#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.



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

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

I think academic books should be free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#AcBookWeek Events!

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Hertfordshire & Cardiff

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

Manchester & Bristol

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

Sussex & Sheffield

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

Dundee & Stirling

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

Leicester & Nottingham

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

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