, imposes restrictions on the development of online journals, to the point that participation in them becomes a question of militancy rather than a professional need. As the experience of many of the conference participants showed – as well as the analysis of digital history journals published – online journals can bring the discipline forward in a number of ways: they can experiment with different formats and languages in writing history thanks to the new possibilities provided by the web; they enhance historiographical debates on books that have just been published; and they facilitate and develop a dialogue between generations and between disciplines. Some of the speakers at the conference underlined the importance of using web resources, including digital journals, as a way of sharing culture more widely, while at the same time the need to maintain a necessary relationship between contributions on the web and the printed monograph.

Another important feature of digital history is its aim to reach a readership outside the boundaries of the academic community. For this reason, almost all the online journals examined at the conference are open access, an aspect in which all participants believe strongly. Digital history is indeed also seen as a means to overcome the current crisis of the humanities, as online journals, portals and blogs facilitate participation of historians in public debates. It was clear throughout the conference that all these journals aim at using the web in order to forge links with public discourse and to promote a wider socialization of knowledge and of historiographical reflection. In the case of the Latin- American journals, it was also underlined that open access was a way to overcome the subaltern status they experience in relation to the Eurocentric model, by proposing a comparative and transnational framework. In Spain, the increasing request by a younger generation of scholars to address themes of national importance such as Francoism provided a favourable climate to the development of online open access journals, despite the cuts in funding which has led to a crisis among these journals more generally. In an HWO article on ‘The Future Uses of History’, Pamela Cox posed the question of the need for historians to increase their impact on contemporary society, economy and politics.  This belief, supported by the British government (and thus by the public funding councils) has amplified the importance of so-called ‘impact’ in the universities’ evaluation system, with the result that limits are imposed on the freedom of scholars to choose the subjects on which they wish to pursue research. Scholarly research and historical knowledge seem to be increasingly more limited in their scope; the imperative to engage with current affairs often risks flattening out a complex and rigorous discipline like history.

Both the issue of interdisciplinarity and the role of historians in the public sphere are at the core of the discussion in online journals and were addressed at the conference. Worries were expressed in many of the papers over the impact of digitalization on the rigour of the discipline: while the production of portals, blogs and history apps tends to enhance the role of the historian outside the academic community and interdisciplinarity in positive ways, it is necessary to control their quality, and the link between scientific value and dissemination needs to be maintained if history, and the freedom as well as the accuracy of historical research are to survive. These issues were explored by an AHRC-funded project in 2006, which considered the question of refereed evaluation of digital sources and provided guidelines on how this could be done.

Along similar lines, some of the conference participants stressed the need for positions such as ‘humanist programmers’, experts trained in both IT and the humanities, and for an evaluation system that should be as rigorous as the one used in the case of non-digital outputs. In accordance with the results of the AHRC project, the conference participants insisted that the ‘popularity’ of a digital output cannot be a useful means of judging its value. The number of visitors to online journals suggests that they have many more readers than traditional journals; however, those visitors are not necessarily readers of articles, and the importance of an online journal, website exhibition or podcast cannot be judged in terms of the number of visitors as that provides no guarantee of scholarly standard. History produced for apps, for example, needs to limit the linguistic complexity and to build on its emotional impact, but this should be done only if the scientific value is preserved while at the same time reaching out to a wider audience.

The conference also represented an attempt to create a network of history online journals. Cases where this has been pursued were examined as possible examples, such as the open access portal ‘Redalyc’ for Latin- American countries, or the French ‘Recherché Isidore’ with its associated websites. The proposal was put forward that existing scholarly open access online journals build a common platform which makes the dissemination of the articles easier. However, the choice made by the RCUK and the response of journal publishers (which will compel the authors to pay for publishing scholarly articles) seems to be generating a gap between the ways in which the nature of the web is intended in Britain and in the other countries analysed at the conference. In the UK, the RCUK decisions appears indeed to move in the direction of safeguarding a number of traditional journals (and their publishing houses), limiting the choice of historians on where to publish – as recognized by a recent analysis by the Royal Historical Society.

The project Open Library of Humanities represents an attempt, by both established academics and young scholars at the start of their career, to resolve some of the problems debated at the conference in Viterbo: how to support the dissemination of knowledge while maintaining the freedom of academics and protecting the high standard of scholarly research. Perhaps this movement can only succeed if it looks outside the UK, by becoming involved in a geographically wider discussion and by seeking to find shared solutions.

(1) The principal history online journals/portals discussed at the conference were: Officina della Storia; Cromhos – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography; – – Portail de revues en sciences humaines et sociales; Cahiers de la Méditerranée; Ayer; Hispania Nova; Reda de História Contemporânea; Historia Actual Online; El Futuro del pasado; Tiempo presente;; Latindex; Storicamente; Diacronie; Storia e Futuro;; Reviews in History; History Workshop Online; History and Policy; Law, Crime and History; and History of Women in the Americas.

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