Monday, September 08, 2008

Publishers Turn the Page

Today's session, "The Future of Academic Publishing in the Digital Age: Two Views" stimulated a lively discussion based on presentations by Lynn Withey, the Director of the University of California Press, and Duke professor N. Katherine Hayles, who is known for her scholarship on electronic literature and theories of the posthuman.

Much of Withey's talk was structured around the following functions, which she argued were central to the publishing enterprise:
  • Selection
  • Shaping
  • Dissemination
  • Promotion
  • Cost Recovery
  • Preservation
As she noted, although scholarly journals and reference works have moved rapidly toward electronic presentation and distribution models, the "resistance of books" was worth examining. Because Withey had seen a number of trends in reader-oriented software come and go, she argued that this skepticism may be understandable. However, she insisted that the iPhone and the Kindle e-book reader may have the user base and the content catalog to alter this pattern of failure.

In the case of the University of California Press, she declared that in some ways the "collection" paradigm had become "old fashioned" in the age of "advanced search." According to Withey, the press placed 2000 books online that were accessible to the UC community and 500 books on the Internet with no restrictions at all, and what they discovered was that the average number of pages viewed was 5. Thus, she surmised that sustained reading of book-length scholarly texts continued to be associated with the ink and paper interface of the material artifact. Furthermore, Withey asserted that "replicating print" is pointless.

Instead Withey said that academic publishers are now responding to a "noisy minority" and pursuing projects for which "originality in technology" is as important as originality of the scholarly work it represents. Projects that exploit the availability of primary source material which is difficult to bind in books or interactive maps and 3-D modeling are particularly good candidates, she observed. For example, Withy pointed to the St. Gall Monastery Plan, the Encyclopedia of Egyptian Archeology, Hypermedia Berlin, and the Vectors journal as models.

In the past, she said the typical organizational arrangement involved "enterprising scholars" working with instructional technology personnel for projects housed on university servers and funded by grants. Publishers were notably absent in the mix. If works weren't offered free online, they were disseminated in "high priced packages" that could only reach 250 to 300 institutions with the research library budgets necessary. To expand upon the limitations of this approach, she pointed the audience to the Ithaka Group report on Sustainability and Revenue Models for Online Academic Resources. She argued that there might be a number of still unexplored strategies for cost recovery that could be useful in the future, which included advertising, licensed content, and various publication spin-offs. For example, the UC Atlas of Global Inequality also issues a more portable and tangible paper version. For publishers, she argued that that they would need to focus on creating "templates" that could "scale" and facilitate "collaborations."

Unlike Withey, Hayles' talk focused on how digital scholarship was "changing how humanities scholars think." She focused on two case studies: current Duke colleague Tim Lenoir and former UCLA colleague Todd Presner.

In Lenoir's case, she discussed how he had been influenced by the work of Bruno Latour on laboratory life and the study of its practices. However, at first, she said he did little to examine the material conditions of his own production other than integrating PowerPoint into his scholarly presentations on topics such as robotic surgery. Yet once he began looking at complicated questions about predicting the emergence of new paradigms, including the Kuhnian advent of new platforms, such as RFID technologies, in which venture capitalists might be interested, he developed a very different research and publication model. She described a process in which Lenoir helped develop software that sorted through five million patents and "read" seven thousand articles. This kind of scholarship was characterized by Hayles as being one "against ontologies," so that meaning could be introduced late in the process, and a minimum number of initial assumptions could be made.

Her other case study, Presner, creator of Hypermedia Berlin, had apparently been accused by some of being "in bed with the devil," because his projects rely on corporate software. Hayles defended Presner by citing the work of Anne Balsamo, author of Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, to make the argument that software is inevitably "negotiated" and "contested" by designers rather than merely "inherited," so that the issue becomes "why save the world when you can design it." Hayles also pointed to Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things as a key text.

She discussed how some academics, such as Trevor Pinch, have even adopted the role of programmer to pursue their research interests. She also alluded to the work of Susan Sontag "against interpretation" to consider how the existence of things has value and how some information-intensive environments should be left in what could be called their natural state, so that we have more opportunities to consider "the datasphere in which we are in intimate contact." In conclusion, she pointed to several implications: the decentering of the individual human, the push toward collaboration, the shift in expertise, and the privileging of data first over meaning.

It was a lively question and answer session afterwards. Anne Friedberg, who has an online extension of her book The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft, The Virtual Window Interactive, discussed how her earlier book from the University of California Press, Window Shopping, suddenly showed a bump in her royalty checks from digital use in the form of classroom fees.

Mark Marino asked about using blog-style feedback mechanisms as an alternative to traditional more limited peer review and the experiments in publishing being sponsored by The Institute for the Future of the Book being done by McKenzie Wark and Virtualpolitik friends Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Siva Vaidhyanathan. Although Marino expressed enthusiasm for creating "a space for commenting and publishing in stages" with a "working paper" model, Withey sounded lukewarm about participating in these kinds of "non-standard peer review" projects at this point.

Update: Mark Marino posted his account of the panel at Writer Response Theory. Note also that Virtualpolitik pal Marino was featured in the Wired Campus blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education in an item called "Professor Uses Web 'Widgets' to Share Course Content."

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Blogger Lupton said...

I call it the Printernet: it's not electronic versus paper publication that is the issue, but rather the various forms of rapprochement between them. Examples include: websites that support print publications (in the form of blogs, reviews, additional information, give aways, etc -- NOT exploited yet in academic publishing, but why not??). Another example is Google Books. I have been increasingly turning to Google Books even when I actually own a copy of the book I want to look at. I'm already at my desk; I want to find a page or a reference quickly; and there it is. The UC Library is now linking to Google Books through the World Cat search engine, so this encourages (and legitimates) the practice. But Google Books would be nothing without ... books.

On-line academic press catalogs should post more links and give more access to the books they're advertising. Usually there's little more than some on-line catalog copy. At the very least, link to Google Books!

6:04 AM  

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