Planned Obsolescence: Now Online

Today’s the day: the project that I’ve been working on for the last year and a half is at last live and open for your reading and commenting pleasure. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy will, if all goes according to plan, come out in print sometime next year from NYU Press, but it’s available right now, in commentable form, via MediaCommons Press.

Today’s also the day I get to unveil MediaCommons Press itself, a project we’ve been working toward for several months now. MediaCommons Press is the second major project hosted by MediaCommons, and it is dedicated, as the header has it, to open scholarship in open formats. MediaCommons Press hopes to promote the digital publication of texts ranging from article- to monograph-length, in forms ranging from the traditional to the experimental, serving all areas of scholarship in media studies.

So, with these two announcements together, today’s the day I put my money where my mouth is, both by demonstrating the effectiveness of the MediaCommons publishing model and demonstrating, as I argue most strongly for in the book, the importance of open online peer review.

I hope you’ll come by and join the discussion. And I also hope you’ll consider joining in by publishing with us. MediaCommons has developed into a thriving community network in media studies; we’re excited to take the first steps today in transforming that network into a viable, community-based scholarly publishing system.

Blog-Based Peer Review

Noah Wardrip-Fruin has posted a thoughtful reconsideration of the experience of putting the manuscript of his forthcoming book, Expressive Processing, through an open peer review process at Grand Text Auto, meditating on a few surprises that he encountered along the way.

Among these surprises, he notes one that I’m particularly glad to hear about, as it seems to me to refute the thing that several people have said to me about this experiment: “yeah, but even Noah said it didn’t really work.” Or at least not as well as traditional review. As Noah puts it,

One concern expressed repeatedly about the blog-based review form — by blog commenters, outside observers, and myself — is that its organization around individual sections might contribute to a “forest for the trees” phenomenon. While individual sections and their topics are important to a book, it is really by the wider argument and project that most books are judged. I worried the blog-based review form might be worse than useless if its impact was to turn authors (myself included) away from major, systemic issues with manuscripts and toward the section-specific comments of blog visitors with little sense of the book’s project.

This concern was heightened by comments made by some commenters, including Ian Bogost, who noted that he was having difficulty following the argument through from section to section. As it turns out, Noah notes, that difficulty was itself a key bit of review:

When the press-solicited anonymous reviews came in, however, they turned this concern on its head. This is because the blog-based and anonymous reviews both pointed to the same primary revision for the manuscript: distributing the main argument more broadly through the different chapters and sections, rather than concentrating it largely in a dense opening chapter. What had seemed like a confirmation of one of our early fears about this form of review — the possibility of losing the argument’s thread — was actually a successful identification, by the blog-based reviewers, of a problem with the manuscript also seen by the anonymous reviewers.

Noah notes that the success of his review process was contingent on the prior existence and functioning of the Grand Text Auto community, and of the commitment of time and expertise on the part of many dedicated readers. This reflection makes me increasingly hopeful that MediaCommons might develop a similarly successful set of review processes, precisely by focusing its development on the social network.

University Press + University Library = The Future of University Publishing?

crossposted from MediaCommons:

The Chronicle of Higher Education announced today that the University of Michigan Press is being restructured as an academic unit housed under the University of Michigan Library. A number of other institutions, including New York University and Penn State University, have similar reporting relationships between the press and the library, but something has been made explicit in the Michigan shift that stands to be pretty dramatic:

Michigan’s new press-library hierarchy is not a revolution in itself. Many university presses now report to their campus libraries. But Philip Pochoda, the press’s director, said in an interview that he believes this arrangement is notable because it relieves the press of pressure to be financially self-sustaining.

“It removes the bottom line on a book-by-book basis,” he said. “Basically we will be judged for staying within a budget,” just as academic departments are. “In a sense, it will allow us to do more things that are consistent with university objectives, as opposed to commercial objectives.”

This transformation of the press from a revenue center to something more like a service organization within the institution is, I believe, a necessary first step toward solving the financial crisis faced by most university presses.

The University of Michigan’s publishing program notably includes a number of experimental partnerships between the press and the library’s Scholarly Publishing Office, including digitalculturebooks, a joint imprint whose titles are available for free online, or for sale in hard copy. The reporting relationship between the press and the library now promises to free the press to undertake more such explorations of the possibilities for new publishing models, including open access publishing.

The new operating model will emphasize digital monographs, with a small print-on-demand component.

“It opens up opportunities that we had to foreclose because we were so tied to the kind of budgeting and business model that we had before,” Mr. Pochoda said. “This seems to be the first university that’s freeing its press from that model.”

The press director sounded relieved and optimistic about the change. “In many ways, we feel like we’ve come in out of the cold, and boy, it’s been pretty cold,” he said. “There’s never been a colder period in publishing.”

This is an extremely exciting development, one that I hope points the way for other universities to reconsider their commitment to scholarly publishing as a core part of the academic mission.

[UPDATE, 9.29 am: Here’s the University of Michigan’s press release, with more details. This story is getting reported around the web, most notably at Inside Higher Ed, as an end-of-print story, which I think is missing the point: the news here is not that the press is going all-digital (they’re really not), but that, freed from the bottom line, they’re now free to experiment with new digital modes. That’s huge.]

Getting Serious About the Online Part of Research Online

crossposted from MediaCommons:

Today’s Inside Higher Ed features an opinion piece by Sara Kubik, urging academics to “get serious” about online forms of research publication.

While it once made sense to equate print with quality, it’s time to embrace newer forms of communication as valid. If they need academically sound forms of verification and procedures for citation, let’s get to work.

I could not agree more — and yet it’s important to note, in the comments that follow, one of the reasons why such getting-serious is easier said than done: in response to Kubik’s insistence that online publishing would help to alleviate the horrific time-lags between the completion of research and its dissemination, Sandy Thatcher, Director of Penn State University Press, responds by saying that it’s peer review that takes so long, and thus the digital won’t speed things up all that much.

This kind of response is precisely the reason a project like MediaCommons is so necessary, I believe: if we are really going to get serious about online scholarly publishing, we have got to get outside the paper-based model of what publishing is. What Thatcher’s response misses (and what I’ve attempted to follow up with in a comment myself) is that it makes no sense to port paper-based procedures into a digital publishing process. In conventional publishing, peer review has to come before publication, due to the material scarcities involved, whether the limited number of pages that can be published in a journal or the limited number of volumes that can be published by a press. These scarcities do not obtain in networked environments; there are no limitations on the number of texts, or the length of texts, that can be published. What is scarce, instead, is time and attention. What we need is a peer review process that works toward maximizing those scarcities, rather than using paper-based models of gatekeeping.

What I’ve been arguing for some time now is that we need to let everything be published, and transform peer review into a post-publication filtering process. Right now, a monograph that will only reach a dozen interested readers simply can’t be taken on by a traditional press — but why shouldn’t that monograph be able to find its dozen readers online? Isn’t it imaginable that those dozen readers might gradually, through their resulting publications, persuade many more that they’d overlooked something important in that original monograph?

So open the floodgates. Let’s develop a system that helps that dozen readers find the texts they’re looking for, and vice versa. And in the process, let’s crowd-source peer review. Right now, the process is slow in no small part because of how the “peers” involved are determined — they’re a very small number of hand-selected, overworked, and undercompensated readers. Why shouldn’t we allow any reader who genuinely engages with a text to become a “peer”? In so doing, we not only spread the labor of peer review out in a more just fashion, but we also recognize that readers and readings change, and thus that review should be an ongoing, rather than a one-time-only, process.

I’m hopeful that MediaCommons, by creating a new publishing process from the ground up, might be able to help transform our ideas about online publishing, to help us work with rather than against the net-native modes of producing “authority.” But in order to do so, we need your help. Publish things here, whether as blog posts or uploaded documents. Help us imagine the projects we should be taking on. Give us your feedback about the site, its structure, the features you’d like to see, and how we might develop and implement a genuinely peer-to-peer review process.

We’re getting serious. We hope you will, too.

Digital Humanities Roundup

I’ve just posted on MediaCommons in order to point to Lisa Spiro’s fantastic post rounding up and reflecting on important developments in the digital humanities in 2008, with particular attention to issues of scholarly communication and open access. This post is the second in a series; the first reflected on the development of the digital humanities both as a term and as a collection of interest groups and communities over the course of the year. Both posts provide links to a range of important and exciting resources and include a wealth of thoughtful commentary. And I’m not just pointing this out because she says such nice things about my own project

MediaCommons Blogs

I was poking around the web a little while ago, pondering this blog — why I haven’t been posting much in recent months, wishing I were posting more, thinking about what I’d post if I were to post, and so forth — and found myself fixated on the notion that there’s this thing I’d like to be posting if only I could: content from the big project. I’ve been holding off on starting to post excerpts from that project, though, until I can start cross-posting it to MediaCommons. And for that, I’ve been waiting on our programmers to get the blogging module activated and properly functioning. So I started poking at MediaCommons: and guess what? Blogging has been activated there!

The difference between creating a “post” at MediaCommons and creating a “blog post” is a pretty fine one. In the Drupal universe, a “post” either lands in the site’s main blog stream (by being promoted to the front page) or it doesn’t; regular old posts don’t accrue to individual user blogs. Blog posts, however, do; any user can create posts on his or her own blog if the blogging module is activated, and those posts can be editorially promoted to the front page or not. The blogging module thus enables a bunch of people to be doing a bunch of stuff in different areas of the site, and for different parts of that stuff to be made visible at different levels and in different ways.

We’re hoping that a bunch of folks will start blogging there, whether posting original content or cross-posting from existing blogs. I’ve just posted the first official blog post on the site; I look forward to having it joined by lots more new content — not least, stuff from the big project — soon.

Digital Peer Review

cross-posted at MediaCommons

In the last few days, I’ve been running across a bunch of activity around the question of peer review in digital publishing, thinking that’s extremely important to MediaCommons as we begin the project of building our peer-to-peer review network. I’ve also been writing about such questions a log, in particular in my book project, which I plan to begin posting excerpts from in the coming days. For the moment, however, a few links:

On “Academic Evolution,” a very strong argument by Gideon Burton indicating that our insistence that peer review is the thing that keeps academic publishing from turning into vanity publishing may be entirely wrong.

Urbis, a creative review engine for aspiring writers, using networked structures to help them develop and improve their work.

And, perhaps most significantly, if only because of its potential reach, Google Code’s GPeerReview project, which enables a network of colleagues to review and sign one another’s work, and to use statistical analysis to determine the connectedness of that work.

Are there other projects and experiments of which we should be taking note as we plot our peer-to-peer review future?


Yesterday, it probably goes without saying, was a big day, made so not only by the inauguration but also by the first day of classes of the new semester. And even more so, for me personally, by the long-awaited relaunch of MediaCommons. (We tried really hard to have the site ready to launch at noon eastern, but settled for six pm pacific.)

The site is now running in Drupal, which is going to allow us to focus more heavily in the coming weeks on developing the community aspects of the network. Already, however, we’re able to promote contributions to the site from the breadth of its membership; any scholar of media studies who creates an account at MediaCommons is now invited to blog there. We’re hoping that some folks will want to start new, research-specific blogs, and that others will want to re-post selectively from their existing blogs. In the coming weeks, we’re also going to begin aggregating a number of media studies blogs across the web, enriching the MediaCommons community by reflecting the breadth of work being done in the field today.

I hope that you’ll come by and check out both the main site and In Media Res, which has also relaunched in a spiffy new format, with vastly improved tagging and searching capabilities. We’re still working on things over there, so excuse any oddnesses you may run into; we’d call this release a beta if that term were really useful anymore. But we look forward to seeing — and more importantly, to hearing from you — there.