learning to live with digital scholarly publishing

I was catching up on three recent posts by Jason Jackson (here, here, and here) via the DH Now RSS feed that all deal with the subject of scholarly publishing, access, and copyright. Tim opens up a thoughtful, practical conversation that begins with a consideration of a la carte pricing for digital access to journal articles but then moves into some broader areas as one tries to understand these pricing strategies as more/other than ruthless profiteering. My own take, which is less immediately pragmatic, is to situate these conversations within a larger cultural effort to learn to live and communicate in digital networks.

So we know the historical contexts for copyright beginning in the US with the Constitution and moving through contemporary laws that seem quite clearly designed to protect Mickey Mouse, though certainly other large media interests also benefit. We should also stipulate that scholarly publishers contribute labor and capital to the publishing process. They add value, as perceived by their consumers, in their vetting, editing, archiving, organizing, and distributing of scholarship. If we value these things, then we shouldn’t mind paying for them. It doesn’t seem that open access advocates have much issue with the book publishing industry. I think it is safe to say that most academics I know want books to thrive. They want publishers to thrive; indeed we wish there were more publishers. And they don’t seem to have much problem with paying for books. Of course there are some academic books, like textbooks, that are a cost concern. But when we think generally of books at a bookstore or on Amazon, cost and access are not a central concern.

As I think we also know, the central problem with humanities scholarly publication is that the audience is so small. Few people want to read these articles, even when they are freely available. The more hidden side of this equation is with the authors: who wants to write these articles? Perhaps most professors would raise their hands.  Let me rephrase, if you weren’t in your job, would you write these articles? That’s harder to answer. My point is that publishing articles is part of your job; it gets you tenure, promotion, and other reputational credits. The similarity to the first-year composition class is surprising. Authors write texts to complete a transaction that is only arbitrarily related to the composition for an audience that only reads the texts as part of an obligation of their job. Understandably no one wants to pay money to do their job. I don’t want to pay to publish my work, and I don’t want to be required to pay to access scholarship for the purpose of doing my job. I might elect to buy a scholarly book, but I don’t want to be required to do so. And I do not face such a requirement. I have not yet had to subvent any publication of mine. And if I am patient I can get access to any scholarship I need through my university library.

But if I am not paying then somebody has to.

The question is who is benefiting from scholarly publication in the humanities? What is the kairotic moment it addresses? What does it hope to achieve?  The bottom line answer appears to be that colleges and universities benefit from publication, not because of any particular knowledge that is disseminated but because publication is tied to reputation. Setting aside questions of reputation and tenure, what would happen to the world if every humanities journal and every humanities monograph series ceased publication for five years? I am not suggesting that faculty would cease doing research, but only that we would have to rethink the rhetorical contexts in which we do our work. What purposes would we want to achieve through writing? Who would our audience be? What genres would we select? What modes of delivery might we explore? At the 1884 MLA convention, there was a discussion that resulted in the inception of PMLA. It was decided that “Whatever should be done to bring us nearer together and give us a sense of centralized power, this Journal idea was thought to be of the greatest importance, as through it every man could have a chance to make his views known, and to have them criticized by the body at large” (1884, v). Those still seem like good, basic motives, but I’m not sure that “this Journal idea” is still the right means, either in print or as its digital skeuomorph.

I’m not going to tell you that I have the right answer. I will say that the production cycle of journal publishing, print or digital, seems outdated. The most difficult challenge lies in recognizing how our research paradigms are interwoven with an activity system and technological infrastructure that is outmoded. That is, the way we conceive of a research project is tied to the idea of writing a journal article of an arbitrary length imposed by some printing restrictions that no longer apply. The amount of editorial/publishing effort and cost means a research project must fit some Goldilocks zone. Changing how we publish would change how we research: from the questions we ask to the methods we use and the ways that we collaborate.  So here’s the odd thing. I don’t want to pay to read an article, but I would pay to access a communication platform that would connect me with my audience and with other scholars in a way that would facilitate my research, both in terms of readership and collaboration (two states that become increasingly mixed). In fact, I already do pay for that, every month as part of my Verizon FIOS bill and every year when I pay for this website. That’s what a journal is, right? A communication platform? Could we imagine one that was more lively, more interactive, more collaborative?

What this comes down to for me is that the issues with the viability of scholarly publication (in the humanities at least) are heavily tied to the attenuated rhetorical purpose for the activity, a purpose whose attenuation has been exacerbated by the inertia of legacy genres and publishing practices that have struggled to adapt to the digital era. Publishing will always cost money. But let’s pay for something we value.

4 thoughts on “learning to live with digital scholarly publishing

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  1. Very interesting post. We are having some of these discussions at Cultural Anthropology as we become a self-published, open access journal. Specifically, what is our argument for current and potential members of our scholarly society for why they should remain members or join the society. We need the membership fees now more than ever since we are giving up subscription revenue. In the past, the main benefit was a print copy of our journal. Soon, everyone will have digital access for free (readers will also be able to purchase print-on-demand copies if they so choose). So our argument now must focus on the benefits of our media operations (peer-reviewed journal, non-reviewed website, social media) as a platform for getting quality anthropology out. This is something different than the platform you imagine: it is not a platform for individuals to create their own work. Rather, you support it as a public benefit. Something like public radio but with a vastly smaller audience (although a good-sized audience of anthros). Of course, this assumes that enough people get something out of conventional research articles, as well as somewhat less conventional genres of web-content.

    Small correction: the posts you link to are by Jason Jackson. The Tim guy he refers to (me) didn’t write the posts.

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    1. Thanks, I made that correction. Sorry Jason.

      The public radio analogy is an interesting one. If I value what you do, then I should donate to keep you going. Though I obviously don’t know your situation, in many cases, such endeavors are also supported by universities in the form of web space, technical support, office space, release time for faculty, graduate student assistants, etc.

      It’s kind of a strange business we’re in though, right? Relying on the kindness of strangers…

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      1. But don’t we already rely on the actions of strangers, whether the interests of market actors, the kindness of philanthropically-minded supporters, or the work service-minded reviewers? And as models for sustaining scholarly publishing continue to morph, we are often asking different sets of strangers to act towards us (societies/publishers) in a number of different ways. Cultural Anthropology, as it becomes a society-published open-access journal, is relying on the support of several different universities and university libraries, on membership dues and donation, on accumulated revenue from our former commercial publishing deal, and probably future grant funding. The type of platform that you are imagining would likely require a similarly complex arrangement to get it running and keep it going.

        It might be useful for us to start talking about things like academic journals or scholarly platforms as boundary objects that influence, or are taken up by, distinct groups of people in a number of different ways. This is one way to analytically carve out an object of inquiry. It also might assist us in prospectively imagining the kind of platform you are interested in and the activities it might or might not support.

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      2. I agree. There are many different reasons why someone might provide support for scholarly work that range from buying a book from Amazon because one is interested in reading it to the dean who provides support for a journal because s/he thinks that support will improve the reputation and/or morale of the department. You’re right that humanities scholarship is likely to remain a complex system where most of the support really percolates through from teaching.

        I suppose the main point I’d want to hold onto here is thinking about the purposes that drive scholarly publication. (E.g., if deans and provosts want publications for tenure and promotion then they will need to (and do) support those venues.) But if we started with a more recognizable rhetorical motive (there is an audience for my writing and I have a purpose to achieve vis-a-vis that audience), then maybe we wouldn’t be in the “publish X number of articles per year” business. Put differently, isn’t there an overproduction problem with humanities scholarship in terms of the demand? I think there is. So how do we solve that? It seems we have to either reframe the relationship between publishing and tenure or change something about what we publish in order to increase the demand for it.

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