Postmodern Culture

Postmodern Culture: an electronic journal of interdisciplinary criticism was a major project of mine in the early 90s. Along with Eyal Amiran (UVa English Ph.D. 1989), I founded PMC in 1990, and I co-edited it with him until 1996: since that time, I have served on the editorial board and as an consultant to the current editors, Lisa Brawley and Jim English. The journal appears three times a year (September, January, and May), and during its five-year history, only one issue has been published late. In the early years, each issue normally contained six or more critical essays, one or more creative pieces, a popular culture column, and six or more medium-length reviews; more recently, new editors have instituted new features, but the journal remains principally focused on critical analysis of contemporary literature and culture, and still serves an important review function. Since it began publishing on the World-Wide Web, in January 1994, PMC has published film essays with film clips, poetry accompanied by the author's reading, essays on music with illustrative sound clips, and other innovative work. During the early life of the journal, I was the person principally responsible for technical design and implementation, and I served as issue editor for issues In addition to producing regular issues of the journal, PMC also hosted a non-juried email discussion group called PMC-Talk (1990-94), and from 1992 until the present, it has (loosely) sponsored PMC-MOO, once one of the largest real-time virtual commmunities on the internet, with its own internal email discussion groups, live poetry slams, guest speakers, and other events--now somewhat of a ghost town. The journal also maintains a list of Related Readings as a service to its readers, and it awards an annual prize of $500 for the best item published in each journal-year.

PMC was the first peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, and producing it has involved me in continually reinventing the form of the scholarly journal and continually learning new technologies and techniques. My interest in publishing as a topic for research began with work done for my dissertation, when I interviewed editors of contemporary American authors and investigated changes in the economics and sociology of publishing from World War II to the present (see, for example, my chapter in The Columbia History of the American Novel, on the book market after WWII). Given this interest, I regard this work I have done in establishing and shaping PMC as a form of applied research, and I regard my writing and speaking on the topic of electronic publishing as some of the most important scholarly work I have done.

Although we produced a print volume of selected essays from the journal (Essays in Postmodern Culture. Ed. Eyal Amiran and John Unsworth. New York: Oxford UP, 1993), there is no print version of the journal itself (other than the one copy we produce for the MLA Bibliography's indexers). PMC began as a Listserv-based email publication, and it has always been (and continues to be) distributed on Mac and IBM disk and on microfiche. In late 1991, we added gopher and ftp distribution, and in January of 1994 we began publishing a hypermedia version of the journal on the World-Wide Web. There is no charge for any of the internet-accessible forms of the journal (email, gopher, ftp, WWW).

In 1992, PMC signed a five-year contract with Oxford University Press, making it the first electronic journal to be published by Oxford, or indeed by any university press. At present, the journal is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, as part of its Project Muse, a licensed collection of over 100 journals in the humanities. In a unique arrangement with Project Muse, PMC publishes makes each current issue of the journal freely available on the Web, while site-licensing back issues. This strategy has preserved PMC's very wide readership (the journal currently accounts for about 15% of the traffic to Project Muse), while still allowing the Press and the journal to cover fully the cost of the journal's production and dissemination.

Editing Postmodern Culture:

As the first peer-reviewed electronic journal, Postmodern Culture was a ground-breaking experiment in scholarly publishing. It was not just the first publication of its kind: it is also the longest-surviving electronic journal, the first electronic journal to be published by a university press, the first peer-reviewed journal to appear on the World-Wide Web, the first academic journal to publish networked multimedia, and the first scholarly journal distributed free of charge. More than any other journal in recent history, it has invented its medium, its audience, and its methods, and much of my time during the last five years has gone into those efforts.

Still, Postmodern Culture is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, and its editorial process is probably not unlike that of other peer-reviewed journals. From 1990-96, Eyal Amiran and I read every submission--an average of about ten items a week. These submissions consisted of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and popular culture columns, submitted in hard copy, on disk, or by electronic mail. Jim English, then the review editor, handled a similar process for all the reviews published in PMC. It's worth noting that, from the beginning, our policy was to accept submissions in any format whatsoever, because we didn't want to rule out a potential publication for arbitrary technical reasons. For the first two or three years we would routinely receive submissions on disk, in a wide variety of word-processing programs and even in non-standard disk formats: a good deal of time, in the early days, was spent figuring out what format submissions were in, and then translating those files into a usable form.

Obviously, submission rates and rejection ratios have changed over the years, as PMC has become more well known, but the journal is highly selective and the review process is rigorous: about ten percent of submissions are published, almost always after some revision, and any published article has received five separate readings--sometimes more. Articles are carefully proofed and their citations checked for accuracy, rights (for images and multimedia elements) are assiduously obtained, and all articles are formatted to adhere to a consistent journal style. A long-standing and unique aspect of the journal's review process is its use of self-nominated peer reviewers: once a submission has passed initial screening, it is sent to two members of the standing editorial board of the journal, and then, using the journal's email distribution list (now managed by Project Muse), the managing editor will announce the topic of the item to the journal's more than 4,000 email subscribers, inviting those readers to nominate themselves as peer-reviewers, by sending the editors a brief CV or other indication of expertise in the area of the essay in question. One self-nominated reviewer is selected, and the decision whether or not to publish is based on a majority vote of these three reviewers.

It's important not to omit mention of another aspect of editorial work in the early days of PMC: ejournal advocacy. On many occasions, for many different kinds of audiences, the editors of PMC were called upon to argue the merits of electronic journals, to explain our practices and procedures, and to defend the legitimacy of scholarship in this medium. As library subscriptions dropped dramatically through the late 80s and early 90s, and as internet use rose, equally dramatically, among humanists, PMC found itself in the forefront of a paradigm shift in scholarly communication. As editors, Eyal and I defended the traditional values of scholarly publishing against economic and intellectual decay, but we also worked hard, during these years, to legitimate the idea of networked publishing, working closely with other ejournals, with librarians, with publishers, and with scholars in many different disciplines. I regard this as some of the most important work of my career, and I believe, along with my work at the Institute, that these early efforts with PMC will prove to have made a significant impact on the practice of scholarship in the late 20th century.

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