Reasoning Without Words: Envisioning the Multimodal Thesis and its Challenges

This guest post is by Katrina Foxton, a third year PhD student at the University of York, Department of Archaeology. She’s writing her thesis about a historic building in York, which is being adapted into a mixed-use community venue. Her analysis will involve a dynamic Prezi map which illustrates the ongoing work undertaken by herself and volunteers. Her work (a mixture of text, image and hyperlinking) is multimodal. Below, she gives her thoughts on the position of multimodal research after a meeting organised by the British Library.

National Library in Vienna

Figure 1. Art, text, sculpture all hold sway in the library of humankind –National Library in Vienna, image by author.

In April 2016, my MA supervisor, Dr Sara Perry, invited me to a meeting with the British Library to explore how PhD theses could manifest as knowledge that is not necessarily written. We were to discuss how multimodal (mixed media) methods can develop an argument within PhD research and the subsequent difficulties in submitting non-textual work. This Multimodal Thesis meeting was organised and hosted by the British Library’s EThOS team (who hold over 400,000 theses in their digital repository). It was also attended by a group of archaeological students, Dr Debbie Maxwell, TFTV lecturer, from the University of York and researchers from The Academic book of the Future project. Amongst us were representatives from Internet Archaeology, Judith Winters, and Director of Publications at the American Numismatic Society, Andrew Reinhard. There was an international presence from the States, Canada and New Zealand (and some of us had to be skyped in!)

As we discussed the potential of multimodal work, some exciting examples came to the fore (including a thesis which had been submitted to the British Library with a cassette tape, years after the emergence of later technologies such as CDROM and USB). The variety of multimodal work is the result of different technologies and material forms—and a good definition can be found here at the MODE website, Institute of Education. Multimodal work also often has connections to participatory work. Here are some examples:

It should be noted that in this discussion our group was not representative for the whole of academia – there was a high percentage of archaeologists in the room. But as archaeologists, we felt confident talking about different modes of knowing because within practice we are caught between ways of ‘looking’ at material remains and translating (interpreting) an understanding of them into writing or drawing. Archaeologists also make use of such technologies as 3D models, digital photographs, and virtual realities. We are also extremely reflective on how these impact knowledge gain (for further reading into this area, see below).

Beyond archaeology however, the point about the multimodal work is that researchers across the academy gain valuable insight if they experiment and know through different modes. This gain is often achieved through praxis or ‘practice-based’ research, a methodology which advocates knowledge-gain through multimodal techniques, often adopted within in arts research. An extensive report on practice-based research by Candy (2006) gives the rudiments of this approach. At the meeting, we were keen to hear about this kind of research and how submission issues were handled across different social disciplines, because there are definite challenges at university, departmental and library levels in accepting any non-textual work. In particular, the following challenges or questions came to the fore.

Handling, storing, and accessing non-text-based research outputs

Firstly, we discussed how, at the library level, there are the practicalities of handling, storing and providing access to thesis research outputs which are not text based. Traditional book formats sit nicely on shelves, are catalogued, and findable through search indexes. The digital equivalent – PDFs – are also pretty easy to describe, index, store, and access; after all, they are really just books dressed up as digital files – same structure, pagination, chapters, start and finish. When it comes to massive data files, or computer games or apps, then not only are these hard to organise along traditional library lines but options for accessing them are equally tricky. PhD researchers often seek to enable non-researchers and research participants to access research for a guaranteed amount of time (often ten years): is this at risk with multimodal PhD research? Whose role is it to ensure long-term preservation, readability, access to the underlying read software, and version updates? Another interesting question is whether university libraries – the natural home for their PhDs – are technically capable of taking on this role in any case? And, as Dr Perry has raised, in the interests of longer term future-proofing, a limitation may be placed on the objectives and the scope of the argument that an aspiring researcher wishes to lay out.

Embracing multimodal research outputs in academia

National Library, Vienna

Figure 2. “a book is not an image of the world” (Deleuze and Guttari 2003, 11). Imagine a library where some of the books were filled with puzzles, photographic essays holographric performances, music and film pieces…? Books in National Library, Vienna, image by author

Secondly, we discussed whether there may be some wariness on the part of academic committees, heads of research, and even PhD supervisors, to embrace the world of multimodal research outputs. As a result, the libraries are left grappling with the problems without the direction and support that those at a higher-level in the university could be providing. It’s widely agreed that there is still a need for at least part of the ‘thesis’ to be a written, critical analysis of the research. But does it make sense, for example, for a student to describe the way a ‘mobile app’ works by using written words rather than allow the student to submit the app itself as part of the PhD thesis, simply because the rules say the thesis must be a bound volume? Arguably, a vital moment of reckoning lies in the moment an examiner ‘opens’ a thesis, with their expectations of what they are to examine and corresponding skills to do so. Therefore, in the aspiration towards creating new knowledge, the PhD examination process must also drive the communication of excellent research (and certainly towards the innovative and the original!). At this time then, how can examiners – and others involved in the flow of new knowledge – be involved and embrace new technologies to ensure the research is communicated and built on by others?

There are a lot of questions here. This is the beginning of an ongoing investigation and, to build momentum, the value of the multi-modal thesis must be demonstrated across a wider sphere.


Digital Conversation event: British Library, 29 September 2016

To this end, I’m drawing attention to a British Library “Digital Conversation” event on 29 September. A panel of PhD students (past and present) will describe their own text and non-text thesis outputs, and discuss ways to open up access to and acceptance of multi-modal, non-text research outputs. You are all invited to join us and support what is essentially a call of action towards reconfiguring the PhD thesis at a quintessential level.

Please book here: to claim your free ticket.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Followin Katrina on Twitter: @kfoxton9

Further reading materials

Archaeology in relation to visual-knowledge

Hodder, I and Hutson, S. (2003) Reading the Past: Current approaches to interpretation in     archaeology. (3rd Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Morgan, C. L. (2009) ‘(Re)Building Catalhoyuk: Changing virtual reality in archaeology’,      Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, 5: 468-87.

Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmore, T., and Witmore, C. (2012) Archaeology: The Discipline of           Things. Berkely: University of California Press.

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. (1987) Re-Constructing Archaeology: theory and practice,             Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shanks, M. and Webmoor, T. (2013) ‘A political economy of visual media in archaeology’, in           Bonde, S. & Houston, S. (eds.) Re-presenting the Past: archaeology through image     and text, Providence: Brown University, 85‐108.

#AcBookWeek 2015: Publisher Workshop at Stationers Hall

To celebrate the recent announcement of the next Academic Book Week (23-28 January 2017), we’re revisiting some highlights from last year’s #AcBookWeek! The first post considers the gathering of academic publishers at the historic Stationers Hall to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. There were 25 individuals representing seven academic publishers, all of which publish books in print and/or digital format. The participants were asked to work in groups and address some of the core questions first posed at the launch of The Academic Book of the Future project. Project co-investigator Nick Canty (UCL) reflects back on this event.

The questions and issues we put to the assembled publishers spanned three main areas, as follows:


1. Changes in the nature of research, the research environment and the research process

What do academic books do?

We started off by asking publishers for their views of what purposes they think academic books fulfil. Answers were varied, with some participants asking how we define which books relate to research and which are for reference. This point was picked up by another participant who argued that publishers’ categories (reference or textbook) don’t matter – what matters is the prestige of where you find your content and being providing with trusted credible content. There is a glut of information today with undergraduate students and researchers drawing on a broader pool of resources than in the past (including Wikipedia), which has partly been enabled by digital technologies, although it was questioned whether the structures were in place for interdisciplinary research.

Additional purposes for the academic book were offered, for instance: for academics to achieve tenure, or to publish their PhD thesis; while another participant observed that academic books are now required as a tool for metrics to help define impact, as well as working for libraries to gauge interest through bibliographic data. A more apt starting point might be to ask what the book is doing: proving a hypothesis, making an argument, or communicating an idea – but this doesn’t answer whether textbooks, reference, and professional books should be considered academic books, too. Our seemingly simple question clearly has several possible complex and multi-faceted answers.


What changes have taken place in the research environment?

Moving on, we looked at how research is changing in academia. This shook out some fascinating points. As well as comments about the REF (Research Excellence Framework), several participants mentioned the pressure to produce research outputs and the ‘need for speed’, which was pushing researchers to journals and away from books (presumably because of their longer production times). The pressure to publish quickly has had big changes on the production process and there has been advances on this side of publishing. However the sales cycle with library wholesalers hasn’t moved as quickly, and advance notice to market is still at least six months. As someone else said, the rate of change is quite slow.

Alternative ways of research were picked up, including real-time feedback and peer review, crowdfunding and the Knowledge Unlatched publishing model and a question about whether Amazon’s classifications are becoming more important – presumably for discoverability.


New forms of books

We wanted to find how books might change because of new technologies and Open Access (OA). There was agreement that OA is having the greatest influence on journals, with books following more slowly behind. Several participants remarked that OA and new media offer more opportunity for collaboration with peer-adopted books with extra resources such as data and video. Shorter book formats, such as Palgrave’s Pivot series, are also a response to a changing environment. New media might herald new virtual collections, such as chapters and articles which are led by XML and metrics, although other participants sounded a note of caution: books are still books and they are not changing – they are still driven by market demand and the activity of publishers is still the traditional model of print with some digital offerings.

There were observations that with booksellers increasingly resistant to stock niche books and the academic book more challenged in terms of sales it was hard to find books in bookstores now and they are mostly just in libraries, although book authors still want print copies. This reflects broader concerns about the visibility of books in brick and mortar stores as the online space expands.


2. How are the processes through which books are commissioned, approved or accepted, edited, produced, published, marketed, distributed, made accessible, and preserved changing, and what are the implications for the following?


Needless to say this elicited lots of responses, with publishers seen as moving from B2B operations to B2C, and more functions outsourced to attempt to lower costs. While some participants didn’t think marketing had changed much over the last decade, others saw changes to staff recruitment as new skillsets are needed as consumer marketing becomes more important. Clearly there are differences between publishers here. There was a comment that nowadays publishers have to do more direct marketing and rely less on channel marketing.

Authors were seen as becoming more ‘savvy’, more demanding, and more knowledgeable on all aspects of publishing – but particularly in marketing, where for example, they understand the importance of Amazon profiles. However there was very little change to the commissioning process, which was still based on a conversation, a campus visit, or a meeting at a conference. Academics are therefore still ‘student intermediaries’. There is a need to make books available everywhere but it is difficult to push every channel and there is therefore more pressure on authors to help with marketing via their profile in academia. The publishing industry increasingly values media skills and as a consequence there is a convergence of academic and trade publishing at this point.

The publisher brand and the website are important but editors still need to actively reach out in the commissioning process. Editors need usage data to inform commissioning decisions but they aren’t getting this at the moment.

In terms of the publishing process as well as new distribution formats (XML, video) reference works can published in stages with no single publication date, raising the question: what is ‘enough’ content to launch with? Finally, there was general agreement that while there are experiments with peer review it is ‘here to stay’ and ‘still central’ to academic publishing.



Pressures and tensions were noted here. These revolve around asking how sustainable the aggregator business model is, with publishers improving discoverability and free searches from Google. There is also tension in that libraries still want aggregators and value their services and small publishers need aggregators (‘in thrall to them’), but publishers are selling complete books – not bits of content. The situation is made more complicated by centralisation and mergers in the sector.



In addition to the points about booksellers above, participants noted the disappearance of campus bookstores and the emphasis on stocking high sales books rather than niche ones, therefore questioning the value of bookstores to publishers today.



The issue of preservation came through here, in addition to comments about squeezed library budgets (although new models such as just-in-time purchasing and PDA were mentioned as solutions). There was concern about what happens when publishers merge, and features of online access are no longer available with the new company (the example cited was in relation of viewing PDFs after a merger). Further concerns were that although libraries keep digital archives, what happens when formats change? This has implications for future access and preservation.


How might the relationships between the different kinds of agents in the publishing supply chain develop in the future?

The last question looked at the supply chain and how publishers and other intermediaries might work together in the future. Once again, some tensions were noted. Libraries are concerned about the power of aggregators, but they choose to work with them rather than with individual publishers. This makes it hard to resolve problems, as it is unclear who is ultimately responsible for problems: the aggregator or the publisher? One group suggested we need to ask what an intermediary is in the supply chain; can we consider the library as an aggregator today? Another group defined intermediaries as ‘anyone/thing that intervenes between point of production and point of use/reading.’

Publishers increasingly want direct access to end-user data from aggregators to drive usage to their online collections to improve renewals, but this desire to drive users to their sites puts them in conflict with aggregators, who provide little information to publishers. Open Access is a possible way to sidestep aggregators, but it then needs something like Amazon or Google for users to discover the books.



The workshop was an opportunity for the publishing industry to address some key issues the project has sought to address. While there were bound to be contradictions among participants, what came through were questions about the future role of aggregators in the supply chain, changes in the research environment and perhaps as a consequence, changes in how authors work with publishers, and changes in the way publishers operate. There was agreement however that the book, whether print or digital, was here to stay.