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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.


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» Creating an All-Electronic Scholarly Press from Loomware - Crafting New Libraries
Next Steps Following the April 24th Meeting I finally had a chance to take a quick look at the "Toward the Creation of a New Scholarly Press" (TCNSP) site and was impressed with the discussion. This is an initiative stemming from the Institute For the ... [Read More]


Basically accurate to my recollections of the day, with one exception: the decision to focus the publishing enterprise on new media. I remember that focus being suggested, but I remember the general response being that focusing solely on media studies might allow people to dismiss the enterprise as a media-studies thing only, driven by the exigencies of that field, and not necessary or suitable in other humanities disciplines.

let's discuss this question of focus. i was thinking it would be much simpler to start with media studies and branch out from there. but, if people think that bounding the scope in this way might limit the impact of what we're trying to do, then perhaps we need to be more expansive from the beginning, even if it means a more complex editorial and review effort.

I can see how starting with media studies makes sense, but as we came together around the "crisis" faced by the humanities monograph, I also see the value of using that concept as the focus, while then seeing what comes forward, with the idea of demonstrating what the press can do with (a very limited number of) more traditional and more innovative types of publishing projects.

I apologize for the lag time in my comment here; I'm out of the country right now and have not had a good source of net access. Anyhow: my thinking behind the desire to begin (and again -- really just begin, with a plan to branch out relatively quickly) with a focus on media studies was that, given our interest in a specifically networked model of scholarship, it would be really important for us to make sure that all of the initial texts we published somehow spoke or connected to one another, so that the entirety of our offerings seemed coherent. I suppose I could only imagine doing this for more than one field right at the outset if each proposed field had an overseeing editor...

I apologize for the delay in responding. As I am certain each and every one of you will vividly recall, writing a dissertation is both painful and exhausting, and I am only now coming up for air.

It seems that most of the conversation that Kathleen's piece has generated so far is about whether or not media studies should be the initial focus of our digital scholarly press endeavor. I believe that it should be, not just for John W.'s concerns about networking and cohesion (in fact, a well-networked system, inter-connecting a wide range of texts and formats will necessarily bridge media studies with other disciplines and areas of inquiry, further breaking down the barriers of disciplinarity that seems to often prevent scholars and critical thinkers from engaging as public intellectuals with one another), bu for the reason that it is the role of media studies scholars to teach critical digital literacy skills. As high school and college students increasingly look to the internet and other digital media for news, information, and other forms of knowledge, the role of the media studies scholar has become vital in teaching the critical media literacy skills that will help these communities to analyze, decipher, and navigate between the various sources they engage and to better recognize the roles that power, profit, and policy - whether institutional or corporate -play in the construction of so-called credible knowledge.

It seems logical to me that a digital scholarly press must engage as much with its form as with its content and must address the institutional, legal, economic, technological, ideological and cultural processes that shape and constrain digital literacy and scholarship even as we seeks to use the digital environment to revolutionize scholarly discourse. This is an integral part of making the process transparent and inclusive, and in order to gain legitimacy, we must be willing to be critical of our own assumptions and the tools we use to express them. This seems a territory best covered by media studies, since it requires scholarship that both uses and breaks down the modes of production, distribution, and reception/interaction at its disposal simultaneously.

That said (and boy was that a mouthful), I would like to address in greater detail a couple of the points Kathleen makes, as well as offer some suggestions on how to approach this project in such a way as to make it both salable to grantors and (possibly) the academy:

I strongly support Kathleen's stance on revolutionizing academic publishing, but I will take this a step further by suggesting that the value of changing the current publishing culture should be tied to a reformulation (or, more accurately, a remembering) of the role of the academic within the community in general, as stewards of public and critical intellectual discourse. As such, I feel as though the emphasis placed on what a digital press can do that a traditional press cannot should ultimately be tied to a fulfillment of our outreach and pedagogical missions. A digital press that foregrounds process, encourages critical discussion and engagement at multiple entry points, promotes the networking and interlinking of ideas that otherwise would never likely cross-fertilize, and emphasizes the progression from idea to product is an important intervention in teaching critical thinking, breaking down ivory tower barriers that discourage non-academics from participating (and thus recognizing their ability to be critical thinkers), encouraging active engagement rather than passive consumption of both media and ideas about media, making a so-called 'gift' of the resources housed within academic classrooms and institutions, thus fulfilling important service and outreach components, and is also an important form of professional development, because it teaches teachers how to listen and engage with the knowledge already possessed by their students as the basis for strengthening student skills and interest in critical discourse. In other words, a scholarly digital press is a learning environment and a common site for civic participation. I think this emphasis is both appealing to granting organizations and allows entry into traditional academic missions that does not try to make the argument that digital scholarship is 'better' than print versions, but serves a different purpose, but still (perhaps) a valued and tenure-granting purpose .

Anyhoo, my few cents. I would also like to take this moment to thank everyone for allowing me at your table. I returned to Austin inspired and confident in the community of scholarship forming around these concerns. It was a very gratifying experience.

I would love to be involved in drafting a grant proposal and will definitely have time to devote to such an endeavor in June.