Title fights

With scholars exploring digital platforms to make their work more available, Matthew Reisz looks at possible replacements for the monograph

June 23, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman


There has been much jitteriness among publishers and academic authors of late as both parties grapple with the consequences of digital and cultural change.

Speaking at the Modern Language Association of America's annual convention in Los Angeles earlier this year, Leslie Mitchner, of Rutgers University Press, pointed out that new technologies are giving scholars ever more opportunities for research. A project to digitise the entire contents of the Vatican Library, for example, will make reams of new material available to academics around the world. But, as Mitchner said in a session on "The brave new world of scholarly books", this is no panacea. While such projects open the door to new research, paradoxically, there are fewer opportunities to get published, get a position and get tenure.

According to a recent report by the Association of American University Presses, technological and cultural shifts seen in the past decade have challenged publishers' business models and "may even threaten many of the intellectual characteristics most valued by the scholarly enterprise itself". It is of the essence of this enterprise to be "in it for the long haul" rather than "the next viral hit". Yet, the report warns, traditional monographs risk becoming "largely static objects ... instead of vibrant hubs for discussion and engagement".

Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses offers a somewhat idealised picture of the value added by academic publishers. (It is not difficult to find titles with covers that seem to have been "designed" by a monkey with a typewriter picking a typeface at random.) But the report also offers a frank assessment of the commercial challenges. Although journal publishing has made a successful transition to the digital age, "maintaining its long-standing primary business model - subscription sales to institutions - while at the same time creating opportunities for new revenue streams", academic books are a long way behind and are only just "beginning the transition from print to digital formats".

So what are the options? According to the report, it is unlikely that publishing e-books for sale could be commercially sustainable for academic presses, while a fully open-access model would require financial support from authors, their institutions or funding bodies. The "online free/print for sale model", meanwhile, looks viable only as "a transitional strategy" (given evidence, for example, that the availability of free PDFs can erode print sales, even if HTML versions don't).

In concluding its survey, the AAUP report sees publishers as struggling to make "the transition from a single dominant business model to a portfolio of multiple business models". Yet "exactly what those models are and how they will interact with the traditional model remain unclear".

From another point of view, of course, it is the publishers themselves that are the problem. Ricardo Blaug, reader in democracy and political theory at the University of Westminster, believes that "you'd get much more interesting work" if academics "could self-publish or be published by small presses and it was still seen as legitimate by the research excellence framework".

Like many people working in disciplines such as politics, Blaug has no problem with the canons of academic rigour ("You need to justify that something is worth taking seriously, you can't just stamp your feet"), it's just that he would also like to make an impact on public opinion and debate. Yet he believes that "there are structural impediments to real impact" - notably that publishers' pricing policies mean that "no one can read your work".

Blaug's solution has been to publish a monograph with Palgrave Macmillan, How Power Corrupts: Cognition and Democracy in Organisations (2010), while finding other ways to ensure that his arguments become a "vibrant hub for discussion and engagement". Although the book ends with a fairly quiet call to arms, he has distilled its central themes into a punchy seven-page pamphlet that was at the heart of a four-day event, How Power Corrupts, organised by if:book, the Institute for the Future of the Book, and the Roundhouse Group in May. This included a discussion with Lord Owen, a film, drama workshops and, significantly, a panel on "The future of academic publishing".

Colin Steele, a former university librarian and an emeritus Fellow at the Australian National University, fears that "the death of the monograph will continue. They may remain the gold standard for assessment purposes, yet many sell only 200-300 copies. People are pushed to do more and more research, but it gets harder and harder to communicate with the scholarly community or wider public".

Steele, who was a co-founder and director of the ANU E Press when it was established in 2003, believes that the best way forward is to "re-embed presses within the scholarly ecosystem or the communications systems of universities. Libraries are not expected to make a profit, so why should they? Compared to the overall costs of a research project, disseminating the results is very cheap."

What initiatives such as ANU E Press have demonstrated, in Steele's view, is that "things that wouldn't sell can get a huge volume of downloads" - more than 3 million a year in the case of the 55 titles on its list.

"Academic authors want readers and are not getting them," agrees William St Clair, senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, and the chairman of Open Book Publishers. The standard model for many monographs was to publish "500 copies at £100, with 300 of them going to well-endowed libraries, mainly in America. So the book just dies and has no engagement with wider intellectual dialogue."

Open Book Publishers is "a non-profit social enterprise company, run entirely by academics" and committed to rigorous standards of peer review. It hopes to produce about 30 titles a year, many of them academic monographs, and some in areas few other publishers would touch. Individuals can read the books free online but are charged about £14 for paperback copies - which should permit some sales even in the developing world - while libraries have to pay for downloads.

St Clair is convinced that there is a large untapped readership out there. His own book, That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence, first published in 1972 but long out of print, now "gets several hundred visitors every week from many countries without much advertising". Open Book Publishing still relies largely on staff working part-time for little or no pay. It is not yet clear whether, in the longer term, this model offers a viable alternative to the traditional publisher.

We are also, of course, witnessing far more radical ways of making academic knowledge more democratic, such as the Liquid Books series published by Open Humanities Press "under the conditions of both open editing and free content", where "you are free to compose, rewrite, edit, annotate, translate, tag, add to, remix, reformat, reinvent and reuse any of the books in the series".

A recent example is Technology and Cultural Form: A Liquid Theory Reader, "openly written and edited" by Joanna Zylinska - reader in new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London - and her MA and PhD students. A collaborative introductory essay sets out the case for "a more creative and more interactive way of writing and editing books", incorporating contributions from "people from different geopolitical locations and different cultural and intellectual traditions", while acknowledging that "a completely open liquid book can never be achieved".

In the process, the students argue, "the sense of equality among the separate writers undermines the exclusive and often totalitarian power of a single author's voice". What is less obvious is whether this model is likely to produce the kind of strong, coherent text that actually engages readers. Although Zylinska points out that "coherence is not the ultimate virtue, since there are plenty of coherent but boring books", there are also good reasons why "written by committee" is seldom meant as a compliment.

A different model is both examined and exemplified in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, professor of media studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. This is due to be published by NYU Press at the end of the year, but in the meantime, she says, "I float the first draft (online), get a lot of reader response and then go off and revise, taking account of all the other voices. It's similar to the old process of getting feedback from colleagues and friends, though much quicker."

Such a model, argues Fitzpatrick, answers a clear need for scholars "to get their work into better, faster, cheaper circulation". It is also, of course, more democratic - and she reports examples of useful feedback from "non-academics who would never have been involved in peer review. It is wrong to assume that they are not interested."

Yet Fitzpatrick rejects the more idealistic notions of "crowd sourcing", which, for example, can give "deniers" a way of undermining a discussion of climate change before it has even got off the ground. Far more valuable is what she calls "our-crowd sourcing", with academics drawing on a wide "community of practice" within their discipline.

Some final reflections come from Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer university professor of history at Harvard University, who has, since the 1990s, been "enthralled by the possibilities of new technologies for scholarship".

By the end of that decade, he had read his way through the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, the only full surviving records of an 18th-century publisher. This had taken him 11 summers and three winters over a quarter of century and left him, he reports in The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future (2009), with "dozens of shoe boxes filled with index cards crying out to be transformed into a book - too many, in fact, to squeeze into a single book, too many even to get under control".

So Darnton started drafting "a 100-page chapter about paper as an ingredient of books", "75 pages on the book trade in the Loire Valley" and other similar topics, before realising he "had to stop, undone by the fear of spending the rest of my life as the chronicler of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel and of writing tomes that no one would read, even if someone might publish them". The only possible model was an e-book "contain(ing) many layers arranged in the shape of a pyramid". The top layer would be something like a standard monograph, but it would be full of links to supplementary essays and appendices as well as source material, illustrations, bibliographies and so on.

In the late 1990s, Darnton also became involved in a project that came to be known as Gutenberg-e, designed to enable talented young historians to take the crucial first step in their careers by transforming their dissertations into e-monographs.

So what happened to these e-dreams? Darnton's own latest book, Poetry and the Police: Communications Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (2010), is about street songs and appeared as a codex (although with recordings of all the music freely available online). The central argument of the big project about the French book trade, from which he got distracted by becoming the director of the Harvard University Library, will also be published in hard-copy form, backed up with "an electronic archive that would otherwise occupy dozens of volumes".

As for Gutenberg-e, Darnton says now: "The books were good, but the business plan didn't really work. It didn't prove a great breakthrough. It remains to be seen whether electronic publication will transform the monograph. The possibility is there, but the proof isn't."

As all this suggests, we are living through transitional and very confusing times in academic publishing, where the same material can either be prohibitively expensive or completely free, where the authority of the author is being both propped up and diluted, where every business model soon starts to look shaky - and where, in Blaug's words, "the old is dead but the new can't quite be born".

For Darnton, as a leading book historian, this is pretty much what one would expect. "One medium does not replace another," he suggests. "Manuscript publishing flourished and grew long after Gutenberg's invention of movable type. Different media reinforce rather than undercut one another.

"I don't weep and wail over the death of the book. I've been to so many conferences on that theme, I'm convinced the book is still alive."

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