« On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements | Main | Related Projects »

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.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Big Idea:

» toward the establishment of an electronic press from if:book
A few months ago, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a tenured professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College, published an important statement at The Valve: On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements. Not just another lame... [Read More]

» ElectraPress, Moving Forward from Planned Obsolescence

(crossposted from ElectraPress) As I mentioned sometime back, things have been happening behind the scenes at ElectraPress, and all that set-building and light-hanging has prevented me from being able to do much in the way of actual performi...

[Read More]


Just a couple of loosely joined comments on Kathleen's opening address, which frames the issues for this meeting well.

If we're beginning from the assumption that academic publishing is in disarray, how do we define "disarray"? What specifically is disordered? I worry that (paraphrasing Karl Kraus by way of Terry Eagleton) we are part of a problem to which we are posing a solution. We need to examine closely and understand forensically the decay and the failures before we can blueprint a new publishing order.

A 'society of texts' is the right metaphor. Networked texts are inherently interdependent. No text will be home alone, ever again. The whole is now quite literally greater than the sum of the parts. In the future we will pay for the privilege of creating user-defined collections but not for access to discrete works. A direct assault on the canon of content forms (monograph, journal article) will not be particularly successful. I suspect that it will, in fact, be the rise of informal and infrathin content (the next generation of 'grey' literature) that will undermine the legacy publishing industry.

New communication forms, all at the v.1.0 stage (blogs being the primary example), are about writing, not reading. These first generation tools don't yet encourage harmonization and solidarity between readers and writers.

The formation of an electronic press implies that we have a vision that is ultimately simpatico with a viable business model. There's been an interesting lesson learned from Google: they have monetized search, not content. It's not inconceivable that search queries themselves will become a kind fiat currency, potentially more valued than the content itself. How do we take these and other unanticipated value migrations into account in planning for a new kind of publishing entity?

Are nonattendees permitted to post? I don't want to crash the party.

Joe Esposito

Absolutely, yes! We couldn't fit everyone we wanted around the physical table, but the virtual table is boundless.

There appears to be a non sequitur at work on this site. The assumption is that new media has new properties (agree), but that a sine qua non of new media is that access to the end-user be free of charge and only some variety of open access can participate in the flexible use of a text. I seriously doubt this is true. Copyright and end-user fees are simply tools in a business model; they are neither good nor bad except insofar as they achieve the ends of the people behind them. We should expect to see profitable, copyright-protected instantiations of complex digital texts in the future. Not that legacy publishers will necessarily come up with these businesses, but creativity is everywhere, even among people who like to make a buck.

Joe Esposito

Following Terry's "forensic" suggestion, I think we need a systematic study of what peer review practice actually is, at present, in humanities journals in print. I suspect the answer will surprise most people, and would--at a stroke--change the context in which this part of our discussion takes place. Most talk about peer review assumes a reality that no longer exists, if it ever did.

Following on Joe's comment, I agree that the most promising future is a mix of commercial and gift economies, or micro-payments, or paying for one thing and getting another. Money does have to change hands: the problem with the current academic publishing environment is that imagination is quite limited on the question of how and for what money may change hands.