Will digitalization transform publishing further so that we will soon have ‘multi-models’ like we have ‘multi-media’? This question was debated at “Forget the Book! Writing in the Age of Digital Publishing” hosted by Sarah Kember and Benjamin Pester as part of the CREATe consortium work package “Whose Book is it Anyway”.
While outside the sun was shining for a change, about 30 experts made their way out to Goldsmiths University of London and spent three hours of their Saturday in a dark cinema. A proof that within academia publishing is a pressing issue. Indeed, a lively audience discussed key topics like experimentation and the rise of curation in publishing, as well as other challenges, chances, and set-backs with Gary Hall (Director of the Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University), Sarah Kember (Media and Communications/Goldsmiths), Sean Cubitt (Professor of Film and Television/Goldsmiths), and Doug Sery, (Senior Editor MIT Press, New Media, Game Studies, Design). As Sarah Kember put it: publishing is changing at the moment, and if we don’t make this change someone else will.
However, the vivid discussion that afternoon didn’t cover up that there are forces holding us back. Publishing, for example, is not only the most important way of distributing academic work. It is also an essential part for an academic’s career, and decides about her or his tenure position.
Academic work and the logic of publishing
Will there be soon multi-models of publishing? Gary Hall strongly supports this. (Disclosure: He holds among other things a visiting professorship at the Hybrid Publishing Lab.) He pointed out that new models are a chance for academia: “I got tired of the reply to the question: ‘Can this book be published?’ with: ‘How much would it sell?'” Hall decided to get involved with Open Access, and started one of the most convincing new online academic presses “The Open Humanities Press” with others in 2008. For him, academic work isn’t produced to sell. Instead academia should question the neoliberal approach that everything is quantifiable.
Sean Cubitt is also very interested in new publishing processes but he also pointed out their limits: “You don’t get brownie points for for free labour”. For him collaborative writing and publishing are interesting experiments as they challenge the romantic concept of an author that still rules publishing. On the other side, these experiments are infrequent and make often use of immaterial labour, a problem that is already critically discussed regarding social media platforms like Facebook.
Collaborative work and the problem of immaterial labour: how can it be solved?
“How often can people allow that work is not being attributed to them? Where does recognition come in? We are all overloaded with work right now.” As academics need to built up their profile, do universities need to acknowledge collaborative work on a CV like we acknowledge multi-authored papers? In the year 2011, over 140 papers are already registered above the 1,000-author mark. Sarah Kember insisted that this question is still unsolved: “It isn’t even collaboration – that word isn’t really helpful – but how do we work together?”
Kember’s writing is both academic and non-academic. She knows how problematic it is to work outside the box. New forms of publishing face set-backs from publishers and don’t get acknowledge by universities or Britain’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). Regardless of that there are new experiments. Among them is for example the graphic novel as a from to publish academic research. In the US, Nick Sousanis from Teachers College, Columbia University is working on his dissertation discussing the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning entirely in in comic book format. (Thanks to Janneke Adema of Open Reflections for this!)
Curation, curation, curation
For Doug Serf this also was a question. He asked: “How do you approach this new publishing perspective in the age of new media?” MIT Press has indeed a range of interesting publishing experiments like Alexandra Juhasz’ video-book “Learning from YouTube” (2011). Serf also agrees that the role of a publisher might change, but: “…we will continue to need publishers as curatorial activists. There needs to be a single-to-noise-ratio. If you don’t have a curator out there you’ll be lost.” That curation has become more important on all levels, was a point stressed by Joanna Zylinska in the discussion, and also something everyone agreed on.
Still there is way ago.
While younger people might have problems with building their careers, the role of the academic activists are currently on the senior academic. Kember ended the discussion with a call to her fellow researchers, and asked them to pave the way: “Get out there and take that risk, so that younger people can do it, too.”
PS: Please also read Janneke Adema’s comprehensive report of the conference here.