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Pop! A simplest-possible journal workflow

Combining the goals of publishing a high-quality online journal while scaling small and keeping platform dependence at a minimum.

Published onNov 15, 2022
Pop! A simplest-possible journal workflow
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Abstract

The 2020 launch of Pop! Public. Open. Participatory. by the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing promised a “post-digital journal of the public humanities.” Then the pandemic hit, and Pop! became a research prototype interested in establishing a “simplest possible” model, workflow, and technology stack for an OA journal in the humanities. Over the past three years, Pop! has explored and elaborated a set of possibilities that cut through much “accepted wisdom” and dogma about how journals need to be operated — from how the peer review process is handled (largely offline) to how production, metadata, and publication technologies (markdown, YAML, static site, & minimal task-specific XML) are employed. Rather than adopt — or, god forbid, develop — a journal-management CMS, Pop! aims to discern a minimum-viable feature set for a robust, scholar-led, OA journal while foregrounding a relation of care between authors, editors, reviewers, and readers.

Pop! Public. Open. Participatory. is an experimental Open Access (OA) journal that operates both as a journal of record for the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) research network,1 whose stated goal is fostering open social scholarship, and as a research prototype that allows us to explore journal publishing, editorial process, peer review, and the way technical infrastructure shapes scholarly discourse.

We launched Pop!2 — a “post-digital journal of the public humanities,” in late 2019. By “post-digital” we actually meant to print it, not like a traditional journal but rather a lovely, collectable, keepsake edition, and to hand-sell it at conferences and gatherings. The COVID pandemic blew those plans out of the water and forced Pop! in a different direction. We were still interested to be post-digital,3 but now more in the sense of resisting the incessant Internet logic of scale, metrics, algorithms. We wanted Pop! to be for humanists and to put human connection first. So Pop! became a research prototype: a “simplest possible” model to first investigate workflow and technology, and then to investigate how to conduct business as a publication that centres care and relationality. Over the past three-and-a-half years, Pop! has explored and elaborated a set of possibilities that cut through much of the accepted wisdom about how journals need to be operated.

Toward platform minimalism

Works a lot better as purposeful, consentual output rather than just a platform — because after all, anyone can “publish” anything / anywhere now.

Alyssa Arbuckle

What makes a scholarly journal today is adherence to an emergent standard that has come to exist through the scaling up, speeding up, and shoring up the business models that underpin scholarly communication. By this, I mean the journals published by large corporate publishers like Elsevier and Springer Nature, and also, because of the incumbents’ definitions of success, it also means the dominant ‘open’ publishing systems, from PLoS-style megajournals to the OJS universe. An aspiring journal that wants to be taken seriously as a scholarly publication ends up looking recognizably like something out of these dominant models — and as a result likely participates in the political economy of these scaled-up exemplars. In the competitive business of scaling up and speeding up, questions of the form of the journal, the form of an article, and, in the vast majority of cases, the operating practices of reviewing, editing, and publishing scholarship, are largely unasked. Rather they are swept up in the fast-moving “business as usual” of scholarly communications.

Pop! was launched as a conjecture that it doesn’t have to be thus; that through dissection, examination, and re-imagination of the model, it is possible to create and nurture a scholarly publication that doesn’t take its forms or operating principles for granted. We asked instead, what if we made a journal with the goal of people reading and writing for it, as opposed to just citing and indexing it? What if we took seriously the community that gives context to those people’s reading and writing? How small could a journal operation be? How much should it cost to run such a journal? What are the value propositions of a publication to its scholarly community? And if we abandoned much of the assumed baggage around journal production, what would actually be required to get one off the ground and running sustainably.

The Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems (OJS) has clearly informed and inspired much of this thinking. OJS was designed some twenty years ago with many of these same questions in mind. This is not lost on us, as OJS was designed and built here, initially at UBC and then at SFU where it has remained for many years; I count OJS’ leadership among my friends and colleagues.

For all OJS’s strengths — both ideological and practical — it is something of a monolith today, an unsurprising outcome of its global success as a platform.4 And while the popular image of starting a journal with OJS evokes all sorts of DIY and fiercely independent good feelings, the practical reality of doing so means entering the OJS technical mindset, which is based on some very ‘mature’ ideas about technical infrastructure, content management, and indeed people management. It means entering not only into the OJS community but the way OJS sees the world.

OJS’s original design and its evolution over the years has established some assumptions about workflow, infrastructure, and publishing almost as bedrock; assumptions that, while entirely reasonable, simply aren’t the only way to think about workflow and infrastructure and publishing. In launching Pop! we set out to question some of those assumptions, or at least to try to think through them without automatically taking on OJS’ now-substantial intellectual legacy in those areas.

We asked, for instance:

  • How does the editorial workflow impact the character and quality of peer review? What is truly necessary—or indeed desirable—in a journal publishing workflow?

  • How should scholarly content be represented in a publishing system? What is its relationship with metadata? How are the algorithmically oriented aspects of a journal pragmatically reconciled with the human-oriented aspects?

  • What is the proper role of a platform? How can we navigate the essential tension between how platforms solve (or at least internalize) a set of practical problems (editing, content management, metadata, DOI provision, and so on) and the constraints such a system puts on how people imagine the workings of such a system and their place in it?

Publishing online — scholarly journals and otherwise — today seems very much to be an issue of choosing one platform or another: platforms that big publishers offer to their clients; platforms that vendors offer to publishers; platforms that seem free to use but exact costs at some other level.5 And always: platforms that further their own centrality and necessity over time; for what good would a platform be if its users moved out of it?

At Pop! we asked, how could we publish a high-quality online journal while keeping platform dependence at a minimum in order to maximize flexibility for our own priorities. We understood, even at the outset, that this would probably come at a cost to scalability.

Minimalist infrastructure

In 2013, Clay Shirky made this devastating observation about what “publishing” meant in the twenty-first century:

There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.

Clay Shirky6

Those of us who study and teach publishing have spent the past decade disentangling the obvious truth in Shirky’s charge from the actual complexities of “publication”.7 But even at face value, a scholarly journal is much more than just a website with a collection of articles, precisely because of the logic of the journal genre and how it is actually supposed to serve the community of discourse it represents. So while the end-point (the output) of an online journal might look a bit like a Wordpress website, the means to getting it there is substantially more interesting and complex. Certainly, publishers and platforms take pains to explain why there is more to it.8 And just as certainly, 21st century journal publishing has become “enterprised up” in pursuit of scale, efficiency, and high degree of standardization. Journal articles have become standardized in both genre and form, not just due to the years of training that scholars go through to learn how to read and write them, but, increasingly, by technical standards like JATS XML, indexing services, and the range of metrics that purport to allow us to make sense of the scholarly ecosystem — even if those metrics are often suspect.

However, he pursuit of scale does not prioritize care or attention to the details of human experience — something we take as central to humanities scholarship. In the absence of human values, scholarly communication begins to look like any other algorithmic commodity traded in 21st-century late capitalism. But what if economies of scale didn’t rule the game? At Pop! we were very much inspired by the ScholarLed Consortium, which prioritizes bibliodiversity even at the expense of scale. Barnes & Gatti (2019) wrote:

The overriding objective of the collective is to work collaboratively with all actors in the scholarly publishing ecosystem (scholars, libraries, publishers) to create systems that allow diverse, small scale scholarly publishing initiatives to effectively operate, and so to create a robust, inclusive and community managed publishing ecosystem: Scaling Small.9

Pop! is scaled small, and for these very reasons. In aiming to keep the technical and process dependencies minimal, we hope to have the maximum flexibility and agility for our scholarly priorities. So for instance, we built Pop! as an experiment in using the simplest, least-encumbered publication technology I had encountered in my many years of looking at publishing software: markdown.10 If we began with content marked up (as it were) with markdown, using nothing more than a generic text editor, we would be off to a head start toward device- and system-independence, a core virtue that motivated the development of SGML and XML decades ago.11 If we had a simple, open, non-proprietary content representation format, then we would just need tools that could work with markdown—for conversion, production, and so on—and there are loads of them. We would, to some extent, at least, be platform independent.

“Grav, or whatever!”

In practice, we built the actual publication system on Grav,12 a “flat-file CMS” that turns markdown text into a website on the fly. There are any number of publishing systems that do just that; we chose Grav in large part because of the existence of one of its key community developers here at SFU. We also chose the Pandoc13 toolkit for other file conversion and manipulation. Both are open-source software, both are, for all intents and purposes, replaceable by other functionally equivalent tools, if the need were to arise. We took some time and trouble to design and develop the Grav website so that it was both visually elegant and eminently readable—we took seriously the details of typography and layout, and spent a good amount of time up front prototyping and critiquing and iterating on the design. We set up hosting for Pop! in a simple way, via the excellent, educationally focused Reclaim Hosting.14

The Grav system also supports the open YAML standard15 for expressing metadata in readable plain text (Pandoc supports this too). This allowed us to build both the content representation and the metadata within a single canonical text file for each article. The strategy of embedding metadata directly within the article itself, as opposed to keeping it separate but indexical, allows the metadata to be exposed, presented, transformed, or mined in different ways depending (or rather, regardless) how the article is published, archived, or discovered. Note that this is a major break from the way OJS and most other journal publication systems, which keep content (stored as a PDF or an HTML file) separate from metadata (as fields in a database).

An article in Pop! is thus a single articulation, containing everything about itself integrally. It can be read, parsed, converted, published, viewed, or edited by any number of open tools.16 Grav is but one such tool. Another is Github, the collaborative code-sharing platform that millions of software projects use. Pop! uses GitHub as a deployment stage, between development version (e.g., on my laptop) and the published website; it thus also serves as a version-controlled archive to all of Pop!’s content, as well as the components related to Pop!’s website theme and style.17

Pop!’s basic infrastructure is about as simple as it gets. Will it scale? No, there are probably limits to how big this system could get. But to stay concrete about this, an issue of Pop! with ten articles requires just eleven text files. So pragmatically, we could probably publish hundreds of issues before we hit any real limits, and those limits would be organizational and editorial, not technical. Our goal was to have technical infrastructure that handled the absolute essentials—things like deployment, publishing, linking—but to leave most of the operational concerns to the human beings involved.

On workflow

Pop!’s technical infrastructure is minimal, but this does not necessarily reflect a minimalist editorial workflow. Indeed, articles in Pop! go through what we take to be a basic standard for journal articles — but our editorial stages are managed by editors, rather than by software. The (somewhat simplified) stages are as follows:

  1. Author’s submissions as .docx files.18

  2. Editors identify peer reviewers and send articles by email. Reviews go back to editors and back to authors, again just using email. A simple spreadsheet is used for tracking status and sent/received dates.

  3. Authors’ revised articles come back as .docx files.

  4. Copyediting in .docx, using Track Changes.

  5. Conversion of articles to markdown format using Pandoc.

  6. Draft journal issue is assembled in Grav website, including:

    • writing metadata in YAML format;

    • registering DOIs with CrossRef;

    • publishing ‘proofs’ for authors to approve.

  7. Journal issue published by publicizing the URL.

It is a simple enough workflow, requiring minimal staffing. In Pop!’s first three issues, this involved a journal editor (me); a small team of issue editors who curate, write the introduction, and manage peer review; and a copyeditor. All communications are handled via personal emails (I like to think that these are even ‘friendly’ emails). Content management and versioning in development is handled simply via a series of numbered folders on Sync.com. Post copyediting, and once in markdown format, the articles are deployed to our website via Github, which offers fine-grained version tracking.

The critical points in this workflow, from a labour perspective are (a) the peer review feedback loop; (b) copyediting; and (c) crafting YAML metadata for each article (author ORCIDs, affiliations, contact info, abstracts, and so forth). All three of these are essential editorial functions, concerned with the development and interpretation of the article and its contexts. These are often processes that are tightly ‘modelled’ in software in many journal publication processes, presumably in an effort to streamline or at least normalize the process. But these are, we believe, human activities best managed by human beings.

Registering DOIs with CrossRef looked at first like a daunting process, mostly because CrossRef is optimized to work at scale with big publishers. After some trial and error, it turned out that converting our YAML metadata into the kind of XML that CrossRef wants wasn’t actually that hard, and so now it’s almost automatic; here is an area where a bit of software is in fact the right thing, as opposed to relying on editorial skill.

Reconsidering Peer Review

Once the technical parts of Pop! had been worked out, the issue of how to manage peer review seemed to be the most interesting area—especially for a humanities journal. It seemed that, if we had already eschewed a top-down, software-driven approach to journal management, that our next opportunity was to make the peer review process less transactional and more developmental. There is, however, a large gap between talking about changing peer review and actually changing it; scholars have trained for years to write for, expect, and produce peer reviews according to a well-worn pattern that is not grounded so much in an actual rationale as it is simply conventional.19 So while a non-automated, fully ‘manual’ protocol for recruiting, advising, assigning, and dealing with peer reviews and peer reviewers in theory provides a space for a more nurturing and developmental approach,20 it hasn’t necessarily born this fruit in practice, yet.

Prior to Pop!’s founding I had the good fortune to be part of a peer review process that incorporated physical, IRL meetings. The proceedings of the annual Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) partnership conference were in fact peer reviewed in part via an in-person gathering at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) for a number of years, pre-pandemic. At these gatherings, which simply took advantage of the fact that a good number of the journal’s editorial board and likely reviewers happened to be gathered together for DHSI, deliberations about article submissions were handled conversationally in a lovely garden setting. The review comments generated in this setting were by far the most extensive and generous of any I have ever experienced. I remain inspired by this experience to find ways to deepen the relational and contextual foundation for peer reviewing. Since all of Pop!’s issues so far have been event-oriented proceedings as well, it seems that grounding the review process in an event featuring real human beings might be a helpful innovation—again, especially given the ideal of article development through peer review.

Pop! as exploration of limits of scale

My colleague Rowly Lorimer (2016) made a case for a functional distinction between editorial and publishing mindsets, arguing that a specialization of labour between publishers and editors was in fact necessary for innovation and growth.

As editors concerned primarily with content, quite rightly, they focus on the contribution each article makes to the development of knowledge. Editors often regard publishing details as “a headache,” a viewpoint that commercial publishers promote when they are seeking new journal clients. In contrast, a publisher acting as a strategic planner determines how best to present that knowledge in the market and to disseminate knowledge as widely and profitably as possible.21

Pop! exists, as does the general “scholar-led” notion, as a challenge to Lorimer’s framing. Rather than specialist roles, our vision holds that the means of publication is as important to the scholarly discourse as the content, and that, unshackled to the heavy iron of massive platforms, innovation has more freedom to flourish when the system is in the hands of scholars. The fact that Pop! is published out of a Publishing Studies program no doubt makes this claim less generalizable, but does not invalidate it—especially in humanities scholarship.

The Radical Open Access Collective (ROAC)‘s Samuel Moore invoked Christopher Kelty’s idea of recursive publics, which are concerned with the “technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of [their] own existence,”22 and arguing that scholars’ willingness to engage with the means of production and circulation is what will determine whether, in the future, the academy is merely a content producer for commercial publishers, or if we will have real agency in the reach and relevance of our work.23

Like OJS before it, Pop! is an intervention in the discourse around scholarly publishing, pushing on the horizons of the possible, which are forever calcifying through the logic of systems, bureaucracies, capital, and dogma. As a functional journal of record, Pop! has succeeded so far at delivering high-quality scholarship to its community while doing so very quickly, easily, and cheaply. But as a research prototype, Pop! even more importantly allows us to tinker with the moving parts of our scholarly publication in pursuit of better alignments between infrastructure, process, and priorities. As a prototype, Pop!’s operational model is probably a tad austere for many would-be scholarly publishers, as it relies heavily on the set of skills and expertise found in a Publishing Studies department.24 But the exercise of confronting the details of the “means of production” is critical to a scholar-led sense of what the scholarly communication is going to be. In the words, of Punctum Books’ Eileen Joy, “Our job in the present is to keep all options in play and to maximize what is possible over what is determined in advance (usually by the powerful)…”

Acknowledgements:

Enormous thanks to the Pop! team —Alyssa Arbuckle, Ellen Forget, Mauve Pagé, Leanne Johnson, and Grav expert Paul Hibbitts—for all the thinking and making behind this essay.*

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