What’s the Point of the Academic Book? Part One: Rebecca Lyons

The Project was invited to speak at the BSECS 45th Annual Conference, which took place on Thursday 7th January 2016 at the University of Oxford. The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) is soon to launch its own book series, in association with Boydell & Brewer, and wanted to consult with its community on the form that this new series should take. Chaired by Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle), the provocatively-titled round table ‘What’s the Point of the Academic Book?’ included views from Project Research Associate Rebecca Lyons, Professor Tim Hitchcock (Sussex), and Mari Shullaw (Boydell & Brewer). The three views from each speaker will be posted in three parts – each perspective being published in its own blog post. The first, given here, is from Rebecca Lyons.

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I work as the Research Associate on The Academic Book of the Future Project, but I’ve also worked as an editor in academic publishing, in a university library, and I am an academic researcher myself. So I’m talking to you with an almost holistic awareness of the different roles, approaches, and perspectives involved with academic books and their authoring, editing, production, distribution, and consumption by various groups and individuals. Besides this, The Academic Book of the Future Project used its first year to go out and talk to several of the different communities and stakeholders involved with the academic book – including booksellers, publishers, academics, librarians, funders, and policy-makers. We harvested views, opinions, concerns, questions and thoughts from all of these groups, offered funding and support for discrete events, activities, or pieces of research into areas of particular interest to them and the academic book more broadly, such as peer review, the role of the editor, and audio-visual resources in research outputs. The Project also edited a book of twelve essays offering views on the academic book by contributors across publishing, academia, bookselling, and libraries, which was published by Palgrave in November as a short-form monograph, a Palgrave Pivot. The book is called The Academic Book of the Future and is available to download free as an Open Access ebook, as well as being available to order in hard copy here: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137595768. So as well as offering my own opinion on what the point of the academic book is (which is actually quite a refreshing thing for me to do after listening to so many views!) I’ll also be referring to some of the pertinent or recurring points that have arisen during our first year of research and collaboration with our stakeholder communities involved with academic books.

So for starters, what do we mean when we say ‘academic book’? Right at the Project’s outset I gave a talk to the staff at the British Library, and this was one of the questions asked by the audience. I threw it back to them, and in the ensuing discussion no consensus was reached. If the staff at the BL can’t agree on what an academic book is, this already points to an interesting issue in the ways in which academic books are considered and categorised. For the purposes of the Project we have been inclusive, rather than exclusive, and count critical editions, textbooks, edited collections, and of course the academic monograph as academic books, as well as the whole gamut of formats in which academic books might be found – from hard copy to PDF to ebook to other new digital iterations, such as book apps – as well as more performative formats such as video essays or media-rich resources. This too – the proliferation of forms and formats that academic books are increasingly available in – surely indicates something about the value, and uses, and perceptions around the academic book. They are enduring, yet mutable. Fixed, yet fluid. They are evolving. I wonder if this would be the case, if there was no point to them?

I will honestly state my position here: I believe there IS a point to the academic book. In fact, I think there are several. Arguably, when I need a quick fact check or to check a date, I might turn to Wikipedia. But I might doubt the veracity and trustworthiness of a Wikipedia entry. Former British Library Wikimedian-in-Residence Andrew Gray, speaking at an event called ‘Should we trust Wikipedia?’ during the inaugural Academic Book Week in November, cited various studies on the factual quality of Wikipedia, which have shown that the average Wikipedia article has 4 mistakes. He pointed out that this varies quite considerably across subjects and languages (for instance the pages in German on pharmaceutical subjects are 99.7% factually correct, reassuringly). The full video of the event, including Andrew’s talk, is available to view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwSYcLHOf-E&app=desktop. So as a medievalist, not a pharmacologist, for peace of mind I might instead check my date in an historical timeline in the front of a peer-reviewed academic monograph on the Wars of the Roses, or flick to the index to find a reference to a specific historical individual discussed in that volume, or I might hop to a page on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online. Why? Because academic resources published by respected publishers – whether hard copy or digital – carry a certain assurance of academic quality. Already one of the keys to defining an academic book, as well as why we need them, is coming through here, and that is the value added by academic publishers and reviewers during peer review and the editorial process. A good, respected academic publisher is like a stamp of quality upon a publication. Not to mention the fact that they usually make the books aesthetically appealing too, which helps when you’re trawling through them all day for research!

‘Ok, that’s true,’ you might say, ‘but you can have all that in an article. Why do you need an academic book? Why not an article or a series of articles, or a special issue of a journal on a particular topic?’ And I would answer that yes, all of these resources are valid, necessary, and useful. However, when I want to sink my teeth into a topic – when I require a considered, in-depth treatment of a research subject – academic monographs are where I turn. They have a form and structure to them that makes them familiar, and (usually!) eminently usable. I own scores of them in hard copy format, and revisit them often in my research. From previous readings I also have an idea of the type of content that each one contains, and even whereabouts in the book that content can be located. There’s a real geography to the physical academic book, which for me has a powerful mnemonic function. They are treasured possessions, and I look at them fondly on my bookshelves.

In my own research I look at marginalia – notes and doodles in the margins of medieval manuscripts. As well as their aesthetic appeal (which should not be undervalued) I love physical, hard-copy books for this type of embedded history, contained within their pages. I am also a scribbler in the margins of my own academic books, and it has been both a joy and an embarrassment upon re-use of a book to rediscover some of the notes I scrawled earlier on in my academic career. However, I am also a web editor and blogger, and a fan of the flexibility offered by digital formats that I can call up remotely and read on my laptop or iPad on the go, wherever I am, and use search functions to find specific words or phrases quickly and easily within that content. When it comes to academic books I want to have the choice of both digital and hard copy, and the different possibilities and uses that each has to offer me as a researcher.

And in terms of my status as an Early Career Researcher, I have found the best academic monographs to be instructive – I’ve learned more from them than from any module or supervisor about how to phrase my academic voice, how to construct an argument, and how to lead a set of thoughts and ideas based upon evidence to a conclusion. Here I am concentrating on the monograph, but other academic books are incredibly valuable too in terms of arts and humanities research – the importance and usefulness of a good scholarly edition cannot be overemphasised, and edited collections of essays can illuminate a particular topic from a plethora of angles. The long-form argument that the academic monograph allows is an important one in our disciplines of literature and history. The space and word count enabled by academic monographs to pursue complex and interlinking ideas to their conclusions is vital, and although other disciplines such as the social sciences may argue that the thesis-as-articles academic book works better for them, for me as a medievalist, the academic monograph has been key. Again, the availability of choice here for each individual and each discipline to use the type of research output best suited to them is hugely important.

‘But academic books are too expensive’, you might also say. ‘No one buys them, library budgets are too stretched by journal subscriptions and everything else, so no one reads them.’ It’s true that print runs for academic monographs now tend to be quite low – in the few hundreds. So you might argue that the research is in them is pointless, because it isn’t reaching anyone. Researchers are shouting into the void. But are they? Personally I’ve never had problems sourcing a book via my academic library or interlending, although I’m aware that the availability and cost of these services can vary across institutions. As I said, I’ve also bought plenty of academic books for myself, even when, as a poor student, paying the rent has sometimes been an issue. But that’s me. What about everyone else with more common sense, who buys food instead of books? The issue of research distribution and availability has prompted some very useful and interesting innovations of late. Digitisation and Open Access are the ones that are on everyone’s lips at the moment, for various reasons, and I won’t go into those too much here because I’m sure they will be covered in the discussion later, except to say that they have brought new possibilities (and challenges) for readers and publishers. Digital books arguably cut production costs involved with hard copy books, and print-on-demand technology has enabled publishers to offer the choice of hard copy format as well as digital to their readers. Shifts in funding have also brought new possibilities and challenges, with academic institutions footing some or all of the bill for Open Access publication, and in some cases even becoming their own publishers, as we have seen with the burgeoning increase in University Presses in the UK (and here I include another quick plug for the first UK University Presses Conference on the 16th and 17th March 2016).

But another innovation in a bid to reach a greater audience has been the crossover book. The REF’s impact agenda (perhaps combined with publishers’ enthusiasm for books that sell!) has encouraged researcher-authors to write books that are academic in content, but also appeal to a wider audience of reader in terms of style, tone, and approach. Perhaps there are fewer footnotes, or even none at all (gasp!). There have been some real successes here, such as Oxford’s very own Professor Carolyne Larrington, a medievalist who has written some wonderful crossover books. Her most recent publication considers the medieval basis for the book and TV series Game of Thrones. The general popularity of such a topic, combined with radio appearances and other publicity, has ensured that her research on the Middle Ages has reached an audience that it otherwise probably would not have.

Publishers and researcher-authors will continue to find ways to make the academic book relevant in terms of format, approach, accessibility, and funding. It’s an exciting and challenging time for the academic book: lots of factors are shifting and many new possibilities are opening up. I’d like to finish by quoting one of our wonderful Pivot contributors, Jaki Hawker, the Academic Manager at Blackwell’s Edinburgh. Jaki views the future of the academic book as “inclusive, collaborative, available across multiple platforms and in a number of formats” (p. 92). Given innovations such as I’ve discussed, it seems that the academic book of the future has infinite possibilities. And maybe it does. But Hawker argues that they will be “created, enabled and shaped by the market” (p. 92). The academic book, in essence, will continue to be what people want or need it to be – and for me, I think that means it will offer more and more choice in terms of price, format, and access.

A Storify of live tweets from the panel is available here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/what-is-the-point-of-the-academic-book

Note: Views are Rebecca’s own and are not necessarily representative of the Project.

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Project Activity Snapshot: July 2015

As the 2014/15 academic year draws to a close, conference season has played out in its usual wild frenzy of networking and inspirational talks, and preparations begin for the 2015/16 academic year, the Project has decided to take stock. A huge amount of activity and planning has taken place already, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of our Community Coalition, Project Partners, and of course the core Project Team – and this post celebrates all that has happened, and looks forward to what is still to come.

So, to date…

The Project has engaged with:

  • 15 publishers
  • 12 libraries
  • 24 academic institutions in the UK
  • 10 academic institutions outside the UK
  • 3 booksellers
  • 24 organisations and societies
  • 95 individual collaborators

The Project Team has also:

  • attended 19 events
  • given 12 talks
  • initiated 55 events and mini-projects
  • published 16 blog posts
  • gained 571 Twitter followers
  • had 173 Facebook ‘likes’

Project activity has extended across several countries, including:

  • UK
  • Japan
  • USA
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • Spain
  • Italy
  • Germany
  • Sudan
  • The Netherlands

The Project has also launched a special website, to promote and celebrate all the wonderful events happening across the UK and internationally during Academic Book Week (9-16 November): http://acbookweek.com/

A huge THANK YOU to everyone in our Community Coalition, our Project Partners, and the AHRC for the enthusiasm, support, and collaboration so far – we look forward to continuing to work with you all!

 

All figures correct as of 29/07/15.

What is a book? The perspective of a medical books editor

The Academic Book of the Future Project focuses primarily on the arts and humanities – but what do other areas have to say about the future of the academic book, and what are the shared issues and questions across disciplines? Project Manager Rebecca Lyons recently met Nisha Doshi, Senior Commissioning Editor for medical books at Cambridge University Press and 2015 Kim Scott Walwyn Prize shortlisted candidate to discuss the situation in STM publishing. Nisha had the following thoughts, questions, and insights from her experience as a medical books editor…

As a commissioning editor of medical books with an academic background in the humanities, I’ve been very interested to follow the work of the Academic Book of the Future project. While this project is identifying and exploring important questions of relevance to scholarly book publishing as a whole, its focus on arts and humanities publishing has given me the opportunity to think about STM (and particularly medical) books publishing from different perspectives. Answers to many of the project’s research questions might apply regardless of a book’s subject matter, while others are likely to be radically different in different disciplines, and in some cases we face very different if not completely contrasting challenges in STM compared with arts and humanities book publishing. This has prompted me to give some thought to questions such as ‘what is a book’ and ‘what is the role of an academic book publisher’ in the context of both medical and broader academic book publishing.

Our authors and readers are facing increasing pressures on their time, coupled with the need to publish their work in high-impact journals (however defined), while the volume of published books continues to grow. This statement could perhaps characterise any subject area. However, while potential authors in humanities subjects still very much want to write books (in a 2014 OAPEN-UK survey, 95% of respondents in the humanities and 72% of respondents in the social sciences considered it ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to publish a monograph), the opposite is increasingly true of many medical specialties. Immediately therefore, the role of a commissioning editor and a publisher of medical books is very different from one in history, for example. A large part of my job involves persuading potential authors that it is still worth their while writing or editing books (print and/or ebooks) and chapters. I would therefore argue that to stay relevant and competitive as a medical/STM books publisher, it is essential that we have answers to questions such as: How can we improve our abilities to demonstrate the value of writing or editing books (and related digital products) to potential authors? Related to this and perhaps more importantly, how can we improve the ways in which we demonstrate the ‘impact’ of published books, both qualitatively and quantitatively?

The topic of impact has of course been debated in journals publishing for some time, and there is much we can learn from this as book publishers. I was particularly interested to learn of the recent Bookmetrix venture between Altmetric and Springer. However, I don’t think we can simply import journals-originated measures of impact without considering the challenges posed by the persistence of print in much of books publishing. We can measure print sales, of course, but how do we measure or demonstrate the impact of a print book or chapter referred to daily in clinical practice as opposed to one sitting on a shelf, collecting dust? Can we go beyond reviews, anecdotes and reputation to objectively measure the impact of books, both print and e?

Another issue arising in journals publishing is the place for datasets and code (open or otherwise). For example, the University of Minnesota Press has recently announced a new platform which will provide access to primary research documents and data alongside digital books. Should we redefine the medical/STM/academic book to include primary data or instead should the book serve a different role, synthesising data and evidence with accompanying authoritative commentary and guidance?

And what about other media formats? For many years, medical publishers (including Cambridge University Press) have been packaging videos with our books. It now almost goes without saying that printed medical books are packaged with online access to the book’s content, often supplemented by extra online content. Video content demonstrating ultrasound-guided regional anaesthesia is just one example from a medical specialty I work with, and we would certainly define this content as part of a ‘book’. The same applies for animations, interactive self-assessment questions, audio clips… How far do we take this, though? Would a set of video tutorial ‘chapters’ still be a ‘book’? Does it matter what we call the product, so long as it serves the needs of our users (and sells well, from a commercial perspective)? As text and images are increasingly joined or even replaced by other forms of content, our ‘products’, roles and workflows are evolving rapidly while our core goals and audiences often remain the same.

On the subject of our target audience, I often read and hear about the challenge of moving from sales and marketing activities and business models targeted at institutions, to those targeted at individual users. For ‘professional’ publishing such as Cambridge University Press’ medical books programme, this is perhaps less of a new concept than it might be for other areas, since our books have always been aimed primarily at individual medical professionals or trainees. It often surprises me that the importance of understanding the needs of individual researchers, clinicians, students or educators remains a topic worthy of comment at academic publishing events – surely this is already fundamental to the work we do every day as commissioning editors.

Increasingly, and again echoing journals publishing, the question of open access is rarely far from our minds when we consider the future of the academic book. So far in books publishing, this debate and associated new ventures have tended to focus on monographs, for example Cambridge University Press’ open access monograph publishing service. The growth of the ‘free open access medical education’ movement (FOAM or FOAMed) has seen an explosion of freely available educational blogs, podcasts, tweets, videos, text and much more content, particularly in emergency medicine and critical care; much of this overlaps with educational and clinical content traditionally found in books, competing for the time and attention of our authors and readers. All of this makes it even more important that we as medical book publishers define and redefine our products, our role and our business models.

Lastly, moving from the familiar lifecycles of print editions to continuously or regularly updated digital books brings further challenges and opportunities, including very practical issues such as version control (discussed in detail here), workflows and, returning to where I started, pressures on the time of both authors and publishing staff.

There are of course many other topics and questions that I have not addressed here, including increased flexibility with the size and length of ‘book’ content afforded by digital publishing, repurposing chunks of existing content into new or personalised ‘books’ and products, peer review as applied to book publishing, subscription and many other sales models – to name but a few. How far should we take all of these opportunities and models, and might we risk undermining some of the strengths of the ‘book’ as a coherent whole and intentionally designed package of valuable and authoritative content, as we attempt to redefine the book to encompass or compete with a plethora of formats and publishing models? This blog post is not an attempt to provide answers to the questions and challenges facing us in medical or academic book publishing, nor am I claiming to say anything that has not been said before. I hope that it serves simply to outline some of the challenges and opportunities facing us as we strive to provide attractive products and services for our authors and readers, as I see them at present. I very much hope to have the opportunity to explore some of these and other questions further with the Academic Book of the Future project and would love to hear the thoughts of others.

 


 

Nisha DoshiNisha Doshi is Senior Commissioning Editor for medical books at Cambridge University Press. This post reflects her personal opinions and is not necessarily representative of the views of Cambridge University Press. Nisha tweets as @nishadoshi

What is an academic book?

The Academic Book of the Future Project asks the fundamental question… What is an academic book?

This may seem like an odd question, but if we are going to debate the future of something, it seems like a good idea to know what that something is. One definition that can be used for the academic book is that it is a long-form publication, as opposed to a short-form publication like an article, and is the result of in-depth academic research, usually over a period of years, making an original contribution to a field of study.

An academic book can take many forms. In the past, these forms would generally have been represented in print, but increasingly print formats are being accompanied or sometimes replaced by digital versions, and digital formats are becoming increasingly functional. However, other analogue forms like film or photography have also been considered long-form research publications in visual disciplines; and these are increasingly digital.

It is becoming difficult to know, now, what the limits of an academic book are. If our key definition is as above, with only two main characteristics—long form, original contribution, — without limiting what medium the ‘book’ might be produced in, then we have an almost infinite variety of possibilities. From this flow both opportunities and concerns. The opportunities offer academics scope to explore and publish, sources, ideas, analyses, conclusions and data in formats that perhaps better suit their subject areas than conventional publication, and enable collaboration and interlinking of people and ideas as in ways never previously possible. The concerns reside around skills and training for developing new forms of publication; new models of publishing and the economics of the publishing industry; complex networks of intellectual property issues as data, sources and ideas are mashed and mingled, incorporating copyrighted works and creating new copyrights; and the thorny issue of how libraries and other institutions are going to make available new forms of publication in many new and evolving formats, and how these are to be preserved for the long term.

‘Conventional’ forms of academic books

Monographs

The academic monograph is the cornerstone of academic writing in the humanities. As Geoffrey Crossick says of the monograph:

It provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic, with the objective of presenting complex and rich ideas, arguments and insights supported by carefully contextualised analysis and evidence. … Writing a monograph allows the author to weave a complex and reflective narrative, tying together a body of research in a way that is not possible with journal articles or other shorter outputs.

Typically, the monograph is in excess of 80,000 words, may be heavily illustrated in some discipline areas like art history, and may have a single or several authors. It will refer to other work on the topic with a dense network of comments and footnotes, and will have an overall thesis that offers an original contribution to the field.

Edited Collections

An edited collection will typically address a particular topic or theme. It will have one or more editors, and a series of chapters addressing that theme which will usually cross-refer. Again, it will offer an original contribution to its field.

Critical editions

In subject areas that deal with written primary sources, the critical edition is a key work of scholarship. A work , which may have a number of versions, is transcribed and the various different versions collated (in print this is done by registering variant reading from a master copy, in digital editions this is increasingly done by offering multiple versions that can be collated using technical means). Explanatory text, notes, glossaries and other ancilliary materials are added to aid interpretation for the reader. Critical editions are significant works that present a great deal of original scholarship.

Exhibition or museum/gallery catalogues

These can be considered academic books if, along with images of the works in the exhibition, they contain analytical material that is the result of research.

Other forms of long-form productions

In disciplines which are not primarily textual, non-textual analogue productions are accepted forms of research output. Research photography and film have been recognised for more than 50 years as research products in areas such as anthropology, film studies, photography studies, performance studies. Take for example the outputs of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in Manchester, which cover sound and performance, photographic and digital media, and art/museum installations (ee http://granadacentre.co.uk). In archaeology, the field report, which incorporates maps, graphs, sketches, photographs etc is a significant research output.

The Digital Academic Book

Increasingly, academic books are being produced, published and disseminated digitally alongside or sometimes instead of in print, and print on demand from digital files is now common with most academic publishers. All of the above products are amenable to digital representation, but some things inevitably change when translated or migrated to new formats—and entirely new kinds of output are possible.

Ebooks

Ebooks are usually straightforward representations of print books with some limited added functionality such as annotation, dictionary lookup etc. There are a number of formats available besides the ubiquitous PDF, but they all offer much the same reading experience which tries to mimic fairly closely the print experience. So monographs and other conventional works presented as ebooks differ only in details of presentation from their print equivalents, rather than in matters of substance

Digital critical editions and archives

We group critical editions and archives together as it is sometimes difficult to see the boundaries between them. Like conventional critical editions, digital critical editions present a work in all its significant versions with a great deal of critical and explanatory materials. Where digital editions generally differ from print works is in their ability to present all the witnesses to a particular work, in high quality image form and in transcriptions, and allow the user to perform collations on these using software, and in the ability to present vastly more material than is practical in printed form, with layers of complex interlinking. Two good examples of online editions are Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts (www.janeausten.ac.uk/index.html) which incorporates images and transcriptions of all the author’s surviving fiction manuscripts and the edition of Dante’s Commedia by Prue Shaw which collates seven manuscripts of the work (http://www.sd-editions.com/Commedia/index.html) and is available in online and CD ROM form.

Given the expanded possibilities of the digital edition, these often grow into an archive around a work or a writer, for example the Walt Whitman Archive (http://www.whitmanarchive.org) which presents a plethora of information about the poet and his works. One problem of defining certain digital editions or archives as academic books is that they are often deliberately mutable and unfinished, with additions and corrections made regularly, often by a large and interlinked team. Some scholars proclaim this as a benefit, given that errors can be corrected instantly, new ideas, readings or witnesses added at will, but this is antithetical to the kind of scholarship that requires stability of referent in order that scholarly debate can take place around a known and stable body of sources.

New forms of publication

Digital technology, high definition screens, and new critical modes of enquiry mean that our traditional definitions of academic products need radical rethinking. A long-form research output can now take many new forms and constraints upon certain avenues of research and publication are loosened. Take for example, Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity: The Late Roman and Byzantine Inscriptions by Charlotte Roueché. The first edition of this was published in 1989 in print form, incorporating photographs of the inscriptions, transcriptions and commentary. The second, online, edition appeared in 2004, (www.insaph.kcl.ac.uk/ala2004/index.html) now allowing much more commentary and a new approach to the organisation of the materials that strained uneasily against the print format. At the touch of a button the inscriptions can be viewed by type, by find spot, by date, etc.

More recently, see the multifaceted digital publications now planned by Stanford University Press, stimulated by a major grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. (www.library.stanford.edu/news/2015/01/stanford-university-press-awarded-12-million-publishing-interactive-scholarly-works)

The first publication by the Press will be Enchanting the Desert by Nicholas Bauch, a book-length examination of Henry Peabody’s 1905 slideshows of the Grand Canyon, which creates a digital prototype for studying cultural and geographical history.  The Mellon Foundation has recently funded a group of university presses in the US to create a shareable, open-source solution for born-digital complementary monograph materials as well as a working model that maximizes the publishing strengths of university presses and the preservation expertise of libraries.

Other publishers are creating innovative models of publication in digital form of existing print materials. The Oxford University Press Oxford Scholarly Editions Online initiative (http://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com) is a way of bringing the academic book of the past into the present and the future: major scholarly editions published by Oxford and other academic presses are rekeyed, marked up, and interlinked into complex online editions. Cambridge University Press have developed parallel editions in print and digital form, for instance the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/benjonson/).

Rather different, but still in contention to be called academic books are books apps like the Faber/Touch Press versions of The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. These integrate manuscripts, editions, critical commentary, and performances and readings to create an entirely new experience of the works presented. In the Sonnets, for example, all 154 poems are performed by an all-star cast including Sir Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Stephen Fry and David Tennant. The text highlights line by line as each sonnet is performed (http://www.touchpress.com).

It is not just in the digital world that innovation in book production is happening, but perhaps some of the innovations in physical formats are driven by responses to the digital. Visual Editions, a London-based book publisher, is publishing books, and producing apps and events that are all about making what they call ‘Great Looking Stories’ (http://www.visual-editions.com). They produce books both on and off the screen that tell stories in a visual way, making for new kinds of reading experiences, and they call this visual writing. Are these academic books? Well, some of them are. Their first publication was a new edition of that notoriously quirky and difficult work, Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and ‘as the review in the New York Times points out, ‘is filled with visual jokes: a closed door is illustrated by a folded page; beads of sweat by spots of varnish; and the famous “black page” in the original book is replaced by two pages on which the text is over-printed in black.’ How about Composition no. 1? The Visual Editions publication is a re-imagining of a book originally published in the 1960s. The book is the first ever “book in a box”, by French writer Marc Saporta. It is, quite literally, a book that comes in a box with loose pages. Each page has a self-contained narrative, leaving it to the reader to decide the order they read the book, and how much or how little of the book they want to read before they begin again. In many ways, Composition no.1 was published ahead of its time: the book raises all the questions we ask ourselves today about user-centric, non-linear screen driven ways of reading. Composition no. 1 also comes as an iPad app.

And if you think that the printed book is dead, have a look at Arion Press which produces sumptuous books illustrated with original art, and printed on specially produced paper. Their version of The Waste Land retails for $600, and the two volumes of Don Quixote for $2000 each. (http://www.arionpress.com)

So, over to you—what do YOU think an academic book is? Send us examples of other works that we may not have thought of as examples of the range of what an academic book can be.

The Academic Book of the Future: exploring academic practices and expectations for the monograph

This post was originally published on LSE’s Impact Blog on 24 March 2015 and is reproduced here with their permission.

What does the future hold for academic books? Rebecca Lyons introduces The Academic Book of the Future, a two-year project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library in which a cross-disciplinary team from University College London and King’s College London explores how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities will be produced, read, shared, and preserved in coming years, and investigates key questions around the changing state and modern contexts of the academic book.

  • What is an academic book?
  • Who reads them?
  • What can technology do to help make academic books more accessible?
  • How can we make sure academic books, whether print or electronic, are kept safe, and preserved effectively?

Some of these questions – for instance “what is an academic book?” or “who reads them?” appear deceptively simple. However, the academic book is changing – contexts and readers even more so – and therefore these questions have potentially very complex outcomes. As with all the best research questions, they also suggest a huge network of other sub-questions, some of which this two-year project will be addressing in the hopes of finding some answers.

Anyone who uses academic books will have noticed a change (or several) in recent years in the terrain. There is the obvious expansion in the range of available formats, from traditional hardback and paperback books, to the wide world of digital, including epub, HTML, pdf, and so on. These developments, aligned with others in technology, have had a bearing on the ways in which we physically read academic books and the devices we use to access them, from tablets to laptops, pcs to e-readers, and of course not forgetting the humble hard-copy or print-out.

book of futureImage credit: Electronic Book by Tim Noko (Flickr, CC BY-SA)

Consequently, our acts of academic reading have changed. As Andrew Prescott highlights: we can now download academic biographies of long-dead monarchs whilst ‘trundling through the West Wales countryside’ on a bus. Not only this, but with an increasingly urgent and complex set of demands on academics’ time, including admin, research, writing, teaching, and putting together funding bids, the style and level of academic reading itself may have also changed. Geoff Crossick suggests, in his recent HEFCE Monographs and Open Access Project report:

It is felt by many that today’s scholars lack the time to read books thoroughly, and it is feared that the academic skill of ‘deep reading’ may become, or have already become, devalued or lost. The emergence of new technologies for information production and retrieval, the ability readily to download book chapters and journal articles, and changing societal expectations around information being readily and instantaneously available, might be compounding these fears that the monograph, and the academic practices that surround it, are becoming an unloved relic of a bygone age. (p. 22)

The transition into the digital age has also brought with it some pressing questions about the traditional shape, size, and format of academic books. With more and more research taking an interdisciplinary, digitised, and innovative approach, new outputs are being produced by researchers which increasingly trouble the traditional the boundaries and definitions of the traditional arts and humanities monograph. Where, for instance, do blogs fit in? – and more importantly, how are they credited and recognised by the academy – if at all? Michael Piotrowski considers books vs blogs in terms of academic prestige in a previous post on this blog, and in doing so also touches upon some other topical issues with a huge bearing on the academic book in modern academia, namely impact and recognition. In a post-REF world where impact is king, and where departments and researchers are measured by the amount of research they can publish, how are non-traditional outputs weighed and measured in the Arts and Humanities? And what about non-traditional publication methods, such as open access?

It should be obvious from this incredibly brief introduction alone that academic books and their contexts have changed, and are still changing, dramatically. We are barely scratching the surface here. How are libraries and publishers working in these changing modern contexts? What’s happening with academic books in the global south? What about non-English academic books? The Academic Book of the Future Project aims to bring researchers, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and everyone with a stake in the academic book into dialogue with each other in order to get to grips with some of these issues, and to help inform forward steps (including REF 2026). The Project is, at its core, an investigative conversation that uses a wide range of mini-projects and events to prompt meaningful discussion.

The pinnacle of the Project’s activity for 2015 is Academic Book Week (9-16 November 2015). #AcBookWeek is a week-long series of events taking place across the UK and internationally to celebrate the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books, culminating in an Awards Ceremony at the British Library. If you are in any way involved with academic books – whether it is writing them, producing them, selling them, or reading them – we invite you to get involved with this week, and with the wider Project, too. Join in the conversation, and help us to identify – and even shape – the academic book of the future.

Email the Project: Rebecca.lyons@ucl.ac.uk
Tweet the Project: @AcBookFuture
Follow the Project blog: https://academicbookfuture.org/blog/
Project website: https://academicbookfuture.org/

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the Author

Rebecca Lyons is the Research Associate on The Academic Book of the Future Project. She is also a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol, exploring fifteenth-century book history and female ownership of Arthurian literature in England during this period, and she keeps her own blog on the Middle Ages and postgraduate study: https://medievalbex.wordpress.com/

The Academic Book in Sudan

One of the sub-projects that is being carried out as part of The Academic Book of the Future is a piece of research into the academic book in the geographical south, in particular in Africa and India.  The researchers on this project are Dr Caroline Davis of Oxford Brookes University and Professor Marilyn Deegan of King’s College London. In this week’s post, Prof. Deegan talks about their recent trip to Sudan to discuss the Project.

I made a visit to Sudan in February 2015 as part of an ongoing project to digitise Sudanese cultural resources held in libraries, archives, museums and private collections throughout the country: Digital Sudan.  This is something I have been working for the last two years with a Sudanese cultural NGO: SUDAAK, the Sudanese Association for Archiving Knowledge.  My visit to Sudan seemed an ideal opportunity to connect with colleagues for discussions on the academic book in the region, and so I was invited to give a paper on the project at Alzaim Alzazhari University in Khartoum North, organized by the Sudanese Library Association.

Pyramids at Meroc

Pyramids at Meroc (Credit: Marilyn Deegan)

The lecture was attended by around 70 librarians and academics, and they could not have been more enthusiastic about the project.  There was a lively debate after the presentation, and they expressed a willingness to be involved in the project.  They are planning to set up a local Academic Book committee, co-ordinated by Fawzia Galeledin on behalf of SUDAAK, and they will contact local publishers and academics and organise joint events.  Most academic publishing in Sudan is in Arabic, but Sudanese scholars would like their work to be more widely known and accessible, so the possibility of being translated into English was discussed.  They have access to online books and journals in English through various international initiatives, but they were very interested in the possibility of a more two-way dialogue which would only be possible if their work were more widely accessible—which means it being in English. 

The committee will organise focus groups to debate a range of research questions that we can supply, though they will probably need to be amended for local use.  They were also extremely excited at the idea of Academic Book Week and will arrange some events to correspond with this.  We also discussed the possibility of an exchange in Academic Book Week: perhaps someone from Sudan could come to London, and I could  go to Sudan.

The reception of the project in a country far removed from us was astonishing, and the opportunities our Sudanese colleagues could see in discussing the future of academic publishing with us was heartening.