18 Years of Kairos Webtexts: An interview with Douglas Eyman & Cheryl E. Ball

Cheryl E. Ball

Cheryl E. Ball, associate professor of digital publishing studies at West Virginia University, is editor of Kairos

Since 1996 the electronic journal Kairos has published a diverse range of webtexts, scholarly pieces made up of a range of media and hypermedia. The 18 years of digital journal texts are both interesting in their own right and as a collection of complex works of digital scholarship that illustrate a range of sophisticated issues for ensuring long-term access to new modes of publication. Douglas Eyman, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University is senior editor and publisher of Kairos. Cheryl E. Ball, associate professor of digital publishing studies at West Virginia University, is editor of Kairos. In this Insights Interview, I am excited to learn about the kinds of issues that this body of work exposes for considering long-term access to born-digital modes of scholarship. [There was also a presentation on Kairos at the Digital Preservation 2014 meeting.]

Trevor: Could you describe Kairos a bit for folks who aren’t familiar with it? In particular, could you tell us a bit about what webtexts are and how the journal functions and operates?

Doug: Webtexts are texts that are designed to take advantage of the web-as-concept, web-as-medium, and web-as-platform. Webtexts should engage a range of media and modes and the design choices made by the webtext author or authors should be an integral part of the overall argument being presented. One of our goals (that we’ve met with some success I think) is to publish works that can’t be printed out — that is, we don’t accept traditional print-oriented articles and we don’t post PDFs. We publish scholarly webtexts that address theoretical, methodological or pedagogical issues which surface at the intersections of rhetoric and technology, with a strong interest in the teaching of writing and rhetoric in digital venues.


Douglas Eyman, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University is senior editor and publisher of Kairos

(As an aside, there was a debate in 1997-98 about whether we were publishing hypertexts, which then tended to be available in proprietary formats and platforms and not freely available on the WWW or not; founding editor Mick Doherty argued that we were publishing much more than only hypertexts, so we moved from calling what we published ‘hypertexts’ to ‘webtexts’ — Mick tells that story in the 3.1 loggingon column).

Cheryl: WDS (What Doug said ;) One of the ways I explain webtexts to potential authors and administrators is that the design of a webtext should, ideally, enact authors’ scholarly arguments, so that the form and content of the work are inseparable.

Doug: The journal was started by an intrepid group of graduate students, and we’ve kept a fairly DIY approach since that first issue appeared on New Year’s day in 1996. All of our staff contribute their time and talents and help us to publish innovative work in return for professional/field recognition, so we are able to sustain a complex venture with a fairly unique economic model where the journal neither takes in nor spends any funds. We also don’t belong to any parent organization or institution, and this allows us to be flexible in terms of how the editors choose to shape what the journal is and what it does.

Cheryl: We are lucky to have a dedicated staff who are scattered across (mostly) the US: teacher-scholars who want to volunteer their time to work on the journal, and who implement the best practices of pedagogical models for writing studies into their editorial work. At any given time, we have about 25 people on staff (not counting the editorial board).

Doug: Operationally, the journal functions much like any other peer-reviewed scholarly journal: we accept submissions, review them editorially, pass on the ones that are ready for review to our editorial board, engage the authors in a revision process (depending on the results of the peer-review) and then put each submission through an extensive and rigorous copy-, design-, and code-editing process before final publication. Unlike most other journals, our focus on the importance of design and our interest in publishing a stable and sustainable archive mean that we have to add those extra layers of support for design-editing and code review: our published webtexts need to be accessible, usable and conform to web standards.

Trevor: Could you point us to a few particularly exemplary works in the journal over time for readers to help wrap their heads around what these pieces look like? They could be pieces you think are particularly novel or interesting or challenging or that exemplify trends in the journal. Ideally, you could link to it, describe it and give us a sentence or two about what you find particularly significant about it.

Cheryl: Sure! We sponsor an award every year for Best Webtext, and that’s usually where we send people to find exemplars, such as the ones Doug lists below.

Doug: From our peer-reviewed sections, we point readers to the following webtexts (the first two are especially useful for their focus on the process of webtext authoring and editing):

Cheryl: From our editorially (internally) reviewed sections, here are a few other examples:

Trevor: Given the diverse range of kinds of things people might publish in a webtext, could you tell us a bit about the kinds of requirements you have enforced upfront to try and ensure that the works the journal publishes are likely to persist into the future? For instance, any issues that might come up from embedding material from other sites, or running various kinds of database-driven works or things that might depend on external connections to APIs and such.

Doug: We tend to discourage work that is in proprietary formats (although we have published our fair share of Flash-based webtexts) and we ask our authors to conform to web standards (XHTML or HTML5 now). We think it is critical to be able to archive any and all elements of a given webtext on our server, so even in cases where we’re embedding, for instance, a YouTube video, we have our own copy of that video and its associated transcript.

One of the issues we are wrestling with at the moment is how to improve our archival processes so we don’t rely on third-party sites. We don’t have a streaming video server, so we use YouTube now, but we are looking at other options because YouTube allows large corporations to apply bogus copyright-holder notices to any video they like, regardless of whether there is any infringing content (as an example, an interview with a senior scholar in our field was flagged and taken down by a record company; there wasn’t even any background audio that could account for the notice. And since there’s a presumption of guilt, we have to go through an arduous process to get our videos reinstated.) What’s worse is when the video *isn’t* taken down, but the claimant instead throws ads on top of our authors’ works. That’s actually copyright infringement against us that is supported by YouTube itself.

Another issue is that many of the external links in works we’ve published (particularly in older webtexts) tend to migrate or disappear. We used to replace these where we can with links to archive.org (aka The Wayback Machine), but we’ve discovered that their archive is corrupted because they allow anyone to remove content from their archive without reason or notice.[1] So, despite its good intentions, it has become completely unstable as a reliable archive. But we don’t, alas, have the resources to host copies of everything that is linked to in our own archives.

Cheryl: Kairos holds the honor within rhetoric and composition of being the longest-running, and most stable, online journal, and our archival and technical policies are a major reason for that. (It should be noted that many potential authors have told us how scary those guidelines look. We are currently rewriting the guidelines to make them more approachable while balancing the need to educate authors on their necessity for scholarly knowledge-making and -preservation on the Web.)

Of course, being that this field is grounded in digital technology, not being able to use some of that technology in a webtext can be a rather large constraint. But our authors are ingenious and industrious. For example, Deborah Balzhiser et al created an HTML-based interface to their webtext that mimicked Facebook’s interface for their 2011 webtext, “The Facebook Papers.” Their self-made interface allowed them to do some rhetorical work in the webtext that Facebook itself wouldn’t have allowed. Plus, it meant we could archive the whole thing on the Kairos server in perpetuity.

Trevor: Could you give us a sense of the scope of the files that make up the issues? For instance, the total number of files, the range of file types you have, the total size of the data, and or a breakdown of the various kinds of file types (image, moving image, recorded sound, text, etc.) that exist in the run of the journal thus far?

Doug: The whole journal is currently around 20 Gb — newer issues are larger in terms of data size because there has be an increase in the use of audio and video (luckily, html and css files don’t take up a whole lot of room, even with a lot of content in them). At last count, there are 50,636 files residing in 4,545 directories (this count includes things like all the system files for WordPress installs and so on). A quick summary of primary file types:

  • HTML files:     12247
  • CSS:               1234
  • JPG files:        5581
  • PNG:               3470
  • GIF:                 7475
  • MP2/3/4:         295
  • MOV               237
  • PDF:                191

Cheryl: In fact, our presentation at Digital Preservation 2014 this year [was] partly about the various file types we have. A few years ago, we embarked on a metadata-mining project for the back issues of Kairos. Some of the fields we mined for included Dublin Core standards such as MIMEtype and DCMIType. DCMIType, for the most part, didn’t reveal too much of interest from our perspective (although I am sure librarians will see it differently!! :) but the MIMEtype search revealed both the range of filetypes we had published and how that range has changed over the journal’s 20-year history. Every webtext has at least one HTML file. Early webtexts (from 1996-2000ish) that have images generally have GIFs and, less prominent, JPEGs. But since PNGs rose to prominence (becoming an international standard in 2003), we began to see more and more of them. The same with CSS files around 2006, after web-standards groups starting enforcing their use elsewhere on the Web. As we have all this rich data about the history of webtextual design, and too many research questions to cover in our lifetimes, we’ve released the data in Dropbox (until we get our field-specific data repository, rhetoric.io, completed).

Trevor: In the 18 years that have transpired since the first issue of Kairos a lot has changed in terms of web standards and functionality. I would be curious to know if you have found any issues with how earlier works render in contemporary web browsers. If so, what is your approach to dealing with that kind of degradation over time?

Cheryl: If we find something broken, we try to fix it as soon as we can. There are lots of 404s to external links that we will never have the time or human resources to fix (anyone want to volunteer??), but if an author or reader notifies us about a problem, we will work with them to correct the glitch. One of the things we seem to fix often is repeating backgrounds. lol. “Back in the days…” when desktop monitors were tiny and resolutions were tinier, it was inconceivable that a background set to repeat at 1200 pixels would ever actually repeat. Now? Ugh.

But we do not change designs for the sake of newer aesthetics. In that respect, the design of a white-text-on-black-background from 1998 is as important a rhetorical point as the author’s words in 1998. And, just as the ideas in our scholarship grow and mature as we do, so do our designs, which have to be read in the historical context of the surrounding scholarship.

Of course, with the bettering of technology also comes our own human degradation in the form of aging and poorer eyesight. We used to mandate webtexts not be designed over 600 pixels wide, to accommodate our old branding system that ran as a 60-pixel frame down the left-hand side of all the webtexts. That would also allow for a little margin around the webtext. Now, designing for specific widths — especially ones that small — seems ludicrous (and too prescriptive), but I often find myself going into authors’ webtexts during the design-editing stage and increasing their typeface size in the CSS so that I can even read it on my laptop. There’s a balance I face, as editor, of retaining the authors’ “voice” through their design and making the webtext accessible to as many readers as possible. Honestly, I don’t think the authors even notice this change.

Trevor: I understand you recently migrated the journal from a custom platform to the Open Journal System platform. Could you tell us a bit about what motivated that move and issues that occurred in that migration?

Doug: Actually, we didn’t do that.

Cheryl: Yeah, I know it sounds like we did from our Digital Preservation 2014 abstract, and we started to migrate, but ended up not following through for technical reasons. We were hoping we could create plug-ins for OJS that would allow us to incorporate our multimedia content into its editorial workflow. But it didn’t work. (Or, at least, wasn’t possible with the $50,000 NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant we had to work with.) We wanted to use OJS to help streamline and automate our editorial workflow–you know, the parts about assigning reviewers and copy-editors, etc., — and as a way to archive those processes.

I should step back here and say that Kairos has never used a CMS; everything we do, we do by hand — manually SFTPing files to the server, manually making copies of webtext folders in our kludgy way of version control, using YahooGroups (because it was the only thing going in 1998 when we needed a mail system to archive all of our collaborative editorial board discussions) for all staff and reviewer conversations, etc.–not because we like being old school, but because there were always too many significant shortcomings with any out-of-the-box systems given our outside-the-box journal. So the idea of automating, and archiving, some of these processes in a centralized database such as OJS was incredibly appealing. The problem is that OJS simply can’t handle the kinds of multimedia content we publish. And rewriting the code-base to accommodate any plug-ins that might support this work was not in the budget. (We’ve written about this failed experiment in a white paper for NEH.)

[1] Archive.org will obey robots.txt files if they ask not to be indexed. So, for instance, early versions of Kairos itself are no longer available on archive.org because such a file is on the Texas Tech server where the journal lived until 2004. We put that file there because we want Google to point to the current home of the journal, but we actually would like that history to be in the Internet Archive. You can think of this as just a glitch, but here’s the more pressing issue: if I find someone has posted a critical blog post of my work, if I ever get ahold of the domain it was originally posted, I can take it down there *and* retroactively make it unavailable on archive.org, even if it used to show up there. Even without such nefarious purpose, just the constant trade in domains and site locations means that no researcher can trust that archive when using it for history or any kind of digital scholarship.