Notes on the Future of the Academic Book in Africa

This guest blog post is by Dr Ola Uduku (University of Edinburgh) and is associated with The Academic Book in the South, a two-day conference held at the British Library on 7-8 March 2016. Organised by the British Library in collaboration with Professor Marilyn Deegan (KCL and The Academic Book of the Future project) and Dr Caroline Davis (Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford Brookes University), you can read more about the conference here: http://www.bl.uk/events/the-academic-book-in-the-south#sthash.ne453DAQ.dpuf and view the Storify of conference tweets here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/the-academic-book-in-the-south 

Academic books in Africa, despite being produced and available for at least half a century, are now a rare sight to behold in the continent’s academic institutions. Locally-authored academic books are even harder to find. As a frequent traveller to West Africa over the past five years, and a writer on school design in Africa’s schools, higher institutions and libraries, I have both encountered and studied many of the buildings that hold these repositories of knowledge. Beginning with this educational infrastructure, this post will explore the spaces which books and readers inhabit and then consider what books are being written and published, and what kind of future both academic publishing and the physical book might have in Africa.

KNUST Library. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

KNUST Library. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

For the purposes of this discussion I am restricting my investigation of the academic book to undergraduate textbooks. These are perhaps the most basic form of the definition: more high level academic texts in this context would be even rarer to find in tertiary institutions. In both Ghanaian universities I visited recently, undergraduate courses in the humanities still had academic textbooks on their curriculum reading lists. At this level, the texts are a mix of locally- and internationally-published books, with a predominance of the latter. No journal articles were available to view on public open access, making them extremely difficult to obtain, although with the open access computer lab at KNUST (the Kwami Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana) journal articles were available digitally.

Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

Temples of Knowledge

Despite being a few hundred miles south of Timbuktu, libraries and universities in this area of Africa can hardly live up to their scholarly description. In my experience of libraries in Ghana and Nigeria, it seems that the buildings themselves are still important components of university campuses, but their physical book stocks and use are less certain.

Uduku2

Empty shelves. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

On a recent visit to libraries at the KNUST and Legon Universities in Ghana I was able to make certain first-hand observations. The libraries seemed reasonably well-maintained, furnished, and staffed, making these historic ‘modernist’-designed structures appear to be viable places to study and borrow books. However the reality is somewhat different: library stacks are sparsely stocked, holding some editions of historic text books, but rarely any up-to-date journals or printed matter. Unsurprisingly there are few students using the library reading spaces for study – proportionally it seems there are often more staff than users of these libraries.

The only exceptions to this depressing state of affairs are the ‘IT’ and ‘open access’ computer suites, which provide banks of desktop computers in air-cooled spaces, allowing students access to digital resources online. At KNUST, this was the most student-populated space in the entire library – one floor up a further computer suite was being fitted out during my visit. For Ghana’s historic ‘premier’ universities then this was the state of affairs: poorly resourced physical book and journal stock, with emerging digital resources being available via centralised library desktop computer facilities.

Credit: Dr Ola Uduku.

Computer areas at KNUST Library. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku.

The Challenges Faced

Discussing my own observations with academics in Ghana, a number of key issues surfaced.

Firstly the generic problem of all academics: the time to write.

Most academic departments were overstretched and understaffed, and lecturers therefore did not have the time to do more than fulfil the teaching required of them. Some schools, such as the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana, did have a sabbatical system in place, but this seems to be an exception to the general state of affairs.

Secondly, undeniably many academics in Africa lack the training or support to write academically. Whilst the African Studies Association UK (ASAUK) has hosted a number of successful writing workshops, mainly targeted at emerging and young staff, these have tended to be ‘one off’ events, driven by UK researcher interests. The example of the Wits Writing Centre at the University of the Witswatersrand would perhaps be a more appropriate way to address this. By having the Writing Centre on campus, always available to staff and students, this both foregrounds the importance of writing and gives access to writing support to all staff and students at the university.

Finally, as with the UK, in most African universities, for career advancement and promotion academic books are less critical than the refereed academic paper. In Africa, publishing itself takes significantly more time to achieve with the vagaries of production, editing, and printing in the African setting. There are of course publishing houses in Africa, but their focus is not on academic book publishing.

The Future of Academic Books in Africa

So what might the future look like for academic publishing in Africa? A piece I worked on last year considering specifically the issues related to the future 21st-century classroom for primary and secondary education has some relevance to the tertiary sector also. If we start from the premise that academic material for student study will need to be provided, and the current system of distribution, via the academic textbook, either individually purchased or available for loan via university library outlets, is flawed and no longer works, then we need to explore what the future learning landscape might be.

In my work on schools the idea of the ICT-linked classroom came to the fore, which posits a situation where students from higher primary level learn through networked cheap personal ‘tablet’ readers to which material is downloaded in ‘packets’ (Uduku, 2015). ‘Packets’ are small units of material, such as chapters or homework/task exercises, which can be downloaded by students using today’s cut-price mobile devices. This is predicated on the further spread of wireless hotspots to more inaccessible areas through the use of GPS satellite technology, already in use by health and aid organisations in remote regions of the world.

Taking this idea to tertiary education, the concept translates to publishing also becoming increasingly digital, with materials being produced in smaller ‘packets’, likely to be chapters or sections, which student mobile devices would be able to deal with. Thus, instead of publishing a 7-chapter ‘e-book’ on anthropology, this would be distributed as seven separate chapters, downloadable, either for purchase as digital mini e-books or for borrowing sequentially, using a university server.

The facilities needed for this would change the face of library facilities – the book stacks would disappear, with only a limited reserve section left, whilst there would be significantly less investment in computer hardware and more in ethernet and wifi infrastructure needed to support better, high speed access and download rates. The library spaces thus would not disappear, but be used more as areas of access to high speed broadband and wifi connections that students and staff could use for free to link their own devices to the the internet to download material for study and reading, at differential pricing: free for loan periods, or at a discounted price by chapter.

In the West this would be termed a ‘BYOD: bring your own device’ policy, which gives the responsibility of the hardware required for online access to the students and users of the material. In my recent experience in Ghana, most tertiary level students had both computers and also smartphones, so this policy could easily be implemented, although clearly it would take longer to institute in poorer countries.

Enhancing and increasing African academic authorship is likely to take a longer sustained programme of local and international support. The need for sabbatical time off is crucial for all academics, arguably more so in Africa and other emerging economies where staff are overburdened with teaching. As not all staff are going to be lucky enough to receive scholarships or collaborative grants, the need to work on developing local writing centres and support programmes for writing in critical. As mentioned above, there are existing models such as the ‘Wits Writing centre’ that could be instituted in universities, or perhaps at regional level.

This would mean that there would be less dependence on programmes from abroad or occasional workshops, and could result in the development of an African academic writers network, likely to be in association with African publishers. Thus an academic ‘hub for writing and publishing’ at larger universities or at regional level would be a possible way forward, to be refined to best suit the needs of regional or large universities. Again such ‘hubs’ would by definition not be insular but hopefully prove to be forums, both physical and ‘in the ether’ for international collaborations also to take place. It seems to me that the ubiquitous nature of the Ethernet and high speed networks, combined with ‘Moore’s law’ bringing down the cost of personal mobile devices, could be a positive force for African book publishing to make the move from physical to digital and enjoy a 21st century renaissance .

 

References:

 

  1. Uduku, O. (2015) Designing Schools for Quality: An International Case study-based review, International Journal of Educational Development, vol. 44 September 2015. 56 – 64.
  2. Uduku, O. (2015) Chapter 15: Spaces for 21stCentury Learning. In Routledge Handbook of International Education and Development. Eds. McGrath and Gu Q. Routledge. pp. 196 – 209
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Quadrivium XI: Identity, Use, and Creation of Academic ‘Books’ for Medievalists

Continuing the Project’s emphasis on working with specialist academic disciplines, on 25-26 February 2016 the Project consulted with medievalist Early Career Researchers, sponsoring this year’s Quadrivium, with the theme: ‘The Academic Book of the Future: Identity, Use, and Creation of Academic “Books” for Medievalists.’ QuadriviumThis scholarly group has a very specialist set of research requirements – often studying content that can only be found in ancient manuscripts, or in archaic languages such as Latin or Old English. This specialism raises specific issues around the academic book, which the Project is keen to investigate. Quadrivium is an annual research, careers, and skills training event for postgraduates and ECRs of medieval and early modern textual studies. The two-day event took place at De Montfort University, Leicester.

 

Dr Takako Kato, organiser of this year’s Quadrivium, began by asking the following questions:

When you finish your PhD, will you want to write an academic book?

If so, what sort of academic book would you want to create?

The resulting discussion revealed the complexity inherent in these seemingly simple questions.

What is an academic book?

The first response was: what IS an academic book? The ECRs set about trying to define it what an academic book is, so that they could decide whether or not they would like to write one. Upon discussion, the following were agreed as some (although not all) of the indicators of an academic book:

Audience and authors – who reads academic books, and who writes them?

  • Academics
  • Researchers of all kinds
  • ‘Mad people who do this for pleasure’
  • ‘My grandparents read academic books’
  • Policy-makers, government departments
  • The queen?
  • Written for academics, by academics
  • Books for students by academics
  • BUT – academic books not just for people in the ‘ivory tower’ – Vera Wang was apparently reading an academic book when inspired to create some of her famous designs
  • Assume a certain level of knowledge and interest

Function and tone:

  • Transmission of knowledge
  • Must be part of a conversation – unlike books for general reading, which may not refer to previous scholarship
  • Didactic/instructional
  • Heavily researched
  • Specific academic ‘tone’
  • Peer review – must be vetted by others in the field

For medievalists academic books may also include the actual manuscripts, as well as their critical editions

The important question was also raised: What IS an academic? This was highlighted as requiring definition too, but was outside of the scope of this conversation.

How do you feel about making an academic book?

The ECRs stated their awareness that the monograph still commands huge respect, and is also expected in terms of research output and evaluation purposes, such as the REF. However, it was suggested by some that in the future it would be good to have the option of the academic book in other forms, such as a portfolio of work.

Dr Ryan Perry (Uni. of Kent) suggested that research output could take the form of a collection of case studies, without the enforced requirement to be synthesised into a central thesis.

How do medieval scholars use academic books?

This suggestion connected to notions of reading methods. Prof. Andrew Prescott (Uni. of Glasgow) for instance, stated that he usually reads monographs from cover to cover, whereas Dr Perry tends to dip in and out of them, using the index to navigate to required material: ‘There’s something beautiful about a well-constructed monograph, but I most often enter them from the index, rather than reading them from cover to cover.

Prof. Prescott replied, ‘That would worry me – because it’s very easy to miss connections… Perhaps it’s a disciplinary thing – in history so many things are interconnected, it’s not just discrete blocks of information.’

Quadrivium

Credit: Hollie Morgan/Quadrivium

The ECRs engaged in this debate, with some suggesting that entering into an academic book via the index can be problematic – headwords can be quite arbitrary, and indices can be put together hastily, or inconsistently. One ECR claimed: ‘Reading a long book from start to finish is important for concentration, and for the practice of our discipline. If we carry on with this bite-sized attitude, only entering into the book in chunks from the index, we will lose a lot of the capacity of our discipline.’ Another suggested that this attitude might be ‘ableist’, as not everyone can undertake research in that way. She went on: ‘I don’t always have time to read around a topic in an academic book, especially depending on the language – if it’s an academic book in antiquated language, I am not encouraged to read further, especially as I am dyslexic.’

This, the group concluded, is why readable/searchable digital academic books are so important – offering the choice of deep reading from start to finish, as well as meaningful possibilities to search effectively; to dip in and out as required, depending on the scholar’s requirements and preferred reading style.

What do (medieval) scholars want from academic books?

The group listed their basic requirements as:

  • Information
  • If a physical book, then a free digital copy should be made available, too
  • Useful publishing apparatus: functional contents pages, introductions, prefaces, chapter titles, page numbers, index
  • Bibliography and further reading
  • Should look good on the shelf – aesthetic appeal
  • An order and structure that makes content and knowledge easily accessible
  • Linearity of argument – should be easy to follow

With the following requests for books specifically for medievalists:

  • Translations of primary sources
  • Videos and enriched content – such an animated marginalia!
  • Access to things that are lost or endangered – for instance digitised versions of rare or delicate manuscripts

What can technology do to help make academic books more accessible for medievalists?

The medievalist ECRs were asked to consider ways in which technology does, or should, make their research life easier. Having an electronic copy of an academic book or a digitised manuscript allows for a more global scholarship on that material, eliminating the requirement of being in the physical vicinity of that book. However, the pitfalls of digital versions include the possibility of being locked behind a paywall if your institution does not subscribe or if you are an independent scholar. It also excludes scholars with technological impairments – such as those living in areas without consistent Internet connections. It also means that undigitised books or manuscripts may be neglected, with a glut of scholarship being written on manuscripts that are available online.

The group emphasised the following technological features for enhancing general accessibility to academic books:

  • Catering for different types of learners – e.g. providing content that is useful to those with auditory or visual learning styles, or as already discussed, for those readers with varying abilities or impairments, or for deep readers as well as those who like to dip in and out of content
  • Discoverability: finding books easily enables scholars to read them, rather than waste time hunting one book down

Medievalists have specialist requirements, so further suggestions specific to this group of researchers included:

  • Clarify specialist content – e.g. recordings of pronunciations of difficult/specialist/dead words
  • A database of ALL medieval manuscripts – and digitised versions, if possible

After this group discussion, Michael Pidd (Sheffield), Dr Ryan Perry (Kent), and Dr Hollie Morgan (Lincoln) presented their own experiences and thoughts around the academic book using case studies of innovative research and outputs that they have produced, as well as other ongoing work – followed by a fantastic plenary talk by Professor Andrew Prescott, and a second day of workshops and discussions. This part of Quadrivium will be discussed in a separate blog post.

 

A Storify of the discussion, and the rest of the two-day event, is available here: https://storify.com/Codicologist/quadrivium-xi

Huge thanks to Dr Takako Kato for organising this fantastic event, and to all of the speakers and participants for attending and contributing.

#AcBookWeek: The Future of the English PhD

On 12 November 2015 a dozen PhD students working in literary and creative writing areas came together at De Montfort University, Leicester, in order to consider the future of the PhD in English from as many different angles as possible. This guest post, written by Richard Vytniorgu (English PhD candidate, DMU), captures the day’s main points of discussion.

The day asked: To which tune are English PhDs dancing? And whose?

The day asked: To which tune are English PhDs dancing? And whose?

During the one-day workshop, considerations of the English PhD included:

  1. Its place within the wider scope and roles of HE more generally in twenty-first-century society.
  2. Possibilities for more creative approaches to the writing of the thesis/output(s).
  3. The demands of REF (and potentially TEF) and further authorial activity in HE contexts, and how these affect the English PhD.
  4. What academic publishers are looking for in the academic (literary) book of the future.

In order to stimulate small-group discussions later in the day around these topics, we were joined by a number of academics or stakeholders in literary studies/ creative writing at HE level, who offered thought-provoking positioning pieces from their own perspectives and experiences.

Nicholas Maxwell (UCL) tackled the first issue from the perspective of his career-long mission to adjust the aims and methods of university-level inquiry. Drawing particularly on his two books, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities (1984, 2007) and How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World (2014), Maxwell reiterated the need for academia to shift from a knowledge-inquiry-based paradigm of learning to one of wisdom inquiry:

‘(a) to arrive at some kind of consensus as to what our most important problems of living are, and what we need to do about them, and at the same time (b) to carry on a sustained, lively, imaginative, and critical, intellectually responsible debate about these matters’.[i]

The essential shift here is from responsibility toward problems of knowledge to problems of living, while recognising that some problems of living are also problems of knowledge.

John Schad (Lancaster) went on to offer a précis of contemporary work on ‘creative criticism’ – a genre similar to creative nonfiction, but nevertheless distinctive as pertaining to literary study specifically. Schad admitted that it was difficult at present to adopt more creative instincts, approaches, and methods to the genre of literary criticism and scholarship. But by reading some of his own work, such as Someone Called Derrida: An Oxford Mystery (2007), he was able to demonstrate to an audience partly composed of creative writers who were also writing critical PhDs, how one could architect and execute that subjective presence so often felt in ‘creative criticism’.[ii]

After lunch the day moved in a more pragmatic direction by turning our attention to issues of REF and publishing. Ben Johnson (HEFCE) was unable to make it on the day, so we were very grateful to Deborah Cartmell (DMU), who stepped in to provide a concise summary of the REF and the general expectations for early career researchers, using her own experience at DMU to give some useful anecdotal reflections. Deborah was followed by Ben Doyle from Palgrave, who offered tips on publishing and turning the English PhD into a book. From Ben Johnson’s advice given in advance of the day and also from Ben Doyle’s talk, it was clear that those outside the academy are looking for more creative and innovative work that is somewhat loosened from the intense specificity and remoteness of some topics chosen for monographs.

The rest of the day was given over to small-group discussions, following a worksheet I devised in order to steer conversation around the four topic areas the day was devoted to. I collected the sheets at the close of day and I hope to publish a commentary on these proposals for action and areas of concern in the near future. This will be refracted through my own research into the wisdom quest and aesthetic experiences with literature, as a theory and ‘metaphorisation’ of literary study at HE level.

For the moment, the following were identified as issues worthy of further attention by students and academic staff alike:

  1. The necessity in practice to ‘re-write’ the PhD in order to publish it in book form.
  2. The lack of clarity surrounding creative writing and REF.
  3. The dearth of discussion on ‘English Education’ at PhD level: its qualities, aims, methods, outputs etc.
  4. The difficulties inherent in intense specialisation.

We are grateful to The Academic Book of the Future for supporting our discussions and for enabling us to invite speakers to assist these. The workshop-seminar was a refreshing departure from those glass-half-empty forecasts for the future of literary studies at HE level: the difficulties of proceeding in this line of work, etc. If I came away with one new conviction, it was probably confidence in the need to continually assess the status quo. As young academics it can be tempting to assent to the way things are simply because we assume we have no power to change things. But as one of my PhD subjects, the educator and theorist Louise Rosenblatt, continually asserted, this is the highroad to authoritarian regimes. Democracy invites us to collaborate when we lay aside our competitive natures; to be honest about our lived (rather than imagined) situations; to reject what seems to be anachronistic or harmful, to keep what nourishes and affirms, and to put forward proposals for change based on principles of mutual aid. We hope that in the future more PhD students in English will feel emboldened to question, and, eventually, to work for change from the starting point of their own lived situations.

 

The participants in the day were:

Hollie Johnson (University of Nottingham)

Jerome S. Wynter (University of Birmingham)

Becky Cullen (Nottingham Trent University)

Jo Dixon (Nottingham Trent University)

Lynda Clark (Nottingham Trent University)

Sean Donnelly (University of Birmingham)

Katie Hamilton (University of Nottingham)

Richard Vytniorgu (De Montfort University)

Emily Heathcote (University of Nottingham)

Richard Bromhall (Nottingham Trent University)

Hannah Murray (Nottingham University)

Martin Kratz (Manchester Metropolitan University)


 

[i] Nicholas Maxwell, How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2014), p. 17.

[ii] See Stephen Benson and Clare Connors (eds), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) for more discussion on this genre of writing.

#AcBookWeek: Interdisciplinary Research and Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities

In today’s guest post, independent academic publisher Rowman & Littlefield International  reflects on the highlights that the publishing industry celebrated in 2015, and especially #AcBookWeek. 

Rowman and LittlefieldWhen the first Academic Book Week was first announced earlier this year, we were thrilled to be given the opportunity to raise awareness what we do every day: publishing interdisciplinary academic books in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Academic publishing is traditionally divided up into strict segments according to what disciplines are taught by universities. As an interdisciplinary publisher, our aim is to bridge gaps between the disciplines and offer new insights based on a more inclusive, innovative approach, and Academic Book Week offered us the ideal opportunity to share these principles with the wider academic community. Our event ‘Interdisciplinary Research and Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities’ was initiated!

Martina O’Sullivan, our Senior Commissioning Editor in Cultural Studies, secured a fabulous panel of speakers who are published experts in the field of interdisciplinary research and publishing. They were joined by our Editorial Director, Sarah Campbell, to offer a broad range of perspectives on the topic. Our panel covered everything from some tips on how to get interdisciplinary work published, to alternative modes of research and publishing, right through to very practical advice for early career researchers.

The speakers were:

  • Sarah Campbell, Editorial Director, Rowman & Littlefield International
  • Gary Hall, Professor of Media and Performing Arts, Coventry University
  • Laurence Hemming, Professor, Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University
  • Danielle Sands, Lecturer in Comparative Literature and Culture, Royal Holloway
  • David Chandler, Professor of International Relations, University of Westminster

All we needed was an event location, and thanks to Peter Garner, Library Liaison Manager, and the excellent team at the Maughan Library, King’s College, we had the opportunity to secure the prestigious Weston Room, a magnificent Grade II listed edifice which is part of King’s College.

Although our event was free, we asked attendees to register their interest via the AcBookWeek website. We were sold out of tickets the day before the event and so a crowd of interested current and future academic researchers and authors entered the gates of the Maughan Library on Tuesday, 10 November. After a brief introduction from Martina O’Sullivan, Sarah Campbell opened the panel session with her talk on getting interdisciplinary work published.

See the video recording of Sarah Campbell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRY0deRkdHE


 

“What is required is an opening towards non-knowledge”―Gary Hall, Professor of Media and Performing Arts

Gary Hall, presenting on Alternative Modes of Academic Research and Publishing, focused his talk on the three keywords audience, book and interdisciplinarity, maintaining that the task of every writer should be to challenge pre-existing definitions in academic disciplines.

See the video recording of Gary Hall:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_Y551Es1Lk


 

“What is Interdisciplinary Research?”―Laurence Hemming

Laurence Hemming followed by asking: ‘What is Interdisciplinary Research?’ and pointed out that many publishers nowadays publish books in increasingly more narrow categories, likening the current situation of interdisciplinary research to a house without a heating system, thereby also stressing the importance of letting traditional phenomena speak for themselves, based on traditional knowledge of a discipline.

See the video recording of Laurence Hemming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BY7szuOGhYU


 

“Tips for Early Career Researchers”―Danielle Sands

But how to go about it and where to start as an early career researcher? Danielle Sands’ engaging and useful lecture contained tips and advice for interdisciplinary researchers, including how to navigate one’s way through academic conferences and job adverts as an academic with an interdisciplinary approach.

See the video recording of Danielle Sands: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wqJ5G_FChg


 

“The problems of the world call for interdisciplinarity”―David Chandler, Professor of International Relations

David Chandler rounded up the session with his lively panel about how interdisciplinary projects are perceived, and how they act in today’s academic world.

See the video recording of David Chandler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O89z-cn4x4


 

In the Q&A session that followed, our panellists answered a range of detailed questions from the audience, and the lively discussion continued until late into the evening with drinks and canapés. For us, it was a brilliant event which not only provided us with a chance to meet upcoming interdisciplinary scholars, but also an opportunity to listen to first-hand experiences of top academics who do interdisciplinary work; inspiring us to bring the ever-evolving academic book publishing process into its next age. A round-up of the event can be viewed alongside all other videos here.

We from Rowman & Littlefield International are sure that Academic Book Week will prove to be another highlight for us in 2016, and indeed become a regular highlight in the diary of every academic. For now, I would very much like to thank the organisers of Academic Book Week for providing us with a platform to create an event like this; our panellists and the Maughan Library again for making this stimulating event happen; and everyone who contributed with their attendance and questions. I hope to see you again next year!

 

 

#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.