M/C - Media and Culture Home

M/C Journal, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2009) - 'obsolete'

Lament for a Lost Running Order? Obsolescence and Academic Journals

The academic journal is obsolete. In a world where there are more titles than ever, this is a comment on their form – especially the print journal – rather than their quantity. Now that you can get everything online, it doesn’t really matter what journal a paper appears in; certainly it doesn’t matter what’s in the same issue. The experience of a journal is rapidly obsolescing, for both editors and readers.

I’m obviously not the first person to notice this (see, for instance, "Scholarly Communication"; "Transforming Scholarly Communication"; Houghton; Policy Perspectives; Teute), but I do have a personal stake in the process. For if the journal is obsolete then it follows that the editor is obsolete, and I am the editor of the International Journal of Cultural Studies. I founded the IJCS and have been sole editor ever since.

Next year will see the fiftieth issue. So far, I have been responsible for over 280 published articles – over 2.25 million words of other people’s scholarship … and counting. We won’t say anything about the words that did not get published, except that the IJCS rejection rate is currently 87 per cent. Perhaps the first point that needs to be made, then, is that obsolescence does not imply lack of success.

By any standard the IJCS is a successful journal, and getting more so. It has recently been assessed as a top-rating A* journal in the Australian Research Council’s journal rankings for ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia), the newly activated research assessment exercise. (In case you’re wondering, M/C Journal is rated B.) The ARC says of the ranking exercise: ‘The lists are a result of consultations with the sector and rigorous review by leading researchers and the ARC.’ The ARC definition of an A* journal is given as: 

Typically an A* journal would be one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/ subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted.

Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions. (Appendix I, p. 21; and see p. 4.)

Talking of boasting, I love to prate about the excellent people we’ve published in the IJCS. We have introduced new talent to the field, and we have published new work by some of its pioneers – including Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall.

We’ve also published – among many others – Sara Ahmed, Mohammad Amouzadeh, Tony Bennett, Goran Bolin, Charlotte Brunsdon, William Boddy, Nico Carpentier, Stephen Coleman, Nick Couldry, Sean Cubitt, Michael Curtin, Daniel Dayan, Ben Dibley, Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, John Frow, Elfriede Fursich, Christine Geraghty, Mark Gibson, Paul Gilroy, Faye Ginsberg, Jonathan Gray, Lawrence Grossberg, Judith Halberstam, Hanno Hardt, Gay Hawkins, Joke Hermes, Su Holmes, Desmond Hui, Fred Inglis, Henry Jenkins, Deborah Jermyn, Ariel Heryanto, Elihu Katz, Senator Rod Kemp (Australian government minister), Youna Kim, Agnes Ku, Richard E. Lee, Jeff Lewis, David Lodge (the novelist), Knut Lundby, Eric Ma, Anna McCarthy, Divya McMillin, Antonio Menendez-Alarcon, Toby Miller, Joe Moran, Chris Norris, John Quiggin, Chris Rojek, Jane Roscoe, Jeffrey Sconce, Lynn Spigel, John Storey, Su Tong, the late Sako Takeshi, Sue Turnbull, Graeme Turner, William Uricchio, José van Dijck, Georgette Wang, Jing Wang, Elizabeth Wilson, Janice Winship, Handel Wright, Wu Jing, Wu Qidi (Chinese Vice-Minister of Education), Emilie Yueh-Yu Yeh, Robert Young and Zhao Bin.

As this partial list makes clear, as well as publishing the top ‘hegemons’ we also publish work pointing in new directions, including papers from neighbouring disciplines such as anthropology, area studies, economics, education, feminism, history, literary studies, philosophy, political science, and sociology. We have sought to represent neglected regions, especially Chinese cultural studies, which has grown strongly during the past decade. And for quite a few up-and-coming scholars we’ve been the proud host of their first international publication.

The IJCS was first published in 1998, already well into the internet era, but it was print-only at that time. Since then, all content, from volume 1:1 onwards, has been digitised and is available online (although vol 1:2 is unaccountably missing). The publishers, Sage Publications Ltd, London, have steadily added online functionality, so that now libraries can get the journal in various packages, including offering this title among many others in online-only bundles, and individuals can purchase single articles online. Thus, in addition to institutional and individual subscriptions, which remain the core business of the journal, income is derived by the publisher from multi-site licensing, incremental consortial sales income, single- and back-issue sales (print), pay-per-view, and deep back file sales (electronic).

So what’s obsolete about it?

In that boasting paragraph of mine (above), about what wonderful authors we’ve published, lies one of the seeds of obsolescence. For now that it is available online, ‘users’ (no longer ‘readers’!) can search for what they want and ignore the journal as such altogether. This is presumably how most active researchers experience any journal – they are looking for articles (or less: quotations; data; references) relevant to a given topic, literature review, thesis etc. They encounter a journal online through its ‘content’ rather than its ‘form.’ The latter is irrelevant to them, and may as well not exist.

The Cover

Some losses are associated with this change. First is the loss of the front cover. Now you, dear reader, scrolling through this article online, might well complain, why all the fuss about covers? Internet-generation journals don’t have covers, so all of the work that goes into them to establish the brand, the identity and even the ‘affect’ of a journal is now, well, obsolete.

So let me just remind you of what’s at stake. Editors, designers and publishers all take a good deal of trouble over covers, since they are the point of intersection of editorial, design and marketing priorities. Thus, the IJCS cover contains the only ‘content’ of the journal for which we pay a fee to designers and photographers (usually the publisher pays, but in one case I did). Like any other cover, ours has three main elements: title, colour and image. Thought goes into every detail.


I won’t say anything about the journal’s title as such, except that it was the result of protracted discussions (I suggested Terra Nullius at one point, but Sage weren’t having any of that). The present concern is with how a title looks on a cover. Our title-typeface is Frutiger. Originally designed by Adrian Frutiger for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, it is suitably international, being used for the corporate identity of the UK National Health Service, Telefónica O2, the Royal Navy, the London School of Economics , the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Conservative Party of Canada, Banco Bradesco of Brazil, the Finnish Defence Forces and on road signs in Switzerland (Wikipedia, "Frutiger").

Frutiger is legible, informal, and reads well in small copy. Sage’s designer and I corresponded on which of the words in our cumbersome name were most important, agreeing that ‘international’ combined with ‘cultural’ is the USP (Unique Selling Point) of the journal, so they should be picked out (in bold small-caps) from the rest of the title, which the designer presented in a variety of Frutiger fonts (regular, italic, and reversed – white on black), presumably to signify the dynamism and diversity of our content. The word ‘studies’ appears on a lozenge-shaped cartouche that is also used as a design element throughout the journal, for bullet points, titles and keywords.


We used to change this every two years, but since volume 7 it has stabilised with the distinctive Pantone 247, ‘new fuchsia.’ This colour arose from my own environment at QUT, where it was chosen (by me) for the new Creative Industries Faculty’s academic gowns and hoods, and thence as a detailing colour for the otherwise monochrome Creative Industries Precinct buildings. There’s a lot of it around my office, including on the wall and the furniture.

New Fuchsia is – we are frequently told – a somewhat ‘girly’ colour, especially when contrasted with the Business Faculty’s blue or Law’s silver; its similarity to the Girlfriend/Dolly palette does introduce a mild ‘politics of prestige’ element, since it is determinedly pop culture, feminised, and non-canonical.


Right at the start, the IJCS set out to signal its difference from other journals. At that time, all Sage journals had calligraphic colours – but I was insistent that we needed a photograph (I have ‘form’ in this respect: in 1985 I changed the cover of the Australian Journal of Cultural Studies from a line drawing (albeit by Sydney Nolan) to a photograph; and I co-designed the photo-cover of Cultural Studies in 1987).

For IJCS I knew which photo I wanted, and Sage went along with the choice. I explained it in the launch issue’s editorial (Hartley, "Editorial"). That original picture, a goanna on a cattle grid in the outback, by Australian photographer Grant Hobson, lasted ten years.

Since volume 11 – in time for our second decade – the goanna has been replaced with a picture by Italian-based photographer Patrick Nicholas, called ‘Reality’ (Hartley, "Cover Narrative"). We have also used two other photos as cover images, once each. They are: Daniel Meadows’s 1974 ‘Karen & Barbara’ (Hartley, "Who"); and a 1962 portrait of Richard Hoggart from the National Portrait Gallery in London (Owen & Hartley 2007).

The choice of picture has involved intense – sometimes very tense – negotiations with Sage. Most recently, they were adamant the Daniel Meadows picture, which I wanted to use as the long-term replacement of the goanna, was too ‘English’ and they would not accept it. We exchanged rather sharp words before compromising. There’s no need to rehearse the dispute here; the point is that both sides, publisher and editor, felt that vital interests were at stake in the choice of a cover-image. Was it too obscure; too Australian; too English; too provocative (the current cover features, albeit in the deep background, a TV screen-shot of a topless Italian game-show contestant)?

Running Order

Beyond the cover, the next obsolete feature of a journal is the running order of articles. Obviously what goes in the journal is contingent upon what has been submitted and what is ready at a given time, so this is a creative role within a very limited context, which is what makes it pleasurable. Out of a limited number of available papers, a choice must be made about which one goes first, what order the other papers should follow, and which ones must be held over to the next issue.

The first priority is to choose the lead article: like the ‘first face’ in a fashion show (if you don’t know what I mean by that, see FTV.com. It sets the look, the tone, and the standard for the issue. I always choose articles I like for this slot. It sends a message to the field – look at this!

Next comes the running order. We have about six articles per issue. It is important to maintain the IJCS’s international mix, so I check for the country of origin, or failing that (since so many articles come from Anglosphere countries like the USA, UK and Australia), the location of the analysis. Attention also has to be paid to the gender balance among authors, and to the mix of senior and emergent scholars. Sometimes a weak article needs to be ‘hammocked’ between two good ones (these are relative terms – everything published in the IJCS is of a high scholarly standard). And we need to think about disciplinary mix, so as not to let the journal stray too far towards one particular methodological domain.

Running order is thus a statement about the field – the disciplinary domain – rather than about an individual paper. It is a proposition about how different voices connect together in some sort of disciplinary syntax.

One might even claim that the combination of cover and running order is a last vestige of collegiate collectivism in an era of competitive academic individualism. Now all that matters is the individual paper and author; the ‘currency’ is tenure, promotion and research metrics, not relations among peers. The running order is obsolete.

Special Issues

An extreme version of running order is the special issue. The IJCS has regularly published these; they are devoted to field-shaping initiatives, as follows:

Title Editor(s) Issue Date
Radiocracy: Radio, Development and Democracy Amanda Hopkinson, Jo Tacchi 3.2 2000
Television and Cultural Studies Graeme Turner 4.4 2001
Cultural Studies and Education Karl Maton, Handel Wright 5.4 2002
Re-Imagining Communities Sara Ahmed, Anne-Marie Fortier 6.3 2003
The New Economy, Creativity and Consumption John Hartley 7.1 2004
Creative Industries and Innovation in China Michael Keane, John Hartley 9.3 2006
The Uses of Richard Hoggart Sue Owen, John Hartley 10.1 2007
A Cultural History of Celebrity Liz Barry 11.3 2008
Caribbean Media Worlds Anna Pertierra, Heather Horst 12.2 2009
Co-Creative Labour Mark Deuze, John Banks  12.5 2009

It’s obvious that special issues have a place in disciplinary innovation – they can draw attention in a timely manner to new problems, neglected regions, or innovative approaches, and thus they advance the field. They are indispensible.

But because of online publication, readers are not held to the ‘project’ of a special issue and can pick and choose whatever they want.

And because of the peculiarities of research assessment exercises, editing special issues doesn’t count as research output. The incentive to do them is to that extent reduced, and some universities are quite heavy-handed about letting academics ‘waste’ time on activities that don’t produce ‘metrics.’ The special issue is therefore threatened with obsolescence too.


In many top-rating journals, the human side of refereeing is becoming obsolete. Increasingly this labour-intensive chore is automated and the labour is technologically outsourced from editors and publishers to authors and referees. You have to log on to some website and follow prompts in order to contribute both papers and the assessment of papers; interactions with editors are minimal.

At the IJCS the process is still handled by humans – namely, journal administrator Tina Horton and me. We spend a lot of time checking how papers are faring, from trying to find the right referees through to getting the comments and then the author’s revisions completed in time for a paper to be scheduled into an issue. The volume of email correspondence is considerable. We get to know authors and referees. So we maintain a sense of an interactive and conversational community, albeit by correspondence rather than face to face.

Doubtless, sooner or later, there will be a depersonalised Text Management System. But in the meantime we cling to the romantic notion that we are involved in refereeing for the sake of the field, for raising the standard of scholarship, for building a globally dispersed virtual college of cultural studies, and for giving everyone – from unfavoured countries and neglected regions to famous professors in old-money universities – the same chance to get their research published.

In fact, these are largely delusional ideals, for as everyone knows, refereeing is part of the political economy of publicly-funded research. It’s about academic credentials, tenure and promotion for the individual, and about measurable research metrics for the academic organisation or funding agency (Hartley, "Death"). The IJCS has no choice but to participate: we do what is required to qualify as a ‘double-blind refereed journal’ because that is the only way to maintain repute, and thence the flow of submissions, not to mention subscriptions, without which there would be no journal.

As with journals themselves, which proliferate even as the print form becomes obsolete, so refereeing is burgeoning as a practice. It’s almost an industry, even though the currency is not money but time: part gift-economy; part attention-economy; partly the payment of dues to the suzerain funding agencies. But refereeing is becoming obsolete in the sense of gathering an ‘imagined community’ of people one might expect to know personally around a particular enterprise.

The process of dispersal and anonymisation of the field is exacerbated by blind refereeing, which we do because we must. This is suited to a scientific domain of objective knowledge, but everyone knows it’s not quite like that in the ‘new humanities’. The agency and identity of the researcher is often a salient fact in the research. The embedded positionality of the author, their reflexiveness about their own context and room-for-manoeuvre, and the radical contextuality of knowledge itself – these are all more or less axiomatic in cultural studies, but they’re not easily served by ‘double-blind’ refereeing.

When refereeing is depersonalised to the extent that is now rife (especially in journals owned by international commercial publishers), it is hard to maintain a sense of contextualised productivity in the knowledge domain, much less a ‘common cause’ to which both author and referee wish to contribute.

Even though refereeing can still be seen as altruistic, it is in the service of something much more general (‘scholarship’) and much more particular (‘my career’) than the kind of reviewing that wants to share and improve a particular intellectual enterprise. It is this mid-range altruism – something that might once have been identified as a politics of knowledge – that’s becoming obsolete, along with the printed journals that were the banner and rallying point for the cause.

If I were to start a new journal (such as cultural-science.org), I would prefer ‘open refereeing’: uploading papers on an open site, subjecting them to peer-review and criticism, and archiving revised versions once they have received enough votes and comments. In other words I’d like to see refereeing shifted from the ‘supply’ or production side of a journal to the ‘demand’ or readership side.

But of course, ‘demand’ for ‘blind’ refereeing doesn’t come from readers; it comes from the funding agencies.

The Reading Experience

Finally, the experience of reading a journal is obsolete. Two aspects of this seem worthy of note.

First, reading is ‘out of time’ – it no longer needs to conform to the rhythms of scholarly publication, which are in any case speeding up. Scholarship is no longer seasonal, as it has been since the Middle Ages (with university terms organised around agricultural and ecclesiastical rhythms). Once you have a paper’s DOI number, you can read it any time, 24/7. 

It is no longer necessary even to wait for publication. With some journals in our field (e.g. Journalism Studies), assuming your Library subscribes, you can access papers as soon as they’re uploaded on the journal’s website, before the published edition is printed. Soon this will be the norm, just as it is for the top science journals, where timely publication, and thereby the ability to claim first discovery, is the basis of intellectual property rights.

The IJCS doesn’t (yet) offer this service, but its frequency is speeding up. It was launched in 1998 with three issues a year. It went quarterly in 2001 and remained a quarterly for eight years. It has recently increased to six issues a year. That too causes changes in the reading experience. The excited ripping open of the package is less of a thrill the more often it arrives. Indeed, how many subscribers will admit that sometimes they don’t even open the envelope?

Second, reading is ‘out of place’ – you never have to see the journal in which a paper appears, so you can avoid contact with anything that you haven’t already decided to read. This is more significant than might first appear, because it is affecting journalism in general, not just academic journals. As we move from the broadcast to the broadband era, communicative usage is shifting too, from ‘mass’ communication to customisation.

This is a mixed blessing. One of the pleasures of old-style newspapers and the TV news was that you’d come across stories you did not expect to find. Indeed, an important attribute of the industrial form of journalism is its success in getting whole populations to read or watch stories about things they aren’t interested in, or things like wars and crises that they’d rather not know about at all. That historic textual achievement is in jeopardy in the broadband era, because ‘the public’ no longer needs to gather around any particular masthead or bulletin to get their news.

With Web 2.0 affordances, you can exercise much more choice over what you attend to. This is great from the point of view of maximising individual choice, but sub-optimal in relation to what I’ve called ‘population-gathering’, especially the gathering of communities of interest around ‘tales of the unexpected’ – novelty or anomalies.

Obsolete: Collegiality, Trust and Innovation?

The individuation of reading choices may stimulate prejudice, because prejudice (literally, ‘pre-judging’) is built in when you decide only to access news feeds about familiar topics, stories or people in which you’re already interested. That sort of thing may encourage narrow-mindedness. It is certainly an impediment to chance discovery, unplanned juxtaposition, unstructured curiosity and thence, perhaps, to innovation itself.

This is a worry for citizenship in general, but it is also an issue for academic ‘knowledge professionals,’ in our ever-narrower disciplinary silos. An in-close specialist focus on one’s own area of expertise need no longer be troubled by the concerns of the person in the next office, never mind the next department. Now, we don’t even have to meet on the page.

One of the advantages of whole journals, then, is that each issue encourages ‘macro’ as well as ‘micro’ perspectives, and opens reading up to surprises. This willingness to ‘take things on trust’ describes a ‘we’ community – a community of trust. Trust too is obsolete in these days of performance evaluation. We’re assessed by an anonymous system that’s managed by people we’ll never meet.

If the ‘population-gathering’ aspects of print journals are indeed obsolete, this may reduce collegiate trust and fellow-feeling, increase individualist competitiveness, and inhibit innovation. In the face of that prospect, I’m going to keep on thinking about covers, running orders, referees and reading until the role of editor is obsolete too.


Hartley, John. "'Cover Narrative': From Nightmare to Reality." International Journal of Cultural Studies 11.2 (2005): 131-137.

———.  "Death of the Book?" Symposium of the National Scholarly Communication Forum & Australian Academy of the Humanities, Sydney Maritime Museum, 2005. 26 Apr. 2009 ‹http://www.humanities.org.au/Resources/Downloads/NSCF/RoundTables1-17/PDF/Hartley.pdf›.

———. "Editorial: With Goanna." International Journal of Cultural Studies 1.1 (1998): 5-10.

———. "'Who Are You Going to Believe – Me or Your Own Eyes?' New Decade; New Directions." International Journal of Cultural Studies 11.1 (2008): 5-14.

Houghton, John.  "Economics of Scholarly Communication: A Discussion Paper." Center for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, 2000. 26 Apr. 2009 ‹http://www.caul.edu.au/cisc/EconomicsScholarlyCommunication.pdf›. 

Owen, Sue, and John Hartley, eds. The Uses of Richard Hoggart. International Journal of Cultural Studies (special issue), 10.1 (2007).

Policy Perspectives: To Publish and Perish. (Special issue cosponsored by the Association of Research Libraries, Association of American Universities and the Pew Higher Education Roundtable) 7.4 (1998). 26 Apr. 2009 ‹http://www.arl.org/scomm/pew/pewrept.html›.

"Scholarly Communication: Crisis and Revolution." University of California Berkeley Library. N.d. 26 Apr. 2009 ‹http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/Collections/crisis.html›.

Teute, F. J. "To Publish or Perish: Who Are the Dinosaurs in Scholarly Publishing?" Journal of Scholarly Publishing 32.2 (2001). 26 Apr. 2009 ‹http://www.utpjournals.com/product/jsp/322/perish5.html›.

"Transforming Scholarly Communication." University of Houston Library. 2005. 26 Apr. 2009 ‹http://info.lib.uh.edu/scomm/transforming.htm›.