The origins of the Conference of Editors of Learned Journals are in the informal gatherings of editors at the 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 Enquiry 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 (University of Rhode Island) accepted the editorship of Editors' Notes. The constitution provides for the usual offices of President, Vice-President, and Secretary-Treasurer; it also gives the past President an active role in the ongoing business of the organization, and it establishes Regional Directors in areas corresponding with regional MLA organizations. 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," available for download in our online "Newsletter Archive" [see the "Fall 1999/Spring 2000" newsletter]).
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: Arthur Kinney of English Literary Renaissance (1971–74), Mark Spilka of Novel (1974–76), R. G. Collins of Thalia (1976–78), Marilyn Gaull of the Wordsworth Circle (1978–80), Ralph Cohen of New Literary History (1980–82), Arthur Kinney (1982–84), George Simson of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly (1984–86), John Stasny of Victorian Poetry (1986–88), Evelyn Hinz of Mosaic (1988–90), Michael Marcuse of Literary Research (1990–92), John Coldewey of Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History (1992–94), R. A. Shoaf of Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1994–95), Holly Laird of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (1996–97), Craig Howes of Biography (1998–99), Roy Flannagan of Milton Quarterly (2000–2001), Michael Cornett of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (2002–2003), David Hanson of Nineteenth-Century Studies (2004-2005), Jana Argersinger of ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance and Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism (2006-2007), Bonnie Wheeler of Arthuriana(2008-2009), and Joycelyn Moody, African American Quarterly (2010-11).
Every year CELJ sponsors two sessions at the MLA Convention. The first is devoted to the presentation of CELJ's annual journal awards and to a keynote address or a panel discussion that speaks to a topic of particular relevance to journal editors. The awards ceremony recognizes distinguished achievement in two divisions: one for scholarly journals and the other for creative-writing journals. In the "Scholarly Achievement" division, a winner and runner-up receive plaques or certificates for several, usually hotly contested, competitions, including Best New Journal, Best Journal Design, Best Special Issue, the Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial Achievement, and Distinguished Editor. In the creative "Literary Achievement" division, the categories are the Parnassus Award for Significant Editorial Achievement, Best New Literary Journal, and Distinguished Literary Editor. 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; and journal-refereeing and/as gatekeeping. Recent lively panels have focused on 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 reports from the officers. In 2009, President Bonnie Wheeler spoke to the Conference of Historical Journals at the American Historical Conferenceabout matters of common interest in hopes of sparking more participation in CELJ by editors whose journals are outside literature.
Another regular service CELJ provides for its members is an annual booth in the MLA convention exhibition. Editors can send several copies of their journal for display at the booth, and it has proven to be a very popular means of promotion. Members attending the MLA convention volunteer to help a local graduate student oversee the exhibit, and many use it to meet with past and present 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 ACLS and NEH.
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 sends hundreds of copies of that issue to distribute free to MLA members at the annual exhibit.
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, 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, e-mail communications became much more standard amongst 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. All subsequent Presidents of CELJ have been not only computer-literate but also dedicated to understanding and examining the many questions and issues with which the digital has confronted academic publishing.
One 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 in any given year, but it clearly has met a strong need within the profession. Future plans for the organization include new advocacy initiatives for the recognition of editors, workshops for aspiring editors, the development of guidelines for evaluating publication in online journals, the updating and enhancement of this web site, and outreach programs to editors from all humanities disciplines.
In 2016, the CELJ Executive Board agreed that the Digital Publishing Unit at West Virginia University would become the institutional home for the organization, with Cheryl Ball, Director of the DPI, serving as Executive Director. This agreement is spelled out in a Memorandum of Understanding between CELJ and WVU. The Executive Director serves as (non-voting) advisor to the Executive Board.
At MLA, CELJ now sponsors a yearly “How to Get Published” workshop, as well as one-two sessions devoted to the interests and needs of its membership.
CELJ contests now include: Distinguished Literary Editor Award, Parnassus Award for Significant Editorial Achievement, Best New Literary Journal, Best New Journal, Best Special Issue, Best Public Intellectual Special Issue, Best Journal Design, Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial Achievement, Distinguished Editor, Codex Award, and Voyager Award.