On the Future of Academic Publishing

Dorothea Salo and Timothy Burke have both turned their sights on the state of academic journal publishing, arguing, in slightly different veins, that the move to electronic delivery of such journals is the most affordable, equitable, and just plain sensible model for publication into the future. I wholeheartedly agree.

What I’d like to turn to, though, is a topic that Matt and I briefly encountered a while back: the future of the academic monograph. While the economics of journal publication have clearly been nonsensical for some time, and while, as Tim rightly points out, shorter texts (such as articles) lend themselves more easily to electronic delivery, because they’re more likely to be read on-screen, we nonetheless have reached a crisis point in academic book publishing as well, at least within the humanities. The choice, it seems to me, 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.

That future mode of publishing must of necessity 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 antiquated structures of press bureaucracy and economics in favor of an open-source, communal mode of intellectual discovery?

If this last, how might we in the humanities set about creating such a system? The move toward online journal publication began in the sciences, where the crisis first manifested; the move toward a new system of monograph publication must begin with those whose careers are most built around the monograph. Unfortunately, we’re (stereotypically, at least) also the most likely to work within the old system rather than imagining — and setting about creating — something technologically and structurally new.

This is a project that I’d very much like to work toward, for reasons both professional and personal. I’d ask that anyone with ideas — and particularly anyone interested in working on transforming such ideas into a workable new publication model — comment here, or contact me.


  1. Thanks for bringing this back to the front burner, Katherine. It’s obviously a tremendous issue with lots of different stakeholders: publishers, libraries, professional assoications, and of course, scholars–and the general public. It’s likewise multi-faceted: technology, intellectual property, the conventions and methods of academic research–all contribute both issues and opportunities. It’s not hard to point to individual examples that are addressing one or even a couple of these different components–Stephen Greenblatt’s open letter to the MLA of a year ago comes to mind, as does, say a publishing experiment like the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint. The MLA is also about to (or may have already) released a statement in support of publication in scholarly electronic journals. What’s lacking, and where there might be room to organize, are the voices of individual scholars, including and perhaps especially in the non-senior ranks, who will be doing the scholarship (and the publishing) of the future–that is, _if_ there careers survive the gnashing teeth of the current tenure/publication system.

    That’s inchoate, I know, but that’s what I’m thinking about: a “grassroots” (sorry, too much campaign coverage) of scholars advocating for electronic publishing. Exactly what might such an organization aim to achieve? Let’s hear some ideas.

  2. Kathleen, you’ve pretty much summarized the main interests and focus of my past few years of working life… and Matt K., you get to the heart of the problem with your comment about individual scholars. My response should be to point you both at a paper I gave last November, but sadly it’s caught in the gnashing teeth, being kept offline just for now while it awaits possible dead-tree publication. As soon as that situation changes I’ll let you know.

    I will add, though, a newly-minted comment from my own non-senior experience. I’ve been an advocate of academic web-publishing for over five years, ever since it was my job to nudge a bunch of established senior academics to cough up a few papers for a departmental website. I did what I could to lead by example, putting past papers of my own online one-by-one, some of them mined from my supply of unpublished postgrad writings. I’ve been doing it for long enough now to have identified the real obstacle to doing more of it – the thing that stops me from putting every academic paper I write (and have ever written) online right away.

    It’s not the copyright concerns, or the risk of plagiarism, or the small chances of being noticed, or even the practical obstacle of turning them into attractive webpages, though all of those play a part. It’s letting go.

    The first paper I put online was easy: it was the revamped version of my honours thesis, published six years earlier and long out-of-print. Putting it online extended its useful life. Later ones had also already appeared in other forms: reworked as book chapters, for example. And some were never intended to be published as journal articles – one-off lectures, consultancy reports – but still had potential value, value that could only be realised by putting them on the web. Most of these are now sitting on my site.

    The hard ones were – and are – anything unpublished but potentially publishable. Some are old pieces that I always meant to work up into articles, but because of the mundanities of personal circumstance never did. Others are new pieces that with about the same amount of work could go either way: onto the web or into print. Putting them online would mean letting go of their traditional academic potential (for advancing their particular arguments, the state of knowledge in their field, and my own career), and trusting that their online potential will be greater.

    That’s a difficult judgement to make; it depends not only on the perceived value of the work in question, but on attitudes towards online publishing in one’s own discipline, one’s own institution, and across academia as a whole, all of which can be hard for individuals to judge. It’s hard even for those of us who concentrate on online matters – who are advocates of online publishing – because we have to keep reminding ourselves that not everyone is there yet.

    We are, I suppose, in the same situation as the music companies, wondering when to bet the farm on the Next Big Thing. Music execs aren’t idiots; they can see what’s coming. But they have an awful lot invested in how things have traditionally been done; and so do we.

    So what to do? Well, I would argue that we do exactly what we’re doing now. Get a site; get a blog. Write on it. Experiment with it. Encourage others, students and colleagues alike, to do the same. Exploring the medium through informal work allows us to get a feel for its formal potential. At some point we’ll look around us, see that the real discussion, debate, and advancement of knowledge in our fields is happening online (just as scientists are seeing with online pre-prints), and realise that moving our formal work into this environment is no longer the career suicide (/end of academia/collapse of civilization) we once thought it was. And then everything changes.

    Does this movement need formalisation, organisation? I’m not so sure; that way lies a culture of insiders and outsiders. Better, I think, just to do it, and to tell others about what we’re doing. After all, most of us only got into this after seeing other people’s sites and blogs; the number who claim to have invented weblogging thankfully seems to have peaked.

    That said, if there’s a practical way I can help to spread the word, I’ll give it a try. As long as it doesn’t involve banners.

  3. One more quick comment here (might develop this further on my own blog as time permits): there’s a distinction we ought to keep in mind between publishing and making something public. If I put up an article (or a monograph) on my personal server I may be making it public, but am I really _publishing_ it? Publishing involves lots of other functions besides making public: it involves editing, it involves advertising and promotion, it involves distribution, it involves some degree of stability and sustainability (even once items are remaindered they go through predictable channels). It also involves peer-review; here I think there are real lessons we can learn from the sciences, where online publishing (at least in some fields) is well advanced and communal, emergent forms of peer review have begun to appear.

  4. If I put up an article (or a monograph) on my personal server I may be making it public, but am I really publishing it?

    Well, I wasn’t just thinking of self-publication, just using examples of it in my comment above; but I’d say yes. The very nature of academic writing involves self-editing, and webpages are open to correction and revision at any point. Registering a page with search engines is advertising and promotion, and putting it online is a form of distribution (not as obvious as having a pile of your books in the campus bookstore, perhaps, but how many titles get that sort of exposure?). In terms of stability and sustainability, I’d bet on a personal site over a commercial or institutional one any day; individuals have a vested interest in keeping their work available in a stable location for as long as they can. If sustainability matters to you, you don’t let your links rot.

    As for peer-review, that’s obviously a bit trickier. We’re part of an informal kind of review right here and now, leaving comments on a fellow academic’s site, implying that her words have value to us. If KF posted a formal paper here, and drew our attention to it, and we left comments about it, then our ‘review’ would become part of its publication process – just at a different point than it would have occurred in print publication. (Perhaps not that different: reviews after publication are important in getting a book noticed, as are citations for articles.)

    There’s nothing to stop us, either, from asking a colleague to critique a paper before we put it on our own site – or from sending it to a complete stranger for their comments – and noting their reviews on the page itself. But we haven’t really seen this happen, perhaps because post-publication commentary (or lack of it) is considered just as, or more, important. Or perhaps everyone’s just waiting for the formal peer review machinery to spring into existence before they dip their toes in the water. What I was trying to say above is that it’s more likely to emerge as a result of people testing the waters. Worrying about the distinction between publishing and making public might make us less likely to try, when what should really matter is getting our words and thoughts out there for others to read and consider.

  5. Kathleen, my own suspicion is that we’ll have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, by which I mean the monograph with our moribund academic press system. It’s not an idea I relish. Reading George Steiner’s magisterial _After Babel_, I’ve been experiencing a “proleptic nostalgia” (lifted the phrase from Matt) for the monograph: its gravitas, its depth and acuity, its intellectual heft. These are characteristics of the genre as much as anything else, and that genre is in turn a product of its medium, the printed book. Your something “technologically and structurally new” will, I suspect, also be something generically and paradigmatically new. It’s about imagining what we don’t know, to paraphrase Jerome McGann.

  6. Extremely good point, Kari. One of the major resistances to moving the monograph online has been that no one wants to read a book on the computer — and, of course, the “online monograph” or the “electronic book” smack of exactly the sort of rear-view mirrorism that new media theorists from McLuhan on down warn us to avoid.

    I think it will nonetheless remain true, though, that some scholarly ideas are bigger than an article will allow for. So how might we imagine a genre of electronic publication that will permit the dissemination and reading of those Big Ideas?


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