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On Electronic Scholarly Publishing

What follows is lengthy, a draft of the ElectraPress proposal that I was circulating before my dean decided that he loved the electronic part and hated the cooperative/open source/open access parts, which were of course the parts that were most important to me. The proposal (like the Cinema Journal note I linked to last week) is mostly manifesto, long on why something like ElectraPress is needed, and seriously short on the particulars of how to go forward. But I’ve been in touch with several folks over the last few days, including John Holbo, and it’s clear that going forward is what needs to happen. So I’m going to cross-post this here and at ElectraPress; I’d love any feedback, ideas, brainstorming, and above all, participation that you out there might care to provide.

Project Description: ElectraPress

Scholars, critics, editors, publishers, officers of professional organizations, and representatives of public and private foundations have all begun to speak in recent days of a crisis in academic publishing, a crisis that threatens the future of scholarship in the humanities. In the proposal that follows, I outline a direct response to that crisis, one that I feel has the best possible chance of enabling humanities scholarship to move forward into the twenty-first century. This response begins with a weekend-long symposium, designed to bring together scholars working on various aspects of the relationship between the humanities and new media for a series of conversations exploring the possibilities for a new, electronic, Creative Commons-based model of scholarly publishing.

1. Background

This project began with personal experience, my own brush with the publishing crisis. In December 2003, 72 hours after my positive tenure decision had become final, I received a note of rejection from the press that had had my book manuscript under review for ten months. This note, as encouraging as rejections can ever be, stressed that the fault, if fault there were, lay not with the manuscript but with the climate; the press had received two positive readers’ reports, and the editor was enthusiastic about the project. The marketing department, however, had declared the book “a bad financial risk in the current economy.”

The “current economy” to which the marketing guys referred was intended to be a shorthand reference to the post-dot-com bubble, post-9/11 recession; I want to argue, however, that there’s a more particular economy of scholarly life to which the publishing crisis must draw our attention, and that the only feasible solution for this economy’s problem is not a system of supports and subventions designed to prop up the current structure, but instead a radical revolution in thinking about the economy of scholarship.

To backtrack a bit: the manuscript to which I refer above, a manuscript that required eight months of queries to place at the press that reviewed it, that then spent ten months in that review process, before being let go, and that sat around through another seven months of queries before finding another interested publisher — this manuscript focuses on the role of literary fiction in the age of television, arguing, ironically enough, that the book is not the dying form that it sometimes appears. There are, of course, numerous voices claiming that it is, not least among them the NEA’s recent report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which points to a clear decline in recent years in the reading of what the report defines as “literature,” especially among the young. What this report fails to confront, however, is its own narrow definition of “literature,” which is restricted to “novels, short stories, plays, or poetry,” and only that which has appeared in book form. While chairman Dana Gioia is correct in arguing that, historically “print culture” has afforded “irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible,” I’d argue that it’s wrong to assume that new forms of electronic communication cannot produce such focused attention and contemplation, and thus that any replacement of books by electronic media, as Gioia suggests “would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.”

Having written one book in which I argue that the book is not dying, and then facing the difficulties that I’ve encountered in attempting to publish this book, I now must stop and consider that perhaps the print-on-paper book may in fact be on the wane. However, a more productive response to this situation, it seems to me, rather than focusing resources on rescuing the particular object, would be instead rescuing its cultural function; rather than putting renewed emphasis on print-on-paper books, we might all be better served by seeking ways to make new communication forms equally amenable to “focused attention and contemplation,” to “complex communications and insights.”

This is nowhere more true than in the universe of scholarly publishing. In fact, if the book as a form is dying, that death is most evident today in the situation of the scholarly book, which is being crushed under the weight of the insupportable economics of the current academic publishing system.

Stephen Greenblatt described this fiscal crisis in a May 2002 letter to the membership of the MLA:

Many factors are involved here, but the core of the problem — which extends beyond our fields to such disciplines as philosophy, musicology, and anthropology — is systemic, structural, and at base economic. Under financial constraint, universities have been unable to provide adequate support both for library budgets and for university presses. Responding to the pressure of shrinking budgets and of skyrocketing costs for medical, scientific, and technical journals, libraries have cut back on the number of books that they purchase. And university presses, suffering severe financial losses as a result of this shift in library purchases and a general decline in book sales, have cut back on the number of books they publish annually in certain fields.

These “certain fields” are primarily in the humanities; numerous presses have altogether ceased acquiring new manuscripts in literature, and many others are demanding hefty subventions from their authors. Furthermore, the danger presented by this crisis is not simply that there will be fewer monographs published; the crisis is rather, as Greenblatt goes on to suggest, one that directly threatens the futures of many potentially successful academics:

Some junior faculty members who will be reviewed for tenure in this academic year are anxiously waiting to hear from various university presses. These faculty members find themselves in a maddening double bind. They face a challenge — under inflexible time constraints and with very high stakes — that many of them may be unable to meet successfully, no matter how strong or serious their scholarly achievement, because academic presses simply cannot afford to publish their books. The situation is difficult for those in English and even more difficult for those in foreign languages.

We are concerned because people who have spent years of professional training — our students, our colleagues — are at risk. Their careers are in jeopardy, and higher education stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars.

The focus of Greenblatt’s suggestions for ameliorating this situation is on separating tenure decisions from the book standard; by diversifying the number of ways that scholars can demonstrate active, successful research agendas, and by paying careful attention to the quality of work (rather than relying upon press readers to do so), departments can continue to tenure worthy scholars without requiring that everything hinge on the imperiled book. This is an important topic of discussion, and one to which many university departments will soon need to pay close attention.

Other arguments have been made that colleges and universities — particularly those that do not support publishers of their own — need to provide subventions that junior faculty can use to help presses finance their books, or that such institutions should provide all faculty with book-buying funds, which would result in greater sales for academic publishers. Both suggestions merit active consideration, of course.

I want to take a different turn, however, in considering possible solutions to the publishing crisis, one that asks us neither to abandon the monograph nor to pour more resources into supporting a system of production that may be fundamentally damaged. Instead, scholars need to focus on reconfiguring the monograph, enabling its production within a new system, such that it might once again become an economically viable form.

Lindsay Waters, of Harvard University Press, has argued in the Village Voice that “the humanities must now take steps to preserve and protect the independence of their activities, such as the writing of books and articles, before the market becomes our prison and the value of the book becomes undermined.” The market has, I would suggest, already become our prison; our task is not to re-value the book, but to create a venue for the book’s ideas that is not at the whim of market forces.

Journal publishing, particularly in the sciences, has already been through this crisis, and has created some pioneering — if admittedly partial — solutions from which book publishing might learn. While shorter texts (such as articles) lend themselves more easily to electronic delivery, because they’re more likely to be read on-screen, the parallel nature of the crises — declining library purchases coupled with rising production costs — suggests that there might be parallel solutions. The choice that we in the humanities are left with is to remain tethered to a dying system or to move forward into a mode of publishing and distribution that will remain economically and intellectually supportable into the future.

2. The Future of Academic Publishing

Any future mode of publishing must almost inevitably include some form of electronic distribution. But what form? Should academic presses move to a print-on-demand model of publication? Or should they think more radically about an all-electronic mode, in which full-length texts are made available in formats that are portable, readable on-screen, and printable by the user? Or, most riskily, perhaps, is there a means of escaping the academic-press model of publication entirely, moving to some new system of peer-review and manuscript-editing that sheds the troubled structures of press economics in favor of an open-source, communal mode of intellectual discovery?

None of these paths will be easy; previous experiments in electronic publishing ranging from the American Historical Association’s Gutenberg-e Program to the electronic imprints of such scholarly publishers as the University Press of Virginia have proven costly to start up and difficult to maintain. There are, nonetheless, important reasons for persisting, and important new avenues for exploration that may point the way toward a healthier and more vibrant future in electronic scholarship.

The open-access movement that has begun gaining ground in scholarly circles provides one important focus for such future exploration:

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge. (From the Budapest Open Access Initiative, available at

The truth is that scholarly communication has long operated under the assumptions of a gift-economy; academic publications ought ideally to be intended not to contribute to the wealth of their authors or publishers but rather to enrich and advance a communal discourse. In The Gift, Lewis Hyde describes the need for a gift community of scientists and other scholars, pointing out

several reasons why ideas might be treated as gifts, the first being that the task of assembling a mass of disparate facts into a coherent whole clearly lies beyond the powers of a single mind or even a single generation. All such broad intellectual undertakings call for a community of scholars, one in which each individual thinker can be awash in the ideas of his comrades so that a sort of “group mind” develops, one that is capable of cognitive tasks beyond the powers of any single person…. A scientist may conduct his research in solitude, but he cannot do it in isolation. The ends of science require coordination. Each individual’s work must “fit,” and the synthetic nature of gift exchange makes it an appropriate medium for this integration; it is not just people that must be brought together but the ideas themselves.

This understanding of the collaborative mode in which scholarly inquiry takes place suggests that the danger presented by the crisis in scholarly publishing extends beyond the careers of the individual faculty members who Greenblatt suggests may be damaged by their difficulty publishing; the danger envelops the scholarly community as a whole, as ideas important to the future development of our fields may never be sufficiently communicated to the peer group to enable future development of those fields.

The principles of the open-access movement thus present a compelling call for scholars to move outside the individualistic, sales-oriented publishing market to a more freely available mode of knowledge distribution. There are other models for such an escape from the market that also present themselves as possibilities, all of which have grown up around the software industry, and in particular its manifestations on the Internet: “copyleft,” open-source, and Creative Commons licensing. The distinctions among these three forms of intellectual property rights are both too particular and too contested to fully unpack here; what they share is the attempt to undermine the forces that hinder the dissemination of intellectual and creative work by replacing restrictive notions of copyright and intellectual property rights with a communal model of the development of ideas and products. Such a communal model, like the idea of the gift economy, highlights what is best about the spirit of scholarly endeavor. The Creative Commons licensing system, moreover, protects authorial interests by ensuring that texts are made freely available under particular conditions, including that proper attribution must be given for use of such texts and that no commercial re-use of such texts is permitted.

I want to suggest that the future of the scholarly monograph might be preserved through a turn to a system of online, open-access distribution of texts under Creative Commons licenses. Such a shift would allow scholarly work to find the widest possible audience, and would encourage an active engagement with such work both by those inside and those outside the traditional boundaries of the academy.

The question remains, however, how we in the humanities might set about creating such a system. The move toward online journal publication began in the sciences, where a crisis much like that now faced by the humanities first manifested; the move toward a new system of monograph publication must begin with those whose careers are most built around the monograph. Unfortunately, humanities scholars are (stereotypically, at least) also the most likely to work within the old system rather than imagining — let alone creating — something technologically and structurally new.

However, creating something new creates as well a series of dangers: those pioneers who first make the leap to a new system of open-source electronic publishing risk having their vitae distrusted by traditionalists on tenure-review committees, as well as having their publications taken by their peers to be less authoritative than those published in more immediately recognizable formats. It is perhaps for this reason no accident that, in the humanities, the first experiments in online journal publication were by and large conducted by those whose research took as its object new media forms and contemporary technologies; scholars who could convincingly argue to promotion committees that the new form of publication itself comprised part of the research were most free to innovate in that regard. Moreover, other scholars doing research into these same fields were more likely to read seriously (and, perhaps most importantly, cite) work published online. With the success of journals such as Postmodern Culture and New Media and Society, other fields were gradually emboldened to follow.

Again, there are some instructive details of this narrative that those hoping to innovate in monograph publishing might learn from: scholars in non-contemporary, non-media-related fields will not accept an electronic mode of monograph publication until the mode has first been proven viable, or, more to the point, until it has been demonstrated that other scholars take material published in such a mode seriously. If there is to be, then, a revolution in monograph publishing, it must begin with those working in the fields of new media, of electronic textuality, of the history of technology, and so forth. Only such scholars can reasonably argue that their form must follow their content; only such scholars can reasonably expect that their colleagues in the field will find, read, and take seriously texts published in an electronic format.

Only then, when the new form has been demonstrated to be viable, both economically and academically, will scholars in other fields be willing to make the same leap. And only then, once scholars have begun to make the leap to this new mode of electronic publication, will the academic publishing crisis truly be averted.

3. “ElectraPress”: A Symposium and Scholarly Publishing Project

For the last year, I have conducted sporadic conversations with a number of scholars in fields related to new media, scholars with particular interests in the future of textuality, and in the role that such future textualities might play in academic publishing. We have all agreed that some new mode of publishing that moves outside the university press model, that benefits from the principles of open access while retaining the key ingredient of peer-review, has the best chance of not simply surviving but growing into the twenty-first century. These conversations have been limited, however, by the difficulties inherent in long-distance communications: I have mostly spoken with these scholars one-on-one, mostly via e-mail, and often with long delays between questions and responses. All of us hope to move forward, and to do so quickly, but such forward movement necessitates an extended, face-to-face, group conversation about the possibilities before us.

To that end, I propose to host a weekend-long symposium in late spring or early summer, 2005, bringing together these scholars for a series of plenary addresses and round-table discussions aimed at imagining anew the future of scholarly publishing. This symposium would be wide-ranging in its interests, but would have the clear goal of producing, very soon after the symposium’s close, a clearly defined working model for ElectraPress, a new electronic imprint focused on the publication of book-length manuscripts in the area of new media studies. The scholars who attend this symposium would become the founding members of ElectraPress’s editorial board; such scholars would include [NOTE: This list was compiled in late 2004, has been updated very quickly to include a few people with whom I’ve been in contact in the last week or so; any volunteers or suggestions would be welcome]:

Michael Bérubé, Penn State University

Collin Brooke, Syracuse University

Morris Eaves, University of Rochester

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona College

John Holbo, National University of Singapore

Michael Joyce, Vassar College

Matt Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland

Kari Kraus, University of Rochester

Jerome McGann, University of Virginia

Tara McPherson, University of Southern California

Rita Raley, University of California, Santa Barbara

Scott Rettberg, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Bob Stein, Institute for the Future of the Book, University of Southern California.

During the symposium this group would discuss, over the course of three days:

• the successes and failures of past models of electronic publishing, and what can be learned from them;

• the extant electronic publishing ventures and groups (such as the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities [IATH] and the Networked Interface for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship [NINES], both at the University of Virginia) and the various digital library initiatives (such as the eScholarship Program of the California Digital Library) with which ElectraPress might seek partnerships;

• the possibilities and complications presented by newly developing models of open-access and Creative Commons licensing;

• and the editorial, technological, and financial models under which a new electronic imprint should best operate.

Following on the decisions that emerge from this meeting, we hope that ElectraPress might be fully launched during the 2006-2007 academic year, with its first titles to appear during the later part of that time period.

We cannot predict how ElectraPress will develop as technologies change; what we can promise is that we will be creative in imagining how such future technologies might improve scholarly communication, and how we might make such technologies as conducive to deep, rigorous thought as the book has been for centuries.


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