The Search for a Good Online Journal Platform

There’s an old saying, probably from a management textbook somewhere, that I see pop up on the software developer side of the internet from time to time. Everyone wants a solution that is fast, good, and cheap. You can only pick two.

Many of the issues that face the selection of a good online journal platform are, at the heart, the same as the challenges of software development broadly. So this ‘fast, good, cheap; pick two’ dilemma applies here as well.

I am one of the seven members of the editorial collective who will be taking up the editorship of Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, the open access journal for the Society for Social Studies of Science in 2021. My friend and colleague Aalok Khandekar is the editor-in-chief, and I’ve been working closely with him and Angela Okune at UC Irvine on deciding what online platform the journal should live on going forward.

The immediate problem is this: ESTS currently runs on a very widely used platform for online journals called OJS. OJS is a feature rich, strongly supported, well maintained platform for running a journal. It acts as the web gateway for visitors to find and download journal articles, it can be used to manage the entire journal production process all the way from manuscript submission to peer review to copyediting. It also archives files and links into various other online academic services like Crossref that make articles easier to discover.

OJS works well for many journals, and it has worked well for ESTS. OJS was actually the first platform that I used to edit a journal, when I was an editor of vis-a-vis: Exploration in anthropology, the graduate student journal at the University of Toronto.

ESTS currently lives on OJS 2, an earlier version of the platform, which is no longer updated. Our friends at the Public Knowledge Project, who host ESTS on their servers, would like us to upgrade to OJS 3.

OJS 3 looks nicer. It feels more modern than OJS 2. It would also be a relatively quick upgrade. ESTS is not a very old journal, so it hasn’t accumulated a lot of ‘cruft.’ We would need to redesign the visual appearance of our journal, since the files we have now that define the journal’s look are not directly compatible with OJS 3, but that is a relatively surmountable obstacle. ESTS is not doing anything visually complex.

The question that Angela, Aalok, and I have been asking each other for the past few months is, if we are going to do the work of upgrading the ESTS site to OJS 3, then why not take this as an opportunity to look at other platforms that we could use.

We’ve been talking with many people who are very knowledgeable about STS and academic publishing online broadly to figure out what we will need to do. No decision has been yet made on what is happening with ESTS, but we’ve spent a lot of time learning about new tools and functions on younger competing platforms, as well as the advantages of more established ones.

For example, one thing that we want to explore during our editorship is the use of open peer review. There are platforms out there now that have features supporting open peer review built in from the beginning, but OJS does not. On the flip side, a lot of the upstart platforms are still missing a few basic journal production functions. They also can impose a steep learning curve on editors, authors, and reviewers, because their workflow models can deviate quite significantly from the ones that many academics are used to. The newer platforms also tend to be hosted on cheaper servers, namely Amazon Web Services. If you have ethical or political qualms about Amazon and Jeff Bezos, perhaps OJS, which is hosted by an independent web services company based in Canada, is the better choice.

All of these are part of what Angela, Aalok, and I are considering as we think about what to do about our journal’s platform. While software decisions like these may seem like technical, and indeed, non-academic decisions, it makes sense to us, as the incoming editors of an STS journal, to think carefully about what kinds of scholarly products, engagements among community members, and linkages with the broader socio-technical systems of academia and the internet we want to be able to facilitate and to support. While the end product of our work will be what we hope is a usable and exciting system for our readers and contributors, the problems that we’re trying to work through are design problems not unlike those that go into a research or writing project. The material constraints and affordances are different, of course, but that is part of the fun. At least for me.

There will be more written about this in the coming months, but there are a few things I’ve learned so far.

In keeping with the ‘fast, good, cheap’ adage, there is little one cannot do if you have the money to do it. This is most evident from large publishers like Sage, who have the resources to build their own production lines, and can use it to churn out journal articles and can afford staff to handle different parts of the process. But ESTS is far more resource constrained. OJS is not cheap either, but it is cheaper than a purpose-built solution. It is also fast to implement, because it is well documented and has a great support ecosystem around it. So it checks off “Fast” and “Cheap.” Where does that leave “Good”?

This is where things get a bit murkier for us. The key functions of OJS were built when peoples’ idea of “online open-access journal” was significantly constrained by their idealized image of a bound and printed journal issue. Although it has some usability quirks and shortcomings, it does a “good” job at this stuff.

But since OJS became widely adopted, blogging and tweeting, among other things, have taken off as arenas for academic interaction and, effectively, short-form publishing.

At the same time, there has been a flourishing of software tools, including things like Evernote, Dropbox, Devonthink, Office 365, Google Docs, and so on, not to mention online platforms like PECE, that people are using to collaborate, write, gather and analyze data, and publish.

These two developments have contributed to slight decentering of the peer-reviewed journal article as the desired end point of academic work. “Good” is undergoing some redefinition. In fact, what we’re seeing is less a linear pipeline leading from research to publication, and more a set of feedback loops. One of these feedback loops leads from research to journal article. Through social media discussions and other forms of interaction, these loops can lead back to research starting another loop towards another article. There are also other feedback loops that lead into blog posts, articles in the popular press or threads of tweets (or, indeed, journal platform discussions), and these can each cross with each other, and each inform research once again.

Therefore, the journal article looks like one point along one path through a longer research program. Where OJS imagines “results” turned into “publications,” the reality is that the process involves a lot of back and forth between authors, reviewers, and journal editors and editorial staff. In addition, if we zoom out slightly, then we see that the program also involves myriad other bits of software, platforms, and people interacting. A journal article might start as a conference panel, which becomes a discussion on Twitter or on Slack, which becomes a shared folder on Dropbox and then a shared Google Doc, and so on.

OJS is tuned for the linear journal article pipeline, but it’s not as able to move beyond it into the other facets of academic work. Other platforms are coming in to fill this gap. These other platforms make it possible for broader engagement of the entire research program, and increase the visibility and recognition of the different scholarly contributions at each stage, at least to a small degree. The journal article becomes one stage among many.

There’s a major caveat here: I wrote ‘slight’ decentering above, because one place where things remain definitively centered on the journal article as traditionally imagined is in academic hiring and promotions processes. My impression is that many university hiring and promotions committees are not yet quite sure how to evaluate non-traditional outputs, but know very well how to value journal articles. There is an entire system of ratings, impact factors, regulations and guidelines that tell academics exactly what a “good” journal article is. For a blog post, there are no such corresponding rules.

This is where a journal like ESTS and its platform choice become very consequential in my mind. ESTS is a reputable, double-blind peer-reviewed journal associated with a major academic society. This means we have (at least some) authority to give authors the recognition they need to further their careers and receive the recognition of their peers. We are, however, also in a position as the “second” journal of 4S, to potentially be a bit more experimental, and use what resources and social capital we have to draw attention to non-conventional, but interesting, important, high quality forms of academic work.

This is where the notion of a ‘good’ publication starts to intersect with the question of a ‘good’ platform for that publication, and what good a journal like ESTS can do.

More on this soon.

Visualizing the Centrality of American Anthropology Departments

Continuing with my recent data experiments, I’ve produced a new graphic which visually displays which anthropology departments in the US (with a handful from the UK and Canada) produce the most graduates, and in which universities those graduates end up. I think of it as showing which universities tend to exercise the most power in defining what counts as cultural anthropology in the US, and in what institutions they exercise that power.

In the graphic below, the blue dots each represent one university. The size of the dot is proportional to the number of dissertations tagged with “cultural anthropology” that university produced. The gray lines connect the institution where the supervisor received their Ph.D. to the institution where their supervisee received their Ph.D. In other words, each line represents one dissertation, and connects the supervisor’s Ph.D. granting institution with the student’s.

This covers the majority of dissertations tagged with “cultural anthropology” (which includes some from ethnomusicology, folklore, and a few other fields) from my ProQuest data, which contains supervisor data for dissertations from about 1988, and institution data to much further back.

The universities are roughly divided into four groups. The group in the vertical row at the top are those with highest number of Ph.D. graduates supervising dissertations in cultural anthropology. This includes the University of Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Michigan, Cornell, Indiana, Penn, UCLA, Washington, UT Austin, Northwestern, and Yale.

The group with the next highest number is the vertical row to the middle-right. This group is notable because it includes LSE, Cambridge, and Oxford, which are the only non-US universities in the top two groups. This is followed by the group to the middle left. This is where our friends in theology and missiology seem to be concentrated. The circle at the bottom are universities which had the fewest number of graduates supervising Ph.D.s, usually zero.

The full-size graphic, where the text labels are all legible and the arrowheads (which show which university is sending a graduate to which one as a supervising staff member) is too large to post, but even with this smaller graphic, it’s possible to see a number of interesting (but expected patterns).

One is the sheer level at which the most prolific universities hire their own. The large fan-shaped patterns coming out of the topmost group are supervisors at those institutions that received their own Ph.Ds at those institutions. These patterns do not hold seem to hold as strongly at other levels.

Another pattern is the density of lateral connections among members of the topmost group. This isn’t unexpected, but it highlights the extent to which if you’ve attended any one of these universities, you’re within a tightly knit community that includes all of them, regardless of your specialization within anthropology.

Perhaps most obvious is the density of connections between the top group and every other group on the map. This speaks to the again unsurprising fact that a certain group of universities will tend to have graduates everywhere, while the majority of other schools will produce PhDs, but tend not to be able to place them within the same field if at all.

Attention to the lines can reveal some things that might be interesting to explore further. For instance, there is a dense bundle of lines between the University of Oregon (in the second group) and the University of San Francisco (in the fourth). This probably comes down to one or two super prolific supervisors, but it would be worth looking to see if there is anything more to the connection. Another similar bundle exists between Cornell and Temple University.

What this particular image doesn’t show well is that some institutions in the “lower tiers” actually seem to have a tremendous influence on the higher ones. This usually goes from the major British universities to the top American ones: LSE and Cambridge especially, but also Oxford. Unfortunately, thesis data for the UK is kept in another database that I’ve not yet had the chance to explore, so I don’t know if this relationship goes both ways. I suspect it doesn’t.

The Mystery of Fuller Theological Seminary

A project that I’ve been working on from time to time for the past five years is to look for patterns in large quantities of anthropology-related data that I scrape from the web. You can see some of my past experiments on this stuff here.

Since overhauling this website, I’ve decided to revisit one of these projects, which looks at anthropology dissertation metadata from the Proquest database. The data I’ve collected includes just over 17,000 records for Ph.D. dissertations tagged with “cultural anthropology.” The records include the title, the author, the year of publication, and the institution. Newer records include abstracts and supervisor (or committee) names. The data is US-centric (ProQuest gets their dissertation data from the Library of Congress), although most Canadian universities are included, as well as a few from other countries.

If you scan the records to find the universities with the largest number of anthropology dissertations, the names that appear are not that surprising. Universities with large and old departments, like the University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, and UC Berkeley top the list. (You can see one of my older visualizations of dissertation numbers by institution on the project page.)

Recently, I went back to the data to try and figure out other ways to think about which universities were responsible for defining what anthropology in the US. I decided to look not just for universities that produced a lot of anthropology dissertations, but also those that produced students who also supervised dissertations in anthropology. In other words, which universities are most successfully reproducing anthropologists?

The list is mostly the same as the one for the straight count of most dissertations, except for one major difference. A place called Fuller Theological Seminary in California has produced at least seven PhDs who each went on to advise at least one student who also wrote a dissertation in cultural anthropology. This makes Fuller more central to the reproduction of cultural anthropology (at least according to this measure) than UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, Brown, MIT, McGill, Michigan State, the New School, Princeton, Rutgers, and a few other famous names.

Before this, I had never heard of Fuller, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a “a multidenominational Christian evangelical seminary in Pasadena, California, with regional campuses in the western United States. The seminary has 2,897 students from 90 countries and 110 denominations.”

Clicking through to their website, I arrived at a description of their PhD program in Intercultural Studies which appears to be where anthropology is taught at Fuller. I don’t know anything more about what Fuller teaches, but the webpage suggests that the degree is focused on missiology, “a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural field of study” that examines “the nature of missionary work.” (Wikipedia says that in Europe, missiology is known as “intercultural theology.” This sounds like something anthropology would be useful in, and explains why Fuller is not alone in my data as a theology school in producing anthropology dissertations.

A personal website for $50 a year

Since I’ve recently redone this website, I thought I’d write quickly about what I used to put it together.

While sites like WordPress.com and SquareSpace can make it extremely easy to put together nice and easily maintained websites, they cost a little more than I am willing to pay.

My aim for my own website has always been to have one for the lowest cost and the greatest flexibility. This is the setup I currently work with.

The Pieces

The platform: WordPress. For this website (and the site for NatureCulture), I now run and install the free, but fully functional, version of WordPress. This gives you access to the most important and useful parts of WordPress without having to subscribe to WordPress.com’s services. The trade-off is that you have to do a lot of hands-on configuration and maintenance yourself.

I’ve been using WordPress for NatureCulture for a while, and have started to appreciate how easy it makes it to manage files and alter the appearance of a website. Because it’s widely used, if something does break, it’s not difficult to find a tutorial or guide online for fixing it.

The hosting service: NearlyFreeSpeech. This is a pay-what-you-use hosting service based in the US that I’ve been using for nearly ten years. Depending on your usage, you might pay only a few dollars a month for hosting. If you’re a technical person, NearlyFreeSpeech gives you a lot of freedom, but there are also a lot of things that you can inadvertently break. Fortunately for me, they seem to know that a lot of people will want to use WordPress with them, so they make it very easy, and provide clear instructions for installing it.

Other bits

WordPress and NearlyFreeSpeech are the main parts, but in addition, there are a few bits of software that are essential.

An SSH client: To use and maintain WordPress takes logging into NFS’s server and manually typing things into a command-line interface. This interface is used to update the WordPress software, as well as its themes and plugins. (WordPress has some web-based tools, but I’ve never been able to get these to work.) To log in, you need software that will connect you to the server using a protocol called SSH. This is just something that let’s you control another computer remotely using text commands. SSH is easily found on MacOS and Windows, and on iOS I use something called Termius.

An FTP Client: On occasion, I need to transfer manually transfer some files to the server, such as if I want to embed something in a page that WordPress doesn’t quite support. For these purposes, you need an FTP client that will easily let you select and transfer files from your computer to the server. I use a free piece of software called CyberDuck.

These pieces let me run fairly complex websites without too much trouble. Also, it’s really cheap.

Cost: The main costs of running a website are for storage space, bandwidth, and domain name registration. In addition, to run something like WordPress, you need a computer somewhere running a database system (to store your blog posts and so on).

The domain name registration (to claim “gjotsuki.net”) runs about $15 US a year. This price is basically the same no matter where you host your website.

The other costs are the ones that vary. If you sign up for a service like WordPress.com (WordPress’s commercial, all-in-one package), then you pay around $3 a month for basic hosting, so $36 US a year. (A domain name is included for the first year.) The downside is you don’t get to customize the appearance of your website very much, and don’t have FTP (or SSH) access to your server, limiting how creative you can be with content. To get those things can cost two or three times as much.

With my own setup on NFS, I pay the same $15 per year for the domain name, but only around $48 for everything else per year. This actually includes the cost of both my personal website, and another website I host for my parents. (For comparison, the website for NatureCulture cost less than $40 to run for all of 2019, including the domain name.)

WordPress is actually quite a heavy piece of software, so if you use something less resource-intensive to run your site, it’s possible to reduce the cost even further. Back in 2012, when my site was much simpler (a few text pages, PDFs, and a couple of images), I paid less than $6 for the entire year, plus $15 for the domain name.

With these basic parts, I get something that matches the service that WordPress charges $34 a month for.

Why WordPress?

This current website is the third version I’ve put online since 2010-ish, when I first decided I should have a personal page. In the beginning, I learned basic CSS, typed all of the pages into a text editor, and uploaded the individual files myself to the server.

The website was only a few megabytes in size, which was mostly PDFs and a few images, so it loaded extremely quickly. But the main reason for me doing things this way was that it was cheap.

The trade-off was that the site was difficult to maintain. Every time I wanted to make a correction or add something new, I had to hand-code everything and re-upload the files. The same had to be done to change the site’s appearance. In addition, I had to manually keep track of the relationships between all of the pages, and make sure all the links worked.

For a set of static pages, this was not too much of a burden, but it wasn’t a system that would work if I wanted to regularly add content. Writing and formatting text in TextEdit with HTML tags was also difficult to read and correct.

Nevertheless, the first version of my page lasted for nearly eight years.

When I finally decided to make a change, I wanted something that would look a little more interesting and let me add content more easily.

I came upon a piece of software called Jekyll. Jekyll is similar to WordPress. It’s geared towards creating sites with frequently updated blogs and supports themes so that a site’s appearance can be customized and changed easily.

But there is an important difference between WordPress and Jekyll. WordPress runs on the remote host, and is accessed through a web browser. Beyond rendering webpages, your local computer does not do anything special. All of the actual work is done on the server. Blog posts are generated remotely as they are requested, and then sent to the web browser.

In contrast, Jekyll is software you run locally, on your own computer. For instance, to post a new blog entry, you type the content into a file on your computer and save it as a text file (following a few formatting conventions.) Then you run the Jekyll program, and it generates an HTML file and adjusts other pages to accommodate the new entry. These files are then uploaded to a server, which just dispenses them as is to visitors’ web browsers. Basically, Jekyll does once on your own computer what WordPress does (in principal) on the remote server every time somebody visits.

I liked Jekyll because it does not use many remote resources, making it quite cheap to run a site, but it is more manageable than directly editing HTML and CSS files. There was also a pretty good selection of themes, so I was able to find something that I liked.

The downside was that Jekyll never quite worked for me as promised. I would type in a page, run the software, and get errors or find the page rendering in ways I didn’t expect. I would try to customize the pages and when I got things looking ok, something else would stop working. I eventually got a site that I was fairly happy with, but I barely touched the site again for more than a year.

In the end, I settled on WordPress. Working on NatureCulture, I had figured out many of its quirks, and I felt comfortable installing and customizing it. The most important part was, even though using WordPress increases the cost of running my site, its design is intuitive enough that I will never forget how to do ordinary things on it. I wouldn’t have to fight WordPress in the way that I fought with Jekyll. A bonus is that WordPress has a very large ecosystem of themes, tutorials, and plugins to choose from, including a capable iOS app, and good traffic stat tools.

So here we are. It’s much easier to do than it sounds. Try it out.

Where do tenured and tenure-track faculty in Canadian Ph.D. programs get their degrees?

I wanted to find out where Canadian and non-Canadian Ph.Ds where getting hired, which departments in Canada produce the largest number of graduates who successfully attain tenured or tenure-track jobs at Canadian social-cultural-linguistic anthropology (SCL) programs, and where non-Canadian graduates and current tenure-track SCL faculty tend to get their Ph.Ds. The result is that compared to Groarke and Fenske’s finding that about 70% of tenured and tenure-track philosophy positions in Canada go to graduates of foreign institutions, the figure in social-cultural and linguistic anthropology (SCL) stands at about 52%. I go over the results in more depth below, and end with a brief speculation about why conditions may be different in SCL.

Read the PDF summarizing the results.