Editing an H-Net Discussion List

Melvin E. Page, Co-Editor, H-Africa
East Tennessee State University

I once believed that the notion of scholarly editing on the Internet was an oxymoron. I considered that this free and open medium of communication should not be tainted by selective editing or--worse yet--censorship! Either would blaspheme the freedom of cyberspace and strike at the heart of its egalitarian democracy.

H-Net editors have heard all this, and more, in complaints about the well established H-Net policy that its lists be managed by editors making decisions about what is to be sent out to the subscribers. Indeed, some complaints about these practices have made their way into the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Is such concern justified? And what exactly do H-Net editors do?

Editing is not be a concept foreign to historians. We frequently edit student papers, and certainly our own theses and dissertations were edited by one or more graduate professors. Our books and articles are subject to extensive editorial scrutiny, and we remark about poor editing when we review books. Even the newsletters of our professional associations (such as this) have editorial guardians. In a very real sense, H-Net, its discussion lists, and its World Wide Web offerings are the extension into the electronic age of the academic journal and newsletter.

Both the lists and the Web site contain news of professional activities, information of scholarly interest, reviews of academic books, and explorations of ideas. H-Net lists also act as on-going seminars, which many subscribers believe their most important creative function. For whatever reason a message is sent, it travels to an editor who decides whether it is to be published (sent to subscribers). The great percentage of messages are immediately forwarded, after the editor makes certain the author of each posting is clearly identified to the readers.

What is not sent out generally falls into several categories. Subscription inquiries are dealt with privately, as are personal messages sent in error to everyone on the list. Advertisements, often the work of "spammers"--folks who try to send the same (generally self-serving) message to thousands of discussion lists--are also eliminated. Similarly, communications which are far removed from the topic of the list are not sent forward, as are silly questions. All of these account for more than ninety percent of the rejected messages on H-Net lists.

H-Net editors generally tread gingerly with the remaining questionable postings. In my experience, if someone writes quickly and without reviewing their writing, what seems as inappropriate to me as an editor will often (after reflection) seem so to the author as well. I see my editorial responsibility as allowing subscribers the opportunity to change their minds; most do.

In fact, when I have asked people to reconsider what they have said--to eliminate infelicitous language or improve the clarity of their expression--many are thankful to have the chance. Far from challenging their academic freedom, I have given them the opportunity to use that freedom more carefully and precisely. In two years as editor of H-AFRICA I have yet to reject any message whose author insisted it be posted without revision.

The role of the H-Net editor also involves encouraging and shaping discussions. Editors frame questions to their lists and encourage discussion to move in scholarly directions. For example, the nature of a daily listserv is such that a long thoughtful post can sometimes pass by without comment from subscribers. Editorial notes, urging subscribers to consider individual points raised in a piece, however, invariably provoke response and thus serve to facilitate further dialogue. Likewise, comments from editors encourage subscribers to dig deeper into issues, research their points, and cite sources. With a few judicious comments, editors can also tie together disparate postings from different subscribers and steer discussion into new and richer directions. Thus, editors function as facilitators of scholarly discussion.

Apart from editing content, H-Net editors are also conscious of making their lists as attractive to readers as possible. On H-AFRICA, for example, my co-editors and I want our postings to share a screen format which is predictable and informative. Thus, we always aim to keep message subject lines uniform so that messages on the same subject will easily be recognized; we also make sure the date and author (usually along with institution and e-mail address) appear at the top of the message. And we generally remove complex "signatures" and drawings, political statements, or "inspirational" messages.

We also try to make the messages visually engaging. White space, as our print editor colleagues often call it, generally makes for easier reading. We think it is even more true on our small screens, even though it's usually not white! Thus, we alter the margins so that there are no more than 60 characters per line. We also break up long paragraphs into smaller ones so that they can be more easily read on a small screen. And we convert lengthy sections of text originally in all capitals to upper and lower case. We are especially attentive to the look of our World Wide Web page, which we believe is very attractive.

H-Net editors are always trying to build and expand the features on their Web sites, most of which are related to our discussion lists. While the complete "logs" (an archive, really) of all postings to each list are available, we also try to combine discussion "threads" by including all the messages on a single topic into one easily located web location. Once you access the H-Africa web site, you can call up syllabi, bibliographies, conference announcements, research reports, book reviews, and the like.

So, H-Net editors edit the messages which come to our lists and to our Web sites. Our intent is to make them more valuable to all our readers, not to impose the chilling hand of censorship or to direct the flow of discussion. Thus, there is scholarly editing on the Internet, of which H-Net is exemplary. And, given the few complaints we receive, I suspect our readers are thankful for our careful ministrations.

Melvin E. Page is in the Department of History at East Tennessee State University, Box 70672, Johnson City, TN 37614-0672. pagem@etsuarts.east-tenn-st.edu

Return to OAH Newsletter