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May 3, 2006

Next Steps Following the April 24th Meeting

Coming out of the April 24th meeting Kathleen Fitzpatrick has taken the initiative to write up some initial conclusions summing up the principles and goals of the press in the context of current and future scholarly practice. In order to launch the press in the fall, we'd like to get a fund-raising proposal written by the end of June. I know everyone is busy, but let's do our best to keep up the momentum. Please comment as soon as you can.

Here's Kathleen...

On April 24, 2006, a group of academics, administrators, and researchers, all interested in figuring out how to rescue the scholarly book from what has begun to seem its imminent demise, met to spend a day discussing the future of that book in a networked environment. Our particular interest in hosting this meeting was to propose the formation of an all-electronic scholarly press. This document hopes to summarize both the substance of the discussion and the conclusions that we've drawn from it.

The first thing to note about the discussion is a point that, among those who've been thinking about the future of reading for decades, much less years, can only seem troglodytic, but that in the context of academia's hidebound conservatism was nothing less than stunning: no one around the table suggested that an all-electronic scholarly press was a bad idea, or even a misguided one. Everyone was entirely in favor of founding such a press, and nearly everyone seemed interested in working, in some fashion, toward making it happen. For those of us who have been fighting to get electronic work recognized as even remotely valid within academic circles, this is nothing short of amazing.

That said, much of our conversation was driven by the academy's underlying conservatism, though it seems to me a significant advance that the anxieties of those with whom we spoke localized not around the value of publishing electronically but around our ability to convince our colleagues of the value of publishing electronically. Because of this concern, much of the morning's conversation revolved around peer review, both how a new mode of publishing might transform it into a more valuable, public, interactive process and how that process might continue to be seen as providing a valid system of institutional validation. Much of this discussion circled around a crucial question, finally articulated by Morris Eaves: are we attempting to develop a peer-review process that will be accepted by existing academic culture, or are we attempting to change that culture? Many of the folks at the meeting came down firmly on the side of acceptance, but many others felt just as strongly about transformation.

My own feelings about this are clear: I want nothing less than to revolutionize scholarship, both what it looks like and how it gets done. Judging from our conversation, this is going to make many academics nervous, but I am increasingly convinced that the time for such change has long since come, and that we can build a new system of publishing and review that will be so richly textured and connective, while still maintaining clear (if new) means of institutional warranting, that a fundamentally conservative academy will nonetheless be persuaded to join us.

In the course of our conversation, we developed a series of principles that we feel the scholarly publishing process of the future will embody. As distilled by John Unsworth, these principles suggest that our new publishing environment will:

-- promote intellectual discourse in all its forms;
-- design its process to improve the quality of that discourse;
-- encourage openness in its process and its products, while offering a range of options to authors;
-- share the tools that underlie its process;
-- provide for the preservation of its products;
-- support collaboration and experimentation;
-- make visible the social networks that underlie intellectual discourse; and
-- leverage the information that results from the impact and use of material published by the press.

The first two of these principles are of the utmost importance: if the purpose of scholarly publishing is to further the dissemination of ideas, which in turn produces new advances in scholarship, then a process that takes advantage of the technologies that networked systems make possible can only be an improvement. The average scholarly book takes over a year to move from manuscript to published book, and that's after the lengthy delays produced by the current peer-review system. Adding to this the fact that getting reviews of such books published can take several years more, it begins to become clear that intellectual discourse is not being served, not even remotely, by print. It is little wonder that so many scholars have begun blogging; it's currently one of the few ways to have conversations about ideas in anything like a timely fashion.

The question of openness is fraught for many academics, who are accustomed to processes of blind or anonymous review, in which, as authors, their potential missteps are shielded from public view until corrected, and, as reviewers, they are free to express quite critical opinions without having their names attached to them. The results of peer review are of course important -- scholars need means of ensuring that the material they're basing their research upon is valid and respected -- but we are convinced that the form of peer review can be radically reformed, as long as the new system is clearly detailed for its users. Given that, what we propose is to move peer-review out into the open, as part of a multi-stage process that would guide a text posted in the system from submission, through review, to "approval," all in public view.

We currently imagine that such an open, post-"publication" (or, rather, post-making-public) review might be made possible through a system that contains multiple tiers: first, a repository, in which any text that any author wishes to submit can be made available for public reading; second, an in-process level, in which texts that have been selected by the editors for peer review are discussed, critiqued, edited, and revised; and third, a collection of "published" texts, which have been through the review process and received some form of appropriate validation and press seal of approval. The stage at which any given text exists can be easily conveyed to the reader, both in the search process and in reading the text itself.

Another important aspect of this openness, however, is in the texts' accessibility; most of the meeting's attendees expressed strong interest in and support for the values of open access. Moving the peer-review process into public view and making the texts submitted for, undergoing, and resulting from that process publicly available will, we feel strongly, have important effects on community outreach -- both in terms of helping scholars connect with one another, creating discourse networks that facilitate collaboration and the development of new ideas, and in opening such scholarly discourse to a wider community of intellectuals outside the academy. Moreover, we want to make the systems that we build -- both the software systems and the human networks that support them -- freely available to any groups that would benefit from them.

Finally, we want to take full advantage of the networks that we build, encouraging the development of a fully networked scholarly environment. This means not simply encouraging experimentation in "born-digital" scholarship, in texts that effectively use rich media and internally networked structures, but also in forging links among a multiplicity of texts, ranging a wide variety of textual forms (from blogs through many different kinds of articles through full-length monographs and multi-author texts) alongside one another, allowing them to interact and enliven one another.

In order to facilitate the richest possible network of this kind, we propose to focus this publishing system, at its outset, on one field: media studies. From such a starting point, we can expand to other fields, avoiding the concern raised by some discussion participants that we might otherwise wind up with a "two cultures" problem, in which scholars in media studies are able to publish in a networked environment that's seen as being of dubious legitimacy for other scholars in the humanities. We're less worried about the two cultures problem at the outset than we are about our ability to maintain some kind of focus and relevance in our initial offerings, to ensure that they begin to create a reasonably cohesive network of scholars and texts working together as a community.

There are of course hurdles that remain: all of these processes will require careful design and testing, to ensure that they actually work with -- and are useful to the rethinking of -- actual scholarly practices. And we have a number of pragmatic issues that need careful consideration, including how such a venture can be made as self-sustaining as possible. But our conversations have made us even more excited about the possibilities ahead of us, and even more convinced that we're on the right track -- that the publishing system we want to found will help to shape the future of born-digital, fully-networked, open access scholarship.