Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Is a Publisher? or, Changes in Scholarly Publishing

Work, and not post-turkey recovery keeps me from these pages. We're now in reading week, which means conferences with the undergraduates, honors and theses manuscripts and other program and departmental materials to read, and final preparation for next quarter, which begins January 3, 2012. Brief indeed will be my break.  I am trying to complete a syllabus for a new course, one of three I'll be teaching come January, which falls under the department's theory rubric, in post-Stonewall American LGBTQ literature, and though I have taught some of the theoretical and creative texts I'm considering for it, I'm still trying to figure out how best to map some of the theoretical texts onto the rough 40-year historical timeline I've conceptualized. Book orders need to be in by tomorrow, so I will certainly figure it out soon!


As he always does, Reggie H. forwarded along a very important link the other day that I have not yet been able to stop thinking about. In Monday's Chronicle of Higher Education, in the Prof. Hacker section, which offers tips on teaching, technology and productivity, Adeline Koh, a professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey discusses her experiences at THATCamp Publishing in Baltimore. Koh, whose scholarly interests include postcolonial theory and literatures, 20th century British literature, African and Southeast Asian literature, global feminist theory, and the digital humanities, describes THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) Publishing as an "'unconference'" that explored the salient issues around contemporary academic publishing, including, as she breaks them down

  1. Who should publish digital scholarly research?
  2. Should digital academic research be published by the university press, or the university library?
  3. How should the process of peer review change?
  4. And finally, who should provide the work that goes into producing a publication—editing, peer review, administration and graphics?
As she continues

THATCamp Publishing provided a forum for three stakeholders in this changing industry: traditional academic publishers, libraries-as-publishers, and faculty. While traditional publishers are interested in the bottom line, libraries-as-publishers are focused on the problem of access. Faculty, on the other hand, are concerned with how their publications will lead to promotion, tenure, and the advancement of knowledge. THATCamp Publishing highlighted how the evaporation of funding for scholarly publishing and the rise of the Internet as a low-cost, easy-access means of dissemination are radically changing the nature of this industry, and the inter-relationships of these three stakeholders.
On a more fundamental level, you could perhaps say the central question of the conference was and is, Who and what is a publisher? Beside this question we might ask, Who can (afford to, these days) and should publish scholarly journals and books? Koh focuses on university libraries, but I would say that small, independent academic e-publishers could step into the breach, but the problems of funding, revenues and humanpower remain. What happens when the technological infrastructure and conditions make publishing easier yet undercut the financial model that has supported scholarly book publishing up to today? What happens when the revenue and funding streams, even after structural reconfiguration, no longer exist, and what might counterbalance this financial loss? How do these changes and challenges effect future scholars, those emerging from graduate school, those already holding tenure-track positions, and those already tenured?  And, perhaps most pressing to me, are academic institutions and faculties, especially hiring and tenure committees, taking into account these technological, structural and economic changes?

My questions, which aren't rhetorical, exceed in some cases Koh's focus, though they're linked. She homes in on the issue of scholarly journals and their financial and structural relationship to monographs.  As she points out, at many presses, the scholarly journal subscriptions have subsidized the scholarly monographs, which often do not sell well enough to avoid balance-sheet losses. When the journals go online, however, cutting the revenue stream and making the subsidy structure no longer viable, what happens to the monographs? 

She goes on to talk about open access journals and asks about peer review in light of these changes. For many peer review scenarios, anonymity, which allows referees to speak their minds freely, is key; in the absence of anonymity will referees be as candid? Will they pay a price for their candor? Koh also asks how open can journals be in permitting commentary, and what about trolls or people seeking primarily to be nasty and flippant? Even controlling for these challenges, what about the academic and possible financial capital that referees gain from engaging in this (now anonymous) process? For faculty members at every stage of their career, serving as outside referees and peer reviewers is an important responsibility, but if it becomes a free-for-all in the future, how much weight will doing so carry?

There is the even more pressing issue of underwriting the work associated with producing journals and scholarly books. Where is the money to come from? As things stand, many colleges and universities may provide subvention funds, from various sources, which go to publishers to help scholars publish worthy books that will not result in sufficient sales. But subvention funds to cover publishing costs is one thing; as Koh says, "Upon signing a contract with a traditional publisher, authors and editors generally expect that the publisher will be responsible for work like copyediting, administration, finding peer reviewers, graphic design, and marketing." University libraries, which Koh points out have gotten into the game of publishing, do not, like some smaller presses, provide such activities, but see themselves as offering "publishing support services." I think it's inarguable to say that they cannot afford the complete roster of services traditional university publishers could, and as Koh goes on to point out, their relationship to the university presses with which some of them may be affiliated remains unclear and "in flux." Again, where is the necessary funding to come from?

It is 2011 and we are not, however, going to turn back the clock. E-publishing is here to stay. I was thus happy to learn that these issues, which I have broached in relation to mainstream publishing (and to a lesser degree, academic publishing) in my Situation of Writing class and also bring up in other courses, are part of lively cross-institutional discussions and wish I could have attended THATCamp.  Yet given how much these changes are upon us, I must note that I have not heard more than a passing discussion, in my department at least, of any of this in the 9 years I have been at the university. It is as if it does not exist, or is occurring in some off-stage realm that does not directly concern humanities--literature--scholars, at a time when the role, place and teaching of humanities in higher education are themselves, like the current university model, facing economic and existential threats.

In my email response to Reggie H. and others in our email circle, I pointed out that at the university, the library oversees the press, so that a version of the library-as-publisher model is already underway, down to the library and the university requiring that the press minimize losses, with the result that everything, from editing to marketing, operates on a shoestring, and financial subvention is required for certain types of publications. Also, it's the case that some journals have faced closure because of costs. This isn't theoretical, but the reality, and has been thus for some years now. On the other hand, let me be clear that, as far as I know, the library is not itself yet directly publishing journals, or books. 

I also stated that, in my experience, some humanities faculty members of previous generations who are still teaching may not be sure how to evaluate any scholarly work that does not appear in a major cross-field journal, in a well-known specific sub-field journal, in a new journal from major journal publisher, or that, in the absence of any of these, does not have a major scholarly name or institution associated with it. E-versions of these journals would probably pass muster, but new open access options would be a problem. They respond the same way with book manuscripts; they must come from one of the major presses for academic books, or from one of the chief press known to be theoretically or methodologically progressive, or from a press known for expertise in a particular field or subfield. I have sat through more than a few meetings where issues concerning a given publishing house, contracts and so forth, have arisen.

My question to Reggie H and others is: what will change this attitude given that in increasingly more humanities fields, there is minimal readership for and no publishing money to issue the books--monographs based on dissertations--that graduate students are still producing and must produce? In some fields that continue to grow, or where scholars, with a second or successive books, feel able to write for broader audiences, there may be broader readerships out there who will mean a loss is less likely. But how many people even in certain fields can get through some of the admittedly valid and important scholarly works being produced, and if publishers are saying they cannot afford to produce because the former economic model has vanished as a result of technological changes, what is going to happen and when will faculties make the shift?  Will we return to the point where a first or in the cases of certain institutions, a second book, is less important? Will only those who manage to produce books be tenurable, and how will this affect what's studied? Will online and open access books be taken seriously sooner rather than later as things change? Which publishers will be considered valid?

These questions are valid for the publishing industry as a whole, as e-publishing increasingly takes hold. Many creative writers and authors of other sorts are coming to terms with the changes and trying to stay apace if they cannot get out front of what's going on, as are literary agents, mainstream publishers, libraries, the bookselling industry, and so forth. I think universities are also doing so, but I do think that there should be more discussion in departments and among scholars of these shifts, which are happening right now and aren't going to change. I thus thank Adeline Koh, THATCamp, and the Chronicle for putting them front and center, and would love to hear J's Theater's readers' thoughts on how this all is unfolding.

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