The undead scholarly monograph and avoiding obsolescence

In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, she put forward the argument that the claims people and groups make about the obsolescence of certain cultural forms ultimately reflect more on the people making the claim than they do on the reality of the situation, that these claims typically serve certain political and ideological goals. After going through a traditional peer review process and revising her manuscript, Fitzpatrick submitted it to the scholarly press that she had been working with—and they informed her that they would not be publishing the book. It was through no fault of hers, they explained, just that the marketing department didn’t think they could sell enough copies even to return the book’s cost.

Her reflections on this experience appear throughout Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, in which she details the changes necessary in academic publishing to adapt to new technology and to avoid obsolescence. Fitzpatrick refers to the scholarly monograph as being “undead”: it’s no longer a viable mode of communication from a financial standpoint, but it’s still the gold standard in the academy, the most important form of output by which a scholar’s contributions are judged. The changes needed to keep the field of academic publishing alive, she argues, are not only technological, but also institutional, social, and intellectual, and she details what she thinks needs to happen and why it will work in the rest of the book.

Reforming peer review

Fitzpatrick jumps right in with urging change in the peer review system, which she acknowledges is seen as one of the most important institutions within the field of academic publishing. She takes issue with several facets of the current system and proposes far-reaching changes, mostly involving a new system of “peer-to-peer review.” In this system, as Fitzpatrick models it with various case studies, authors put their manuscripts online and make them available for open commenting. In contrasting the current peer review system with this open review system, she addresses a variety of issues, including:

  • The anonymity of reviewers. Fitzpatrick acknowledges that this anonymity is supposed to enable reviewers to share their true thoughts on a manuscript without hesitation, but points out that when a name is attached to a comment, you have a better sense of what that comment is worth to you. If it’s coming from a peer whose advice on a topic you specifically value, it’s enormously helpful to know that.
  • The number of reviewers. In the traditional peer review system that Fitzpatrick describes, you receive two or three anonymous reviews. In the case studies that she details of authors putting their manuscripts online for open review and commenting (including when she did this on her own blog, with the manuscript for Planned Obsolescence), she finds that these manuscripts receive a much greater breadth of reviewers. This means that the author hears more opinions and can get a better sense of whether something seriously doesn’t work or whether it just rubbed one person the wrong way.
  • The opportunity to respond. As Fitzpatrick describes it, the traditional peer review process is not a conversation—it’s closed and compartmentalized. With open review, the author has the opportunity to act on people’s feedback more directly, responding to them and discussing it with them. This allows for a more collaborative process (and it’s this emphasis on collaboration that leads Fitzpatrick to spend her second chapter destabilizing the importance of individual authorship in the academy) and for more meaningful feedback.

Community focus

Something that comes up repeatedly throughout Fitzpatrick’s book is the importance of establishing communities for academic publishing. Her open review system depends on the establishment of a community of scholars willing to comment on each other’s manuscripts. Her arguments about challenging the notion of individual authorship in favor of supporting a wider scholarly network promote community and conversation over the idea of the scholarly monograph as something that enters the world as a finished product. Her arguments about digital preservation, about staving off the physical question of obsolescence, center around establishing a community that sets standards, stores metadata, and ensures continued accessibility of texts.

Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s response to the looming threat of obsolescence for academic publishing is that the academy as a whole needs a substantial overhaul. She’s challenging a culture that she calls “We Have Never Done It That Way Before,” both by historicizing such venerated ideas as peer review and individual authorship and showing that things have not always been the way they are now and by proposing profound changes to the system. One of the common threads between these proposals is that they all involve working together and building a stronger community. When discussing preservation, Fitzpatrick emphasizes the importance of forming these social systems, encouraging scholars to “take advantage of the number of individuals and institutions facing the same challenges and seeking the same goals.” This advice would seem to apply to academic publishing as a whole, given Fitzpatrick’s proposals.

Considering the future

Fitzpatrick’s recommendations are myriad and diffuse, but the broader strokes of her argument can be summed up as follows:

  • Adapt the current system of closed peer reviews, utilizing an open, peer-to-peer review system instead that allows for more meaningful dialogue and collaboration
  • Revise our understanding of individual authorship to acknowledge that texts arise from conversation and collaboration
  • Change existing publishing structures to reposition texts as jumping-off points for further conversation and collaboration, rather than as solitary works
  • Cultivate communities to distribute and preserve these texts
  • Reevaluate the system of university presses—how they work with their institutions, how they work with their institutions’ faculty, and what their ultimate aims are, putting aside the question of financial success

Obviously, these are pretty big goals, and there are plenty of questions to be asked about how any of these can be achieved. (Fitzpatrick seems to think that changes will occur as they must when the system simply can’t hold itself together anymore.) She shares a number of “looming unanswered questions” at the end of the book, but the one that I’d like to discuss here relates back to her continued emphasis on building communities:

“How can we get scholars to accept and participate in these new publishing and review processes?”

How, if we are to build these communities, can we secure buy-in from a field so committed to its culture of We Have Never Done It That Way Before? How can we convince scholars, for instance, to share their unfinished works online for peer-to-peer review, in light of the omnipresent fear of “scooping,” in light of the rigidly upheld standards of individual authorship? On what level do we begin to reform the system? Fitzpatrick has worked to establish mechanisms that can introduce these ideas as the co-editor of MediaCommons, but how can we get scholars to accept them as valid? Is it possible? Surely it is, right?

4 Replies to “The undead scholarly monograph and avoiding obsolescence”

  1. Thanks for the post, Katherine! The word “obsolescence” is a scary one, making the title of Fitzpatrick’s book a moving one. As someone who has dedicated years to come to studying and writing history, the thought that the system to which I have committed my energy is in some ways self-defeating and unnecessarily cloistered in the present age.

    Fitzpatrick’s proposed reforms are definitely thought-provoking. For example, her suggestions for how to restructure the peer-review process reminds me of questions I get about the decision to train to be a historian. I get questions from time to time about whether or not the effort put into producing a book or article is worth only a handful of peers ever reading it. As Fitzpatrick puts it, an open and transparent peer-review process would broaden the community by making scholarship a site for heightened engagement.

    On the matter of sustainability (184-187), I’d agree with Fitzpatrick. She’s absolutely right to point out the necessity of developing a way to make scholarship more accessible. The ‘hybrid’ model, which she cites from Lessig, is very attractive. Since Fitzpatrick’s book was published in 2011, have existing repositories at least begun to follow this model? For example, when did JSTOR begin making certain books and articles available for free?

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for your post. It will be interesting to know the progress of her system. Have changes been made to university presses and closed peer reviews? I definitely can see why creating a trusted, vetted community of specialists is essential to her peer review system. I’m sure if there is a trust created among the community, authorship and feedback can be respected.

  3. Thanks, Katherine! I was contemplating how amusing it is to ask a field of backwards looking, mostly tradition scholars to think towards the future and change the way they operate. Your question “How, if we are to build these communities, can we secure buy-in from a field so committed to its culture of We Have Never Done It That Way Before?” reminded me of those musings. I think that if we, as a field, focus on how graduate education can be used as a space to train historians to think differently about scholarship, then we’ll make progress. But it’s hard to change the minds of those who set those standards in motion and who are particularly steeped in the traditional methods. I think too that Jonah’s concerns reflect what that looks like for a current PhD student! I think that his concerns reflect the importance of investing in changing the way we think about publishing at the graduate level and take steps towards changing the professional infrastructure as well.

  4. I think that the fear of restructuring in the digital age isn’t a new concern, nor one restricted to the area of history. I agree with the other comments in that teaching students differently, and ensuring that students are learning and applying ethics is vital. Furthermore, given accessibility, it’s important to acknowledge that certain tools, like anonymous and open-source peer-reviews, may exist even if traditionalists don’t utilize them. Because of this, teaching ethics becomes even more important.

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