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A Chronology of Digital Publication, Part I

A brief history of digital publishing in the arts and humanities, sciences, and digital humanities with a focus on "new types" of innovative publishing practices. This post begins a multi-part chronology. (Part 2 includes writing studies journals.)
A collage of digital journal logos
A collage of early digital journals

In "The Evolution of Electronic Publishing" (1996), Frederick Lancaster traced the history of digital publication, identifying four practices that could plausibly be defined as "electronic publication":

  • print publications prepared using computer technologies, a practice that began in the early 1960s;
  • scans of print texts distributed in digital formats;
  • texts that were produced and distributed only in digital forms, but primarily following print conventions; and
  • new types of publications exploring the possibilities of multimedia and hypertext affordances of the web.

It is this last approach that is of most interest to us, as editors who were producing such "new types" of publication.

Given how long we’ve been working in digital publishing, we’ve built a mental working chronology of the “firsts” and “longests” and “experimental” journals that have begun publishing just prior to and in the years since Kairos first began publishing (January 1996). What started as an esoteric list has morphed based on our research to include journals (and other “new types” of publishing venues, such as MediaCommons [2006]) that weren’t previously on our radar. This chronology is not meant to include every digital publication that was started since the early days of the Internet, but instead is meant to highlight key players and shifts in the digital publishing landscape, particularly as it relates to how such publications explored the affordances of the Web in new and innovative ways—this post is about where these stories start.[1]

Arts and Humanities

We mark the beginning of the history of the publication of digital scholarship in the humanities with the premiere of the journal Postmodern Culture (PMC), which published its first issue in September 1990. The journal was formatted as plain text and distributed via email list. As the editors explained in their preface to the first issue,

We feel that the electronic text is more amenable to revision, and that it fosters conversation more than printed publications can. Postmodern Culture can accommodate, and will include, different kinds of writing, from traditional analytical essays and reviews to video scripts and other new literary forms. Postmodern Culture is formatted as ASCII text (the character-code used by all personal computers): this permits the items in the journal to be sent as electronic mail, and it means that you can download the text of the journal from the mainframe (where you receive your mail) to a wide variety of computers, and import it into most word-processing programs, should you want to. If you do call up the journal’s text in a word-processing program, make sure that line-spacing is set to single-space and that margins are set to accommodate a 65-character line (one-inch margins, in most cases).

Our earliest encounters with both email and the World Wide Web (WWW) were via a dumb terminal connection to a mainframe, which highlights just how quickly digital, networked technologies have progressed—it only took a few decades to move from the first computer-to-computer communication in 1969 to the publication of a journal circulated via email in 1990, and then only five years later we see the emergence of web-based digital publications, and within a year of the Web’s debut, online journals proliferated (Hitchcock, Carr, & Hall, 1996).

The fall of 1990 was a banner year for the advent of online journals—the aforementioned PMC sent its first issue out in September, and in November the Bryn Mawr Classical Review[2] followed suit. September of 1990 also saw the first issue of the The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication, which bills itself as one of the first five peer-reviewed electronically distributed scholarly journals in world history and the first ever in the social sciences. In 1991, Surfaces and EJournal, two new peer-reviewed online journals appeared on the scene, followed by a brief period without new journals, which shifted in 1995, as several new journals were introduced (particularly several new journals in Writing Studies, which we will cover in Part II).

Several academic journals that followed the style of (non-peer-reviewed) industry-specific publications appeared in the mid-1990s: D-Lib Magazine (digital library research) and John December's Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine (a direct inspiration for the first Kairos editorial team) launched in 1994; The Journal of Electronic Publishing began in 1995. Other noted online peer-reviewed journals launched in 1995 include the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (communication studies), and Information Research (computer science). Kairos debuted on the first of January 1996, and First Monday, an Internet Studies journal published its first issue in May of that same year. Also debuting in 1996 were The New River: A Journal of Digital Writing and Art, one of "the first and longest-running literary journals in the United States dedicated to electronic literature and art" (New River, 2021), and The Electronic Book Review: Digital Futures of Literature, Theory, Criticism, and the Arts.

Other notable journals focusing on media studies, literature, and the arts were founded in the mid-2000s, including Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts (2002), The Fibreculture Journal (2003), Borrowers & Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation (2005), Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures (2005), Vectors (2005–2013), and Digital Defoe (2009–2015). Each of these publications we mention here because they offered authors the chance to publish multimedia-based work, though some were more successful at attracting such work than others. Vectors, for instance, is fairly unique in having developed a publishing infrastructure specific to its needs, a database-supported framework called Scalar, and all of its publications (like Kairos) are multimedia-based.

The Sciences

In the sciences, a number of open-access (OA) pre-print servers predated the development of online journals—the earliest was an online physics pre-print archive established in 1974; taking advantage of new Internet platforms, the mp_arc Mathematical Physics Preprint Archive and arXive.org (which began as a physics pre-print archive but rapidly expanded to a broad range of scientific fields) were established in 1991. The arXive (pronounced ‘archive’) is perhaps the best known online pre-print archive; it started as a shared email repository, then added access via FTP (1991), Gopher (1992), and WWW (1993). The first peer-reviewed online journal in the sciences appears to be Astrophysical Journal Letters which debuted in 1995 (see Hitchcock, Carr, & Hall, 1996). In 1996, Springer Verlag premiered Molecules, which was eventually taken on by MDPI, a large publisher of OA journals in the sciences.

Key developments in digital publishing in the sciences include the advent of large-scale open access journals BioMed Central and PubMed Central in 2000, and the establishment of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) in 2003, which subsequently developed its own "megajournal" PLOS ONE, an open-access journal that "accepts research in over two hundred subject areas across science, engineering, medicine, and the related social sciences and humanities" and publishes at a massive scale—typically over 60,000 articles per year (although not without some controversy; see Peterson, 2019 for a history and critique of such megajournals). In 2012, PeerJ, eLife, and F1000Research were introduced, each of which experimented with either new economic models or new peer-review models. PeerJ opted to charge publication fees through researcher memberships (a flat fee for an "all you can publish" model) rather than per-article processing charges (APCs). F1000Research uses a post-publication review model: All articles are permanently published (with a DOI and undergo formal peer review after publication—but they make clear that they are a journal per se, not a pre-print server. The peer-review process for eLife essentially followed the same process used at Kairos, where reviewers discuss a manuscript and agree on a common recommendation. Some of the more innovative advances for eLife actually took place more recently: In 2021, eLIfe announced that they would only review articles that were first made available as preprints, and in 2022, they decided to eliminate accept/reject options for peer reviewers:

all papers that have been peer-reviewed will be published on the eLife website as Reviewed Preprints, accompanied by an eLife assessment and public reviews. The authors will also be able to include a response to the assessment and reviews.

At the time of this writing, the outcomes of this new model had not yet been reported.

Digital Humanities

Some of the earliest work in producing digital scholarship (in the sense of scholarship produced by and through computers) surfaced in the field of Digital Humanities (DH), but the focus had been for many years on the advancement of digital methods for analysis, followed by more traditional reporting of the results. Histories of electronic journals in DH have yet to be written (in part because the field has long struggled to define itself as inhabiting a coherent disciplinary frame), but one of the earliest DH journals, Digital Studies/le champ numérique (DSCN) published its first issue in 1996. DSCN appears to have started as a means to publish Computing in the Humanities working papers and, like most early journals identified with DH, the contents were limited to traditional journal articles.

The same traditionally oriented approach is also apparent in Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ), which launched in 2007; in the editorial that opens its first issue, DHQ claimed to be an "experimental journal" because it was open access, allowed authors to retain copyright, and suggested that it would be open to multimodal/multimedia scholarly works. However, the majority of the work published in all issues of the journal has been strictly transparent (Bolter & Grusin, 2000) appearing much like traditional print journal article genres (but sometimes including images). One of the reasons that so little multimedia is included in DHQ articles is that the journal was designed from the outset to follow a print-based standard: as the editors note, "All articles are given a detailed XML encoding to mark genres, names, citations, and other features that may serve the future scholar interested in the emergence of the digital humanities as a research field" (Flanders, Piez, & Terras, 2007), essentially locking in a format that privileges traditional print scholarship.

Indeed the majority of journals focusing on the digital humanities that are still publishing (both open-access and proprietary) feature standard print-genre conventions for the majority of their content. Among a few notable exceptions include Digital Humanities Now (2009–2021), which served as a curated set of DH resources (rather than a peer-reviewed journal), ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology (2012–2020), which incorporated discussion boards as an integral component of the works published, and the more recent Journal of Digital History (2021), which features an innovative visualization interface for each article published.


Amiran, Eyal, Orr, Elaine Neil, & Unsworth, John. (1990). Preface. Postmodern Culture 1(1), https://doi.org/10.1353/pmc.1990.0009.

Bolter, Jay David, & Grusin, Richard. (2000). Remediation: Understanding new media. MIT Press.

Flanders, Julia, Piez, Wendell, & Terras, Melissa. (2007). Welcome to Digital Humanities Quarterly. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 1(1), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/1/1/000007/000007.html.

Hitchcock, Steve M., Carr, Les A., & Hall, Wendy. (1996). A Survey of STM Online Journals 1990-95: The Calm before the Storm. In, D. Mogge (Ed.). Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists, sixth edition (pp. 7–32). Association of Research Libraries. https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/250742/1/archive_250742.zip

Lancaster, Frederick Wilfrid. (1996). The evolution of electronic publishing. Library Trends, 43(4), 518.

"The New River." (2021). The Next. Electronic Literature Organization. https://the-next.eliterature.org/collections/42.

Peterson, Alexander. (2019). Megajournal mismanagement: Manuscript decision bias and anomalous editor activity at PLOS ONE. Journal of Informetrics 13(4), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joi.2019.100974

Coming soon: Part II: Digital Journals in Writing Studies


  1. If you are aware, either through personal connection and knowledge, or through your own research, of other venues that could be listed in our chronology, please let us know! ↩︎

  2. Bryn Mawr Classical Review purports to be "the second oldest online scholarly journal in the humanities and the oldest open access journal," although it ran parallel print and digital issues for several years before transitioning to an online-only format. ↩︎