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March 30, 2006

On the Importance of the Collective in Electronic Publishing

(The following polemic is cross-posted from The Valve.)

One of the concerns that often gets raised early in discussions of electronic scholarly publishing is that of business model -- how will the venture be financed, and how will its products be, to use a word I hate, monetized? What follows should not at all suggest that I don't find such questions important. Clearly, they're crucial; unless an electronic press is in some measure self-sustaining, it simply won't last long. Foundations might be happy to see such a venture get started, but nobody wants to bankroll it indefinitely.

I also don't want to fall prey to what has been called the "paper = costly, electronic = free" fallacy. Obviously, many of the elements of traditional academic press publishing that cost -- whether in terms of time, or of money, or both -- will still exist in an all-electronic press. Texts still must be edited and transformed from manuscript to published format, for starters. Plus, there are other costs associated with the electronic -- computers and their programming, to take only the most obvious examples -- that don't exist in quite the same measure in print ventures.

But what I do want to argue for, building off of John Holbo's recent post, is the importance of collective, cooperative contributions of academic labor to any electronic scholarly publishing venture. For a new system like that we're hoping to build in ElectraPress to succeed, we need a certain amount of buy-in from those who stand to benefit from the system, a commitment to get the work done, and to make the form succeed.

I've been thinking about this need for collectivity through a comparison with the model of open-source software. Open source has succeeded, in large part, due to the commitments that hundreds of programmers have made, not just to their individual projects but to the system as a whole. Most of these programmers work regular, paid gigs, working on corporate projects, all the while reserving some measure of their time and devotion for non-profit, collective projects. That time and devotion are given freely because of a sense of the common benefits that all will reap from the project's success.

So with academics. We are paid, by and large, and whether we like it or not, for delivering certain kinds of knowledge-work to paying clients. We teach, we advise, we lecture, and so forth, and all of this is primarily done within the constraints of someone else's needs and desires. But the job also involves, or allows, to varying degrees, reserving some measure of our time and devotion for projects that are just ours, projects whose greatest benefits are to our own pleasure and to the collective advancement of the field as a whole.

If we're already operating to that extent within an open-source model, what's to stop us from taking a further plunge, opening publishing cooperatives, and thereby transforming academic publishing from its current (if often inadvertent) non-profit status to an even lower-cost, collectively underwritten financial model?

I can imagine two possible points of resistance within traditional humanities scholars toward such a plan, points that originate in individualism and technophobia.

Individualism, first: it's been pointed out many times that scholars in the humanities have strikingly low rates of collaborative authorship. Politically speaking, this is strange. Even as many of us espouse communitarian (or even Marxist) ideological positions, and even as we work to break down long-held bits of thinking like the "great man" theory of history, or of literary production, we nonetheless cling to the notion that our ideas are our own, that scholarly work is the product of a singular brain. Of course, when we stop to think about it, we're willing to admit that it's not true -- that, of course, is what the acknowledgments and footnotes of our books are for -- but venturing into actual collaborations remains scary. Moreover, many of us seem to have the same kinds of nervousness about group projects that our students have: What if others don't pull their weight? Will we get stuck with all of the work, but have to share the credit?

I want to answer that latter concern by suggesting, as John has, that a collective publishing system might operate less like those kinds of group assignments than like food co-ops: in order to be a member of the co-op -- and membership should be required in order to publish through it -- everyone needs to put in a certain number of hours stocking the shelves and working the cash register. As to the first mode of this individualist anxiety, though, I'm not sure what to say, except that no scholar is an island, that we're all always working collectively, even when we think we're most alone. Hand off your manuscript to a traditional press, and somebody's got to edit it, and typeset it, and print it; why shouldn't that somebody be you?

Here's where the technophobia comes in, or perhaps it's just a desire to have someone else do the production work masquerading as a kind of technophobia, because many of the responses to that last question seem to revolve around either not knowing how to do this kind of publishing work or not wanting to take on the burden of figuring it out. But I strongly suspect that there will come a day in the not too distant future when we look back on those of us who have handed our manuscripts over to presses for editing, typesetting, printing, and dissemination in much the same way that I currently look back on those emeriti who had their secretaries -- or better still, their wives -- type their manuscripts for them. For better or for worse, word processing has become part of the job; with the advent of the web and various easily learned authoring tools, editing and publishing are becoming part of the job as well.

I'm strongly of the opinion that, if academic publishing is going to survive into the next decades, we need to stop thinking about how it's going to be saved, and instead start thinking about how we are going to save it. And a business model that relies heavily on the collective -- particularly, on labor that is shared for everyone's benefit -- seems to me absolutely crucial to such a plan.

March 26, 2006

Why Electronic Publishing?

John Holbo has a fascinating post up at The Valve today, in which he begins thinking through some of the key questions that we've raised here, most notably why an electronic press is a good point of response to the current crisis in scholarly publishing, why a gift-economy model for such a press is important, and what the relationship between our venture and the current structures of academic discourse and validation might turn out to be.

I'd like to encourage all of you to read his post, and let's discuss.

March 22, 2006

Related Projects

In the sidebar on the right, you'll see a module called "Related Projects." We're using this module not simply to call your attention to other electronic scholarly publishing ventures already extant, but rather to serve as a cluster of projects that we might look at in some detail, together, in order to think through what the goals of those projects have been, how those projects have worked, and what we might learn from them as we move forward.

Before attempting to guide any kind of exploration and discussion of those projects, however, I want to make sure that our list is as complete as we'd like it to be. Are there projects that aren't included in our list, but ought to be? Projects that you think bear discussion as our conversations move forward? Please nominate them here, and we'll add them to the list. And in the coming days, we'll begin taking on a collective reading and examination of some of this work.

March 16, 2006

The Big Idea

The goal of this meeting is complicated. The fundamental question we need to noodle through is how to structure an electronic press so that it is as innovative as possible without losing the broad acceptance necessary for it to make a difference. Our instincts are to spend the first half of the meeting being fairly expansive and open-ended about the sort of electronic press we might build if we were unconstrained by the conservatism of the academic environment. In the second half, we'd like to come down to earth a bit and try to figure out what's possible now. So on the one hand we want to think in an idealistic way about the possibilities that an all-electronic academic press presents, but on the other hand, we'd like to come out of this meeting with a clear direction for the future, one that's not just visionary but also doable. A tall order.

We're beginning, of course, from the assumption that academic publishing is in disarray and in need of new and workable solutions. One potential path toward a solution, and the focus of this meeting, is the formation of an electronic press.

Lots of folks -- many of you, in fact -- have of course been working in this arena for some time, and thus we have the luxury of building on those admirable models. We'd like, between now and the time of the meeting, for us to consider and discuss some such models -- what in them has worked; what has been difficult; what could bear alteration -- as a means of thinking about what it is that we'd ideally like an electronic press to do.

At the moment, the ways in which we imagine this new press innovating are in the conjunction of fully exploiting the possibilities that the network presents to scholarship -- scholarly endeavor meets social software -- and creating a venue for the publication of a range of born-digital texts up to and including the monograph. This combination of factors has the potential not simply to allow us to continue doing the kind of work scholars have done for decades, but in fact to radically transform the nature of scholarship, creating the kind of ongoing conversation among scholars that can produce bold new experimentation. But these transformations can only succeed if they're (at least eventually) seen as valid within the academic mainstream, and so we must keep that acceptance in mind, remaining conscious of the compromises we're making, and why.

Take peer review, for example. Historically, the way that it has worked is familiar: someone writes an article or monograph and submits it for consideration; the text goes through various cycles of review, cloaked in varying levels of anonymity, involving a small number of readers; the readers communicate their thoughts to the editor, who may or may not pass on a redacted version of these thoughts to the author; the text is eventually published, or not. Peer review thus currently happens behind the curtain, and before publication. When academic writing becomes fully networked, it will be possible for peer review to go beyond this purely gatekeeping function, to engage a much larger number of readers at many points along the way -- while the article is being written, in response to each draft, and of course after the article is "published." Peer review could thus happen in front of the curtain, as a productive conversation between readers and authors. But how far can we go in trying to re-imagine peer review?

Or take the forms of academic writing. The expected path is to simply reproduce the standard forms of the journal article and the monograph electronically. But how might blogs and other new forms which are afforded by locating writing on the network shift our thinking about articles and monographs? If we were to imagine a system in which the many different kinds of academic writing we produce -- ranging from the relatively casual blog all the way through the most complete monograph -- were able not only to coexist but to interact, to produce a sense not of isolated voices speaking at a distance but of an ongoing, developing conversation, what kinds of work would be fostered? How far can we go in embracing new forms of writing?

We'd like to start with these questions, and any other big questions that you can imagine, to open our discussion here, and to help us focus the issues that we might consider together when we're face-to-face. We look forward to hearing from you all.