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of less-than-genius books and articles that have gotten published, as well as brilliant work that has languished unpublished) than that valuable work touching on certain fields has been gathered together in one place.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.


  1. Knowing that I have found Planned Obsolescence interesting or useful in the past, I’m likely to go back there looking for more…

    But you’re right, there’s a need for something more; I wasn’t trying to suggest that pure vanity publishing is the way to go (the examples in that first comment of mine were of papers I’d already published or had no plans to publish). Rather, by writing and reading online in this informal way, groups of peers can get to know each other, judge each other’s ideas, and form collective judgements about what is a valuable contribution to their field and what isn’t; and from that position might more easily create an ‘imprint-effect’ of some kind. But that requires online activity by a reasonable number of academics in every field, not just a few.

  2. Oh dear, I seem to have killed the comments.

    Thinking further about this, Kathleen: what’s to stop you and a few like minds in your field/discipline from starting your own ‘imprint’? Form your own editorial board, choose a domain name, set up an official-looking site, and seek submissions, which you then farm out to reviewers. Then you can either publish them on your site, or bestow some kind of imprimatur which the authors can attach to works published on their own site. This is how learned societies start, or many journals start: out of the efforts of a few.

    As an outsider to your discipline, it seems to me that you already have a bunch of like minds gathered around in a loose blogging network who might be open to serving on such an editorial board and acting as reviewers. Why not give it a try?

    (It’s not fair of me to suggest what is obviously a large amount of work that only others can do, but what can I do, I’m not an English/Cultural Studies scholar.)

  3. Rory, I’m pretty sure that it was Friday afternoon that killed the comments, not you. 🙂

    The idea you suggest in your second comment here — that I gather together a like-minded group of scholars who work to organize our own “imprint” — is pretty much exactly what I’m after. Yes, it would be a tremendous amount of work, but I also think that the service that it would provide to the scholarly community could be comparably large.

    This is the direction I’m hoping to move my thinking — what exactly needs to be done in order to invent such a new imprint, who needs to be brought on board, what the publications of such an imprint might look like, and how to mitigate the apparent “downsides” of not having an already-established university press imprimatur.

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