History and Future of the Book: The Future of Scholarly Publishing Is Better than Its Past

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy is awesome. Her level of engagement in the book with the issues surrounding scholarly publishing is something I don’t think you see very often—at least, not often enough tackled with such seriousness. Beyond that, the online format the book takes seems especially comfortable and useful. It’s probably the best example of trying to create a ‘book’ published entirely online that I’ve encountered: it’s easily navigable, the page divisions seem intuitive (and don’t come across as some sort of weird lingering artifact left over from trying to import an older technology to the newer one), and the incorporation of footnotes and commentary doesn’t leave them feeling extraneous or intrusive. And the format is perfectly suited for a work devoted to considerations of the possibilities and problems presented by changes to the publishing, editing, and writing of scholarly work.

Fitzpatrick’s book put me in mind of Clifford Lynch’s “Imagining a University Press System to Support Scholarship in the Digital Age,” which I read a few weeks ago—Lynch’s essay, more speculative than Fitzpatrick’s book, presents an “outline [of] a possible future system of many distributed university presses mainly focused on the editorial production of scholarly monographs, supported by a very small number of digital platforms for managing and delivering these monographs as a database rather than transactionally to academic and research libraries.” In her “new institutional structures” section, Fitzpatrick notes a small trend of university departments taking on greater levels of partnership with their presses. Lynch takes this a bit further: “In the future I envision, every research university, and a number of other higher education institutions, have university presses.” In other words, Lynch’s scholarly publishing utopia basically involves the complete dissolution of university presses as separate entities, effectively making the systems of publishing and distribution of scholarly work an outgrowth of university departments themselves. The appeal of this idea, I think, has mostly to do with the hope that it would eliminate the conflicting interests that currently surround academic publishing. Publishers, even university presses, operate more or less on a for-profit basis—they might receive some support from universities, but as universities increasingly face budget crises brought on by the increasing costs of executives’ salaries the support provided to presses tends to evaporate—which means that the fundamental concern of the mechanism for distribution of academic work is how many copies will sell. That concern may not be directly at odds with the concerns of academic writers, but it doesn’t overlap with them very well.[i] Lynch’s vision is in some sense a call for universities to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the possibilities of digital publication to divorce the system of academic distribution from the external concerns of a press. Who knows better what material is useful and how to make it useful, after all, than those directly involved in the field?[ii]

In her introduction, Fitzpatrick writes, “we too often fall into a conventional association of obsolescence with the death of this or that cultural form, a linkage that needs to be broken, or at least complicated, if the academy is going to take full stock of its role in contemporary culture and its means of producing and disseminating knowledge.” To me, this is an extremely interesting aspect of this problem. When you consider the fundamental disconnect between the interests of publishers and the interests of scholars, it seems like on some level you have to acknowledge that the system of academic publication was never a very good system to begin with, even before it supposedly became obsolete. At best, the old system seems to have been a sort of ad hoc solution to the problem. So why is so much emotional and institutional attention focused on trying to maintain some semblance of it?[iii] While I like a lot of Fitzpatrick’s book, it seems like all discussions of these ideas inevitably begin with some acknowledgment of the ‘current crisis’ of academic publishing. The solutions then considered are forced to be presented as possibilities for averting this crisis, making them fundamentally preservative in nature. Without glossing over difficulties, I wonder if it might be more helpful to begin these discussions by emphasizing that the possibilities opened up by digital publication could potentially present a way toward a system of academic distribution that has been freed from needless external strictures formerly placed on it. The problems associated with achieving this goal would then no longer represent arguments against abandoning the status quo, but just healthy considerations for how to make this new system most effective.


[i] In fact, it seems to add a whole completely extraneous level of anxiety to academic work, as if the paucity of sales of academic work could somehow represent reality itself pointing a chastising finger at the frivolous work of academics.

[ii] The problems of costs involved in such a fantasy are taken up more closely here, considering the time (and concomitant money) involved in such work (though this math-challenged American had to do a certain amount of mentally translating £s to $s to make any sense of it).

[iii] Okay, that’s a rhetorical question. I mean, I know why, it just doesn’t strike me as a very good idea.

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2 Responses to History and Future of the Book: The Future of Scholarly Publishing Is Better than Its Past

  1. vinnyhaddad says:

    I will play devil’s advocate for Fitzpatrick for a moment. It is not simply that we must embrace the opportunities of digital culture in academic publishing. That cannot, on its own, solve the problems that academic publishing faces. This is, in large part, because technology is not the sole culrpit in the decline of print publishing. It is only when we include into our scope how the status quo in academia is strangling the potential opportunities for growth that we can change the culture of academic collaboration.
    Similarly, viewing the “death of the novel” as an inevitable outcome of changing technology faces the same dillemma. Moving serious fiction to e-books or creating hypertexts does not in itself solve the problem of a limited pool of writers and and an endangered population of willing readers.

    • Marcus says:

      I agree. Actually, I didn’t really mean to set up Fitzpatrick up as a devil 😉 What I was trying to gesture toward in that last paragraph was a way of reversing the direction that this narrative tends to take: rather than “Things were once great for academic publishing but new technologies and evolving economic problems mean that we have to somehow find a way to survive,” I want something like “Traditional technologies and economic problems were always obstacles to the thriving of academic discourse, but now new technologies present us with possible ways to free ourselves from the economic restrictions physically-based publishing forced on academic discourse, so we should run with that away from the past.” I think the nature of Fitzpatrick’s intervention sort of necessitates that she participate in the former narrative, even as in some instances I think she does push against it quite effectively.

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