Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Alessandra Tosi on a must-read for the massed ranks who fret about the future of the humanities

November 17, 2011

At a time of great uncertainty about the future of the humanities, this informed and stimulating book buzzes with excitement for the opportunities that digital technology can offer to humanities researchers. Considering all aspects of the academic process, from authoring to the nature of text and from referring to dissemination and engagement with readers, Planned Obsolescence enthuses about digital technology's potential to reconnect humanities research with broader social debates, policymakers and general readers. But it also carries a stark warning: do nothing and our disciplines will cease to be relevant. Kathleen Fitzpatrick is not targeting the technophiles already fully converted to the digital cause, but those of us who care about the humanities, fret about the present state and future of our disciplines and wonder what can be done.

The prolonged economic crisis has given new urgency to debates about the role of the humanities. Much of this discussion centres on the old-fashioned model of academic publishing that is both the symptom of an identity crisis and the starting point for devising new ways of producing and disseminating research. Accusations about academics' lack of interaction with the "real" world and the incomprehensibility of research to the public are voiced with regularity - together with calls for the wider accessibility of research results. Appeals to demonstrate the public value of research and to promote more effective dissemination, however, clash with a rather depressing publishing landscape. Scholars required to show a tangible "output" in order to advance often look in vain for a publisher; libraries' purchasing power is shrinking; and the price of journals and monographs rises as fast as their readership drops.

Thus everybody involved in the humanities is wrestling with the thorny issues of the present unsustainable state of academic publishing and the debate about the forms scholarly writing should take in the digital age. As witnessed by the mushrooming in recent years of publications, surveys, blogs and institutional and individual initiatives devoted to the topic, most academics, administrators and librarians agree that humanities research cannot be of public value unless it is accessible to a wider readership - and ideally to all. But questions about the economic viability of open access immediately raise their ugly heads: who should bear the financial burden? Should universities disseminate the research they produce? If commercial publishers are preferable, how do we square their profit-oriented aims with free dissemination? If not, what are the alternatives?

Fitzpatrick goes to the heart of the matter while avoiding the temptation to voice yet another pessimistic meditation on the humanities "crisis". Her optimism is fuelled by faith in the digital medium as a communication tool able to empower academics and readers alike. As she demonstrates, there is great potential in the flexibility of the digital format and the interaction with readers made possible by the web, and these factors offer an unprecedented opportunity for scholars to give birth to a new entity - as flexible, engaging and comfortable as the book, but radically different in terms of structure, outlook and dissemination.

In analysing the current process by which research is generated and disseminated, Fitzpatrick offers a clear account of the institutional and ideological obstacles to innovation. Universities have been slow in embracing the opportunities of the digital age. Worryingly, as the web serves as an ever more important channel of information and debate, in academia there lingers a palpable sense of distrust for anything published in digital form.

Arguably, such technophobia has much to do with the ingrained belief at many leading academic institutions that scholars can conduct research in isolation from each other and the outside world, only needing to communicate their findings to their peer group via the traditional avenues of high-priced journals and monographs with restricted circulation. As Fitzpatrick demonstrates, this state of affairs has wide (and devastating) implications that go beyond the debate on suitable publication avenues for the humanities. If scholarly thought does not engage with mainstream digital culture, its voice will eventually disappear under the tide of information freely available online.

Although it is essential that scholars use today's technologies to communicate their thoughts to a wider audience, this is just one aspect of a complex relationship between authors, their texts, their peers and readers. The digital space is not just a medium through which we disseminate research, but also a specific tool that allows us to rethink the very nature of the research we conduct in three main ways.

In the first place, the digital space allows authors to interact with their peers and readers, placing a new emphasis on the process of writing rather than the final product, with the potential of a text that is forever open to comments and rewriting, forever alive, its pages never closed, the book never "shelved". As Fitzpatrick demonstrates, it is crucial that open, digital debates become part of the publishing model. In this respect, the new digital venues increasingly used to access academic information and stimulate debate, including academic blogs and initiatives such as Wikipedia, must be harnessed in the publication process. Current experiments in this direction include posting early drafts of a manuscript and inviting comments prior to publication. This is a way of both fostering debate and enriching the final quality of the published work - an experiment Fitzpatrick ran with this book via the MediaCommons Press website.

Second, digital texts are interlinked in a way that printed books are not: they form part of a network and boundaries between texts can be fuzzy. Third, the internet offers new multimedia tools, including the use of videos and images, audios and blogs as a way of expressing thoughts instead of, or in conjunction with, words. In this we need to reconsider our notion of a linear, purely verbal text in favour of a complex entity embracing multiple forms.

Of course, such interconnectivity and multimedia usage is possible only if we effectively circumvent the protectionism of copyright regulations by widely adopting Creative Commons licences (which allow authors themselves to decide to which extent others can quote or remix their work), or - following Princeton University's recent decision - rely on universities to prevent their researchers from giving copyright of their articles to journal publishers. But this new open, collaborative and multimedia system also requires universities to recognise that research is a collaborative endeavour - and to reward individuals' contributions to the collective advancement of knowledge in their fields.

Notwithstanding institutional and legal obstacles, we can start to imagine an ideal system centred on a publisher's website that provides scholars with tools to connect with one another, produce and publish networked texts, review those texts, and evaluate the work of reviewers to ensure high standards and non-biased assessment. Here, Fitzpatrick voices a plea for universities to take a leading role in this process of renovation and to support open access and innovative publishing as the way to bring research into the real world.

Planned Obsolescence is a wonderfully clear and honest assessment of the present state of academic publishing and possible future directions. The digital age offers us a chance to exit the ivory tower and engage in more meaningful collaborations with peers and a more inclusive dialogue with readers. Fitzpatrick's study is a must-read, not just for all of those directly involved - academics, publishers, university administrators, librarians - but also for anybody interested in the future of the humanities.

The Author

Kathleen Fitzpatrick was born in New Jersey but grew up in Louisiana, where she attended university and completed a bachelor's and master's degree in English. Her first love was theatre. Having performed in almost every production at her high school, Fitzpatrick says, "I had dreams of attending a top drama school and being discovered."

At university, her passion for acting waned and her attentions turned to creative writing. This led to work in Hollywood, where Fitzpatrick realised that she was more interested in writing about TV than for TV. She took up doctoral studies exploring links between the contemporary American novel and newer media forms. After completing a PhD at New York University in 1998, she secured a tenure-track position in English and media studies at Pomona College, where she spent 13 years.

Fitzpatrick recently became director of scholarly communication for the Modern Language Association, which has taken her back to New York. In her scant free time, when not reading or writing, she enjoys keeping up with the latest TV series. Her "hands-down" favourite is The Wire.

Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

By Kathleen Fitzpatrick

New York University Press

256pp, £55.00 and £14.99

ISBN 97808147874 and 881

Published 1 November 2011

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