#AcBookWeek: The Manchester Great Debate

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

The reading room of the John Rylands Library

The reading room of the John Rylands Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Advertisements