Changing Academic Publishing

This blog will be partly a set of observations about history, partly a set of observations about music and music making. I’ll use this blog to re-consider the forms and modes of academic and semi-academic publishing and ideally  find some place in the small community of people interested in rethinking the profession. As a start, I’m posting something I wrote about five years ago, at the request of the late Roy Rosenzweig. We were discussing what was good and bad about academic publishing, and how we thought it might change. The following came out as something of a rant: it’s a little dated, but it explains why I’m starting the blog

Thoughts On Academic Publishing
Mike O’Malley
7/2006

“The way we’re taught to read is diametrically opposite the way we’re taught to write. We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word. Books and articles are clogged with prose no one but first year grad students and the author’s most devoted enemies actually read. Yet the titles of books and articles suggest the author imagines a literary audience of breathless millions. An Age of Giants: railroad regulation in Kansas, 1933-1936. Did I make this title up? Hard to tell, isn’t it? Why do sober, solid academics tomes feel obliged to tart up their work like middle aged trollopes?

It’s because of the disjunction between the way we are taught to read and the way we are taught to write. We aspire write in what might be called, if one were feeling extremely generous, a “literary” style. But we learn read as if gutting a fish. The state of affairs is well described by a joke many have heard or told:

Professor A: Have you taught this new book by X?
Professor B: Why not only have I taught it, I’ve read it!

Within these comically unrealistic parameters, academic writing finds an extremely limited set of outlets. There are books and there are journal articles and there are conference papers, which are but fetal journal articles or book chapters. Scholarly books and articles are, quite reasonably, hard to publish. They need peer review, which takes time; at its best peer review makes for better, more reliable, more accurate work. At its worst it wears interesting and novel ideas down to a smooth, dull and uniform familiarity. It demands exactly the narcotizing qualifications and historiographic forced marches that
put ordinary readers off academic work and render the colonic titles absurd.

And because there are so very few templates for academic publishing, scholars have to inflate their work to fit—the book is all too often a blown-up article, and the article, all too often, is a blown-up conference paper. Does anyone doubt this? There’s no outlet for small ideas, for what the sciences call a “research finding.” There are few outlets for work that frankly mixes past history with present politics. There are few or no outlets for work that takes chances with form. It’s as if basketball was still played only by slow midwestern men lobbing set shots.

Academic writing has been remarkably resistant to technological change. It survived the typewriter crisis with nary a blip; the word processor, despite its immense advantages, left little or no mark on academic prose, except that really good quotations tended to be repeated more often. And so it continues today, blithely untouched by the staggering potential of networked digital technology, writing as if a neighbor had just dropped by in a carriage and left his card in the foyer. Yes, methodologies change; the liquid in the glass changes colors and flavors, but the glass remains thick, square, and clouded with age.

There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong the current model of academic publishing, just as there’s nothing wrong with Brahms. But a world in which Brahms was the only template for musical expression would be both stupefying and willfully cloistered. Why not invent a new mode of academic publishing and communication, one rooted in the way we actually live and work, one that takes advantage of the technologies we have instead of pretending they don’t exist? It’s not hard to imagine.

Professor X writes a blog, and online journal which he or she updates whenever he or she or perhaps both feels like it. The blog takes the form of brief introductory summaries, which include links to ever-deeper layers of research. The initial blog entries are written in a casual style, but following the links leads the reader deeper into more serious scholarly content—more heavily footnoted, more historiographically aware. Some blog posts never get very deep. Some do. Prof. X might just post interesting observations about history, or theory, or potential research ideas, or small bits of research that can’t find a publisher, but might interest someone else.

Now imagine that this blog is searchable, both from the blog site itself, and via google. Someone interested in railroad regulation in Kansas—a student, a scholar, a railroad buff, a genealogist, a local history society–does a Google search and finds Prof. X’s blog. The novice reads the summary and learns a lot; the genealogist searches the blog for more info, the scholar tunnels deep into Pro. X’s writing.

There will probably be two main objections to this model. First, why do I have to wade through a bunch of trivial stuff to get to what I want? And second, how do I know it’s any good? Neither objection holds up.

For the first objection, you don’t have to wade though anything. Prof. X’s blog has a front door, a home page, and whatever organization scheme X likes. But you might arrive at X’s work through a goggle search, and wind up at some point far from X’s front page. The digital searching feature means that you end up experiencing X’s work much more as you actually would read it on paper—in fragments, scanned assembling what you need at the level you need it, instead of approaching X’s article as it were a short story by Faulkner. It mimics what we actually do, the way we actually read, instead of the way we pretend we read.

As to the second, how do I know it’s any good, well, how do you know anything is any good? The fact of peer review does not guarantee the utility and value of an article in the AHR. It assures a certain baseline, but you have to actually read it to now if it’s useful and/or acceptable. The blog model makes this process quicker, because it fits the way we actually read. It will be easier, and faster, to evaluate a piece of writing that falls close to your research interests if you don’t have to wade through the obiter dicta of X’s “literary
style.”

What about professional evaluation for promotion and tenure, you ask? Publishing in peer-reviewed journals means the writer has met professional standards, but it tells you little about how many read the article and how the article gets used. With the blog model, Prof. X could offer detailed statistics on who visited the site, how often, where they came from, and what search terms visitors used to find the various pieces of X’s writing.  Xcould tell the tenure review committee which pieces of writing drew the most traffic, and which had proven most useful to the historical community. How many times was the article clicked on? By what kind of users? Using at search terms to find it? How often was the article cited by others?

Other objections are imaginable—that this model lowers standards, that it crushes literary style beneath the heel of innovation, etc. Neither makes sense. Good writing is effective—the better the writing, the more useful and effective. X will have to write well to attract visitors, and the visitors will have to like the work enough to cite it, link to it, recommend it, etc.  It’s just that X will have a wider palette of colors available, a different form of writing than the two models currently available. There will be more “doors” for different kinds of readers to enter. And really, this model raises standards. It offers objective, real-time usage statistics, not the more vague prestige associated with journals few subscribe to and fewer read.”

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