Communication and Conversations Might Just Save Academic Publishing

At least these are just two overarching suggestions by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. She looks at 5 specific parts of the publication process within the academy: peer review, authorship, texts, preservation, and the university. As each chapter builds on the last, she also advocates for broader collaboration between scholars as they write.

Just to interject for a second because I know these made me smile in past posts as well, hope everyone is doing well. So far I have knitted (yes, knitted) three little succulents and I thought they might bring you a smile, so check out the photo. Times are still confusing and changing every day, and if you want to chat please don’t hesitate to contact me. Always happy to talk, whether its about nothing particular or your crazy theories about the Harry Potter fandom.

Headphones for scale

Her first chapter discusses the long held peer review process for written works, and offers her recommendations for overcoming the challenges of that outdated process. One of the challenges within this is the acceptance that reviewers will remain anonymous, but then cloud their expertise on the field and why certain comments might be made. Fitzpatrick makes a marvelous argument for peer-to-peer review instead. She highlights that with blind review processes, comments about a specific passage may only come from one passage, and hide whether the problem is as large as that one anonymous person believed it to be or not. However, with community review by peers, they may all congregate behind one comment with suggestions for change. This is helpful in many circles as it reveals a broader sense of what one problem is really causing throughout a work rather than just receiving contradicting comments from separate anonymous reviewers. This collaboration is only the beginning of Fitzpatrick’s proposed changes to the current publishing process in academia.

Comments that build upon one another, like these hands do, help more than one lone comment on a work that might lack context.

Her second chapter, discusses the issues she sees surrounding the concept of authorship in dealing with publication. Primarily she focuses on the issues of creating anxiety rather than creating work throughout this chapter, as many authors struggle with writing practices that are outdated in the same manner that peer review is. To get at this she begins to examine the benefits of digital publishing—the fact that comments, versions, and linking can all happen in a changeable universe unlike what is possible with print books. Her point about maintaining different versions of the same text in order to understand what was removed or added to help readers understand the text as a process, rather than only as a finished project was particularly interesting. 

From this chapter she moves onto her third chapter dealing directly with the text itself. Here she leans more into the idea  that reading is a social activity, the fact of sharing books and discussing books and other written works has always existed—digital publishing would just make it easier to see all at once. However, this is already being accomplished on many websites that fill this need. Her next chapter deals with the issue of preserving network based publications, particularly the texts that are created through them. While preserving a bound book is one thing, making sure that digital creations last and survive to be accessed decades down the line is another issue entirely. Fitzpatrick highlights Kirschenbaum’s work when explaining that even once deleted, traces of a digital creation can still be found years later. One of the largest issues with creating something digital, is ensuring that it will both be accessible and that it will survive long enough to be accessed. The challenge of preserving and creating digital objects into the future is not one that Fitzpatrick fully answers, but she does acknowledge that these will require significant amounts of labor. 

Her last chapter deals directly with the university and the many issues of funding university presses and typical scholarly publication processes. Here again, she brings up the idea of collaboration through a consortium of presses to enable multiple universities to use them. The most radical idea she brings up the is the idea that universities must focus on publishing faculty’s work and making that work available publicly. This will help after the aforementioned changes to create a more collaborative environment in general for publication and scholars.

While Fitzpatrick by no means answers all her questions, or says that the answers she does give are the only answer to the issues she discusses, her overall message appears to be one of encouraged collaboration between scholars, peer networks, and the academy itself to create lasting, impressionable work for the field. To end, I want to pose some of the questions she tackled to our class to see if the comments can foster a discussion and maybe lead to some answers we as a group land on. If we begin by publishing work digitally, what do you see as the issues with the switch being accepted widely in academia? With that, what problems do you see to the peer-to-peer review instead of traditionally blind peer reviews? What does it mean to “preserve” a digital project in a way that makes it accessible? I guess after reading I’m still thinking through these questions, and look forward to reading your thoughts on them.

One Reply to “Communication and Conversations Might Just Save Academic Publishing”

  1. Great overview of Planned Obsolescence! One of the things I appreciate most about this book is the way it helps us to delve into the history of ideas about peer review itself. That is, we tend to think about the relationship between peer review and rigor as something that feels somewhat like a timeless part of scholarship, but the book helps to break that up and illustrate the development of peer review as a historical process that took hold at a particular historical moment and has continued to evolve. In that context, it’s also really valuable to have her exploration of the history and development of university presses as institutions that serve and support scholarly communication.

    I’m curious as folks work through the book and discuss the other various online platforms and tools we are looking at this week for the connections you see between these things? I think it’s particularly powerful to note that after writing this book Fitzpatrick went on to be one of the leaders of the development of MLA CORE. In that context, I think it’s really exciting to see the way that, much like Mary Flanagan last week, we can see smart thoughtful scholars who are producing this kind of book based scholarship and at the same time also directly being involved in the development and implementation of tools, systems and technologies. I think that kind of engaged scholarship that bridges humanities fields and the development of digital resources and infrastructure is really valuable to take as a model for a lot of work going forward.

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