open access scholarship



Spenser Goes Digital

An Open Access journal is free to the public, but not free to produce

Vol. 12 No.2
Spring 2010

Return to Contents

Who owns your scholarship, and who can read it?
Open Access and the future of scholarly Publishing

Molecular Vision: One Journal's Journey

For More Information

Open Access Textbooks
Will Emory be a player or stay on the sidelines?

Digital Texts

Nurturing Accessible, High Quality Scholarship
Reflections on Ecology and Society

Spenser Goes Digital
An Open Access journal is free to the public but not free to produce

What's Old is New Again
Methodist Review as both scholarly tradition and digital pioneer

"We're clearly at a time of transition in the meaning of 'publication.' "

"We want to ensure that the results of original research are made widely accessible within the scientific community and beyond as quickly as possible."


During much of 2009, when technical glitches delayed the Spenser Review's shift from print to electronic access, a version of Sally Field's infamous Oscar speech often came to mind: "You like us!" The Review was issued in print for several decades, but cost considerations and concerns about longevity led to the decision that it should "go digital." The transition took several months longer than expected; accordingly, as editor of the Review, I became overwhelmed by emails from faculty, librarians, and subscription services around the globe who wanted to know what had happened to the Review and when it would reappear on the web. It was both gratifying and remarkable to realize how attached the Spenserian community (largely professors who research and teach the works of the sixteenth-century author of The Faerie Queene) is to this journal of notes, queries, book reviews, announcements, and occasional essays of interest, focused on Shakespeare's contemporary, Edmund Spenser. Many of those who wrote expressed panicked worry that they had forgotten to renew their subscriptions and thus had not received issues. Others wanted to ensure that they got any copies they might have missed. Authors with material in press asked whether they could reassure their deans that their contributions were, indeed, about to appear. The Spenser Review may not grace coffee tables across the land, but its subscribers and writers clearly appreciate its regular arrival and make their impatience known when it fails to appear on schedule.

However eagerly our audience clamored for our reappearance, however, the Spenser Review's success as an Open Access, online journal remains uncertain. "Open Access" means free to the public; it does not mean free to produce. Historically, much of the Review's financing has come from subscribers, with international readers paying a premium to cover overseas postage and the high rate of lost issues among those sent abroad. When the Executive Committee of the International Spenser Society met to discuss the change to electronic publication, many of those present understandably worried that Spenserians would fail to renew their Society memberships once they realized they would no longer receive the print issues offered to members. The change to digital is too recent for us to know whether this fear will come true. If it does, we don't know what we will do. Emory provides a subsidy to pay for a graduate student assistant and some other production costs, but no institution is likely to cover the entire cost of producing the journal. If members balk at paying for something that they can read online whether or not they subscribe, the Review's future will be in serious jeopardy. We chose electronic transmission to promote sustainability; it remains to be seen whether that path leads toward our longevity or our demise.

Having directed an Open Access database project since 1994 (the Emory Women Writers Resource Project or EWWRP at, I was already familiar with many of the advantages and challenges of producing a freely available scholarly resource. When the EWWRP received a major grant several years ago from the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, our NEH reviewers emphasized that our proposal succeeded in part because we were not charging subscriber fees and because Emory Library's Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections was willing and able to promise the site's continued availability through future changes in computer technology. Such grants are not easy to acquire, however, and the EWWRP has been fortunate to receive support that helps offset its lack of viewer funding. Although Google analytics tools indicate that the site is entered regularly by large numbers of scholars and students from around the world, none of those visitors pay us anything. We remain successful, therefore, but financial stability is never presumed.

The Review will face similar obstacles as it continues through its digital life. Already, the transition has both saved us money and cost us more than initially determined. In our early discussions with Emory, for instance, there was no talk of paying the university to host the electronic journal. By the time we made the move, the implied "free ride" was no longer available. Emory, of course, will also incur costs, which are now being passed along to us. Like the EWWRP, which needs to be migrated to new systems as technology changes, the Review will rely upon Emory to ensure that back issues remain accessible when electronic platforms evolve. Our initial decision not to charge a subscriber fee resulted from Emory's insistence that we provide Open Access. Realistically, however, the cost of monitoring passwords, subscriptions, and other aspects of fee-based services would have eliminated the money saved by reducing printing and mailing costs. At the moment, we can't afford subscribers. Unfortunately, the template we now use often confuses readers because it appears to demand a password. We are hopeful that this idiosyncrasy is temporary.

Now that we are no longer a print-based journal, the Review encounters a range of interesting and perplexing questions. The software we use is comparatively user-friendly, but the Review cannot survive without a graduate student assistant and a team of volunteers who are willing to contend with technology. Subject knowledge alone, at least in the case of the Spenser Review, cannot produce this brand of scholarly product. I have been fortunate to have a number of Emory graduate students and staff, including Erika Farr, Alice Hickcox, Gitanjali Shahani and Irene Middleton, work and/or advise on both the EWWRP and the Spenser Review. These lengthy collaborations have made both projects possible. Without the Beck Center, then under the direction of Chuck Spornick, the EWWRP would never have gotten off the ground and it is highly unlikely that I would have accepted the editorship of the Review when I was asked to take it on several years ago. More recent participants, like Katie Doubler, the current graduate assistant, bring the advantage of a fresh perspective, introducing pertinent issues, such as how closely we want to model the electronic Review on its print predecessor. We no longer have the limits on article length that our print budget imposed, for instance, and we need not be bound by the same publication schedule. We could, for example, add content as it is received, rather than continuing to publish discrete issues, although we have no immediate plans to do so. Years of close working relationships with Emory librarians have prepared me for the dilemmas likely to arise from those needing to catalogue a journal that has moved from print to digital. Still, additional, unforeseen complications will inevitably appear through this transition to a new medium. Emory has been working on a business partnership that would allow individual readers to purchase a low-cost print copy annually, but this relationship is not yet cemented, much to the consternation of some long-term subscribers. Digital publication continues to move into uncharted territory, and projects like the Review and the EWWRP can anticipate continual new challenges.

As Emory moves toward creating and standardizing policies for electronic publication undertaken by its faculty, staff, and students, numerous questions will emerge, revolving around intellectual property and ownership, copyright, logistical support, and financial implications. What happens to a digital product, for instance, when an initiator leaves the university or moves on to other interests? Over its lengthy history, the Review has traveled to a number of host institutions and our digital agreement with Emory discusses this contingency, so that the journal's electronic nature will not jeopardize its survival in this way. In contrast, the EWWRP was established before faculty members and universities paid much attention to such issues, so its future status is less formalized. Currently, Emory is actively expanding its digital resources through such forthcoming initiatives as the Digital Certificate Program in the ILA and the Digital Scholarly Commons (DiSC) in the Emory Library. Digital work, whether Open Access or not, requires new paradigms that many in the scholarly community have not yet considered. The Review's apparent popularity will not guarantee its longevity, but Emory's active engagement with the questions accompanying such products will make its continued success more likely.