Academic publishing is not dead, but if changes aren’t made soon, it could end upundead—like a zombie.
So said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., who suggested that professors reconsider not only where they publish their studies, but how their work is reviewed.
Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College, delivered “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy” on May 16 at the Lincoln Center campus. She was the keynote speaker at the Faculty Technology Conference, a day of workshops and presentations for Fordham faculty members and administrators.
The problem, Fitzpatrick said, is that university budget cuts mean less money for academic presses, which then publish fewer books and charge more for ones they do print. Budget cuts also force university libraries, where most academic titles find homes, to cut back on purchases.
“The academic book, I would argue, is in a curious state,” she said, “for while it is no longer viable as a means of scholarly communication, it’s still required. If anything, the academic book is not dead; it’s undead.”
Fitzpatrick noted that emerging online technologies might provide a remedy. But the bigger challenge, she said, is overcoming an institutional bias against change.
“Until scholars genuinely believe that publishing on the Web is as valuable as publishing in print—and more importantly—until they believe that their institution believes it, few are going to risk their careers on a new way of working,” she said.
She challenged attendees to reconsider peer review, a bedrock principal of academia by which a small group of scholarly experts allow or disqualify research for publication.
Instead, Fitzpatrick advocated “peer-to-peer” review, a process by which authors receive feedback from a wide audience after their research is made available online.
She cited her forthcoming book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy, as an example. It will be published this year by New York University Press, but a draft was made available for review at mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/.
Although the website is similar to a blog, users must register before they can comment, and unlike traditional blogs, users can comment on every paragraph, not just at the end of an entry.
The idea, Fitzpatrick said, is to overcome the deficiencies of the peer-review process, including reviewers who miss the point of an article entirely and others who hold personal vendettas against certain authors. Another goal is to convince more professors to volunteer their time to review.
Preliminary results on Planned Obsolescence have been encouraging, she said. Nine months after launching the project, it has had 31,000 page loads, more than 12,000 unique visitors, 3,300 repeat visitors and 44 distinct commenters who made 295 comments.
Four graduate seminars and one undergraduate seminar have used the text in class. That compares to an average monograph press run in the humanities of fewer than 400 copies.
As such, Fitzpatrick said the greatest challenge academics face is not obsolescence, but how to respond to it.
“We can shore up the boundaries between ourselves and the spaces of open, intellectual exchange on the Internet, extol the virtues of the ways things have always been done and bemoan our marginalization in a culture that’s continued marching into the digital future,” she said.
“Or we can work to change how we communicate and the systems through which we attribute value to such communication, opening ourselves up to the possibility that new modes of publishing might enable not just more texts, but better texts, and not just an evasion of obsolescence, but a new life for scholarship.”