The origins of the Conference of Editors of Learned Journals are in the informal gatherings of editors at the Modern Language Association (MLA) starting in 1957, when they first gathered and discussed the same issues that are still of concern: funding, peer reviewing, plagiarism, property rights, copy editing, and so on. In the early 1970s, Arthur Kinney, Mark Spilka, R. G. Collins, Marilyn Gaull, Caroline Eckhardt, Anne Paolucci, Ralph Cohen, William Schreick, and William Schaeffer formalized as an allied organization at the MLA with popular annual meetings, workshops, displays, and informal gatherings at regional meetings as well.
Concerned with the responsibilities, skills, and values required for editing scholarly journals, CELJ provided mentoring for new editors, assisted authors in writing for publication, and established a strong public presence for journals in the humanities including a quarterly newsletter, Editors' Notes, founded by Gaull. Addressing the challenges of the new technology in copying and disseminating scholarship, officers took part in the National Inquiry into Scholarly Publication as well as congressional testimony on copyright.
In 1980, CELJ drafted a new constitution under the leadership of Cohen and Kinney, and Edna Steeves accepted the editorship of Editors' Notes. The constitution provided for the usual offices of President, Vice-President, and Secretary-Treasurer; it also gave the past President an active role in the ongoing business of the organization, and it established Regional Directors in areas corresponding with regional MLA organizations.
In 1985 CELJ reached an agreement with the Times Literary Supplement: members are invited to advertise, at special rates, in a section of TLS devoted entirely to journals each November. TLS used to send hundreds of copies of that issue to distribute free to MLA members at the annual exhibit.
In 1989, the organization changed its name to the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, which more accurately reflects the association of member editors. In 1991, CELJ achieved not-for-profit status. (For more detail on the council's early history, read Arthur Kinney's 1999 MLA keynote address, "Historicizing CELJ."
In 1992 CELJ struck up an arrangement with the Society for Scholarly Publishing at the University of Toronto so that CELJ membership included a free subscription to the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, perhaps the best-known and most widely distributed journal of its kind in the world. Rising costs have prohibited that relationship from enduring past 2009.
Between 1991 and 1997, during the presidencies of Coldewey, Shoaf, and Laird (see list of presidents below), CELJ began converting as many of its operations as possible to digital format. In fact, Coldewey had recruited Shoaf because he knew that Shoaf was already involved in preparing his journal, Exemplaria, for an Internet appearance. Under Shoaf, email communications became much more standard among the membership as well as the officers; and the journal Editors' Notes was converted to a newsletter which first appeared online in 1995. Shoaf, in turn, recruited Holly Laird, knowing that she was also interested in the fate of academic journals in the digital revolution as well as the impact this revolution was bound to have more generally on women's studies in academia. Under her leadership, a number of initiatives were conceived, which brought the Council to the attention of others who were interested in similar issues and problems. CELJ's responsibility to understand and examine the many questions and issues with which the digital has confronted academic publishing remains a priority in its administration.
In 2008, CELJ published a guide for Best Practices for Online Journals, fulfilling one of its outreach missions to editors and scholars alike. (This guide and others can be found under the Projects navigation tab.)
In 2009, President Bonnie Wheeler spoke to the Conference of Historical Journals at the American Historical Conference about matters of common interest in hopes of sparking more participation in CELJ by editors whose journals are outside literature.
In 2016, the CELJ Executive Board agreed to formalize an institutional home for the organization. From 2016–2018, that home was the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University, where DPI Director and CELJ member (and previous Secretary–Treasurer, 2012–13) Cheryl Ball would serve as CELJ's Executive Director. When Ball moved in 2018 to become Director of the Digital Publishing Collaborative at Wayne State University, CELJ's institutional affiliation was also transferred to Wayne State. The Executive Director serves as (non-voting) advisor to the Executive Board. Institutional home agreements are spelled out in Memoranda of Understanding between CELJ and the home institutions, and this administrative appointment was added to the Constitution when it was revised and voted on by the membership in 2017. A key function of this centralization of responsibility was to consolidate CELJ's technical and web presence, which included migration of the celj.org domain from a third-party server (maintained as a Drupal install by Mike Widner from 2009–2017) to a membership service platform. In 2018, CELJ's discussion list (previously hosted on a Listserv) moved to a discussion forum format as part of the new website platform.
The succession of presidents from the early 1970s to the present illustrates, among other things, the wide range of disciplines from which CELJ has been able to draw:
Every year at the MLA Convention, CELJ now (as of 2016) sponsors a yearly “How to Get Published” workshop, as well as one or two sessions devoted to the interests and needs of its membership.
The first additional session is always devoted to the presentation of CELJ's annual journal awards and to a keynote address (until 2012) or a panel discussion that speaks to a topic of particular relevance to journal editors. Over the last decade, keynote addresses have featured Robert Spoo and Harold Orlans on current copyright issues, Ian Lancashire on the computer's influence on scholarship and publishing, Peter Vandenberg on editorial transition, Beth Luey on the professionalization of journal editing, and James J. O’Donnell and Ann Okerson on digitized humanities.
CELJ's second session takes up a topic of special interest to journal authors and editors alike, often in the form of a roundtable discussion. Past topics have included, for example, the advent of electronic journals and their implications for writers, readers, and sponsoring agencies; journal-refereeing and/as gatekeeping; forms of support for academic journals; issues of electronic publication, storage, and retrieval; the vetting process; matters of interdisciplinarity; the nuts-and-bolts of journal editing; and the impact of ERIH ratings on scholarly editing.
A separate meeting covers the council's business, including annual reports from the officers.
A primary benefit of CELJ membership has always been the annual awards, given at the MLA conference. The awards ceremony recognizes distinguished achievement in two divisions, scholarly and creative journals, where the winner and often a runner-up receive plaques or certificates for several, usually hotly contested, competitions.
In the "Scholarly Achievement" division, awards include
In the creative "Literary Achievement" division, the categories are
Another regular service CELJ provides for its members is an annual booth in the MLA convention exhibition. (In some years, CELJ has also been able to provide booth services at other large conferences.) Editors can send several copies of their print or digital journal for display at the booth, and it has proven to be a very popular means of promotion. Initially, members attending the MLA convention volunteered to help a local graduate student oversee the exhibit, where many used it to meet with past and present contributors. Since forming an institutional home in 2016, the Executive Director and one of her graduate students staff the booth, where members are welcome to stop by and meet with contributors.
At the 2000 convention, CELJ drew a great deal of attention by turning the booth into a space for journal editors and authors to meet and discuss authors' individual concerns about journal publishing. The "Chat with an Editor" program served over a hundred authors in succession throughout the conference. The event was written up by the Chronicle of Higher Education (see the 12 Jan. 2001 issue, in the "Hot Type" column, available online to subscribers). In 2007, CELJ added a successful version of "Chat" for creative writers. In 2009, the MLA accepted Bonnie Wheeler’s appeal to provide dedicated space for the "Chat with an Editor" program in a room set aside for various “chats”—along with such groups as American Council of Learned Societies and National Endowment for the Humanities. While those collaborations with other organizations haven't been sustained, CELJ still receives a separate room for this popular event, held over two days at the conference.
Another service CELJ offers extends beyond its member editors: an adjudication process to help mediate disputes between journals and authors, no matter which party is aggrieved. The adjudication process has been used only a few times, but it clearly has met a strong need within the profession.