Digital Scholarship

"The scholarly monograph isn't going anywhere" (except online)

As you may have seen reported in the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Ed, the University of Michigan Press announced yesterday that it  "will shift its focus to the recruitment, production and dissemination of primarily digital monographs." Clearly this is a response to an ongoing conversation about the crisis in scholarly publishing and is motivated more by economic considerations than a recognition of the potential value of digital media.

That is, if publishing books was still economically viable, this wouldn't be happening.

That fact is only relevant inasmuch as it shapes the strategies a publisher might develop in moving to the digital. To understand the confusion at work here, check out this paragraph from the press release:

Among the most significant changes from printing on paper to making
scholarly works available in digitized formats will be an emphasis on

interactive design, which will include much enhanced digital options,
including hot links, graphics, 3D animation and video. "The multimedia
options for authors to communicate the subtleties of their work will be
greatly enhanced," Pochoda said. Print on demand—the ability to turn
electronic works into bound volumes quickly and in small batches—will
be used extensively by the revamped Press.

So there will be an "emphasis on interactive design," including links, animation, and video, but print on demand "will be used extensively." Hmmm…. what exactly will the Press be printing? If you are going to do print on demand then you are essentially talking about producing PDFs or some other print-ready document. That's fine, but it is obviously going in the opposite direction of the first sentence in the paragraph. I'm sure it is possible to do both. That is, encourage scholars to "go digital," but also continue to accept manuscripts that will be PDF print-on-demand texts. I'm not sure how that works as a strategy for a press, but that's not my problem.

transmedia scholarship
One possible way of thinking about this would be to engage in a scholarly version of what Henry Jenkins terms "transmedia storytelling," in which scholarly work might extend in various ways across a variety of media. In this version, the print-on-demand text wouldn't be a "copy" of the digital composition but an extension of it somehow or visa-versa. Jenkins uses the example of the Matrix series with its films, animated videos, comics, video games, etc.  The important thing to recognize with "transmedia scholarship" in this analogy is that it wouldn't be the work of a single author… it would be a collaborative, networked production. Of course we know that the "monograph" has never truly been "mono." But if you were going to break down the number of hours and calories burned in writing my book (or anyone's book I would imagine), the vast majority of that labor would have been undertaken by my body. That's as close as I can get to authorship, except as a legal fiction. But in transmedia scholarship I think these proportions would necessarily shift. After all, we'd be suggesting that not only would one produce a book, but also a website, videos, animations, etc. etc. Strictly in terms of professional expertise, I don't think we can imagine this work would be done by a "single author."

networked/social media scholarship
More importantly though, from my perspective, is the recognition that networked composition alters the spatio-temporal relations between what we once termed/still term author, text, source material, and audience. The monograph assumes a finished product secured by the signature of the author. One of the central characteristics of a monograph is that it is not serial. It is "stand alone."

In a print world, the monograph makes practical sense. The document must be completed before being published. It must stand alone on a shelf, bound together but separate from other bound-together texts. But online, obviously, nothing stands alone. Furthermore, one of the principle affordances, if not advantages, of the network is the capacity for versioning. And not just by "the" author, but by a user-community.

Put bluntly, a text stays the same on the Web b/c no one cares about it or uses it. Oh, I can appreciate that our whole humanistic practice is founded on the idea that texts stay the same…. even if we abandoned that notion (in theory) long ago. Still I want to quote the Michigan press release, have you follow the link I provided, and see the quoted passage there. I understand that's a conceptual problem. But I think that our scholarly-intellectual task is not to adapt the web to print practices but adapt our scholarly practices to the technological-material-infromational contexts in which we operate. Otherwise we just end up with the horseless carriage… which is maybe necessary in the short-term but long term is untenable.

I mean what would you do as a literary critic with contemporary poets who published on wikis and were always changing their poems. Would you continue to cite old versions? Does the text have to be fixed in order for it to be discussed and evaluated? I sympathize. I really do.

A similar problem exists for the practices of scholarly review. At what point is the text reviewed and approved? And what happens when it changes the next day? Is the review process interminable or recurrent? Can a text be approved and then later change and be disapproved? Couldn't we go back in humanities scholarship and likely find texts that were published but which no longer meet up with established scholarly criteria? Of course we could. My point is that a fixed publication is no more likely to continue to meet scholarly criteria than a shifting one. In fact, at least a shifting one would have a chance to adapt and meet new knowledge and methods.

It's both easy and difficult to imagine how this would work. A group of scholars in a particular field of research would collaborate on a blog/wiki/something where you might start with some kind of proposal or mission statement. Then you would get incremental updates. You could have the lighter, more informal blog posts; more conventionally scholarly texts; perhaps explanatory videos or slideshows; opportunities for feedback, of course. Depending on the type of project you might have video interviews or documentation. (Of course I'm thinking mainly in my own discipline here; other disciplines would do different things I'm sure.) I think the toughest thing might be to convince five or six scholars that instead of composing stand-alone monographs that they should work together.

But as an audience/user, what are you more likely to value, use or read? Six books coming out in your field in a given year (on top of all the others that might be out there) or this kind of collaborative nexus? And maybe the answer is the former b/c that's what we are used to. We have to rethink what kind of knowledge work we value and why we value it. 

That's the tough part. Until then, crank up the horseless carriage.