This guest post is written by Dr Leah Tether (University of Bristol), who reflects on the debate that took place at Bristol as part of #AcBookWeek.
On Tuesday 10th November 2015, as part of Academic Book Week, we at the University of Bristol were delighted to host a panel discussion with an audience Q&A. The event aimed to offer some answers to one of the central lines of enquiry of The Academic Book of the Future Project – what format our future academic books might take. Our three-strong speaker panel consisted of an academic, a librarian and a publisher, all of whom – we knew – would bring something different to the debate. The offering of this great mix of views led to a fantastic turn-out (with people even sitting on the floor!); audience members came from a wide range of backgrounds: in addition to reflecting the make-up of the panel with publishers, academics and librarians, there were undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as interested members of the public. All of these, of course, are key stakeholders in the wider debate – all will be affected by developments to the academic book – so their vested interests made for an impassioned and rich discussion.
Our first speaker, Professor Helen Fulton (Chair in Medieval Literature, University of Bristol) showed how she had already embraced digital outputs in previous research projects. She used the example of the Mapping Medieval Chester project as a case study for how digital publications can both facilitate collaborative research and pave the way for different kinds of relationships between publishers and universities. She viewed project websites as often representing non-linear equivalents to monographs in terms of their scope and content. She also argued that these can be relied on for quality where support for the project in question has been provided by a recognised body (such as, but not limited to, the AHRC), due to the rigorous peer-review to which such projects have been subjected.
The second speaker, Damien McManus, spoke from his perspective as the Subject Librarian at the University of Bristol for Classics and Ancient History, English, French, German, Linguistics and Russian Studies. Damien focused on the breaking down of content into smaller units (chapters or sections) that is being encouraged by digital and emphasised the potential benefits of accessibility, affordability and sustainability. In practice, though, he recognised that many issues still exist in terms of the library provision of digital academic resources. He cited single-use licences, complicated and divergent user instructions for different platforms, cost implications and the last-minute withdrawal of resources by publishers as key amongst the problems. Damien also wanted to make clear that many resources are simply not available in digital form as yet, so from his perspective – even where issues with digital are ironed out – resourcing will remain mixed for some considerable time to come.
The third and final speaker was Katharine Reeve, formerly the Editorial Director and Senior Commissioning Editor for History and Visual Arts at Oxford University Press. As part of The Academic Book of the Future Project, Katharine has been researching the changing role of the editor in academic book publishing, and she revealed to the audience some of the results of that research. She highlighted that, despite the obvious importance of the close interaction of editor with author in producing the best possible product, editors are increasingly being pulled away from the hands-on side of their role, thus becoming a less visible part of the process. This, she suggested, risked an undervaluing of the editor in the quality control side of publishing, and that she could see this already happening with the opportunities of digital publishing offerings authors the choice to circumvent traditional publication in favour of dissemination via the web. She argued that we need to reinvigorate the role of the editor in digital publication, and understand that – no matter what the format – the academic book of the future still needs to be rigorously processed before it is made available to the reading public.
These richly diverse views provoked a fantastic response from our audience, which took the debate in many important directions. Key amongst these were the opportunities for greater interaction between libraries and publishers, the perceived values (by the Research Excellence Framework and funding bodies, for example) of different kinds of publications (collected volumes vs. monograph); whether innovative digital formats would ever be valued as highly as traditional formats; the funding models surrounding open access and how that would impact different kinds of institutions; the reading practices of young scholars (skimming vs. deep reading); how publishers and higher education institutions could work together more closely to develop products that more closely fulfil the needs of book consumers.
In my role as chair, I was delighted to see such an engaged response to the subject at hand – people really cared about the formats our academic books might take and, perhaps surprisingly, most believed that digital – on the whole – offered more opportunities than hindrances, especially when used as a supplement to traditional publication. Indeed, Katharine Reeve’s suggestion that the best academic book of the future might actually be one offering multi-platform functionality (i.e. a traditional monograph at the heart of the project, but with digital add-ons such as video interviews, apps and social media marketing) was perhaps the most warmly received suggestion of the night. Where our varied Bristol audience was in total agreement, though, was in emphasising that the process of producing academic outputs needs to remain as rigorous as it ever has been – digital should not be allowed to dilute the integrity of academic research, but rather be used as a tool for assisting with its wider dissemination and engagement – a supplement as opposed to a replacement.
Dr Leah Tether is the Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Bristol.