Historians aim to change the future

A web project may help to shake up the academy and academic publishing. Paul Jump reports

June 3, 2010

Two history professors are hoping to shake up the academy and academic publishing with a project that in a single week has generated more than enough "crowd-sourced" content for a new book on academia.

Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, directors of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Virginia, launched a website, "Hacking the Academy", on 21 May. They gave users seven days to submit articles, blogs, videos and comments on topics relating to the academy.

Professor Cohen said he and Professor Scheinfeldt planned to compile the best submissions in a book, to be published by the University of Michigan Press, for the benefit of members of the academy who are less comfortable with digital media.

But he admitted that the one-week submission deadline was intended to be provocative and express academics' frustration with the "calcified" structures of the academy in the digital age, such as the "years and years" it could take presses to publish edited volumes.

He added that the typeface of Hacking the Academy's introductory page was intended to resemble that of a ransom note.

It warns that "serious scholars" are already asking whether academic structures are becoming obsolete and are embracing journals that aggregate blog posts and swapping membership of traditional academic associations for virtual communities.

Professor Scheinfeldt said that he saw the project as an experiment rather than a blueprint for the future of academic publishing.

"But from our perspective, experimentation is exactly what scholarly publishing needs more of these days," he added.

"Scholarly presses have been extremely conservative in the face of digital technology, more or less trying to transfer analogue products and workflows unchanged to the digital environment."

Hacking the Academy began to receive submissions within 90 minutes of going live, and by the end of the exercise it had received 329 contributions.

Professor Cohen said the enthusiasm with which academics had taken up the challenge was "beyond our wildest dreams".

The process of whittling down the submissions to the best 70 would be informed by feedback on social-networking sites, he added.

Professor Cohen said that in future academic presses may have to act as "curators" of material that is already in the public domain, while universities' departmental structures may be replaced by virtual communities. But he added: "I am a tenured professor. I value universities and they aren't going away. But they need to change."


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