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On Publishing and the Public

To continue yesterday’s thoughts: The exchange between Matt and Rory in the comments of my last post leads me to ponder the viability of a genuinely open-source model for the exchange of scholarly writing. Specifically, their conversation has prodded me to think some about the academic distinction between making such work public and publishing it.

On the one hand, what I hope for in rethinking the current model of academic publishing is the most free, most efficient, most sustainable means of sharing scholarly ideas and writing across the widest possible audience — a making-public.

On the other hand, what I feel certain of is that any such new model must accomodate itself at least in some senses to the available standards for the evaluation of a scholar’s academic and institutional contributions. And this requires, I think, some of the strictures that come with publishing.

By this, I do not mean to fall into the “if anyone can put anything out there, how will we know if it’s any good?” form of internet-anxiety. One way that we can know something is any good is, of course, to read it, and making-public makes things available to read.

However, one of the most important functions of publishing is less a bozo-filter than a quantity-filter; there’s simply too much stuff to be read, and somehow, it’s got to be organized, categorized, and narrowed down in order for us to find what we need.

This is perhaps the true value of the journal- or press-imprint — less that unworthy stuff has been weeded out (as we all can cite examples of less-than-genius books and articles that have gotten published, as well as brilliant work that has languished unpublished) than that valuable work touching on certain fields has been gathered together in one place. Knowing that I have found work in Postmodern Culture interesting or useful in the past, I’m likely to go back there looking for more.

The same is true, on the monograph level, of the academic press. I know, for instance, that MIT Press publishes a slew of stuff in my field that’s both thought-provoking and paradigm-changing, and so I pay close attention to the catalog when it comes out. Other university presses do much less publishing in my field, and so I know I can let those catalogs slide.

For this reason, among others, I think that a truly viable new model for academic publishing is going to require an “imprint,” a sense in which material has been selected and organized and thus that readers know where to find it.

There’s of course a set of more pragmatic institutional reasons for maintaining an imprint in any new publishing model: the institutions for which we work (or for which we would like to work) demand it. A formalized process of peer-review is a must, at many institutions, for publications to be taken seriously (and hence articles in edited volumes, at my institution, “count” for much less than do articles in peer-reviewed journals). Such is particularly true on the monograph-level; making-public without any of the formalized structures of publishing’s “imprint” will be taken by the institution, regardless of the work’s quality, as no more than a new form of vanity publishing.

The first question that remains for me, though, is whether this “imprint” must remain that of a university or commercial press. With few exceptions — Matt mentions the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint, and MIT, unsurprisingly, also has a number of “digital projects” online — such presses are tied to the dead-tree mode of publishing. And because of the increasingly crippled nature of this form, “publishing” is becoming more and more restrictive, making less and less work public.

What I want to do is imagine a new means, outside the structures of the university press, to combine the best of the open-source model’s making-public with the imprint-effect of publishing. There will be more ramblings here, no doubt, as I circle around what that might look like.


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