Specialist perspectives: the Project works with the Miltonists

The Project was recently invited to speak at the Eleventh International Milton Symposium (University of Exeter, 20-24 July) by Professor Thomas Corns. Prof. Corns is a member of the Project’s Advisory Board as well an eminent Milton scholar – he was recently awarded a British Academy Fellowship in recognition of his contribution to Milton studies – and is therefore ideally situated to channel (and provoke!) conversation between the Project and this group of specialist researchers. This post is a summary of the issues, thoughts, concerns, and ideas that arose during this session.

Thanks to @RichardACarter for live-tweeting the session! Credit: @RichardACarter

                    Thanks to @RichardACarter for live-tweeting the session! Credit: @RichardACarter

After a brief presentation from Rebecca Lyons to introduce the Project, outline its aims, summarise progress to date, and explain why the Project was at a symposium on Milton, Prof. Corns took over. He started off with a quotation:

‘The monograph is something that every academic wants to write, few academics want to read, and no academic wants to buy’, as a distinguished commissioning editor once provocatively remarked.

Prof. Corns then put into play the view that the monograph constitutes the ‘gold standard’ for arts and humanities scholars, a view that certainly shaped institutional thinking across the sector in preparation for the recent REF, but he asked: if very few people want to read these books, and even fewer are buying them – what is the rationale behind this status? Why is the monograph still supreme?

A member of the audience responded, considering disciplines besides those in the arts and humanities:

 

‘I frequently work with colleagues in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and when you ask them to read a book, they’re reluctant because they work in articles. I love the book, but insisting on the monograph as the gold standard keeps the arts and humanities segregated from these other areas, and therefore somewhat limited.’

 

The issue of ‘monograph vs journal article’ has cropped up fairly regularly in Project conversations with other stakeholder groups and communities, from a range of angles – including the idea of ‘thesis-by-articles’ as an alternative to the 80-100,000 word monograph that has hitherto been the standard model. There have been a variety of responses to this proposal, ranging from enthusiastic to the horrified, so this was a pertinent point.

Another participant offered an alternative response:

 

‘If we bow to pressure to exclusively publish articles rather than books, then we will lose what we do really well in the arts and humanities. Yes, we can write very good articles too, and yes, it is a very good idea to engage with our counterparts in science and engineering – but it is not necessary to give up the long form monograph in order to do these things.’

 

The conversation shifted slightly, considering the implications of monographs and journals, hard copy and digital, for libraries and their expenditure on research resources. A Miltonist working in the US stated:

 

‘There is a huge crisis in library funding. My institution’s library has been cut so far to the bone that we don’t even automatically buy books published by the big university presses anymore like we used to. More and more we are relying on digital resources. Articles provide a much more accessible and immediate resource.’

 

But again, there was an alternative view (from another US-based scholar):

 

‘We have the opposite situation – my institution’s library doesn’t automatically buy all books but will buy all books on reading lists made by academics. It does not, however, subscribe to all the online journals as this is too expensive for our budgets.’

 

He went on to make the point that some universities feel “walled out” by subscription prices combined with restricted budgets:

 

‘$100 for one academic book is still cheaper than a $1000 journal subscription that expires within a year. And at least you get to keep the book! Digital, online content is not this egalitarian utopia it’s sometimes made out to be.’

 

Another comment on this came from another scholar, citing the need to distinguish long-term and short-term consultation of material:

 

‘There are several examples of texts that I’d want to access for five minutes, just to check something, but only a few where I’d actually want to own them.’

 

The subject of available institutional funding for the purchase of books and subscriptions seemed to be a pivotal concern. The conversation continued with a suggestion:

 

‘How about the interlibrary loan of digital texts? It’s what happens with physical books – why not digital ones?’

 

Here the conversation turned to other digital matters – starting with Open Access (OA). One scholar condemned OA in no uncertain terms:

 

‘It is the spume of the devil.’

 

Others had questions:

 

‘At places like the British Library or Library of Congress is there, or will there be, an obligation for digital books to be made available, as physical ones are?’

 

Or concerns, about the present state of things:

 

‘Intellectual property is an issue: if one of your books is available digitally – what it to stop it being misused? Many of us have seen agreements violated, for instance, and PhD theses sold immediately, despite an embargo. The more we move into the digital, the more likely this is to be a problem. We must be aware of how our work makes it into the public sphere – it has become necessary to Google ourselves and check regularly what is out there.’

 

As well as the future:

 

‘In the 2020 REF monographs will be excluded from the obligation to be OA, whereas articles won’t be – what will be the implications of this?’

 

Other concerns centred upon business models:

 

‘I work for a journal and if we are made to open up our content for free then we will disappear.’

 

Or career issues:

 

‘If your thesis is OA then it can problematic to have it published. It becomes an issue of hiring and tenure. The American History Society advised all graduate students not to have their thesis as OA.’

 

There were also suggestions:

 

‘Could University Presses create a consortium to open books up for a small subscription fee, like Spotify for books?’

 

Here the conversation shifted to the authors and how the drive towards OA affects them:

 

‘Academics as authors are increasingly threatened by these forces – we need better rights to protect the authors.’

 

Another scholar also commented on these ‘forces’, using the analogy of airlines in the US that are conglomerating:

 

‘You get less and less choice for more and more money. I am worried that this is happening with publishing and platforms. In terms of authors and editors, our individuality and choice is being taken away.’

 

I couldn’t help but think of huge supermarkets here, where small organic groceries have sprung up in response. Or instances where people start to grow vegetables themselves instead. Will people publish themselves in the future?

Some attendees wondered about teaching in a digital world – how do students use books, create their own content, and what other content do they use such as the excellent Milton Reading Room hosted by Dartmouth College (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/contents/text.shtml). How is teaching going to be affected by these new books, materials, and new contexts?

 

One scholar commented:

 

‘I work at an institution that has a footprint in one place but also has commitments in education elsewhere (Palestine), so the digital content that we subscribe to has a great reach, and is really valued by these students who wouldn’t be able to access this content otherwise.’

 

Prof. Corns was forced to draw the conversation to a close due to time constraints, but it was clear that we had only just started to scratch the surface. One final closing comment from an attendee resonated, not only with the aims and scope of the Project, but with the rest of the scholars in the room, and probably beyond:

 

‘The questions and comments are all too small. This is not about the Future of the Academic Book. This is about the Future of the Humanities.’

 


 

Do these points resonate in your discipline?

Are there are others for you and your colleagues?

Do you vehemently disagree with any of the above?

Get in touch using the comments below!

 

Note: The views given above are not necessarily those of the Project or its partners, or Milton scholars en masse! The Project has attempted, insofar as possible, to accurately capture the views and opinions expressed at this event. All opinions and comments have been anonymised.

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