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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.


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» on the importance of the collective in electronic publishing from if:book
(The following polemic is cross-posted from the planning site for a small private meeting the Institute is holding later this month to discuss the possible establishment of an electronic press. Also posted on The Valve.) One of the concerns that... [Read More]


Comment re-posted from if:book

I've been doing a lot of thinking and writing about open access, open source, and intellectual property over the last couple of years, and while I think the collective/coop method might work, I would encourage academics and publishers to turn to a deeper understanding of open source and open access in thinking of an electronic publishing models. From what I could tell in the Inside Higher Ed report after the MLA convention, they are seeking a solution to the crisis in electronic publishing. But the secret to success for open access and open source is that these methods of knowledge creation are primarily important because they change the way that we think about how text/code is produced and what we are producing it for. Open access and open source are about particular ideologies and collaborative processes which would exist without a scholarly publishing crisis and without software monopolies. Certainly, they have gained momentum as grassroots movements in response to problems created by the current intellectual property paradigm, but open access and open source is important despite those problems, not because of them.

So, for example, when examining the open source development model as a set of common practices for knowledge production, one can see that primarily the collaborative processes are built on the principles of shared ownership and distributed knowledge production which is inclusive--makes room for most that have something good to contribute--and acts as a meritocracy. The value added to this process is that participants recognize this as an efficient form of knowledge production which helps them to accomplish their goals. From my experience working with an open source community, these goals are often widely diverse, and structuring a project so that a wide range of people with diverse goals can meet their goals is the method for success. Imposing required participation in a coop model will necessarily limit what goals can be met, decrease the number of people who can/will potentially be involved in the project, and, because of the constraints, reduce the likelihood that interesting, unpredictable things will happen.

Besides, academics are like software developers in one main regard; getting them to work together can be difficult because of their diverse interests. I particularly like the herding cats analogy for open source communities described by one of the Drupal developers:

With open source, the analogy is more like we're all cats. You cannot herd cats. You cannot order cats around, or teach cats tricks or even expect cats to obey. But cats can be great companions and very helpful. Cats can work together. Cats can even follow rules and do what's expected of them when it comes to the important things. To get a cat to cooperate, it takes a different tack, a different approach, and different expectations.

Distributed, loosely organized communities which allow academics to accomplish their goals, IMHO, is the way to go. I have some ideas for this, but that'll have to wait until another day.

Comment re-posted from if:book

Amen to that. Collaboration in the humanities is key. The biggest obstacle I've found to it in my own work (see URL) - aside from technophobia of varying degrees - is the learning curve. Does manning the cash register mean doing some layout, in this case? Marketing? Other skills that are likely not within the skillset of your average humanities scholar?

I remain hopeful, of course, and love what you're doing with the place. Although my macro-organizational fu is more or less spoken for in the foreseeable future, please ping me if you need a pair of proofreading eyes, or semantic encoding hands, or something.

Comment re-posted from if:book

Charlie, excellent point about the shifted orientation required to make open-source a healthy alternative. But the real sticking pointing is financial. One of the reasons that people haven't gone wholesale to the open-source ideal is that few people have figured out how to make money from a process that is so permeable. Kathleen touched on that briefly--yes, outside developers can contribute to their pet projects after their full time work. But that supposes that the full time work is supporting their extra-curricular interests. I think this is the hardest question: how do we monetize sharing?

Comment re-posted from if:book

". . . how do we monetize sharing?"

First, I'm not convinced that a lack of money making models is a major factor in open source adoption (people just don't understand enough about open source or the money making models or don't agree with them). It's a myth that everyone works on open source as a hobby. I would estimate that most of the main developers and contributors on the project I work with derive some financial or career benefits with potential for increased gain in the long run.

But if your question is in regard to electronic academic publishing, then let's remember that academics don't publish for the payoff they receive from their publishers. So we have to do is at least provide a similar value in an epublishing model as what they get from publishing in print. That's been talked about in open access discussions quite a bit, and open access advocates have elaborated on benefits which exist for open access publishing which do not exist for print, most of all of which is the prorogation of knowledge which occurs when works are publicly available online. BTW: I'm not in favor of merely describing this as a "gift culture" model, for that generalizes greatly the particular ideological principles which are important to the academy and the effectiveness and efficiency of open access publishing.

So to get academics to participate, the case needs to be made in the humanities as to the benefits of open access publishing (which is actually much harder then coming up with a publishing model). As far as how to fund the publishing, let's not forget the many journals that are run by faculty out of their offices. Or how about David Blakesley's Parlor Press which is independently run? In addition to the generous donation of time by the editors, departmental support, and/or grant money, these examples recoup some costs through sales of print copies. In an open access book publishing model for the humanities, some costs could also be recouped by looking at how Lessig's version of Free Culture was published. Everyone points to the CC license for the work online, but how many people realize that the print version is not licensed? John Holbo's piece mentions making the books available through print on demand. I agree. But I would license the epublishing electronic texts under a ShareAlike-NonCommercial license. Authors would grant the epublishing organization exclusive commercial rights and generously give up any royalty rights unless printing exceeded 1000 copies. Print on demand versions would, like Free Culture, not give any CC licensing. Since the online version is NonCommercial licenseed, the epublishing organization would be the only organization to make money off of print sales.