Last year, did you get paid nothing to work hard for a multinational corporation with reported revenues of over a billion dollars?
If you have (1) done peer-reviews for, (2) submitted an article to, (3) written a book or media review for, or (4) taken on the editorship of a scholarly journal published by giant firms such as Springer, Reed Elisevier, or Wiley, then you belong to a very large group of very well-educated people whose unpaid labor has helped make these firms very profitable. Their profitability in turn has positioned them to work vigorously against the interests of (1) university presses and other not-for-profit publishers in the public interest, (2) libraries at all levels, (3) university and college students, (4) scholars themselves, and (5) particular and general publics with a need to consult the scholarly record.
I am not willing to freely give my labor to large multinational corporations whose interests align with their shareholders but that are antagonistic to my own. This is my view on one key aspect of scholarly communications today. Scholars can advance several different worthwhile causes by doing all that they can to stop becoming further entangled (individually and collectively) with for-profit scholarly publishers, particularly the largest of the multinational firms that increasingly seek to exert a kind of hegemony over the entire domain of scholarly communications.
There is a great variety of steps that can be taken to build a different, more accessible and progressive system of scholarly communication. My focus here is on five simple choices that scholars can make while sitting at their desk pursuing their own publishing work. These are choices that I have made and that I encourage my colleagues to consider making.
- Choose not to submit scholarly journal articles or other works to publications owned by for-profit firms.
- Say no, when asked to undertake peer-review work on a book or article manuscript that has been submitted for publication by a for-profit publisher or a journal under the control of a commercial publisher.
- Do not seek or accept the editorship of a journal owned or under the control of a commercial publisher.
- Do not take on the role of series editor for a book series being published by a for-profit publisher.
- Turn down invitations to join the editorial boards of commercially published journals or book series.
If taken, the preceding steps are individual in their point of action even as they support a variety of more collective projects aimed at redirecting the scholarly communication system in more progressive, sustainable, and open ways.
If you care about university presses, these steps will help. If you are eager to resist corporate enclosure of public goods, resources, and ideas, they will help. If you care about reform in intellectual property systems, they will help. If you are worried that your college or university library is on the brink of financial collapse, they will help. If you want to make sure that your scholarship is as available as possible to colleagues, students, and the public, they will help. If you believe in open education and other approaches to transforming teaching and learning, they will help. If you are concerned about the harmful effects of media consolidation, they will help. If you are selfish and resent being taken advantage of, they will help.
What choices are you making? Are you ready to get out of the business?
When Marc Andreesen, the entrepreneur behind the first mainstream web browser, was interviewed by the popular technology blog, TechCrunch on the future of publishing (in particular journalism), his provocative response was “burn the boats.” What he was referring to was the moment Cortez, fleeing from Cuba, and landing in Mexico, ordered his troops to “burn the boats,” preventing any possibility of return. The lesson: don’t defend lost ground, at times there is no going back, and making decisions to insure that one does not consider a return is a good move. Andreesen’s point was that old print based media forms are dead, and it does no good to try and re-envision them for the 21st century. Rather journalism institutions need to boldly move to future web based models, giving up on their print-based biases.
Academics should similarly “Burn Their Boats,” or in this case, “Burn the Books,” making a definitive move to embrace new modes of scholarships enabled by web-based communication, rather than attempting to port old models into the new register. Rather than providing the book with a digital facelift for 21st century scholarly communications, academics should move past book-based biases which structure scholarly communications and instead imagine and execute born-digital scholarly forms, which leverage the evolving digital media landscape.
This is not to suggest that we actually engage in book burning, nothing of the sort. Instead we need to burn our love affair with books, and that out of reverence to the book, we stop treating it as the only or even primary means of scholarly communication. Not only are there better ways, but if academia wants to remain (or more skeptically, become) relevant we ought to recognize that the book is no longer the main mode of knowledge transmission.
Faced with the transformation to the digital, the newspaper industry chose to protect a business model, instead of preserving their social function. My fear is that academics are making the same mistake. Now granted this analogy is not perfect, there are contours and shapes, and nuance and details that matters here. They are not a direct equivalence, but the underlying logic is the same. It concerns me that academics and intellectuals, with some exceptions, seem to be repeating this mistake, following the digital facelift model, asking how they can continue to do what they do now, but do it in the digital space, rather than asking how what they do has been fundamentally changed in the age of the digital networked archive.
It is probably worth distinguishing here between the materiality of the book, and the ideologies and biases we associate with the book. At the most basic level a book is a dead tree processed and bound together in leaves of paper and stained with ink. But many of the things that we have come to associate with the book are not in fact coterminous with its material structure but rather biases developed over the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” the relatively brief period in human history when print was the dominant form of communication, following a long oral period and now succeeded by a digital age that has much in common with pre-print culture.
This librocentricism, or a book-biased way of thinking, where the book stands in for certain prejudices and ideas about knowledge, is pervasive. Notice how the word book often stands in for, or comes to mean, the entirety of the matter, as in The Book of Nature, to “throw the book at someone,” or The Book of Love. So often “book” comes to be an epistemological framework for knowledge, not just a material one.
The idea that knowledge is a product, which can be delivered in an analog vehicle needs to be questioned. What the network shows us, is that many of our views of information were/are based on librocentric biases. While the book treats information as something scarce, the net shows us precisely the opposite, information is anything but scarce. Books tell us that one learns by acquiring information, something which is purchased and traded as a commodity, consumed and mastered, but the net shows us that knowledge is actually about navigating, creating, participating.
Knowledge is no longer print-based, nor governed by the substrate of paper, indeed while in many ways we might continue to harbor librocentric biases, as we move away from structuring knowledge to end up on paper, these framing structures will prove less and less necessary, indeed may actually impede on our ability to participate in knowledge conversations.
We do not have to give up completely on books or actually perform a book burning, freeing ourselves from all of the pages we have in our respective offices. Rather we should start conceiving of our scholarship as if it will not end up in books—indeed it still might—but begin by asking ourselves what would scholarship look like if were not designed to end up in books.
Here are some suggestions for this change:
- Stop Publishing in Closed Systems: If you publish in a journal which charges for access, you are not published, you are private-ed. To publish means to make public, if something is locked down behind a firewall where someone needs a subscription to view it, it is not part of the “common knowledge” base and thus might as well not exist. Academic journals are treating knowledge as if it is a scarce commodity. It is not; don’t let them treat it as such. If someone wants to publish something you wrote, ask them if you can keep the copyright and license it under Creative Commons, and if they say no, don’t give it to them, and find someone who will. Look for journals which publish only online and only for free.
- Self Publish: Publishing and editing are hacks based on the scarcity of paper. No need to carry it over to the new medium. Once publishing was the most efficient way to reach the largest audience. No longer is that the case, so let’s get over our publishing fetish. Publishing online allows you to engage a wider audience, both faster and more efficiently than any print based journal. We think of an academic’s role as presenting polished finished work and ideas, but this need not be the case. We should switch to presenting our ideas in process, showing our work, not just the final product.
- Digital Publications Must Interact with the Web: A PDF document is not a web-based document. It is a print-based document distributed on the web. One of the principle advantages of the web is the way it connects, operates as a network of connections within an ecosystem of knowledge where one can search, copy, paste, edit, link with ease—none of which is true of a PDF. The PDF is just a way of maintaining print-based aesthetics and structures on the web. In the same way you wouldn’t think of publishing a book without the appropriate footnotes, don’t publish to the web without the appropriate live links.
- Get Over Peer Review: Peer review is another hack based on the scarcity of paper. Given the cost of producing knowledge and the fact that academic journals or academic presses could only afford to produce so many pages with each journal, peers are established to vet, and signal that a particular piece is credible and more worthy than the others. This is the filter-then-publish model. But the net actually works in reverse—publish-then-filter—involving a wider range of people in the discursive production. Why do academics argue for small panel anonymous peer review? One thing we know is diversity of perspective enriches discourse.
- Aspire to Be a Curator: We have to give up being authorities, controlling our discourse, seeing ourselves as experts who posses bodies of knowledge over which we have mastery. Instead we have to start thinking of what we do as participating in a conversation, and ongoing process of knowledge formation. What if we thought of academics as curators, people who keep things up to date, clean, host, point, and aggregate knowledge rather than just those who are responsible for producing new knowledge. Do we really need another book arguing that throughout the history of literary scholarship the important field of “x” has long been ignored? No. But we could actually use some good online resources and aggregators for particular subject domains.
- Think Beyond the Book: Think of the book as one form, not the form. Indeed, think of things that move beyond the book. What if what you are writing didn’t have to be stable, didn’t have to have a final version? What if you could constantly update, alter, and make available your work? There will be no final copy, just the most recent version. While the constantly-in-beta mode might concern those who aim for perfection, it can also be liberating when you realize that nothing is fixed, taking advantage of the fluidity of the net. What happens when we give up on, or at least refuse to be limited by librocentricism? What if a piece didn’t have to be 20 pages for a journal article or 250 for a book? There are economic constraints that place limits on the size and shape of academic writing—how much better can we be when we get rid of these? What would an academic argument as an app look like?
To be clear: the book isn’t dead. But it is no longer central. Academia would do well to recognize this, to move into new directions, new grounds, where many already are. We should not continue to constrain our thinking by a librocentricism which no longer structures or limits the way that knowledge is produced, disseminated, or archived.
The web is thirsty for efficient, effective ways of retrieving useful information about the state of the field. This pressure creates an enormous market for those instruments that help individuals locate authoritative discourses and situated scholarship, and this, of course, is one of the traditional roles of the academic journal.
Academic journals are in the course of rethinking their management, methods, and publication standards. If they face this transition with courage and ingenuity, journals have the opportunity to plant themselves firmly as pillars of professional utility, scholarly collaboration, and authoritative knowledge as a public utility. Much of it may require thinking in terms of shifting communities and the life of information, and shifting sharply away from current journals’ dependence on issue-by-issue websites and PDF-servers like JSTOR. If you’re a journal editor, the first step in a shift away may indeed be so radical as taking down your website, sharing information in new ways even more deeply integrated with the flow of information on Web 2.0.
There are four major ways to adapt academic publication to a Web 2.0 world.
1) Journals must pursue interoperability with the other online tools that are shaping the techne of scholarly practice.
Web 2.0 requires public visibility and interoperability with other web tools, in order that a searching aid should be found, adopted, and rendered relevant to the new research paradigms being adopted by scholars and members of the public alike. The more journals fit themselves into this paradigm, the better they’ll thrive in the new order, finding readers both academic and para-academic as allies. They will function usefully as finding-aids for the most relevant, expert material in their disciplines.
In going Web 2.0, journals have the ability to mesh their publications with tools that will allow readers to better integrate journal essays with the rest of their research. A scholar using a research manager like Zotero and JSTOR currently can download the article PDF and the citation, ready for use in a footnote. Web 2.0 journals must go further into this zone: a scholar using Zotero, JSTOR, Google Scholar, and a social bookmarking tool can instantaneously find other scholars’ opinions of a particular article, the names of the disciplines and sub-disciplines they think it applies to best, and other articles of similar note to that particular scholar.
With these tools, every published article becomes easily interfaced with the tools new scholars are using to sort their data. Each visitor to a Web 2.0 service can refashion their own micro-reading-list from their colleagues’ reading-lists, cutting and pasting collective knowledge into an individual canon suited to their own project.
2) Journals have opportunity to reframe their role in the academy as curators of the noise of the web.
The web suffers from a crisis of authority which is being met on the individual, rather than the collective and disciplinary level. For questions of disciplinary fields, for example, Wikipedia is likely to be irrelevant and useless. Far more useful, from my point of view, have been peer-to-peer exchanges on social bookmarking and networking sites like Delicious, LibraryThing, and Twitter, where colleagues in proximate fields have openly shared their course reading material, current research, and private canons.
In these sharing sites, individuals tag interesting citations with a series of terms most relevantly useful to their own practice. Users are less concerned with the interoperability of those selected terms than with the project of generating as many accurate, natural-language keywords as possible (folksonomy). The collected mass of these tags becomes an ultimate subject catalog to all the possible subject headings that might apply to any given website. Particular individual users become peculiar sources of authority for a given subject heading.
Journals have the opportunity to weave themselves as crucial threads in the fabric of online conversations if they begin tagging, becoming collective repositories of the best, collectively-ratified articles and citations available for download on the web.
In a world where the primary tools for finding new scholarship are tagged, social databases like Delicious and LibraryThing, the most efficient form of journal interface with the world might be a for journals to scrap their websites and become collective, tagging entities. In the world of the traditional print journal, scholars vied to get a Journal of Modern History citation on their vita because it stands for something. What if there was instead a filtered set of citations produced by those entities?
Such a stream of official citations could come to stand in for the private account of a collective recognized for setting a standard in the field, providing much the same function as the old print citation in terms of scholarly participation and professional standing. Being collected in those entries could still stand for the product of collective vetting among recognized scholars.
Web 2.0 journals that take their primary responsibility as curatorial have no need for official publication from the university press system. They are not dependent on the income model of the university press, and they have no reason to collect subscriptions: their purpose is disciplinary service and public access. There is no reason for the articles published in this format to be made private, or to require elaborate fee-charging mechanisms.
3) Electronic journals will have the opportunity to expand their curatorial mandate to include different forms of publication.
The traditional journal collects and publishes only three sorts of essays: the editorial, the peer-reviewed essay of new research in 15-50 pages, and the book review. There is nothing platonic about these forms: they evolved from the culture of eighteenth-century coffee-house journals, reviewing the books in circulation, and the canonization of eighteenth-century essayists like Addison and Steele in the English curriculum of higher education at the end of the nineteenth century. They are considered the template for developing a reasoned, supported argument, and so the metric for measuring the ability to research, argue, and write.
The traditional canon of essays, editorials, and book reviews has excluded much of other forms of scholarship, the circulation of whose best models are of value to the scholarly community, including: syllabi, subject division lists for qualifying exams, lectures, paragraph-sized notes/queries, lists of relevant new electronic tools, reviews of electronic tools, reports on best methods in the archives, lectures, and blog-sized opinions about exciting new directions for the field. An electronic journal has no reason to exclude a twenty-minute audio segment, a selection of maps shared on Slideshare, or a video segment of a conference paper shared on YouTube. Properly curated, any of these categories would be of immense disciplinary interest, worthy of collection in a journal stream.
4) Against exclusive publication.
It is contrary to utility, in the world of Web 2.0, to maintain exclusive publication rights on an article. Exclusivity of publication places a text in only one domain. Yet non-exclusive text gets reproduced and recopied, circulated around the internet, and rapidly floats onward to mimetic influence in other cultures, excerpted and referenced. For every web 2.0 author, non-exclusivity and easy republication is ideal. For every would-be-idea-of-influence in the age of web 2.0, easy reduplication is crucial.
Exclusivity has been the format followed by most online journals, which seek to mimic in form the traditional journal: one essay, neatly formatted, looking as professional as possible. Exclusive re-publication suggests the old model of authority, and is superficially reassuring to editors without actually promoting the real functions of the journal: disseminating ideas and establishing the authority of the journal-as-canon and disciplinary metric.
Significantly more desirable would be setting a different precedent: for all disseminated forms of the text to advertise the article’s accreditation as having been curated by inclusion in the journal-as-stream. If this dissemination model is followed, the journal homepage need not include reprints of the articles themselves: merely links to the original blogspace or university-housed-pdf or slideshow where the material was originally posted, with all of its links, illustrations, video, and wallpaper as the author originally presented it. The journal’s role is reduced to curation, not to presentaiton. Not having a use for a graphic designer, typesetter, or illustrations layout person, the journal’s workflow will be considerably reduced.
5) Broadening the criteria for participation.
Another major question opened by the age of the electronic journal is the issue of expertise. Like the essay, the journal peer review process is the relic of another age: an age of abundant, unbegrudging emeriti with plentiful leisure to foster the development of younger peers who had, on average, three years of training by way of a PhD. The limited number of peer reviewers and editors responsible for the operation of the journal at any given time, is the relic of the system limited by the expense of the post office, the limited social networks of the people who invented the system, and the era of fewer PhD’s on the world scene. In a new era, many of the burdens of editing and curation can be more broadly distributed to both the aid of the editors and the thriving of the discipline itself.
Journals have the opportunity to reconsider the distribution of time and responsibility. Is peer review a top-down mentoring process for scaling up the academic ladder, or will it be reconceived as an open playing-field, a sort of open seminar for peer review rather than a two-vetted-readers-read-you? With the aid of wikis and commenting systems, it becomes possible for a single text to be usefully reviewed and edited by hundreds of individuals, vetting their understanding of significance, authentic fact, and argument flow. For young scholars, accreted small suggestions of other citations, references, examples, and counterexamples, from a wider array of supporters, could conceivably enhance an article on multiple levels.
In addition, the thinking of interdisciplinary members of the broader academy might be usefully invited. The pressure of other ideas could hypothetically encourage the discipline to take account of the findings of related sub-disciplines (invited participation from scholars in postcolonial studies for Victorian Studies issues on empire), the concerns of related fields (are economists convinced by new findings in economic history?), and the legibility of argument to the public (does this ground-breaking, relevant article on tyranny and empire actually parse to the average reader of the New York Times?)
6) The reconsideration of timelines.
In the age of web 2.0, it is also possible for a writer to continuously revise an argument over an extended period of time, even indefinitely. For the sake of scholars’ multiple projects, an indefinitely revised work is probably not ideal, but extended revisions, over the course of a year, become possible and useful for the author and the discipline. An article could be published as “officially under review” in a sub-category of the journal stream, subjected to gradual wiki conversation for a year, and remain available to a reading public for the entirety of that time.
The product that would emerge at the end of a year of wiki-ratification would be very different than that at the beginning. If the author failed, in the course of wiki revision, to produce a stronger article than at the beginning, the article could be removed from the journal stream at the end of the year.
The way we’re taught to read is diametrically opposite the way we’re taught to write. We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word. Books and articles are clogged with prose no one but first year grad students and the author’s most devoted enemies actually read. Yet the titles of books and articles suggest the author imagines a literary audience of breathless millions. An Age of Giants: railroad regulation in Kansas, 1933-1936. Did I make this title up? Hard to tell, isn’t it? Why do sober, solid academics tomes feel obliged to tart up their work like middle aged trollopes?
It’s because of the disjunction between the way we are taught to read and the way we are taught to write. We aspire to write in what might be called, if one were feeling extremely generous, a “literary” style. But we learn read as if gutting a fish. The state of affairs is well described by a joke many have heard or told:
Professor A: Have you taught this new book by X?
Professor B: Why not only have I taught it, I’ve read it!
Within these comically unrealistic parameters, academic writing finds an extremely limited set of outlets. There are books and there are journal articles and there are conference papers, which are but fetal journal articles or book chapters. Scholarly books and articles are, quite reasonably, hard to publish. They need peer review, which takes time; at its best peer review makes for better, more reliable, more accurate work. At its worst it wears interesting and novel ideas down to a smooth, dull and uniform familiarity. It demands exactly the narcotizing qualifications and historiographic forced marches that put ordinary readers off academic work and render the colonic titles absurd.
When you think back on the books and articles that most influenced you, is your first thought “hell of a job on the peer review?” The stuff which has been most influential in my intellectual life, the stuff that’s been most profound and useful, is profound and useful in ways that have nothing at all to do with peer review. Was Foucault’s Discipline and Punish peer reviewed? It sure doesn’t read as if it was. History of Sexuality, v.1? No. Both books had a profound influence. Was Geertz’s essay on cockfighting in Bali dramatically improved by peer review? No. What’s valuable about that famous essay is the clarity of his prose and the nature of the insights. Maybe peer review pushed him to make it a little better, but the value comes from the method, the intellectual core, not some fine tuning on Balinese village customs forced by Geertz’s disciplinary rivals.
Now the obvious objection is that peer review is supposed to be invisible, and present us, the general public, with a reliable, vetted, accurate product. One could argue that in these examples, it worked as it was supposed to. But again it’s not the fact that they were peer reviewed that makes these pieces worthwhile: peer review is to their worth as the parsley garnish is to the blue plate special.
Now of course most of us are not brilliant thinkers, and even brilliant thinkers get help. No doubt Geertz, Foucault and other postmodern worthies worked in a community, and benefited from exchange with their peers. We all want that input on our work: we want to clarify our thinking and gain from the insights of people we respect. But in a networked world there are ways to make that easier, not harder: more fluid and less cumbersome.
And because there are so very few templates for academic publishing, scholars have to inflate their work to fit—the book is all too often a blown-up article, and the article, all too often, is a blown-up conference paper. Does anyone doubt this? There’s no outlet for small ideas, for what the sciences call a “research finding.” There are few outlets for work that frankly mixes past history with present politics. There are few or no outlets for work that takes chances with form. It’s as if basketball was still played only by slow midwestern men lobbing set shots.
Academic writing has been remarkably resistant to technological change. It survived the typewriter crisis with nary a blip; the word processor, despite its immense advantages, left little or no mark on academic prose, except that really good quotations tended to be repeated more often. And so it continues today, blithely untouched by the staggering potential of networked digital technology, writing as if a neighbor had just dropped by in a carriage and left his card in the foyer. Yes, methodologies change; the liquid in the glass changes colors and flavors, but the glass remains thick, square, and clouded with age.
There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong the current model of academic publishing, just as there’s nothing wrong with Brahms. But a world in which Brahms was the only template for musical expression would be both stupefying and willfully cloistered. Why not invent a new mode of academic publishing and communication, one rooted in the way we actually live and work, one that takes advantage of the technologies we have instead of pretending they don’t exist?
The science fiction writer Harlen Ellison once described a stunt in which he sat in the window of a bookshop all day writing a story. He was curious about what would happen if writing became a public spectacle rather than the mysterious, solitary endeavor it usually is. That scene piqued my imagination and stuck with me, enough so that when I explored the idea of writing an electronic dissertation in the mid-1990s (at the same time the Web was emerging as a popular medium but before the term “blog” had been coined) I immediately decided do it it “live,” in “real time” on the network. That is, I would simply publish drafts of my work, and revise them, and the whole would take shape as a massive, interlaced hypertext. The idea was to keep myself motivated. By writing in a fishbowl, I reasoned, I would have some real, external pressure to keep at it. I would never know who was reading (watching). Yes, the fishbowl was also a panopticon. Was I worried about plagiarism when I published drafts of my dissertation online? Nope, red herring. I was branding my ideas, imprinting them with my name, putting them into public circulation. Sure enough, there followed conference invitations, citations of my work in other scholars’ work, and contacts and connections that to this day form the basis of my professional community. What I really wanted, of course, was a blog. —Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
I don’t expect my blog to affect my career one way or another. It’s not like I’m spreading gossip, sharing dark fantasies, or posting my neuroses. Many of my posts are simply observations—the kind I would talk about with a group of friends, if I still had the time. But I’m too busy teaching and writing to sit around anymore and talk about these kinds of things. So I steal a few random minutes, spit them out on my blog, and then, I forget about them. The posts that aren’t simply observations are usually ideas in incubation that will eventually surface (peer-reviewed, documented, cited, leeched of personality) in a conference paper, journal article, or someday a book. The posts are placeholders, in a sense, for the real intellectual work that lies ahead. —Mark Sample
When I was in graduate school, a mentor once told me that the key to being a successful scholar was to become completely obsessed with a historical topic, to feel the urge to read and learn everything about an event, an era, or a person, in short, to become so knowledgeable, energetic, and even obsessed with your subject matter that you become what others immediately recognize as a trusted, valuable expert. The most stimulating, influential professors, even those with more traditional outlets for their work (like books and journals) overflow with views and thoughts. As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession. Shaped correctly, a blog can be a perfect place for that extra production of words and ideas. The best bloggers inevitably become a nexus for information exchange in their field. —Dan Cohen
When my daughter Eleanor, now 21, was about three years old, she had an imaginary friend. One day I asked her friend’s name. “Audience,” she said. Today, Eleanor has real friends: it’s the humanities scholar who has an imaginary audience.
We hear often, these days, of a crisis in scholarly publishing, usually attributed to the rise in the cost of science, technical, and medical serials, the decline in library budgets, and the resulting squeeze on standing orders for university-press monographs. But there is another, more direct, explanation for the difficulty that university presses are having in publishing humanities monographs. The simplest analysis of the “crisis in scholarly publishing” is that it’s a problem of audience: nobody’s reading these books—not even colleagues in the disciplines, much less students, or the general public.
There are a number of possible readings of this crisis of audience: I’d like to consider them one by one, and consider how open access might make a difference—or not—in each case. I realize that open access is usually discussed in connection with journal literature, and I will return to the question of journals later on, but for now, I’ll be looking at monographs—single-author, book-length works of scholarship—in the humanities.
Reading 1. The problem is that humanities scholarship is too full of jargon—it is intentionally obscure.
This is a plausible analysis, on its face, and it’s one you will often hear from humanities scholars themselves, when they are speaking of the work of others. Speaking as the editor (emeritus) of a humanities journal that, in one issue, published “‘The Feathery Rilke Mustaches and Porky Pig Tattoos on Stomach’: High and Low Pressures in Gravity’s Rainbow,” and “‘Mais ce n’est surtout pas vrai’: On Some Recent Re-Citings of Jacques Derrida,” and “Currency Exchanges: The Postmodern, Vattimo, Et Cetera, Among Other Things (Et Cetera),” I believe there is some basis for the charge of obscurantism.
If this is the whole story, then open access won’t make a bit of difference: nobody will be interested, and the material won’t be any more accessible, just because the scholarship is available for free. On the other hand, it won’t do any harm, because the market for the books is not one that will evaporate if the same content is available for free: individuals aren’t buying these books, and a library that collects them does so in order to build a collection, for use in the future as well as the present. The availability of the content online is a present convenience, but its future is at best uncertain.
The counterargument to the obscurantism analysis, though, is that it sells both the scholarship and the audience short. Granted, America’s never been kind to highbrow cultural production, in any era or medium, and while we sometimes lament the low level of mass media, as a nation we definitely (sometimes defiantly) prefer Porky Pig to Rilke. And yet, during the period (about 14 years ago) when this issue of Postmodern Culture came out, the journal (freely available on the web) was receiving upwards of a million hits a year—and during that same period, I received this email from a reader:
“Dear Mr. Unsworth: I’m a union teamster living in rural Vermont so I don’t have a lot of access to the sort of stuff you have in your journal and you provide access to from your Web site. Our local library is swell, computerized too, but a computer search under postmodernism or poststructuralism or Derrida or Baudrillard or Jameson produces zero hits. Thank you.”
I’ll come back to this point, but for now, I’ll just say that the world is full of surprises, and one of them may be that there’s an audience for scholarship outside the academy, and if that audience isn’t imaginary, then open-access publishing would be the best way to reach them. Of course, adding open-access publishing to print publishing has a cost, so if the print enterprise is already not viable, and the open-access audience doesn’t exist, gambling on open access and losing may hasten the slow but apparently inevitable decline of the humanities monograph. I’d say there’s still nothing to lose: if this mode of scholarly communication is really not viable, it would be better for it to die off and be replaced with something new than to drag on, on life-support, and stifle the potential emergence of new modes and genres of communication—possibly less obscure, more intellectually open-access ones, at that.
Reading 2. Esoteric publishing is just fine—but we don’t need publishers to do it.
The notion of an “economics” of esoteric publishing, and indeed the phrase “esoteric publishing” belongs, so far as I know, to Stevan Harnad, the editor of Psycoloquy, and an electronic publisher who has been at it as long as I have. In Stevan’s original proposition, called a “Subversive Proposal,” he defined esoteric publishing as:
(non-trade, no-market) scientific and scholarly publication (but that is the lion’s share of the academic corpus anyway), namely, that body of work for which the author does not and never has expected to SELL his words. He wants only to PUBLISH them, that is, to reach the eyes and minds of his peers, his fellow esoteric scientists and scholars the world over, so that they can build on one another’s contributions in that cumulative, collaborative enterprise called learned inquiry.
Stevan’s subversive proposal is to argue that since scholars who publish for a specialized audience and have no expectation of being paid for their work can now publish cheaply on the internet, therefore the publishers who formerly served this type of writer will have to
either restructure themselves … so as to arrange for the much-reduced electronic-only page costs … to be paid out of advance subsidies (from authors’ page charges, learned society dues, university publication budgets and/or governmental publication subsidies), or they will have to watch as the peer community spawns a brand new generation of electronic-only publishers who will. The subversion will be complete, because the (esoteric, no-market) peer-reviewed literature will have taken to the airwaves, where it always belonged, and those airwaves will be free (to the benefit of us all) because their true minimal expenses will be covered the optimal way for the unimpeded flow of esoteric knowledge to all: In advance.
And for truly esoteric publishing, Harnad’s reasoning still holds. If the audience is very small, give it away: it’s cheaper, all the way around. There may still be real costs to this sort of publishing, but (Stevan argues, and I agree) we’d be better off finding them from grants, subventions, or even page charges to authors, rather than playing the losing game of trying to recoup the costs of managing an editorial process on top of the costs of designing and manufacturing books, in a tiny and static market. In this case, again, open access publishing makes sense: there are probably not a lot of people who will want to read the stuff, but setting up toll-barriers to access will probably cost more to administer than it will bring in, and the scholars themselves are motivated by audience, so even a modest increase in readership, through free access and electronic distribution, increases the author’s motivation—perhaps enough to pay page-charges, if that’s necessary.
Reading 3. Get a bigger audience
The third possible response to the crisis of audience is that humanities scholarship needs to get a bigger audience. On that subject, in a talk given at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies, I suggested that
we could enlarge the audience for humanities scholarship, not by dumbing it down, but by making it more readily available. Maybe if we did that, scholars would find an audience first, and a publisher second, instead of the other way around. And maybe in that world, the risk to publishers would be less, because the demand would already be demonstrated.
I am constantly surprised, frankly, at how little faith humanities scholars, and their publishers, have in the audience-appeal of humanities scholarship. This lack of faith is attributable in part to self-loathing, and in part to lack of respect for the general public, and in part to disappointing sales figures, of course—but the net effect is stifling. If this analysis is correct, open access could make a big difference—but you have to believe that the audience is out there. Now, I recognize that the general public isn’t browsing the catalogs of university presses, nor stopping in to their nearest research library—but they are on the web, and they are looking for information on a very wide range of subjects, as my rusticated unionized postmodernist demonstrates. Techniques of predicting taste, such as collaborative filtering, could also expose niche audiences difficult to find in other ways, but still large enough to be significant. If there’s even a few hundred of these people out there, in any given subject area, and if they even occasionally want to buy the book version of something they’ve read online, then perhaps it would make sense to provide open access to everything, and then print or print on demand or ebook those items that get heavily used. If you’re worried about providing too close an equivalent for the print object, then make the content available as HTML, rather than PDF—experiments at the National Academy Press have made it clear that free html does not cannibalize book sales, but actually (and markedly) increases them—and their front-page titles include things like “Damp Indoor Spaces and Health.”
For heavens sake: if NAP can make this go, by providing open access to its content, how do you like the chances of a university press (Virginia) that publishes titles like ” Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever.”
So, if we accept that the crisis in scholarly publishing, in the humanities, is a crisis of audience, and if we accept these three possible responses to that crisis, then I would say open-access publishing is indicated, no matter what. In the first case, it can do no harm, except possibly hastening the demise of a doomed genre; in the second case, it can do a little good, at no added cost; in the third case, it could do a great deal of good, by uncovering new audiences and reconnecting academic humanities with the reading public—and if experience in other apparently esoteric publishing enterprises like the National Academies holds true, it might reverse the fortunes of the university presses at the same time.
Raising the idea of “open access publishing” among contemporary scholars produces an immediate and sometimes surprising set of responses, ranging from enthusiasm to anger to befuddlement. The open access movement has a wide range of proponents and an often entrenched opposition, and the depth of feeling on both sides often leaves those scholars in between scratching their heads, wondering exactly what the deal is.
A huge part of the confusion arises from the proliferation of misinformation and mythology around the notion of open access; opponents of open access alternately argue that making all scholarship available for free will destroy the economic model of the publishing industry, making it impossible for anything to get published, and that doing so will simultaneously undermine peer review, turning all scholarship into vanity publishing, allowing just anything to get published. Neither of these things is true; open access publishing does not necessarily mean making everything available free of cost, nor does it necessarily imply the absence of peer review processes. It doesn’t mean that scholars lose control of the copyright of their publications (from a certain perspective, we’ve long since given that away, but that’s a matter for another article), and it doesn’t mean that plagiarism will become more prevalent.
The open access movement in contemporary scholarship began in large part with the sciences, as a response to the predatory practices of certain commercial journal publishers. By the early 1990s, a small number of large commercial publishers had acquired most of the top journals in many fields and had begun developing a range of profit-oriented pricing structures, including bundling together large groups of journals to which libraries are required to subscribe in order to gain access to the key journals that they actually want. Because of these practices, many less-affluent institutions in the U.S.—much less those institutions in developing nations—have become unable to afford to provide access to the most important research being done in what have come to be known as the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). And, of course, scholars without official ties to a subscribing institution, including independent researchers and un- and under-employed faculty members, are often unable to access that scholarship as well.
Scholars in the humanities should of course be held to the same ethical obligations as those in the sciences; though the products of our research may not always appear to be as crucial to the health and well-being of diverse populations, our work nonetheless has potentially profound implications for popular discussions about the politics of cultural representations, about the meaning of human interactions, and so forth.
We in the humanities often resist opening our work to the broader public, fearing the consequences of such openness—and not without reason. The public at times fails to understand our work, and, because the content of the work seems as though it ought to be comprehensible (you’re just writing about books, or movies, or art, after all!), isn’t inclined to wrestle with the difficulties that our work presents; their dismissive responses give us the clear sense that the public doesn’t take our work as seriously as, say, papers in high-energy physics, which few lay readers would assume their ability to comprehend without some background or training. As a result of these doubled misunderstandings, we close our work off from the public, arguing that we’re only writing for a small group of specialists anyhow. In that case, why would open access matter?
The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue with them, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions. Closing our work away from the public, and keeping our scholarly conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous. This is not to say that such openness doesn’t bear risks, particularly for scholars working in controversial areas of research, but it is to say that only through open dialogue across the walls of the ivory tower will we have any chance of convincing the broader public, including our governmental funding bodies, of the importance of our work.
Few may know that many journals in the humanities have published in a free and open fashion since the early days of the web; the electronic book review, for instance, was founded in 1994, and has been in continuous, open publication since. Kairos, likewise, has been in open, online publication since 1996. And Open Humanities Press publishes a range of open-access, peer-reviewed journals online. Journals such as these generally operate on very limited budgets, cobbling together a range of kinds of support, including grants from funding bodies and staff/in-kind support from the journal’s host institution. But much of the support that such journals rely upon is volunteer labor—unpaid editors and reviewers, volunteer designers and coders, and so forth. This situation isn’t all that different from more traditional, publisher-based models of journal production; whether the end result is distributed by commercial or university presses, the support that those entities provide to a journal’s editors is generally slim at best. Economist Theodore C. Bergstrom argued this point in his 2001 paper, “Free Labor for Costly Journals?,” advocating that scholars refuse to publish in overpriced commercial journals.
A more radical reason for espousing open access publishing, however, is to reclaim the value of our labor for the profession itself. It isn’t just ethically incumbent on us as scholars to publish in open-access venues, but in fact to create more open-access publications, and more systems for their support. These systems might include new public or foundation-based granting agency programs specifically designed to support open-access publications. They might include more consortial agreements among universities to create and support open-access publications. And they might include the development of new tools to assist in the labor that goes into journal production, such as the Public Knowledge Project’s open-source project, Open Journal Systems, which helps to create a workflow that reduces a journal editor’s reliance on technical personnel and expensive web production.
But the key point is that we need to take back our publications from the market-based economy, and to reorient scholarly communication within the gift economy that best enables our work to thrive. We are, after all, already doing the labor for free—the labor of research, the labor of writing, the labor of editing—as a means of contributing to the advancement of the collective knowledge in our fields. We should value our labor sufficiently to ensure that we, our institutions, our colleagues, and our students, have full and perpetual access to the results of our work—and promoting the development of open-access publishing venues, and contributing all of our work to them, are the best ways to meet that ethical imperative toward the widest possible distribution of the knowledge that we produce.
Open Access and Scholarly Values: A Conversation | Dan Cohen, Stephen Ramsay, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (Part 1) | Dan Cohen
There is a supply side and a demand side to scholarly communication. The supply side is the creation of scholarly works, including writing, peer review, editing, and the form of publication. The demand side is much more elusive—the mental state of the audience that leads them to “buy” what the supply side has produced. In order for the social contract to work, for engaged reading to happen and for credit to be given to the author (or editor of a scholarly collection), both sides need to be aligned properly.
How can we increase the supply of open access scholarship and prod scholars to be more receptive to scholarship that takes place outside of the traditional publishing system? One way is to appeal to four core scholarly values and emotions:
In my second year in college I had one of those late-night discussions where half-baked thoughts are exchanged and everyone tries to impress each other with how smart and hip they are—a sophomoric gabfest, literally and figuratively. The conversation inevitably turned to music. I reeled off the names of bands I thought would get me the most respect. Another, far more mature student then said something that caught everyone off guard, paraphrasing Duke Ellington: “Well, to be honest, I just like good music.” We all laughed—and then realized how true that statement was. And secretly, we all did like a wide variety of music, from rock to bluegrass to big band jazz.
Upon reflection, many of the best things we discover in scholarship—and life—are found in this way: by disregarding popularity and packaging and approaching creative works without prejudice. We wouldn’t think much of Moby-Dick if Carl Van Doren hadn’t looked past decades of mixed reviews to find the genius in Melville’s writing. Art historians have similarly unearthed talented artists who did their work outside of the royal academies or art schools. As the unpretentious wine writer Alexis Lichine shrewdly said in the face of fancy labels and appeals to mythical “terroir”: “There is no substitute for pulling corks.”
Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself. This is especially true at crucial moments, such as promotion and tenure. Surely we can reorient ourselves to our true core value—to honor creativity and quality—which will still guide us to many traditionally published works but will also allow us to consider works in some nontraditional venues such as new open access journals, blogs, articles written and posted on a personal website or institutional repository, or non-narrative digital projects.
Do you get up in the morning wondering what journal you’re going to publish in next or how you’re going to spend your $10 royalty check? No. We wake up with ideas swirling around inside our head about the topic we’re currently thinking about, and the act of writing is a way to satisfy our obsession and communicate our ideas to others. Being a scholar is an affliction of which scholarship is a symptom. If you’re publishing primarily for careerist reasons and don’t deeply care about your subject matter, let me recommend you find another career.
The entire commercial apparatus of the existing publishing system merely leeches on our scholarly passion and the writing that passion inevitably creates. The system is far from perfect for maximizing the spread of our ideas, not to mention the economic bind it has put our institutions in. If you were designing a system of scholarly communication today, in the age of the web, would it look like the one we have today? Disparage bloggers all you like, but they control their communication platform, the outlet for their passion, and most scholars and academic institutions don’t.
In the spring of 2010, Ithaka, the nonprofit that runs JSTOR and that has a research wing to study the transition of academia into the digital age, put out a report based on their survey of faculty in 2009. The report has two major conclusions. First, scholars are increasingly using online resources like Google Books as a starting point for their research rather than the physical library. That is, they have become comfortable with certain aspects of “going digital.”
But at the same time the Ithaka report notes that they remain stubbornly wedded to their old ways when it comes to using the digital realm for the composition and communication of their research. In other words, somehow it has become acceptable to use digital media and technology for parts of our work but to resist it in others.
This divide is striking. The professoriate may be more liberal politically than the most latte-filled ZIP code in San Francisco, but we are an extraordinarily conservative bunch when it comes to scholarly communication. Look carefully at this damning chart from the Ithaka report:
Any faculty member who looks at this chart should feel ashamed. We professors care less about sharing our work—even with underprivileged nations that cannot afford access to gated resources—than with making sure we impress our colleagues. Indeed, there was actually a sharp drop in professors who cared about open access between 2003 and the present.
This would be acceptable if we understood ourselves to be ruthless, bottom-line driven careerists. But that’s not the caring educators we often pretend to be. Humanities scholars in particular have taken pride in the last few decades in uncovering and championing the voices of those who are less privileged and powerful, but here we are in the ivory tower, still preferring to publish in ways that separate our words from those of the unwashed online masses.
We can’t even be bothered to share our old finished articles, already published and our reputation suitably burnished, by putting them in an open institutional repository:
Is there any other way to read these charts than as shameful hypocrisy?
The irony of this situation is that in the long run it very well may be better for the narcissistic professor in search of reputation to publish in open access venues. When scholars do the cost-benefit analysis about where to publish, they frequently think about the reputation of the journal or press. That’s the reason many scholars consider open access venues to be inferior, because they do not (yet) have the same reputation as the traditional closed-access publications.
But in their cost-benefit calculus they often forget to factor in the hidden costs of publishing in a closed way. The largest hidden cost is the invisibility of what you publish. When you publish somewhere that is behind gates, or in paper only, you are resigning all of that hard work to invisibility in the age of the open web. You may reach a few peers in your field, but you miss out on the broader dissemination of your work, including to potential other fans.
The dirty little secret about open access publishing is that while you may give up a line in your CV (although not necessarily), your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars (and the general public), can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be easily linked to from other websites and social media (rather than producing the dreaded “Sorry, this is behind a paywall”).
When the mathematician Grigori Perelman solved one of the greatest mathematical problems in history, the Poincare conjecture, he didn’t submit his solution to a traditional journal. He simply posted it to arXiv, an open access website, and let others know about it. For him, just getting the knowledge out there was enough, and the mathematical community responded in kind by recognizing and applauding his work for what it was. Supply and demand intersected; scholarship was disseminated and credited without fuss over venue, and the results could be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.
Is it so hard to imagine this as a more simple—and virtuous—model for the future of scholarly communication?
Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (Part 2) | Stephen Ramsay
“Writing is writing and good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks. Scholars surely understand that on a deep level, yet many persist in the valuing venue and medium over the content itself.”
This is true, Dan. But it misses a key underlying reality of academic life: Few of the people who are actually responsible for evaluating your work actually read your books and articles.
That’s probably an astounding revelation for many people who are coming up for tenure or who otherwise haven’t had the opportunity to sit on a merit review panel, but it’s absolutely true. Your colleagues are not reading your work. Period.
How can this be? How can we make momentous decisions about promotion and tenure and conduct performance reviews that affect peoples’ actual salaries without a comprehensive and thorough review of their work?
The answer is simple: publishers do it for us.
That’s really what this is all about. We don’t have time to read everything. But more importantly, we don’t really want to evaluate our departmental colleagues’ work on its “intellectual merits,” because, well, they might in turn do that to us. And really, this could get very emotional very quickly. And anyway, what qualifies us to judge one another? We’re colleagues, after all.
The solution to everyone’s problem has been to outsource this decision to a third party that gives it a seal of approval while at the same time anonymizing the people who actually did read the book or the article. That allows us to move the whole problem somewhere else. What’s more, it allows us to make fine distinctions between people that we otherwise wouldn’t want to make ourselves. Chicago is better than Ashgate. Oxford is better than Michigan. Critical Inquiry is better than Modern Drama. Monographs are better than edited collections. It’s just so easy this way.
How does a profession that swings so solidly left hold such absurdly elitist attitudes? This apparent bit of cognitive dissonance is rooted in our mostly postmodern attitudes about value. “Who’s to say what good?” Humanities professors are mostly uncomfortable making judgments about what’s good; publishers don’t appear to have these deep philosophical problems (or rather, these philosophical issues are overridden by market concerns). There’s also our desire to avoid confrontation (“Dude, that’s so harsh”). Narcissism, sure. It’s also full of contradictions. Why does Oxford get to make truth claims about worth but we don’t? You could say that it’s not actually the publishers; it’s our “peers” on the anonymous review panels that the publishers hire.
But we pay a devastating price for that bit of bait and switch. First, it means that we have to sell our copyrights to compensate the publishers for their role as coordinators of all of this. Since they’re trying to stay afloat financially, they have to sell that content back to us—which usually results in highly restrictive forms of dissemination. Open access—which is an ethically superior form of dissemination on its face, and a moral obligation for public institutions—is effectively shut down by our own behavior. Second, it means that any form of scholarship not immediately susceptible to this treatment (e.g. the majority of digital work) can’t participate equally in this system. Truth is, no one really has a problem any more with digital work. It just has to be, you know, about article length. And single authored. And peer reviewed. And disseminated under the banner of a third party. And that’s because this isn’t about the medium at all. This is about the structures that allow us to make difficult decisions as painlessly as possible. I think most academics regard this as the best we can do.
This is not the best we can do. The idea of recording “impact” (page hits, links, etc.) is often ridiculed as a “popularity contest,” but it’s not at all clear to me how such a system would be inferior to the one we have. In fact, it would almost certainly be a more honest system—you’ll notice that “good publisher” is very often tied to the social class represented by the sponsoring institution. But in the end, the clear moral good of having open access (and the probable dissolution of the university press system) may mean that we have to read and evaluate each other’s stuff. And that may mean that the mechanics of our entire review system has to change. It may actually mean that “peer review,” as such, disappears in its present form.
Those of us in the digital humanities have often wondered why our disciplines are so resistant to electronic publication and digital projects generally. The standard answer just doesn’t make sense. “We don’t know how to evaluate that kind of work?” Really?
Here’s an idea: How about you look at it and decide whether it’s good or not. But that’s precisely the responsibility that no wants to have. This is the root of every bit of sanctimonious nonsense you’ve ever heard about digital work not being “peer reviewed.” Translation: We don’t have a certifying authority to whom we can offload this.
Honestly, I think our goal as a community should be to present our colleagues with as many inscrutable objects as possible. We should be making lots of videos, podcasts, maps, “books” with a hundred authors, blog posts, software, and web sites without any clear authorial control. And yes, we should put open content licenses on all of it and give it away to everyone we meet. We avoid efforts to create certifying authorities for digital work, which is simply capitulating to an already broken system. Instead we should dare our colleagues to engage our work and tell us that it isn’t of sufficient intellectual quality.
Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values (Part 3) | Kathleen Fitzpatrick
“The idea of recording ‘impact’ (page hits, links, etc.) is often ridiculed as a ‘popularity contest,’ but it’s not at all clear to me how such a system would be inferior to the one we have. In fact, it would almost certainly be a more honest system (you’ll notice that ‘good publisher’ is very often tied to the social class represented by the sponsoring institution).”
Amen, Steve. At many institutions, in fact, the criteria for assessing a scholar’s research for tenure and promotion includes some statement about that scholar’s “impact” on the field at a national or international level, and we treat the peer-review process as though it can give us information about such impact. But the fact of an article or a monograph’s having been published by a reputable journal/press that employed the mechanisms of peer review as we currently know it—this can only ever give us binary information, and binary information based on an extraordinarily small sample size. Why should the two-to-three readers selected by a journal/press, plus that entity’s editor/editorial board, be the arbiter of the authority of scholarly work—particularly in the digital, when we have so many more complex means of assessing the effect of/response to scholarly work via network analysis?
Going quantitative isn’t the whole answer to our current problems with assessment in promotion and tenure reviews—our colleagues in the sciences would no doubt present us with all kinds of cautions about relying too exclusively on metrics like citation indexes and impact factor—but given that we in the digital humanities excel at both uncovering the networked relationships among texts and at interpreting and articulating what those relationships mean, couldn’t we bring those skills to bear on creating a more productive form of post-publication review that serves to richly and carefully describe the ongoing impact that a scholar’s work is having, regardless of the venue and type of its publication? If so, some of the roadblocks to a broader acceptance of open access publication might be broken down, or at least rendered break-down-able.
There seem to me two key imperatives in the implementation of such a system, however, which get at the personnel review issues that Steve is pointing to—one of them is that senior, tenured scholars have got to lead the way not just in demanding the development and acceptance of such a system but in making use of it, in committing ourselves to publishing openly because we can, worrying about the “authority” or the prestige of such publishing models later. And second, we have got to present compelling arguments to our colleagues about why these models must be taken seriously—not just once, but over and over again, making sure that we’ve got the backs of the more junior scholars who are similarly trying to do this work.
It comes back to scholarly values. But the ethical obligation doesn’t stop with publishing in open access venues. It must extend to working to develop and establish the validity of new means of assessment appropriate to those venues.
There is a long history of scholars turning their papers over to libraries at the end of their careers. These collections are important for the two sides of historical research and publication that they represent. They provide a window into academic process, but also access to sometimes quirky, sometimes exhaustive primary sources representing years of intentional collection. There is intrinsic value to such collections for both historical education and historical practice. What is more, the technologies of the web have revolutionized the potential of collections in the everyday moments of their original production. Rather than putting research process and materials behind the veils of time, space, and limited access, we now have the possibility to construct and curate our research materials and process archives, what I call the “Papers of You,” in real time, and make it immediately available to those without the resources to gain access to our eclectic collections. How would this application of technology to the small corner of disciplinary history revolutionize its part of the academy? First, making the research process transparent would open to the world the mystical reality of what it is academic historians do with their time. In addition, making research process and materials available would demonstrate a commitment to the scholarly values of exchange, integrity, and open access that represent the better parts of academics’ nature. Distributed self-generated collections of archival material will also enhance access, particularly to resources from countries without the resources to do it all themselves. Finally, it would keep researchers honest. —Chad Black
We in the humanities are accustomed to being very secretive about our research. Sure, we go to conferences and share not-yet-published work. But these conference papers, even if they’re finished the morning of the presentation with penciled-in edits, they’re still addressed to an audience, meant to be shared. Are we really that ridiculous and self-important? Let’s face it, I’m an English professor. It’s not as if I’m working on the Manhattan Project. Imagine publishing your research notes and only the notes, shorn of context or rhetoric or (especially or) the sense of a conclusion we like to build into our papers. Imagine sharing only your Works Cited. Or, imagine sharing the loosest, most chaotic collection of sources, expanded far beyond the shallows of Works Cited, past the nebulous Works Consulted, deep into the fathomless Works Out There. I think that what we do—striving to understand human experience in a chaotic world—is so crucial that we need to share what we learn, every step along the way. Only then do all the lonely hours we spend tracing sources, reading, and writing make sense. —Mark Sample
As more and more scholars do work in the digital environment they are expecting this work to count toward tenure, promotion, and other types of formal evaluation. It seems to me that the first step is to define what we actually mean when we say that digital work should “count” in higher education.
At most colleges and universities around the United States (and to varying degrees elsewhere in the world), there are three domains of activity that faculty members engage in—research, teaching, and service. Most of us have to turn in an annual report that is organized into three sections corresponding to these domains. And in varying ways at various campuses, what can be claimed in each domain is defined by the institution or by departments. Sometimes, those things that count are defined in union contracts. Sometimes they are defined as they come up. In short, there is no standard practice in academia, other than to generally rely on research, teaching, and service as the main categories for faculty evaluation.
A thornier issue is how activity in each of these domains is evaluated. Here we see even more variation in practice from one campus to another, from one department to another. What “counts” at one place, is ignored or even penalized at another. At one institution research trumps all, while at another, teaching is the coin of the realm. In some history departments it is enough to have published a book, while in others that book needs to be published by some relatively short list of prestigious presses. Context is everything in this discussion.
Does this mean it is hopeless to even take on the issue of how digital work might fit into such a heterogeneous set of practices?
By no means.
In the history business, we have a very informal and fluid set of standards for determining what is and isn’t meritorious. We all know that an article published in a journal judged to be prestigious is probably more praiseworthy than one published in a backwater journal with little or no reputation. And we know that a book published by a university press that has a great reputation is almost surely better than one published by a press no one has ever heard of. Or at least we think we know these things.
Whether book or article X published by a prestigious journal/press is actually better than book or article Y published by a journal/press we’ve not heard of is an open question. But we assume in advance that X is probably better than Y.
And not without good reason. Those things submitted for publication to a prestigious press/journal are more likely to go through a more rigorous peer review and editorial process than something published in an underfunded and little known press or journal. And the competition to publish in the prestigious venues is keen—submissions of lesser quality get weeded out. And thus it has been for generations.
As long as historians produced scholarship that was in a form that fit neatly into this model—books or journal articles published after a peer review process—all was well and the system functioned fairly smoothly. Then digital technology invaded the cozy confines of our discipline and things got a lot more complicated.
You may have noticed that I use the term “digital work” rather than “digital scholarship.” My choice of words was in no way accidental. Digital work encompasses everything historians do in the digital realm—scholarship, teaching, and service. “Digital scholarship” is a precisely defined (or should be precisely defined) subset of “digital work.”
Before we can even begin to claim that something called “digital scholarship” should count in the research domain of our professional lives, we would do well to define exactly what constitutes “scholarship.” Here, I think we have an easier task. In almost any discipline one cares to name scholarship has the following characteristics: It is the result of original research; it has an argument of some sort and that argument is situated in a preexisting conversation among scholars; it is public, it is peer reviewed; and it has an audience response.
There are exceptions, of course. A novel, a collection of poetry, a work of art, or a piece of music may all count as scholarship in certain contexts. But by and large, the characteristics I’ve described hold for most forms of scholarship. This means that for digital scholarship to be scholarship it has to have all of these characteristics.
We’ll return to this crucial issue later. But for now, I think it’s easier to define what digital scholarship isn’t than to define what it is—especially because, as we’ll see, it is an inherently moving target.
I think we would all agree that a course website or a series of lectures created in one’s favorite slideware program do not constitute scholarship. They may well be very scholarly, but on any campus I can think of, this sort of work falls clearly and unequivocally into the teaching domain.
Where it gets trickier is when we consider digitization projects—whether small in scale, or massive, like the Perseus Project or the Valley of Shadow. Each of these excellent and heavily used projects offers scholars, teachers, students, and the general public unique access to their content. But, as Cathy Davidson has noted, “the database is not the scholarship. The book or the article that results from it is the scholarship.” Or, I would add, the digital scholarship that results from it. In other words, I’m not willing to limit us to the old warhorses of the book or scholarly article.
I also want to emphasize that I have tremendous respect for the scholars and teams of students and staff who created these two projects—both of which I use often in my own teaching. But I also have to say that I don’t think either project can be considered “scholarship” if we use the definition I’ve proposed here.
“Why not?” you may ask. The reason is fairly simple in both cases. Neither project offers an argument. Both are amazing resources, but neither advances our understanding of particular historical questions. They make it possible for that understanding to advance in ways that weren’t available before, but as Davidson says, it is what results from a project like these that is the scholarship. Thus, for instance, though the Valley of the Shadow database does not qualify as scholarship, the resulting article published by the database’s creators William Thomas and Edward Ayers in the American Historical Review rises to the level of scholarship in our working definition.
I think that almost all historians would agree with this definition because it’s the one we use all the time. We’re comfortable with it, it works for us, and given how used we are to it, many historians (including many I know and respect) argue that there is no need to change it. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Alas for our current definition of scholarship, the digital world is undermining our certainties.
The big sticking point is the next-to-the-last part of my definition—peer review. For a century or more, “peer review” in our discipline has meant that the historian produces his or her work (book/article) and submits it for publication. Then, after waiting months (or more likely many months) the historian finally receives feedback on his or her work and either has a little more work to do, a lot more work to do, or finds the work rejected entirely.
Why won’t this process survive in the digital world? The answer is pretty simple. It just takes too long and does not work in a medium where gatekeeping makes no sense. By its very nature, digital scholarship happens in a dynamic space—one where the work is often “self-published” in the sense that a scholar or a group of scholars creates historical work in the digital environment and then it is made available when it’s done (or close enough to done to show other people). Not after a lengthy process of peer review—but when it’s ready to be seen.
Then, and only then, does the peer review begin. The Internet is an open environment, not the closed environment of the publishing industry that we have lived with for many generations. Anyone can publish anything online and that, of course, means that a lot of dreck appears. But the fact that dreck is scattered all over the Internet does not mean that quality work cannot also be appear through the same process.
The American Historical Association is proposing to try to act as some sort of gatekeeper for digital historical scholarship, but this proposal is doomed because it is trying to find a way to fit the old system into a new technological environment where gatekeeping as we’ve known it doesn’t (and can’t) work.
Already in other industries we have seen what happens when the guardians of the old ways try to hold back the tide of change. Sales of music CDs continue to drop like a stone while sales of individual tracks through services like iTunes continue to rise rapidly. A decade ago Kodak employed four times as many workers as it does today (when was the last time you bought a roll of film?). And while Amazon hasn’t killed off all local bookstores, there certainly are far fewer than there used to be.
So what, you might ask? Why do we have to change?
Because if we don’t, we’ll eventually become irrelevant. Already other disciplines that are not as resistant to change have embraced the digital world to a much greater extent. For example, work posted on the Social Science Research Network “counts” in many academic departments around the country despite the fact that peer review takes place after the fact, not before. And in other disciplines—computer science, biology, physics, etc.—peer review increasingly takes other forms entirely. So why are we so hung up on keeping a system that made good sense 100 or 50 years ago, but makes less and less sense today?
I wondered what a provost might think about this issue so I spoke to Peter Stearns, provost at George Mason, a past vice president of the American Historical Association (Teaching Division), the founding editor of the Journal of Social History, and the author of more than 100 books. So he knows something about peer review.
He told me that being a provost meant that he had to take a much more capacious view of peer review, because each discipline at the University has its own standards for what constitutes proper peer review. What Peter cares about is not how the peer review happens, but that it does happen. “It can be either before or after publication,” he said in our interview.
Other disciplines do it, so what is so particular, so unique about historical and humanities scholarship that it must be reviewed prior to publication? Upon reflection, nothing.
I’m not proposing that we throw out a system that has worked for so long in one fell swoop. But I am suggesting that there needs to be a serious discussion in our profession about what peer review means, what its value is to the process of advancing knowledge, and how it can change to take into account the new realities of the digital world. If we don’t have this discussion—and soon—we’re in danger of losing touch with a rising generation of young scholars who will see us as nothing more than cranky old scholars who are hanging onto an old system because it serves our interests and not theirs.
The criticism most frequently leveled at digital humanities is what I like to call the “Where’s the beef?” question, that is, what questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? What humanities arguments does digital humanities make?
Concern over the apparent lack of argument in digital humanities comes not only from outside our young discipline. Many practicing digital humanists are concerned about it as well. Rob Nelson of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, an accomplished digital humanist, recently ruminated, “While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are few, and for the most part I sense that they haven’t had a substantial impact among academics, at least in the field of history.” A recent post on the Humanist listserv, which has covered humanities computing for over two decades, expresses one digital humanist’s “dream” of “a way of interpreting with computing that would allow arguments, real arguments, to be conducted at the micro-level and their consequences made in effect instantly visible at the macro-level.”
These concerns are justified. Does digital humanities have to help answer questions and make arguments? Yes. Of course. That’s what the humanities are all about. Is it answering lots of questions currently? Probably not—hence the reason for worry.
But this suggests another, more difficult, more nuanced question: When? When does digital humanities have to produce new arguments? Does it have to produce new arguments now? Does it have to answer questions yet?
In 1703 the great instrument maker, mathematician, and experimenter Robert Hooke died, vacating the suggestively named position he occupied for more than forty years, Curator of Experiments to the Royal Society. In this role, it was Hooke’s job to prepare public demonstrations of scientific phenomena for the Fellows’ meetings. Among Hooke’s standbys in these scientific performances were animal dissections, demonstrations of the air pump (made famous by Robert Boyle but made by Hooke), and viewings of pre-prepared microscope slides. Part research, part ice breaker, and part theater, one important function of these performances was to entertain the wealthier Fellows of the Society, many of whom were chosen for election more for their patronage than their scientific achievements.
Upon Hooke’s death the position of Curator of Experiments passed to Francis Hauksbee, who continued Hooke’s program of public demonstrations. Many of Hauksbee’s demonstrations involved the “electrical machine,” essentially an evacuated glass globe which was turned on an axle and to which friction (a hand, a cloth, a piece of fur) was applied to produce a static electrical charge. Invented some years earlier, Hauksbee greatly improved the device to produce ever greater charges. Perhaps his most important improvement was the addition to the globe of a small amount of mercury, which produced a glow when the machine was fired up. In an age of candlelight and on a continent of long, dark winters, the creation of a new source of artificial light was sensational and became a popular learned entertainment, not only in meetings of early scientific societies but in aristocratic parlors across Europe. Hauksbee’s machine also set off an explosion of electrical instrument making, experimentation, and descriptive work in the first half of the 18th century by the likes of Stephen Gray, John Desaguliers, and Pieter van Musschenbroek.
And yet not until later in the 18th century and early in the 19th century did Franklin, Coulomb, Volta, and ultimately Faraday provide adequate theoretical and mathematical answers to the questions of electricity raised by the electrical machine and the phenomena it produced. Only after decades of tool building, experimentation, and description were the tools sufficiently articulated and phenomena sufficiently described for theoretical arguments to be fruitfully made.
There’s a moral to this story. One of the things digital humanities shares with the sciences is a heavy reliance on instruments, on tools. Sometimes new tools are built to answer pre-existing questions. Sometimes, as in the case of Hauksbee’s electrical machine, new questions and answers are the byproduct of the creation of new tools. Sometimes it takes a while, in which meantime tools themselves and the whiz-bang effects they produce must be the focus of scholarly attention. The 18th century electrical machine was a parlor trick. Until it wasn’t.
This kind of drawn out, longue duree, seasonal shifting between methodological and theoretical work isn’t confined to the sciences. Growing up in the second half of the 20th century, we are prone to think about our world in terms of ideologies and our work in terms of theories. Late 20th century historical discourse was dominated by a succession of ideas and theoretical frameworks. This mirrored the broader cultural and political discourse in which our work was set. For most of the last 75 years of the 20th century, Socialism, Fascism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Conservatism, and other ideologies vied with one another broadly in our politics and narrowly at our academic conferences.
But it wasn’t always so. Late 19th and early 20th century scholarship was dominated not by big ideas, but by methodological refinement and disciplinary consolidation. Denigrated in the later 20th century as unworthy of serious attention by scholars, the 19th and early 20th century, by contrast, took activities like philology, lexicology, and especially bibliography very seriously. Serious scholarship was concerned as much with organizing knowledge as it was with framing knowledge in a theoretical or ideological construct.
Take my sub-discipline, the history of science, as an example. Whereas the last few decades of research have been dominated by a debate over the relative merits of “constructivism” (the idea, in Jan Golinski’s succinct definition, “that scientific knowledge is a human creation, made with available material and cultural resources, rather than simply the revelation of a natural order that is pre-given and independent of human action”), the history of science was in fact founded in an outpouring of bibliography. The life work of the first great American historian of science, George Sarton, was not an idea, but a journal (Isis), a professional society (the History of Science Society), a department (Harvard’s), a primer (his Introduction to the History of Science), and especially a bibliography (the Isis Cumulative Bibliography). Tellingly, the great work of his greatest pupil, Robert K. Merton, was an idea: the younger Merton’s “Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England” defined history of technology as social history for a generation. By the time Merton was writing in the 1930s, the cultural climate had changed and the consolidating and methodological activities of the teacher were giving way to the theoretical activities of the student.
I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work. Our difficulty in answering “where’s the beef?” stems from the fact that, as a digital historians, we traffic much less in new theories than in new methods. The new technology of the Internet has shifted the work of a rapidly growing number of scholars away from thinking big thoughts to forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work which will enable us to harness the still unwieldy, but obviously game-changing, information technologies now sitting on our desktops and in our pockets. These concerns touch all scholars. The Center for History and New Media’s Zotero research management tool is used by more than a million people, all of them grappling with the problem of information overload. And although much of the discussion remains informal, it’s no accident that Wikipedia is right now one of the hottest topics for debate amongst scholars.
Perhaps most telling is the excitement that now (or really, once again) surrounds the library. The buzz amongst librarians these days dwarfs anything I have seen in my entire career amongst historians. The terms “library geek” and “sexy librarian” have gained new currency as everyone begins to recognize the potential of exciting library-centered projects like Google Books.
All of these things—collaborative encylcopedism, tool building, librarianship—fit uneasily into the standards of scholarship forged in the second half of the 20th century. Most committees for promotion and tenure, for example, must value single authorship and the big idea more highly than collaborative work and methodological or disciplinary contribution. Even historians find it hard to internalize the fact that their own norms and values have and will again change over time. But change they must. In the days of George Sarton, a thorough bibliography was an achievement worthy of great respect, and an office closer to the reference desk in the library an occasion for great celebration (Sarton’s small suite in Study 189 of Harvard’s Widener Library was the epicenter of history of science in America for more than a quarter century). As we tumble deeper into the Internet age, I suspect it will be again.
Eventually digital humanities must make arguments. It has to answer questions. But yet? Like 18th century natural philosophers confronted with a deluge of strange new tools like microscopes, air pumps, and electrical machines, maybe we need time to articulate our digital apparatus, to produce new phenomena that we can neither anticipate nor explain immediately. At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later.