Are academic books obsolete?9 January 2012
Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Planned Obsolescence, may at first glance seem an act of betrayal from within the ranks of the Humanities. Is it time, she asks, to declare the traditional academic monograph dead?
Fitzpatrick is writing from the context of the North American university, where the long-established rite of passage to an academic career in the Humanities is for a completed PhD to be expanded into a book and then published by a university press to secure its author a job and then tenure. Here, the crisis in academic publishing is pulling out a key element in the system, as university presses either close or are forced to become commercial enterprises. Academics in the Humanities, Fitzpatrick argues, must either be resigned to oblivion or else change the ways in which they communicate their scholarship:
“we can watch as the profession itself continues to decline. Or we can work to change the ways we communicate and the systems through which we attribute value to such communication, opening ourselves to the possibility that new modes of publishing might enable, not just more texts, but better texts, not just an evasion of obsolescence, but a new life for scholarship. The point, finally, is not whether any particular technology can provide a viable future for scholarly publishing, but whether we have the institutional will to commit to the development of the systems that will make such technologies viable and keep them that way into the future”.
Elsewhere, the route from PhD through monograph publication and on to tenure may be less regimented. But Fitzpatrick’s point will resonate with anyone trying to find a publisher for a specialised manuscript, or anticipating the evidence of scholarship in the Humanities that will be required for the Reference Excellence Framework.
But Planned Obsolescence is much more than the standard whinge about the loss of traditional values. Fitzpatrick has thought carefully about the relationship between writing and technology and the conventions of scholarship that are attached to this relationship. She dissects the shibboleth of pre-publication peer review and shows it to be a comparatively recent convention, particularly suited to the distribution of printed books. Why, she asks, should the Humanities not adopt a situation of post-publication “filtering” in which the quality and significance of a digitally-distributed text is verified by peer evaluation:
“Print-based publishing operates within an economics of scarcity, with its systems determined largely by the fact that a limited number of pages, journals, and books can be produced; the competition among scholars for those limited resources requires pre-publication review, to make sure that the material being published is of sufficient quality as to be worthy of the resources it consumes. Electronic publishing faces no such material scarcity; there is no upper limit on the number of pages a manuscript can contain or the number of manuscripts that can be published, or at least none determined by available resources, as the Internet operates within an economics of abundance”.
And this leads to her key proposal, which is that the publishing and dissemination of the results of scholarship in the Humanities should be a core responsibility of the university, through rethinking of the role of the Library:
“Digital networks, as structures that facilitate interaction, communication, and interconnection, will require us to think differently about what it is we’re doing as we write. As the example of the blog might suggest, communities best engage with one another around writing that is open rather than closed, in process rather than concluded. If we were to shift our focus in the work we’re doing as authors from the moment of completion, from the self-contained product, to privilege instead the process of writing, discussion, and revision, we’d likely begin to “publish” work—in the sense of making it public in readable form—earlier in its development (at the conference paper stage, for instance) and to remain engaged with those texts much longer after they’ve been released to readers. Although this idea makes many scholars nervous—about getting “scooped,” about getting too much feedback too soon, about letting the messiness of our processes be seen, about the prospect of never being fully “done” with a project—it’s worth considering why we’re doing the work in the first place: to the degree that scholarship is about participating in an exchange of ideas with one’s peers, new networked publishing structures can facilitate that interaction, but will best do so if the discussion is ongoing, always in process”.
It seems to me that these are ideas well worth considering as debate and discussion about the future of the Humanities continues to unfold.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy”, NYU Press, December 2011.