Transcript: Academic Publishing: Obsolete

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Interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author
Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

For podcast release Monday, March 25, 2013

KENNEALLY: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s not a proverb that applies to much of publishing in 2013, particularly scholarly publishing. Advances in technology, demands for greater information access, and challenges to academic hierarchy have combined to put authors, editors, and publishers, even their readers, on notice that the system needs repair, rethinking, and renewal.

Welcome, everyone, to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book. Innovation in technology drives the digital revolution in publishing and other media, argues Kathleen Fitzpatrick, but innovation cannot be confined to bits and bytes. She says, in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy that innovation must also come in the culture and the community of publishing.

She joins me now to tell us what’s broken, how it got that way, and what we need to fix. Kathleen, welcome to Beyond the Book.

FITZPATRICK: Well, thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me on the show.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re looking forward to the discussion. We’ll tell people briefly about your background. You are currently Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association, on leave from a position as Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Your book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy was chosen by choice as one of the outstanding academic titles for 2013. It was published by NYU Press. You’re also author of The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, and co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons.

So obsolescence seems to be a key word for you, Kathleen. Tell us what’s obsolete, as far as you see it, in scholarly publishing today.

FITZPATRICK: Honestly, what I believe is obsolete, if anything, is our way of thinking about scholarly publishing. My argument in both books has not been that the book itself is an obsolete form, or that we need to be moving everything wholesale over into the digital.

Instead, in the first book, what I was really trying to think about is, how obsolescence functions as a form of cultural discourse that frames the way that we understand new technologies and their relationships to old ones. And in the current book, what I’m really attempting to think about is less – as you noted in the introduction, less the technological changes that are happening around publishing right now than the kinds of social, institutional, and intellectual changes that are going to be required throughout the academy, not just among publishers, if we’re going to be able to make the transition to really using new technologies to the fullest.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s where the hard work is going to come in. The technology itself sort of happens. It comes out of Silicon Valley, or wherever it comes from, and it sort of pours itself into the Web, and into our lives. But the kind of change you’re talking about within what I call the academy is one that’s really going to require people changing the way they think, they way their organizations are structured. Explain just what kinds of changes will be necessary.

FITZPATRICK: Well, there are a whole range of things that one could talk about under that framework. One of the crucial things that I think needs to change is that, as we move more and more of our reading practices into digital spaces, as we move them onto the Web, as we move them onto various kinds of network-connected devices. Those connections that the devices form enable us to think not just about reading, but about reading as part of a process of communication, as an interconnection between authors, and readers, and among readers.

And so, as we move increasingly from a technology that was just about reading to one that’s about reading and writing both, we really need to think about how scholarly publishing needs to transform into something more akin to scholarly communication. My title at the MLA entirely apropos of this, that communication is really the foundation of what it is that we are meant to do in the scholarly publishing enterprise.

KENNEALLY: Well, if I hear you, what you’re saying is that, up to now, or up to very recently, scholarly discourse was one way, and now it’s become a two-way conversation dialogue.

FITZPATRICK: Or at least it gave the illusion of being one-way, because of the protracted time between the publication of an article or a book, and then the publication of the articles or books or reviews or what have you that respond to that. It’s always been a conversation. Scholars have always been working with one another and responding to one another. It’s just that now with these new technologies, we have the possibility of foregrounding, that kind of back and forth, rather than just thinking about publishing as being a means of producing discrete products that we distribute,

KENNEALLY: Well, we are chatting today with Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing Technology and the Future of the Academy. And Kathleen, your book is broken down into several distinct subheadings. There’s discussions around the changes and the rethinking that’s required for peer review and for authorship. Can you summarize some of those things because those are really fundamental to the way the Academy organizes itself.

FITZGERALD: Absolutely. Peer review is, in some sense, the sine qua non of the Academy. Right? It is the thing that defines academic writing as academic writing. And we have traditionally conducted that peer review prior to publication, precisely because of the ways that print functions. It functions within the economics of scarcity, and we want to make sure that the stuff that we’re investing – the time and labor and resources, and the publishing is the best stuff.

In the network era, when authors are able to have access directly to the means of publication, and as more and more stuff gets out there into circulation, without benefit of prior peer review, we need to think about developing more forms of post-publication peer review that enable us to look at discussions around texts, at the linkages, and conversations that happen across texts as a means of understanding impacts that that kind of scholarly work, published open on the network, is having on its fields.

So this requires a really dramatic shift in the ways that scholars understand how peer review functions, and in how promotion and tenure committees treat the results of peer review. But we need to understand that that stuff that’s being reviewed openly on the Web is in fact being peer reviewed, and that’s a pretty big shift.

In terms of authorship, I think one of the key changes that’s going to take place is that even in – you know, there are many fields that have a long tradition of collaboration and of many authors morphing together in communal and collaborative fashions in other to produce the kind of work that’s being published.

But there are lots of other fields that have been very, very focused on sole authorship. My own field in the humanities is very much one of them. And to think that as we move into a space in which more authors are in constant communication with one another, we’re really going to need to think about how it is that scholarly work, even when it has been published under one single author’s name, have always, in some sense, been collaborative. It’s always been about communication across many texts, and authors, and projects.

And so, if we can find ways to really highlight and support and value that kind of collaboration, I think we’re going to end up producing much better work as we go forward.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s all very interesting, and indeed, the way that it’s written, your book, I mean, it allows the people beyond the Academy, outside the Academy to find value in all this, because ultimately, these discussions are going to seep into the world of mass media and otherwise. I mean, communication and that collaboration are key elements. No longer is it the one way, Walter Cronkite tells you the way it is, now we’ve got people contributing back to the story itself.

FITZGERALD: Absolutely. And I think we’re at a moment in the history of higher education, where that kind of communication and collaboration, across the lines of the ivory tower. The communication between those within the Academy and the broader interested public is increasingly important. So the more that we can get work out to a broader audience, the more that we can think about the ways that the project that scholars are doing, might engage broader publics.

I think the better off we’re all going to be. We’ll be able to do a much better job of demonstrating what it is that happens inside institutions of higher education, and why the research that we’re doing matters.

KENNEALLY: Well, you are now, as we mentioned at the top, the Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association, and the MLA, as it’s known, has something like 30,000 members in a 100 countries, based here in the United States, and you share scholarly findings and teaching experiences with those members. And indeed, the MLA is probably one of the most prominent of scholarly organizations in this country. And just earlier this winter, MLA held its annual conference in Boston, and at that conference you launched a new scholarly communication platform, MLACommons, which, I believe, came out of your own work with a previous outfit that you could tell us about as well. MediaCommons.

And so, I wonder if you can tell us what MLA Commons is hoping to achieve, and how the lessons you learned in your project with MediaCommons have influenced that.

FITZGERALD: Absolutely. MLACommons is a platform that we have launched that is attempting to engage members in direct communication with another. Really attempting to facilitate their connecting with one another, they’re sharing work, they’re collaborating on new projects, having on-going discussions and so forth.

So this platform is in some sense helping to take the kinds of conversations that happen at the annual convention and allow them to continue over the course of the year. But it’s also providing a platform through which our members can collaborate, through which they can create new kinds of communities to do new kinds of projects, to publish in new, open ways.

And so we’re thinking about MLACommons as being the foundation of a new relationship, not just across the lines of the members, not just member-to-member communication, but between the scholarly society and its members. And scholarly societies were founded as far back as the 18th century as a means of helping members communicate their research findings with one another.

And what we want to do is to enable our members to participate in an ongoing set of conversations around their work, around their teaching, around the vital issues that they’re very much concerned about.

KENNEALLY: And MediaCommons, your project prior to this work, which was funded by the Institute for the Future of the Book, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, took that approach, the community network of scholars, students, and practitioners in media studies, and I wonder if you can share some of the experiences that have come from that. What did you learn in organizing that, and your goal of becoming more of a community advocate and sort of fostering collaboration. How successful was that?

FITZGERALD: I believe overall the project has been extremely successful. And MediaCommons was founded back in 2006. It’s been around for a little bit over six years at this point. And we’ve developed a really strong line up of ongoing projects that are enabling scholars in media studies to think at a range of different kinds of levels about the work that they’re doing, writing about, and writing back to, and writing with the media.

When we started the project, we were really attempting to address the fact that for a field that was really engaging with new forms of media, we were still basically producing ink-on-paper texts, in the same way that all other fields were. And so we wanted to open up the spectrum of possibilities for scholars in media studies to be able to quote from the materials that they were writing about, to be able to write back with video, if they were writing about video, and so forth.

And so, like I said, we have a range of different projects that are enabling scholars to do very brief, up-to-the-minute kinds of work, and much longer, more considered kinds of work in the network space that gets them communication and commenting on one another’s projects.

And overall, I would say, that it’s been an extraordinary success. But one of the things that really became clear in the process of founding MediaCommons is how difficult it is to build a social connection amongst members. How difficult it is to build a community in the process of launching a project like this. At the MLA, we have the benefit of having a very extended membership that is already organized into certain kinds of discussion groups that are now moving their work into this space.

And so, I think, we’re approaching it from a slightly different direction at the MLA, given a sort of existing constituency rather than building one from the ground up. But I think the projects do bear very much in common with one another.

KENNEALLY: Right, and one of the observations that you made that I really was struck by was there’s a notion that’s kind of received wisdom that the book is dead. But at least in the scholarly community, the books is, as you called it, undead. What do you mean by that?

FITGERALD: Well, what I mean is that the book is still very much a needed form within a whole lot of fields, particularly within fields in the humanities. There are many of them for which the book remains the gold standard of scholarly production. It is the thing that is necessary for a scholar to get tenure at many institutions.

But the process of getting a book published has become a bit more difficult given some of the pressures that exist on university presses right now, given the difficulties in finding an audience for particularly first books. It’s becoming increasingly hard, I think, to get books into circulation.

On top of that, I would say that there are many cases in which scholars today are doing a kind of work for which the book is not necessarily the best outlet. There are projects that are being done in the digital humanities that really require a kind of interaction, a kind of engagement with multiple media forms that the book simply can’t provide.

And so while on the one hand, the book continues to do certain sorts of work for us, and we really value it and want to keep it a vibrant and viable form, there are ways in which we placed so much baggage on the book, that we really need to stop and consider what kind of work it actually is doing for us, and where we might find other means of communicating the work that we ought to be doing with another.

KENNEALLY: Well, one of the burdens the book has had for the scholarly community in the universities, of course, it’s been something of a business for them. And I wonder what all of this really means to future business models for scholarly publishing. Can you talk about that just a bit?

FITZGERALD: I can. I think university presses were founded at their outset precisely because commercial presses really didn’t want to publish scholarly texts. They didn’t see a market for that kind of work. And so university presses were invented as means of getting the work that was being done by scholars within universities out to the world.

At their origin, many university presses didn’t actually sell their texts. They gave them away for free to the libraries of other institutions in exchange for those institutions giving them the work that was being done by their faculty.

And gradually over the course of the 20th century, those presses professionalized. They became revenue centers on their campuses. Most of them now fall under a fairly heavy burden to at least break even. Some of them actually even have to turn a profit on their campuses.

And this is really – it’s still a really difficult prospect because that work that’s being done has a relatively limited audience. The community of scholars that’s reading and buying these books is a fairly finite one.

And so the argument that I’m making ultimately about the business model of scholarly publishing is precisely that it shouldn’t be a business. That we really need to find ways for the university to understand that part of its mission is not just through the – gathering the knowledge that’s being produced across the world via the library, but also disseminating the knowledge that’s being produced on its campus via the press. And that that sort of process of sending work out into the world is just as much a part of the function of the university, and should be just as much a part of its core infrastructure as the classroom, as the library, as the other functions that the university serves.

KENNEALLY: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, thank you so much for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

FITZGERALD: Well, my pleasure. Thank you so much.

KENNEALLY: Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association, and she’s author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing Technology and the Future of the Academy, published by NYU Press.

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