This article was written on 03 Jun 2014, and is filled under Sexualities.

Redefining Success and Failure: Open-Access Journals and Queer Theory

A student production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, emblematizing the joyful persistence of failure. Courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

A student production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, emblematizing the joyful persistence of failure. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Both the process and the very idea of publishing one’s work in an open-access online scholarly journal are fraught with irony. The realities of the job market for recent graduates, as well as increased research and publication requirements at traditionally teaching-centered universities that are at times, for budgetary reasons, unsupported by a corresponding increase in resources, such as internal grants and travel funds, demand that faculty and graduate students produce more and more peer-reviewed research. As a result, print journals receive a staggering number of submissions which they can hardly read and send out for review, let alone publish. The peer-review times are lengthening, mostly for the same reasons. The editors also receive a large number of unrevised graduate-student essays and are often compelled to fill mentorship gaps by providing soul-crushing reviews and rejection letters.

When I took my position as the founding co-editor of UpStage: A Journal of Turn-of-the-Century Theatre (published by Rivendale Press in the U.K.), an open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal indexed by the MLA, I saw our mission very clearly in light of the problems outlined above. We wanted to provide a venue for the dissemination of quality scholarship by graduate students and faculty who might not have been able, for various reasons, ranging from institutional affiliation and funding to the length of peer-review process, to publish in more traditional print venues. In order to accommodate prospective authors, we made sure that our peer-review process took no more than a month. The time from acceptance to publication was even shorter. The problem we encountered was that, especially following our transition from annual to twice-a-year publication, we received very few submissions (still fewer truly publishable, even with revisions), despite rather vigorous advertising efforts. Some journals in the online collective The Oscholars, of which we were a part, when faced with a similar problem, reverted to annual publication.

I have come to realize that, despite our talk about the changing landscape of academic publishing and the future of the book, and despite the principled stance many scholars have taken on open access, online open-access publications are still considered less prestigious, less desirable venues. In many cases, they are less prized by search committees and promotion and tenure reviewers. They have the reputation of publications that have extremely short shelf-lives and are run by enthusiastic but overcommitted graduate students and untenured and non-tenure-track faculty. The same students and faculty often hear that it is not wise to publish in these journals or to spend valuable pre-tenure and job-market time on editing them.

One of the factors contributing to the rather widespread mistrust of the quality of open-access online journals is the perception that their peer-review process is either perfunctory or non-existent. Another such perception, not always warranted, is that established and well-published academics rarely contribute their work to such journals. Online open-access journals that could serve as both efficient and rigorous publishing venues for those with more pressing needs and limited opportunities often fail to do so precisely because those with greater opportunities and less pressing needs presumably do not, or rarely, publish there. Consequently, both junior and mid-career scholars actually hesitate to submit their work to online open-access journals or to invest much time in the revision process. In my four years as a co-editor of UpStage, for example, detailed revise-and-resubmits never came to fruition: only conditional accepts prompted the authors to revise their work according to the readers’ suggestions. Put another way, the amount of time and effort invested in a publication clearly corresponded to the perceived prestige and impact of the journal.

What are some practical solutions to the recognition problems encountered by online open-access journals? Does the problem itself present us with theoretical possibilities? Practically speaking, creating an editorial board consisting of well-known scholars, as well as publishing detailed and specific peer-review guidelines may well give a fledgling online open-access journal greater authority in the eyes of both potential authors and those administrative bodies that evaluate and reward them. Likewise, editors could use various networking opportunities, such as conferences or special issues, to encourage established scholars to contribute.

The practical efforts to legitimize and strengthen online open-access scholarly journals could be complemented by a theoretical consideration of career trajectories. Conventional wisdom has it that beginner scholars can publish in open-access journals, while the process of growth and maturation in the profession – the progression of one’s academic Bildungsroman, in other words – entails a transition into publishing in print venues exclusively, or, at the very least, in venues that appear both in print and on line (and whose online access is usually protected by subscription). Correspondingly, resorting to publishing in small online open-access journals, such as the one I edited for four years, though, of course, not exactly a failure, is seen as limited success, possibly a last-ditch effort to get that C.V. line in before the MLA Job List comes out, or before the annual performance review meeting with the department chair takes place. Few will argue that placing an article in a print peer-reviewed journal represents considerable, if not unqualified, success.

For the last decade, as part of the discussions of sociality, negativity, utopianism, futurity, and optimism, queer theorists have critiqued accepted definitions of success and failure. This queer critique proffers unexpected and provocative ways of rethinking the status of electronic open-access peer-reviewed publications in the profession. Both in In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) and in The Queer Art of Failure (2011), J. Jack Halberstam advocates moving away from the normative ideas of advancement and success that are inevitably intertwined with the heteronormative notions of adulthood, sexual maturation, procreation, as well as with certain signposts of material gain. The Queer Art of Failure also offers various modes of contesting the existing structures of knowledge by failing. The book posits that such “resistance takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure…” and that “we might read failure, for example, as a refusal of mastery…and as a counterhegemonic discourse of losing” (11-12). Halberstam argues that “…failing,…unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” that, in turn, “…can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success…and offer[ ] different rewards” (2-3). Explicitly bringing these insights to bear on higher education, Halberstam takes to task the modern university:

Let me explain how universities…squash rather than promote quirky and original thought. Disciplinarity…is a technique of modern power: it depends upon and deploys normalization, routines, convention, tradition, and regularity, and it produces experts and administrative forms of governance. (7-8)

Halberstam defines today’s university as “a site of incarcerated knowledge” (15) and, as an alternative, offers the idea of “the university as a new kind of public sphere with a different investment in knowledge, in ideas, and in thought and politics” (8). This new public sphere would stand in contrast to the existing structures of higher learning.

Conscious acts of “counterhegemonic” failure can facilitate the transition from the current university to a new, liberated model. Publishing initiatives such as open access online journals can help form a “new kind of public sphere” by rethinking academic success and advancement, allowing scholars at different career stages to cooperate in a free, unregimented scholarly space, and recreating what Halberstam, using an architectural metaphor, calls “the complex and messy forms of organic profusion and improvised creativity” that stand in contrast to “…symmetry and division…that complement[ ] authoritarian preferences for hierarchy…” (10). Modes of collaboration may include peer review in which scholars provide non-anonymous feedback for revision (thus responding to Halberstam’s call, via Ranciére, for a dialogue-, rather than “pied-piper”-based pedagogy (14)), or issues specifically focused on representing scholarship across career stages, disciplines, and levels of name-recognition.

The point of such issues would be to trouble, or rewrite, the linearity and teleology of academic careers, hurtling, or shuffling, toward success, while simultaneously violating the artificially imposed boundaries of knowledge and expertise. Junior and more established scholars can fail together or, more precisely, redefine success and failure through a refusal to “miss[ ] out on a chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant” (Halberstam 6) in a scholarly space traditionally located on, or even beyond, the margins of  success.

Such destruction of hierarchies, if practiced without fear, may lead to the gradual recognition of the validity of open-access publication venues. These journals as a “new public sphere” that largely ignores both disciplinary barriers and accomplishments measured solely by universities’ operating papers can, then, become a valuable response to Halberstam’s call for creativity and resistance to the “grim scenarios” of normative success.

I am not suggesting that all open-access journals should engage queer theory as a methodology – though I certainly would not be averse to the idea – nor is what I am proposing, or mulling over, here applicable exclusively to those journals that already do. Instead, we should think about open-access journals as venues in which the conventional career trajectories are questioned by playing with hierarchies and binaries. As a result, we can reconsider the assumption that such journals are reserved exclusively for those who, according to the demands and taxonomies of the modern university, critically assessed by Halberstam, have not made it yet, or at all.


Works Cited

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005. Print.

—. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

A version of this essay was presented as part of the “Open Access: Editing Online Scholarly Journals” roundtable at the annual Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago, in January, 2014.


Helena Gurfinkel is an Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is the author of Outlaw Fathers in Victorian and Modern British Literature: Queering Patriarchy (2014), former co-editor of UpStage: A Journal of Turn-of-the-Century Theatre, and current editor of PLL: Papers on Language and Literature.


  1. Henry Sussman
    June 4, 2014

    Delighted to see this terrific reportage & commentary on Feedback!

  2. Witold Kieńć
    June 10, 2014

    I can see one problem in this argumentation. Who and why will conduct this “Conscious acts of ‘counterhegemonic failure'”?. Failure is not very pleasant and one must have big motivation to do it consciously. There are a lot of people who are really oppressed by heteronormative culture, thus it is a natural thing for them to oppose this regime.

    I think that ethical reasons are too weak to conduct ‘Conscious acts of ‘counterhegemonic” failure’, and people who would benefit the most from openness have very weak positions in academic system, and in fact they fails are invisible.