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Kairos: Open Since 1996
June 4, 2013 - 8:51pm

Open access publishing has been gaining ground recently. I thought it would be instructive to talk to Doug Eyman, editor of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, & Pedagogy - which has been exploring the potential of open access web-based publishing since 1996.

What is Kairos? What niche in the ecosystem of scholarship does it fill?

Kairos is an academic journal that focuses on the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy – not just in terms of content but also in terms of how the scholarly work is imagined, designed, and built. Much of the work that we have published is situated in the field of computers and writing[1], an area of composition/rhetoric scholarship that examines how new writing technologies make possible new forms of writing and how they can support new approaches to teaching writing. There are a lot of interesting connections between the scholarly work that the field of computers and writing has engaged and the kinds of issues that the digital humanities are currently wrestling with (and I would encourage DH folks to look at that scholarship, since some of the issues coming up now in DH were ones that C&W focused on in the 1980s, and some of that work might actually be helpful). While we’ve always had a strong presence a the Conference on College Composition and Communication, our main gathering is the annual Computers and Writing conference (this year in Frostburg MD, June 6-9). We’re hoping to branch out a bit more though, and we are encouraging scholars from technical communication, communication studies, and library and information sciences to consider submitting work that draws on those fields’ approaches to rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy.

Kairos began publishing in 1996. What were the founders hoping to accomplish? How difficult was it for an online-only journal to find both readers and contributors? (Since the current acceptance rate is only about ten percent, you obviously get submissions.) Have academics questioned whether this is the kind of publishing that “counts” as scholarship? Have those attitudes changed over time?

Originally, the founding editors (who were all graduate students) wanted to provide a venue for scholars to explore publishing in this new web medium – there were a number of scholars writing about hypertext and about the web, but not many of these authors were actually composing in the medium. So there was a lot of theory, but not a lot of practice, at least in terms of scholarship. Readership has never been much of a difficulty – we do advertise at conferences and we’ve made sure we’re indexed by MLA, ATTW, and ERIC. (we’ve been approached by EBSCOhost, and other content aggregators, but they don’t seem able to understand how to deal with anything that isn’t text/pdf). Even early on, the journal had a healthy readership, and we’ve peaked at around 40 thousand visitors in a single month (and that’s visitors, not ‘hits’). I think one of the smart things the original editors did was set it up using the genre conventions of a journal – editorial board (which was stocked with both new scholars/graduate students and very established scholars in the field), peer-review, distinct issues, and an ISSN. They also invited some “big names” to be in the first few issues, some of whom they helped with the web design aspect of the work. We do get a pretty good range of submissions, but as with any journal, we are always trying to find ways to encourage more authors to submit. We know that there’s a lot more labor that goes into a webtext than a traditional article (because the design carries the argument as much as the written text does), so we also try to serve as mentors to the field where we can (both in the editorial process and through workshops at conferences).

We have had some pushback in terms of accepting the work as scholarly enough, but that occurred mostly from the beginning of the journal (1/1/1996) until around the turn of the century (~2002 or so). I’ve written a number of supporting documents for tenure files, explaining the basics – acceptance rate, readership, peer review process, quality of the editorial board – as well as our arguments for the intrinsic value of developing a design-driven scholarship that takes advantage of the affordances of the medium, even as those affordances continue to evolve. I think that we don’t have as much of an issue now, as even “print” journals are electronically composed and T&P boards are more used to seeing digital versions of publications. And I just received tenure at GMU largely due to my editing work with Kairos, which my department, the dean, and the provost all deemed a worthy and valuable enterprise (about which I was very pleasantly surprised—especially to see the acknowledgement all the way up through the academic administration).

I notice one of the early articles has the note “this site is best viewed using an HTML 2.0 capable browser,”  with a handy link to Netscape. How complicated has it been to evolve with technology? I also have to ask on behalf of my fellow librarians, how are you preserving the journal for future scholars?

One of the things we’ve tried to do is keep a copy of the original interface design(s) for the different iterations of the journal and make those available. We also (now) insist on having all of the elements of each webtext on our server (and although we have been using YouTube to host video, because a streaming video server is a bit outside of our budget, we do keep copies of video files on our server as well. And we’re looking for a YouTube replacement, as the copyright trolls are getting way out of hand: we’re seeing ‘infringing’ notices and takedowns on videos of interviews with faculty – no background images or music, just the faculty member talking about their work. Sometimes our videos suddenly have ads embedded, courtesy of companies that claim infringement but instead of a takedown notice, they just pile on advertising. Sometimes we can get it taken care of, but the system is designed to discourage counter-claims against these bogus copyright accusations.) We also ask for transcripts of video and audio (for accessibility, but it is also an aid to preservation). Finally, the majority of the work we publish is still plaintext HTML – and we try to encourage best practices in terms of code validation and structure and adding metadata.

Since the journal is not simply using the web for delivery but is exploring how writing intersects with the capabilities of web platforms, what features of the web have interested authors over the course of the journal’s history? What technical features of online writing are particularly interesting now? Are there any that seemed particularly revolutionary in the past that now seem tame or not as influential as expected? What distinguishes a “webtext” from other kinds of texts?

We call the works we publish ‘webtexts’ to distinguish them from traditional print articles – we strive to publish works that would be difficult or impossible to engage if they were in a print format (and here I would include plaintext and PDF as print formats: it’s not the digitization that matters, it’s the integration of design, interactivity, and text). We also call them ‘webtexts’ because in the early days of the journal, there was an argument about whether texts on the web were truly hypertexts or not (kind of a technical argument), and we decided to make that distinction more explicit by calling the work we publish ‘webtexts’.

We have seen some interesting changes over the years. Early webtexts relied mostly on HTML and still images; not many included audio or video. Several used frames (thank goodness that fell out of style! It complicated the code editing considerably.) We’ve seen a rise in the use of video and we’ve seen more Flash-based work (but we get less of that since we actively discourage its use for reasons of accessibility and our sanity as editors). Right now we are seeing a surge in sites that use javascript and DHTML to add interactivity or animated design features (this is a bit of a challenge, since we then need to learn javascript well enough to edit it – and it often doesn’t play well with the Kairos toolbar that we use to brand the articles). I think that we’ve also seen a maturation in design sense and the execution of visual design elements as scholarly features.

The submission guidelines are rather unusual. In addition to the typical citation style information, there are guidelines such as “The H1 tag is reserved. Please use H2 through H4 tags to format your webtext” and “Flash (.swf and .flv) files are accepted, but you must also provide your .fla build files.” How complicated is it to keep up with new web capabilities? How often do you have to revise these guidelines?

We do revise fairly regularly, especially as we come to better understand current standards and best practices. Some of the guidelines focus on accessibility, and some are there in order to streamline the editorial work (we edit text, images, and code; sometimes Flash…we usually ask authors to edit audio or video as that is much more time intensive). Several of our editorial staff (myself included) teach web design courses, so we have multiple reasons to keep up with changes in standards. We also learn about new technologies as we receive queries or submissions that use them (so, in the past, we’ve published wikis, WordPress articles, and we’re going to be looking at a number of webtexts built in gaming engines for a future issue). We try to discourage proprietary formats (and the use of tools that produce code that doesn’t conform to current web standards), and the work has to be archivable on our system.

Kairos is innovative in many ways, yet the publication has retained a few traditional features of the scholarly journal, including peer review, having sections for different kinds of articles, and bundling articles into issues (sometimes thematic, sometimes open to all submissions). Are there enduring scholarly traditions that are particularly worth preserving in an era when (to quote Clay Shirky) publishing is a button?

I’m of two minds about that. In the beginning, we needed those genre conventions for credibility  (and I don’t think we can dispense with some of them – peer review in particular – and still be a scholarly enterprise). We experimented with adding comments to webtexts (in the late 90s/early 00s), but got almost no takers – my thinking was that we looked too much like a traditional journal in some ways, and web-based comments violated readers’ genre expectations. I think it would be different now if we revisited that, but given the kinds of comments that I see in purportedly academic venues like IHE and the Chronicle, I’m convinced that it would be more of a detractor than a value-add. So I would keep some editorial functions for sure. But I don’t know that these features are all necessary – and I think it is important to support alternative visions – like crowd sourcing peer-review, adding post-review, content aggregators like DH Now, and journals that publish on a rolling basis (Enculturation, for instance, publishes each article when it is ready, and periodically collects a number of articles into an issue, which is an interesting model that is between what we do at Kairos, and more continually-publishing venues that have dropped the volume/issue organization altogether). I think we’ll always need a range of options that suit the needs of our authors and their audiences (at least in the short term, while we still have print and screens; I might re-think this stance when our interfaces becomes embedded in our bodies, which I think will happen in the next 3-4 decades at the most).

Something that inevitably comes up when discussing open access publishing: what is your sustainability model? Since you don’t derive income from subscriptions and you don’t charge author fees, how do you keep the journal going?

We have an interesting economic model – we get electricity and bandwidth from Michigan State’s Writing in Digital Environments Research center (which is now part of Matrix, so our actual machine is on the server racks with all of their systems), and some of our editors get some resources for printing, mailing, and so on from their home department (although not all of us are so lucky) so we’re subsidized to an extent by our institutions. But the reason that it works is that we function through a kind of Bourdieu-ian social economy – our editors get rewarded for the work they do by the field, our authors are recognized for doing innovative scholarly work, and the staff and editorial board all believe that showcasing what can be done (and holding the work to a high standard) is important – that it helps shape the field to some extent as we enact the kinds of changes that we are now teaching in composition courses in our own scholarship. I give my time because I think it is valuable; a number of our staff have created research programs out of the work that we do with the journal. So even though we don’t have income, we do have commitment and we do provide participants with rewards that work within the current academic structure. Of course, when MOOCs eliminate the university as we know it, we might have to revisit our model ;)

Do you have any advice for scholars about open access publishing and the affordances of web-based texts? 

For those starting open-access scholarly projects, the main advice I would provide is to pay attention to the ways the project’s purpose connects with the audiences’ needs and expectations; to make sure that the technological infrastructure engages best practices for accessibility, usability, and technical standards; and to situate the project within the larger ecologies of both the digital networks it lives in and the scholarly communities it aims to serve.

Advice for authors of webtexts would include the same advice about best practices (accessibility, usability, and technical standards, albeit on a smaller scale), but I would also encourage authors to think about design at the invention stage of the writing – design and medium are not secondary to the argument being made or the research being reported; they are instead an integral part of the scholarship itself. I would also suggest that, despite our continual call for more collaboration for students, we’re not particularly good at doing such (or valuing it) in our scholarship. Digital scholarly work is a natural fit for collaboration between scholar/researcher and designer for instance, or for making available the kinds of publication space that can support many contributors (but in a model that is quite different from the one that is standard in the sciences).

[1] For more on the field of computers and writing, see Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History, along with the past special issues of Kairos that publish works from the C&W conferences.


Thanks so much, Doug! Fascinating stuff. To read more about Kairos,​Doug points us to The Arrow and the Loom: A Decade of Kairos (Eyman, 2006), Kairos: Past, Present and Future(s) (Doherty & Salvo, 2002), and Doherty, Mick. (2001). @Title This_Chapter As...[Was: On the Web, Nobody Knows You're an Editor]. New Worlds, New Words: Exploring Pathways for Writing about and in Electronic Environments Ed. John F. Barber and Dene Grigar. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 95-120. 





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