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.

April 23, 2006

more website ideas

sorry to be jumping in late here, but a couple of websites (actually a few essays within these sites) I enjoy and think might make for interesting models to consider (for better or worse) are (forgive me if I repeat something someone else has already suggested. I am repeatedly denied access to your comments):

Jump Cut

Screenpedia - Jeremy Butler's new site

Flow - not shameless self-promotion, I swear. This early piece by Henry Jenkins was actually something we wish we had done more of:

Monday's Agenda

Our instincts are to spend a good deal of the meeting, at least through lunch, being fairly expansive and open-ended. If possible, forget constraints for a few hours and consider what you would really want as the components of an electronic press. We do understand that there are serious constraints, including time, money and institutional conservatism, and that any enterprise of this sort involves compromise, but let's first identify what is most crucial to such an endeavor, and what it is we value most highly, in order to be conscious of the compromises we may have to make and why. This is the dreaming portion of the day.

Questions to discuss in the morning:

-- What problems are we aiming to solve by establishing an electronic press?

-- How might peer review be re-imagined in a peer-to-peer network environment?

-- How might academic publishing be reinvented as a gift culture? What are you willing to do for free? To give away? What do we stand to gain by taking an open source approach?

-- How much does accessibility have to do with the overall value of scholarship?

-- How might an electronic press help redeploy intellectual capital to the world beyond academia in ways the current print-based system is unable to do?

-- What kinds of projects would you like to see this press take on? What new forms of scholarship can you imagine taking flight from a born digital press?

After lunch we'd like to explore some concrete questions that we know we'll have to have answers to if we're going to be as innovative as possible while also being sustainable, and without losing the reasonably broad acceptance necessary to make a difference. This is the pragmatics portion of the day:

-- When we talk about establishing a press, are we talking about something that will conform to current scholarly conventions and processes such as peer review, tenure and promotion criteria, or something that will challenge -- even reinvent -- those conventions? If the latter, how do we make such change palatable to basically conservative bureaucratic systems? What else is out there that is already challenging those conventions? What is to be learned, borrowed, improved?

-- Many different approaches have been taken toward the notion of publishing scholarly work online, ranging from venues that distribute electronic versions of texts that maintain all of the structure and format of print, to those that aim at the production of new forms of critical discourse. Among the virtues of the former is a kind of backwards compatibility, easing a nervous academy into a new mode of publishing; among the virtues of the latter, of course, is radically opening the academy to new forms of work altogether. How might we reconcile or combine these approaches in the most productive way?

-- This press needs to be at least largely self-sustaining. What kinds of financial models should we consider as we move forward?

-- What kinds of workflow and production models should we consider establishing? Very pragmatically: how will the work get done? What will the role of the editorial/advisory board be? Whom should we ask to join us?

Please feel encouraged to challenge, reformulate or add to these questions. We've only got one day and want to make the most of it.

April 19, 2006

On Repositories

A very interesting post today by Jill Walker on institutional repositories, their benefits, and the ways that they fall short of the ideal networked publication archive she'd like. There's of course a key difference between the repository and the kind of publishing environment that we're imagining -- the repository is a somewhat secondary storage facility for the publications of a cluster of scholars, rather than a primary locus of publishing in and of itself -- but I think there's still much to consider in the issues that Jill raises.

April 17, 2006

The Wealth of Networks

Another project I'd like to bring our attention to: Yochai Benkler's new book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, has just been released by Yale University Press. Benkler has also made the book available in PDF format, and has created a wiki for the text, allowing for a different kind of interaction between readers and this text:

The basic idea is to make this Wiki a place where people who read the book can do at least four things. First, collaborate on writing a summary of the ideas and claims of the book, as an initial point of entry. Second, provide an easy platform through which to access underlying research materials: both those used in the book's notes, and more importantly, resources that are useful for further research, refinement, and updating. Third, the Wiki should be a place where participants can describe, link to, and analyze examples of the phenomena the book describes. The purpose is not to "make the case" for the book or find "gotcha" counter examples. What we are trying to do is provide a real research tool, annotated bibliography, and platform for collaborative learning. Examples and counter-examples should be selected and described with that purpose in mind. Fourth, the Wiki is itself a learning platform about what is valuable in a learning platform. Through separate pages devoted to ideas and experiments of what can be done with an online book to make it a learning platform, we hope to expand the range of uses to which this Wiki can be available.

In certain ways, a wiki is of course the ideal format for such a project, allowing as it does for multiple, collaborative authorship and a relatively boundless expansion. But the wiki seems also to maintain a separation between the primary text and its related paratexts -- here are the static PDFs from which the author speaks, and here are the malleable wiki pages on which readers chime in. How might we imagine bringing those voices into closer conversation?

April 10, 2006

Learning from the Related Projects

I'm sorry that things have been so quiet around here lately; I'm sure you're all facing a late-spring time-crunch right about now as well. I'd like, though, to attempt to get us talking a bit more (all of us, if we can!), by looking closely at some of the projects that we've proposed as bearing some relation to the electronic academic press we're hoping to found. We've created a list of some such projects in the right-hand sidebar (and I'll be adding more suggested projects to it shortly). Please take a look at some of these projects, and then come back here to post some of your thoughts about them. What about these projects should we learn from? What is the greatest strength of these projects, technologically, structurally, intellectually, or otherwise? How would those models be applicable to our plans? How would they need to be modified? What in those projects might be improved upon? Where might we form strategic links and relationships?

I'll look forward to hearing from all of you!

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.

Continue reading "On the Importance of the Collective in Electronic Publishing" »

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.