#AcBookWeek: Students and the digital edition. A polemic.

This post first appeared on the blog of the Institute of Historical Research on November 18, 2015. The Academic Book of the Future is reblogging it for the #AcBookWeek review with kind permission from IHR.


 

This post has kindly been provided for us by Dr Stephen Gregg of Bath Spa University, and is the text of a talk given to the panel session ‘Opening the book: reading and the evolving technology(ies) of the book’ as part of Academic Book Week.

I want to talk about the undergraduate perspective on a particular kind of academic book – the edition. In fact my starting point is that, from the student perspective (and according to some scholars), there is no longer a clear idea of what that is.

The place and perceived value of the printed critical edition seems to be still firmly established. I once asked my students to identify and compare value markers of their printed text in front of them and of an online version of the same text, and they made a pretty good case for the printed text, citing everything from the name of the publisher, to modes of reading, navigation, and interaction, and even pointing to the durability of its medium. And this in a digital humanities module. However, asking them to tell me how and why either of these versions look the way they do was a far more tricky question. So my polemic will be a plea for teaching in a way that puts students themselves in the position of editors and curators of literary texts: and that the best way of doing this is an engagement with digital editing and curating.

But first, I’m going to begin by outlining how a dramatic rise in the online availability of our literary heritage drives certain changes in reading and studying practices.[1] When a lot of academics are running to catch up with the accelerating process in disseminating the world’s literary heritage online – even in their own field, and I include myself – is it any wonder that our students, stepping off the path of the printed set text, also find themselves slightly taken aback and click on the top hit in Google? Because there is indeed a chaotic mass of types of texts they can find. In addition to catalogue entries and Amazon hits, there are texts from web sites and web ventures that essentially depend upon some form of commercial revenue or profit (e.g. Google, Luminarium, editions via Kindle, and even apps), non-profit web organisations (e.g. Project Gutenberg, Poemhunter, Internet Archive, Hathi Trust), nationally-supported or privately-endowed institutions (e.g. Folger digital texts, British Library Shakespeare Folios), University libraries (e.g. SCETI, Virginia, Adelaide, Bodleian), a whole host of academic projects (e.g. Rosetti Archive, EEBO-TCP, the Correspondence of William Godwin, the Walt Whitman Archive) and, of course, via institutionally-accessed and pay-walled commercial publishers (like Cengage or ProQuest). My essential point is that there is a blurring of the definition of the ‘edition’. What we see – for sometimes good reasons – are projects that describe themselves as digital archives, databases, digital library collections, social editions (like Transcribe Bentham), and apps (e.g. Touchpress’s The Wasteland). And texts that come via these platforms look, feel and function very differently.

Between the printed and digital text, there’s a two-way process happening. The easy and quick availability of texts online drives a certain kind of reading of printed editions which makes invisible ‘the history of their own making’ (D. F. McKenzie).[2] At the same time, undergraduates don’t often spot the distinction between the kinds of texts they find online and the one in their printed critical editions. This partly because they see only the text in their editions, and not the ‘edition’ (introduction, textual note, annotations, etc.): the actual edition becomes invisible. I don’t want to denigrate undergraduates’ skills and this isn’t entirely the students’ fault: it’s partly how English literary studies – at least in many seminar rooms – is still running with the idea of the literary text as an immaterial abstraction (despite the influence of various kinds of historicization). It’s this that renders invisible the processes that shape the form of the book in their hands. So I guess my rant is partly a plea for a serious consideration for the materiality of the book and a bigger role for the history of the book in English Studies.

But I’m also thinking about the lack of attention (at undergraduate level) paid to how editions and texts end up on the web in the ways they do. Formats vary hugely, from poorly catalogued page facsimiles, to unattributed HTML editing of dodgy nineteenth-century editions, to scholarly high-standard editing with XML/TEI encoding. But there are still plenty of these digital versions and collections that make it very difficult to see who these resources are for and how they got to look and function the way they do. And, as I’ve hinted at earlier, issues of format and accessibility are linked to how the various sites and projects are funded. In significant ways a lot of texts available digitally do much worse than the print edition at signalling ‘The history of their own making.’

So, the second half of my polemic is about how we should be making our students more aware of how the edition is remediated based on an understanding of the limits and affordances of digital technology and of how the internet works.[3] Because this is where digital technology can open their books in a vital way. I’ve found it intensely interesting that the digital humanities community has been using a variety of material and haptic metaphors to describe what it is they are doing – ‘making’ or ‘building.’[4] For me, this is wonderfully suggestive. In asking my students to understand the processes involved in transforming a material book into an printed edition and then a digital edition is a necessarily haptic experience. This experience – a process that involves decisions about audience, purpose, authority, and technological affordances and restraints – enables a student to understand their literary object of study in a vital and transformative way. It might seem odd that I’m emphasising materiality in a debate thinking through the effects of what is, ostensibly, an immaterial medium, but technology is material and digital editing should involve the material aspects of the book and material work. My undergraduate dissertation student is producing a digital edition of a work by Henry Fielding: she will be going to the British Library to see the source text as an essential part of her learning. In a few weeks time, my students will be building a digital scanner partly out of cardboard; after that even our training in digital markup will start with pencil and a printed sheet of paper.

So I’m arguing that we give students the opportunity to be academic editors of books, and not just in theory but in practice; to enable them to be creators and not merely consumers of texts, because the electronic editions of the future should be powered by an early and vital experience of digital making.

Notes to Students and the digital edition. A polemic.

[1] Leaving aside why there is an increasing use by undergraduates of online texts instead of printed ones in class – though I suspect it’s partly down to the increasing centrality of the mobile device as well as an expectation that everything is, or should be, freely accessible.

[2]D. F. McKenzie, quoted in Jerome McGann, ‘Coda. Why digital textual scholarship matters; or, philology in a new key,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, eds, Neil Fraistat and Julia Flanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 274-88 (p.274).

[3] I’m always reminded of internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz’s maxim: ‘It’s not OK not to understand the internet anymore.’

[4] Most notably Stephen Ramsay, On Building.

#AcBookWeek: The Academic Book of the Future: Evolution or Revolution?

 

This post reflects on one of the events that took place during Academic Book Week in Cambridge. A colloquium was the basis of multiple viewpoints airing thoughts on where the future of the academic book lies from perspectives of booksellers, librarians, and academics. 

During the week of the 9th November the CMT convened a one-day colloquium entitled ‘The Academic Book of the Future: Evolution or Revolution?’ The colloquium was part of Cambridge’s contribution to a host of events being held across the UK in celebration of the first ever Academic Book Week, which is itself an offshoot of the AHRC-funded ‘Academic Book of the Future’ project. The aim of that project is both to raise awareness of academic publishing and to explore how it might change in response to new digital technologies and changing academic cultures. We were delighted to have Samantha Rayner, the PI on the project, to introduce the event.

 

The first session kicked off with a talk from Rupert Gatti, Fellow in Economics at Trinity and one of the founders of Open Book Publishers, explaining ‘Why the Future is Open Access’. Gatti contrasted OA publishing with ‘legacy’ publishing and emphasized the different orders of magnitude of the audience for these models. Academic books published through the usual channels were, he contended, failing to reach 99% of their potential audience. They were also failing to take account of the possibilities opened up by digital media for embedding research materials and for turning the book  into an ongoing project rather than a finished article. The second speaker in this session, Alison Wood, a Mellon/Newton postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities in Cambridge, reflected on the relationship between academic publishing and the changing institutional structures of the university. She urged us to look for historical precedents to help us cope with current upheavals, and called in the historian Anthony Grafton to testify to the importance of intellectual communities and institutions to the seemingly solitary labour of the academic monograph. In Wood’s analysis, we need to draw upon our knowledge of the changing shape of the university as a collective (far more postdocs, far more adjunct teachers, far more globalization) when thinking about how academic publishing might develop. We can expect scholarly books of the future to take some unusual forms in response to shifting material circumstances.

 

The day was punctuated by a series of ‘views’ from different Cambridge institutions. The first was offered by David Robinson, the Managing Director of Heffers, which has been selling books in Cambridge since 1876. Robinson focused on the extraordinary difference between his earlier job, in a university campus bookshop, and his current role. In the former post, in the heyday of the course textbook, before the demise of the net book agreement and the rise of the internet, selling books had felt a little like ‘playing shops’. Now that the textbook era is over, bookshops are less tightly bound into the warp and weft of universities, and academic books are becoming less and less visible on the shelves even of a bookshop like Heffers. Robinson pointed to the ‘crossover’ book, the academic book that achieves a large readership, as a crucial category in the current bookselling landscape. He cited Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a recent example of the genre.

 

Our second panel was devoted to thinking about the ‘Academic Book of the Near-Future’, and our speakers offered a series of reflections on the current state of play. The first speaker, Samantha Rayner (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Studies at UCL and ‘Academic Book of the Future’ PI) described the progress of the project to date. The first phase had involved starting conversations with numerous stakeholders at every point in the production process, to understand the nature of the systems in which the academic book is enmeshed. Rayner called attention to the volatility of the situation in which the project is unfolding—every new development in government higher education policy forces a rethink of possible futures. She also stressed the need for early-career scholars to receive training in the variety of publishing avenues that are open to them. Richard Fisher, former Managing Director of Academic Publishing at CUP, took up the baton with a talk about the ‘invisibles’ of traditional academic publishing—all the work that goes into making the reputation of an academic publisher that never gets seen by authors and readers. Those invisibles had in the past created certain kinds of stability—‘lines’ that libraries would need to subscribe to, periodicals whose names would be a byword for quality, reliable metadata for hard-pressed cataloguers. And the nature of these existing arrangements is having a powerful effect on the ways in which digital technology is (or is not) being adopted by particular publishing sectors. Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History at Cambridge and President of the Royal Historical Society, began by singing the praises of the academic monograph; he saw considerable opportunities for evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in this format thanks to the move to digital. The threat to the monograph came, in his view, mostly from government-induced productivism. The scramble to publish for the REF as it is currently configured leads to a lower-quality product, and threatens to marginalize the book altogether. Danny Kingsley, Head of Scholarly Communication at Cambridge, discussed the failure of the academic community to embrace Open Access, and its unpreparedness for the imposition of OA by governments. She outlined Australian Open Access models that had given academic work a far greater impact, putting an end to the world in which intellectual prestige stood in inverse proportion to numbers of readers.

 

In the questions following this panel, some anxieties were aired about the extent to which the digital transition might encourage academic publishers to further devolve labour and costs to their authors, and to weaken processes of peer review. How can we ensure that any innovations bring us the best of academic life, rather than taking us on a race to the bottom? There was also discussion about the difficulties of tailoring Open Access to humanities disciplines that relied on images, given the current costs of digital licences; it was suggested that the use of lower-density (72 dpi) images might offer a way round the problem, but there was some vociferous dissent from this view.

 

After lunch, the University Librarian Anne Jarvis offered us ‘The View from the UL’. The remit of the UL, to safeguard the book’s past for future generations and to make it available to researchers, remains unchanged. But a great deal is changing. Readers no longer perceive the boundaries between different kinds of content (books, articles, websites), and the library is less concerned with drawing in readers and more concerned with pushing out content. The curation and preservation of digital materials, including materials that fall under the rules for legal deposit, has created a set of new challenges. Meanwhile the UL has been increasingly concerned about working with academics in order to understand how they are using old and new technologies in their day-to-day lives, and to ensure that it provides a service tailored to real rather than imagined needs.

 

The third panel session of the day brought together four academics from different humanities disciplines to discuss the publishing landscape as they perceive it. Abigail Brundin, from the Department of Italian, insisted that the future is collaborative; collaboration offers an immediate way out of the often closed-off worlds of our specialisms, fosters interdisciplinary exchanges and allows access to serious funding opportunities. She took issue with any idea that the initiative in pioneering new forms of academic writing should come from early-career academics; it is those who are safely tenured who have a responsibility to blaze a trail. Matthew Champion, a Research Fellow in History, drew attention to the care that has traditionally gone into the production of academic books—care over the quality of the finished product and over its physical appearance, down to details such as the font it is printed in. He wondered whether the move to digital and to a higher speed of publication would entail a kind of flattening of perspectives and an increased sense of alienation on all sides. Should we care how many people see our work? Champion thought not: what we want is not 50,000 careless clicks but the sustained attention of deeply-engaged readers. Our third speaker, Liana Chua reported on the situation in Anthropology, where conservative publishing imperatives are being challenged by digital communications. Anthropologists usually write about living subjects, and increasingly those subjects are able to answer back. This means that the ‘finished-product’ model of the book is starting to die off, with more fluid forms taking its place. Such forms (including film-making) are also better-suited to capturing the experience of fieldwork, which the book does a great deal to efface. Finally Orietta da Rold, from the Faculty of English, questioned the dominance of the book in academia. Digital projects that she had been involved in had been obliged, absurdly, to dress themselves up as books, with introductions and prefaces and conclusions. And collections of articles that might better be published as individual interventions were obliged to repackage themselves as books. The oppressive desire for the ‘big thing’ obscures the important work that is being done in a plethora of forms.

 

In discussion it was suggested that the book form was a valuable identifier, allowing unusual objects like CD-ROMs or databases to be recognized and catalogued and found (the book, in this view, provides the metadata or the paratextual information that gives an artefact a place in the world). There was perhaps a division between those who saw the book as giving ideas a compelling physical presence and those who were worried about the versions of authority at stake in the monograph. The monograph model perhaps discourages people from talking back; this will inevitably come under pressure in a more ‘oral’ digital economy.

 

Our final ‘view’ of the day was ‘The View from Plurabelle Books’, offered by Michael Cahn but read in his absence by Gemma Savage. Plurabelle is a second-hand academic bookseller based in Cambridge; it was founded in 1996. Cahn’s talk focused on a different kind of ‘future’ of the academic book—the future in which the book ages and its owner dies. The books that may have marked out a mental universe need to be treated with appropriate respect and offered the chance of a new lease of life. Sometimes they carry with them a rich sense of their past histories.

 

A concluding discussion drew out several themes from the day:

 

(1) A particular concern had been where the impetus for change would and should come from—from individual academics, from funding bodies, or from government. The conservatism and two-sizes-fit-almost-all nature of the REF act as a brake on innovation and experiment, although the rising significance of ‘impact’ might allow these to re-enter by the back door. The fact that North America has remained impervious to many of the pressures that are affecting British academics was noted with interest.

 

(2) The pros and cons of peer review were a subject of discussion—was it the key to scholarly integrity or a highly unreliable form of gatekeeping that would naturally wither in an online environment?

 

(3) Questions of value were raised—what would determine academic value in an Open Access world? The day’s discussions had veered between notions of value/prestige that were based on numbers of readers and those that were not. Where is the appropriate balance?

 

(4) A broad historical and technological question: are we entering a phase of perpetual change or do we expect that the digital domain will eventually slow down, developing protocols that seem as secure as those that we used to have for print. (And would that be a good or a bad thing?) Just as paper had to be engineered over centuries in order to become a reliable communications medium (or the basis for numerous media), so too the digital domain may take a long time to find any kind of settled form. It was also pointed out that the academic monograph as we know it today was a comparatively short-lived, post-World War II phenomenon.

 

(5) As befits a conference held under the aegis of the Centre for Material Texts, the physical form of the book was a matter of concern. Can lengthy digital books be made a pleasure to read? Can the book online ever substitute for the ‘theatres of memory’ that we have built in print? Is the very restrictiveness of print a source of strength?

 

(6) In the meantime, the one thing that all of the participants could agree on was that we will need to learn to live with (sometimes extreme) diversity.

 

With many thanks to our sponsors, Cambridge University Press, the Academic Book of the Future Project, and the Centre for Material Texts. The lead organizer of the day was Jason Scott-Warren (jes1003@cam.ac.uk); he was very grateful for the copious assistance of Sam Rayner, Rebecca Lyons, and Richard Fisher; for the help of the staff at the Pitt Building, where the colloquium took place; and for the contributions of all of our speakers.

 

#AcBookWeek: What will the Academic Book of the Future look like? Bristol responds…!

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.

Dr Leah Tether introduces the event

Dr Leah Tether introduces the event

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.

 

#AcBookWeek: The Manchester Great Debate

On Wednesday 11th November, the John Rylands Library, Manchester, played host to the Manchester Great Debate, a panel discussion dedicated to addressing the future of the academic monograph. The event was one of over sixty organised during Academic Book Week to celebrate the diversity, innovation, and influence of the academic monograph. While opinions remained varied, with panel representatives from both sides of the fence, the discussion always seemed to return to a few key thematic strands. How are people using books? How are people encountering books? And what future lies ahead for the academic book? Melek Karatas, Lydia Leech, and Paul Clarke (University of Manchester) report here on the event.

The reading room of the John Rylands Library

The reading room of the John Rylands Library

It was in the stunning Christie Room of the Rylands Library that Dr. Guyda Armstrong, Lead Academic for Digital Humanities at the University of Manchester, welcomed the audience of publishers, academics, librarians, early career researchers, and students with a shared concern for the future of how the humanities might be produced, read, and preserved over the coming years. Five panellists were invited to present their case to the group before the floor was opened and the debate got into full swing.

The session was chaired by Professor Marilyn Deegan, Co-Investigator of The Academic Book of the Future project. She began by outlining the project’s main objectives and its future activities, details of which can be found at www.academicbookfuture.org. Before commencing with the presentations she asked the audience to quite simply reflect on what they conceived of when trying to define the book. It was this question, with its rather complex and capacious ramifications, that was the fundamental core of the Manchester Great Debate.

The first of the panellists to present was Frances Pinter, CEO of Manchester University Press. Since print runs of academic books have decreased in volume and their prices increased beyond inflation, she firmly believes that the future of the academic monograph will be governed by the principles of Open Access (OA). She contends that although the journey to OA will be difficult, drawing on the Crossick report to highlight such obstacles as the lack of a skilled workforce and the high cost of publication, it is impossible to deny the potential of the digital age to advance knowledge and maximise discovery. She identified Knowledge Unlatched, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to assisting libraries to co-ordinate the purchase of monographs, as a pioneer in overcoming some of these obstacles. Under the scheme, the basic cost of publication is shared, and the works are made readily available as a PDF with an OA license via OAPEN. An initial pilot project saw the publication of twenty-eight new books at the cost of just $1,120 per library. The digital copies of these books were also downloaded in a staggering 167 countries worldwide, a true testament to the benefits of the OA monograph.

Emma Brennan, Editorial Director and Commissioning Editor at Manchester University Press, followed with a convincing argument against the financial restraints of contemporary academic book publishing. The system, she claims, is fundamentally broken, favouring short-form sciences over the humanities. A key to this problem lies in the steep rises in purchase prices over recent years, with the result that a monograph, which once sold for around £50 in a run of five hundred copies, is now sold for upwards of £70 and oftentimes on a print-on-demand basis. However, more crucial still is the disparity between authorial costs and corporate profits. After all, typical profit margins for article processing charges (APCs) reached an astonishing 37% in 2014, undeniably privileging shareholders over authors. Under this current system, university presses are only ever able to operate on a not-for-profit basis whereby surplus funds must necessarily be reinvested to cover the costs of future APCs. Such a fragile structure can only continue in the short-term and so the need for a drastic upheaval is undeniable.

Next to present their case was Sandra Bracegirdle, Head of Collection Management at the University of Manchester Library. Through a variety of diagrams she was able to highlight a number of curious trends in the reading habits of library users. A particularly interesting point of discussion was the usability of both electronic and print resources amongst student readers. While those who tended to prefer the former valued the mobility of text and the equality of access, readers of the latter tended to prefer the readability of the physical text. Interestingly, 50% of the students questioned said that they were more likely to read a book if it were available digitally, suggesting that “access trumps readability”. The decreased popularity of physical books is reflected further still by the fact that 27% the books held within the library have not been borrowed for some ten years. She continued to suggest that the increased popularity of electronic formats, on the other hand, might be the result of a change in the way people use and encounter information, arguing that different book forms engender different cognitive styles. While she did not appear to have a strong predisposition one way or the other, she did point out the “emotional presence” of a physical book by concluding with a note from Cicero: “a room without books is like a body without a soul”.

She was followed by Dr. Francesca Billiani, Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Arts and Languages (CIDRAL) at the University of Manchester. She fundamentally contends that the materialization of knowledge has in recent years changed beyond recognition and as such so the academic monograph must also adapt. After all, the book is no longer a stand-alone piece of writing for it is firmly rooted within a digital “galaxy of artefacts” comprising blog posts, photos, and videos. Many readers no longer rely exclusively on the academic book itself in their reading of a subject, nor will they necessarily read the work in its entirety choosing instead to read what they consider to be the most relevant fragments. Academics need to embrace these changes in their future writing by composing their monographs in a way that accommodates the new methods of knowledge dissemination. Yet, at the same time, she remained mindful of the fact that the monograph of the future must also retain its academic rigour and avoid falling into the trap of eclecticism.

The last of the speakers to present was Dr. George Walkden, Lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Manchester. A self-proclaimed Open Access activist, he claims that academic books should not only be free in terms of cost but also in terms of what readers can do with them. He lamented those individuals who, in such a climate of exhaustive copyright limitations, are all too readily branded as pirates for attempting to disseminate knowledge publicly. Although he remains sceptical of what these individuals share with the “cannon-firing, hook-toting, parrot-bearing sailors of the seven seas”, he believes that such labelling elucidates the many issues that have constrained both historic and modern publication practices. In the first instance, publishers should value the transmission of knowledge over their own profitable gain. But, perhaps more crucially, it must be acknowledged that the copyright of a work should remain with its author. He fundamentally contends that academics predominantly write to increase societal wealth and readership, a mission that can only ever really be achieved through the whole-hearted acceptance of Open Access.

Once all of the panellists had concluded their presentations, the floor was opened to the audience and a stimulating debate ensued. One of the most contested issues to arise from the discussion was the ownership of copyright. Many institutions actually hold the copyright of works produced by academics whose research they fund, although they do not always choose to exert this right. Walkden questioned to what extent this practice effectively safeguards the interests of academics, particularly since it is oftentimes too costly for them to even justify challenging this. He argued that academics should be granted the power to make decisions concerning their own intellectual property, particularly regarding the OA nature of their work.

Copyright issues were complicated further by a discussion of Art History monographs, particularly with regards to third party content. The case of Art History is particularly curious since, as Brennan highlighted, print runs have continued to remain reasonably high. After all, many art historians tend to opt for physical books over their digital counterparts since problems can often arise with their visual reproductions if, for instance, the screen is not calibrated to the original settings used in its creation. The discussion then turned to the resurgence of a material culture, whereby consumers are returning to physical artefacts. The increased popularity of vinyl records in today’s digital music society was used to illustrate this point. It was nevertheless argued that such a comparison was counterproductive since consumers ultimately have the freedom to decide the medium through which they access music but do not always have this choice with regards to books. Perhaps the academic book of the future will permit such freedom.

A member of the audience then identified the notable absence of the student in such a discussion. Academics, both on the panel and in the audience, expressed concerns that students were able to access information too easily by simply using the key word search function to find answers. Many felt that the somewhat lengthy process of physically searching out answers was more valuable to developing their research skills. Students within the audience said that while they do like the speed with which they are able to process information, they also value the experience of going to bookshelves, possibly finding other items they had not initially set out to obtain. An interesting discussion followed on whether technology might ever be able to replicate the experience of a physical library, and to what extent learning can be productive within a digital environment.

While the future of the academic book remains unclear, certain issues materialise as central topics of debate. Concerns for copyright, visual reproductions, and third party content, for instance, must necessarily form a basis of this future discussion. But more so than this, authors must begin to write within the context of a rapidly emergent digital world by ensuring that their academic outputs engage precisely with new technological formats and platforms. The opening of the book has only just begun, and perhaps it is only through investment and interdisciplinary collaboration that the academic monograph will have a future.

 

 

Melek Karatas, Lydia Leech, and Paul Clarke are postgraduate students in medieval and early modern languages at the University of Manchester, with research interests in manuscript and print cultures of the literary book.

Three hundred years of piracy: why academic books should be free

This is a repost from George Walkden’s personal blog about Open Access in the context of academic linguistics. The original post can be found here.

I think academic books should be free.

It’s not a radically new proposal, but I’d like to clarify what I mean by “free”. First, there’s the financial sense: books should be free in that there should be no cost to either the author or the reader. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, books should be free in terms of what the reader can do with them: copying, sharing, creating derivative works, and more.

I’m not going to go down the murky road of what exactly a modern academic book actually is. I’m just going to take it for granted that there is such a thing, and that it will continue to have a niche in the scholarly ecosystem of the future, even if it doesn’t have the pre-eminent role it has at present in some disciplines, or even the same form and structure. (For instance, I’d be pretty keen to see an academic monograph written in Choose Your Own Adventure style.)

Another thing I’ll be assuming is that technology does change things, even if we’re rather it didn’t. If you’re reluctant to accept that, I’d like to point you to what happened with yellow pages. Or take a look at the University of Manchester’s premier catering space, Christie’s Bistro. Formerly a science library, this imposing chamber retains its bookshelves, which are all packed full of books that have no conceivable use to man or beast: multi-volume indexes of mid-20th-century scientific periodicals, for instance. In this day and age, print is still very much alive, but at the same time the effects of technological change aren’t hard to spot.

With those assumptions in place, then, let’s move on to thinking about the academic book of the future. To do that I’m going to start with the academic book of the past, so let’s rewind time by three centuries. In 1710, the world’s first copyright law, the UK’sStatute of Anne, was passed. This law was a direct consequence of the introduction and spread of the printing press, and the businesses that had sprung up around it. Publishers such as the rapacious Andrew Millar had taken to seizing on texts that, even now, could hardly be argued to be anything other than public-domain: for instance,Livy’s History of Rome. (Titus Livius died in AD 17.) What’s more, they then claimed an exclusive right to publish such texts – a right that extended into perpetuity. This perpetual version of copyright was based on the philosopher John Locke’s theory of property as a natural right. Locke himself was fiercely opposed to this interpretation of his work, but that didn’t dissuade the publishers, who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck (as well as a slow one).

Fortunately, the idea of perpetual copyright was defeated in the courts in 1774, in the landmark Donaldson v. Becket case. It’s reared its ugly head since, of course, for instance when the US was preparing its 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act: it was mentioned that the musician Sonny Bono believed that copyright should last forever(see also this execrable New York Times op-ed). What’s interesting is that this proposal was challenged at the time, by Edinburgh-based publisher Alexander Donaldson – and, for his efforts to make knowledge more widely available, Donaldson was labelled a “pirate”. The term has survived, and is now used – for instance – to describe those scientists who try to access paywalled research articles using the hashtag #ICanHazPDF, and those scientists who help them. What these people have in common with the cannon-firing, hook-toting, parrot-bearing sailors of the seven seas is not particularly clear, but it’s clearly high time that the term was reclaimed.

If you’re interested in the 18th century and its copyright trials and tribulations, I’d encourage you to take a look at Yamada Shōji’s excellent 2012 book “Pirate” Publishing: the Battle over Perpetual Copyright in eighteenth-century Britain, which, appropriately, is available online under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. And lest you think that this is a Whiggish interpretation of history, let me point out that contemporaries saw things in exactly the same way. The political economist Adam Smith, in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, pointed out that, before the invention of printing, the goal of an academic writer was simply “communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired himself“. Printing changed things.

Let’s come back to the present. In the present, academic authors make almost nothing from their work: royalties from monographs are a pittance. Meanwhile, it’s an economic truism that each electronic copy made of a work – at a cost of essentially nothing – increases total societal wealth. (This is one of the reasons that intellectual property is not real property.) What academic authors want is readership and recognition: they aren’t after the money, and don’t, for the most part, care about sales. The bizarre part is that they’re punished for trying to increase wealth and readership by the very organizations that supposedly exist to help them increase wealth and readership. Elsevier, for instance, filed a complaint earlier this year against the knowledge sharing site Sci-Hub.org, demanding compensation. It beggars belief that they have the audacity to do this, especially given their insane 37% profit margin in 2014.

So we can see that publishers, when profit-motivated, have interests that run counter to those of academics themselves. And, when we look at the actions of eighteenth-century publishers such as Millar, we can see that this is nothing new. Where does this leave us for the future? Here’s a brief sketch:

  • Publishers should be mission-oriented, and that mission should be the transmission of knowledge.
  • Funding should come neither from authors nor from readers. There are a great many business models compatible with this.
  • Copyright should remain with the author: it’s the only way of preventing exploitation. In practice, this means a CC-BY license, or something like it. Certain humanities academics claim that CC-BY licenses allow plagiarism. This is nonsense.

How far are we down this road? Not far enough; but if you’re a linguist, take a look atLanguage Science Press, if you haven’t already.

In conclusion, then, for-profit publishers should be afraid. If they can’t do their job, then academics will. Libraries will. Mission-oriented publishers will. Pirates will.

It’s sometimes said that “information wants to be free”. This is false: information doesn’t have agency. But if we want information to be free, and take steps in that direction… well, it’s a start.


Note: this post is a written-up version of a talk I gave on 11th Nov 2015 at the John Rylands Library, as part of a debate on “Opening the Book: the Future of the Academic Monograph”. Thanks to the audience, organizers and other panel members for their feedback.

20 Academic Books that Changed the World: a perspective on the list

20 Academic Books that Changed the World: a perspective on the list

The list of 20 Academic Books that Changed the World is now closed but had been open to public vote to choose the most influential academic book of all time. The list of 20 books, spanning a wide range of subjects, including science, philosophy, religion, feminism and literature, was generated and voted for by leading academic booksellers, librarians and publishers. Its announcement has sparked debate and prompted questions around what an academic book is. This guest post has been submitted by a member of the public, Emily Tee, and offers one reaction to the list. This post was written before the announcement of the winner. 

Public voting is now closed and the winner has been announced! On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin gained the most votes.

Originally a list of more than 200 titles had been narrowed down to just 20:

  1. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
  2. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft
  3. Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant
  4. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  5. On the Origins of Species – Charles Darwin
  6. Orientalism – Edward Said
  7. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
  8. The Communist Manifesto – Marx & Engels
  9. The Complete Works – William Shakespeare
  10. The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer
  11. The Making of the English Working Class – E P Thompson
  12. The Meaning of Relativity – Albert Einstein
  13. The Naked Ape – Desmond Morris
  14. The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
  15. The Republic – Plato
  16. The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine
  17. The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir
  18. The Uses of Literacy – Richard Hoggart
  19. The Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith
  20. Ways of Seeing – John Berger

Whilst I am eager to find out the winner, I am slightly reserved about the decision-making process behind voting. For me, I have only entirely read one of the texts (George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four), and extracts from around five or six others. I’m immediately on the back foot. How many others will be in a similar situation to me? Will this add a certain bias to the voting? There will be very few individuals who have read all 20 texts, and therefore few who can submit a subjective vote.

The subject areas of the nominations are so varied that people are likely to vote for books within the subject that they are interested in or their specialist area. For me, that would be The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare has shaped and influenced the arts and literature world in a way that no other within the subject area has, however, has he been as influential on the world as Einstein or Darwin? I would argue that he probably hasn’t.

Significantly, there are only four women on the list. Three of those are writing about feminism, which seems rather niche compared to the male-authored books on the list. Although feminism is important, some variety would have been welcomed.

The list is also dominated by English speakers. Could it be culturally biased, or is this bound to happen in a world where the English language is dominant?

However, I’ll base my shortlist on what I know:

  • Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ has sold more than 20 million copies and has simplified science and physics so that it can be understood by non-academic readers;
  • Mary Wollstonecraft was the first woman to voice her opinion on a woman’s place in society and their equality to men, ultimately changing the way women are perceived to this day;
  • Albert Einstein gave us the world’s most famous equation and is now synonymous with the word ‘genius’;
  • Charles Darwin wrote the foundation of evolutionary biology
  • Plato explained to us why we need justice in ‘The Republic’.

All of these touch on pivotal moments in the world’s history and it’s academic progress, ranging from 380BC to the present day. I am now a few steps closer to determining which book I’m going to vote for, but I’ll have to wait until Academic Book Week in November to find out the winner.

Who will you vote for?

Emily Tee, 27, is a lifelong reader, writer and reviewer of books. Currently working for a large international organisation in the professional area of business proposal writing. Whilst juggling life with two young children, she reads and recites stories on a daily basis and shares her thoughts on them via her personal blog, which also includes her original poetry and short stories. This year she has started to study towards a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing.

 

Check out Emily’s blog here: http://mrsemilytee.blogspot.co.uk/

#AcBookWeek Events!

Academic Book Week (9-16 Nov) is next week! With a constellation of events being showcased all around the UK from Sussex to Edinburgh, this week highlights the wonderful work done by booksellers, libraries, academics, and publishers, and discusses the academic book across a spectrum of perspectives. Here we have collected events by location so scroll through to see what is happening near you!

We have also just announced some competitions and offers that will be happening during the week! Including but not limited to winning an #AcBookWeek tote bag, winning a special leather-bound edition of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, and 50% of all academic books and classics at Southcart Books. Find out about them more on this page and keep checking because more are being added all the time!

Cambridge

Cambridge will be hosting an exhibit for the entire week at the University Library, presenting a selection of books showing examples of the way readers have interacted with their textbooks from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. And on the 9th November Dr Rosalind Grooms and Kevin Taylor explore how Cambridge has shaped the world of academic publishing, starting way back in 1534.

Oxford

There are four events taking place in Oxford throughout the week. On the 9th November Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, discusses his new book “The Power of Reading”. Furedi has constructed an eclectic and entirely original history of reading, and will deliver a similarly exciting discussion on the historical relevance of the reader. Peter Lang Oxford are showcasing a book exhibit presenting the past and present of the academic book from the 9th-16th November, this event requires no registration so just drop in anytime to have a look! On the 11th November Peter Lang again presents J. Khalfa and I. Chol who have recently published “Spaces of the Book”, exploring the life of books ‘beyond the page’. This launch will be followed by a drinks reception and discussion of the aforementioned week-long exhibit. The Oxford events culminate on the 12th November with a panel discussion on The Future of the Academic Monograph; four panelists and two respondents will address issues from their personal perspectives including academic librarianship, academic publishing, and academic bookselling.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh plays host to a series of debates around digital text during the week. The first is on the 9th November and the debate will cover online text and learning, the second on the 10th covers digital text and publishing, the third on the 11th covers open access textbooks, and the fourth on the 12th covers online learning. With speakers from eclectic backgrounds and unique perspectives these offer informative and insightful discussions. The week in Edinburgh finishes up on the 13th with a debate on the subject Is the Book Dead? This promises to be an interesting event with speakers from the Bookseller’s Association and Scottish Publishing covering issues about the future of books and reading.

Liverpool

Liverpool launches their Academic Book Week events with a talk at the University of Liverpool with Simon Tanner, from King’s College London, and member of the project team, as keynote speaker, and a subsequent overview of the week’s events. Simon will speak on ‘The Academic Book of the Future and Communities of Practice’ with Charles Forsdick and Claire Taylor responding from the perspectives of Translating Cultures and Digital Transformations, respectively. On the 10th November Claire Hooper of Liverpool University Press and Charlie Rapple from Kudos present ideas on how to promote your academic book via Kudos and social media, a fitting topic when thinking specifically about the future of the academic book. On the 11th Gina D’Oca of Palgrave MacMillan will speak about open access monographs and a representative from Liverpool University Press will give their perspective. The last event in Liverpool takes place on the 12th and will focus on the academic book as a free available source for students. Academics, librarians, and university presses should work together to create free open access sources for students, but how? Find out here!

Glasgow

John Smith’s Glasgow hosts all of the events taking place in the city throughout the week. The first night on the 9th the bookstore will stay open late and from 5:30-7:30pm all customers will receive special one-night-only discounts on items not already discounted! There will also be refreshments so there’s no excuse not to come and celebrate the longstanding partnership between John Smith’s and the University of Glasgow. On the 10th the bookstore hosts the launch of Iain Macwhirter’s new book, “Tsuanmi: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution”. On the 11th – purposefully coinciding with Armistice Day – John Smith’s caters an evening of discussion and readings exploring Edwin Morgan’s unique contribution to Scotland’s poetry in response to war. With readings and contributions from friends and trustees of Edwin Morgan this evening will be a personal and creative contribution to the week. John Smith’s unique events don’t stop there! On the 12th Louise Welsh, Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, discusses her recent novels and the editing of a new anthology of supernatural stories – a perfectly atmospheric evening for the cold autumn evenings. John Smith’s last event takes place on the 13th, author and astronomer (what a combination!) Dr. Pippa Goldschmidt discusses co-editing a new collection “I Am Because You Are”. She will be joined by contributor Neil Williamson as they talk science and fiction. 

London

London has a large amount of events happening starting with a debate focusing on how the evolving technologies of the book have changed the way we read at The School of Advanced Study. The 10th sees two other events: Blackwell’s at UCL hosts the book launch of Shirley Simon’s “Narratives of Doctoral Studies in Science Education” and Rowman & Littlefield International offer a panel event on interdisciplinary publishing and research. The question being asked is how do academics and publishers reach a diverse, multidisciplinary audience and the panel will be followed by a Q&A session. The 11th plays host to two events: Palgrave MacMillan’s premiere academic series in the history of the book is being launched and elsewhere Charlotte Frost outlines the future of the art history book. She asks ‘what should the art history book of the future look like and what should it do differently for the discipline to evolve?’ Since 2015 marks the 400th anniversary of Richard Baxter’s birth, a symposium to honour his life and assess his significance takes place on the 13th, as well as a panel discussion at the Wellcome Collection specifically targeting questions related to STM publishing and issues facing humanities research. The 12th November also sees The Independent Publishers Guild Autumn Conference with representatives from Academic Book Week, Dr Samantha Rayner, Richard Fisher, Eben Muse and Peter Lake, speaking on a panel.

Hertfordshire & Cardiff

We have one event happening in Hertfordshire in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire Press and Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies! This is for anyone considering getting their research published as it addresses local history and publishing combined in an effort to help and advise about writing book proposals and approaching publishers. Similarly, in Cardiff there is an event on the 11th November utilising a forum to discuss innovative Open Access academic publishing ventures.

Manchester & Bristol

In Manchester on the 11th there will be a panel discussion presented by Digital Humanities Manchester and the University of Manchester Library as they get to the root of the issues presented in academic publishing. Multiple perspectives will make this a fascinating event as panelists attempt to answer questions such as what is the future of the academic long-form publication in the evolving publishing landscape? And is there still a future for the physical book? And in Bristol on the 10th November a panel tackles the questions facing the academic book from the perspective of the panel and the audience.

Sussex & Sheffield

In Sussex on the 11th there is a similar panel discussion; three speakers from different backgrounds grapple with the transformation of the academic book and what that will mean for the future. On the 11th in Sheffield an important and fascinating question is asked: Should we trust Wikipedia? Librarians and scholars from a range of backgrounds discuss the validity of information on there and address questions of integrity surrounding digital publishing. Sheffield finishes off Academic Book Week on the 13th with an open afternoon in the University of Sheffield Library’s Special Collections, introducing visitors to treasures from their collection.

Dundee & Stirling

Dundee and Stirling partake in the excitement of the week also! On the 11th November Dundee presents the Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon as part of the NEoN Digital Arts Festival and on the 13th a mini-symposium focused on the intersection of tradition and craft with the digital transformation of art and design. In Stirling on the 12th John Watson, Commissioning Editor for Law, Scottish Studies & Scottish History at Edinburgh University Press will be speaking to students of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication about academic publishing and his role as a commissioning editor.

Leicester & Nottingham

When we mentioned that events were happening all over the country we really mean it! If you are near the Midlands, DeMontford University is bringing together PhD students to think about the future of the English PhD and the future training of English academics. And last but not least on the 12th in Nottingham Sprinting to the Open FuTure takes place – a panel discussion event bringing together those who interact with academic books to explore questions about how students and staff publish, and the challenges they face.

With so much happening, it will be hard to choose  – we know we are already having trouble deciding between events. Come to as many as you can, and help support the future of the academic book!