Review of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence
July 21, 2008
What do you regard as the main argument of the manuscript [or as best as you can discern in the absence of the full work]?
Fitzpatrick examines how scholarly publishing should change given the affordances of networked technologies, tackling peer review, authorship, publishing, digital preservation, and the role of libraries. Fundamentally she is calling for scholarship to be more social and conversational, more like a coffee house than a quiet library carrel. Indeed, I regard Fitzpatrick’s focus on necessary social, cultural and institutional changes to be her unique and important contribution to the ongoing conversation about academic publishing.
Will the work be a significant and unique contribution to the field? How does it compare to related recent scholarship?
Yes. Planned Obsolescence builds on recent works about academic publishing by authors such as Michael Jensen, Paul Ginsparg, and Lindsay Waters. However, it distinguishes itself by focusing on the social and institutional barriers to networked scholarly communication, examining the information cycle from authorship to preservation, and providing compelling examples from projects developed by the Institute for the Future of the Book and other organizations. Words such as “collective,” “community” and “conversation” recur through the proposal, reflecting Fitzpatrick’s keen understanding of both what it will take to transform scholarly communications and what the benefits will be. I think of Planned Obsolescence as a pragmatic polemic—Fitzpatrick is seeking to persuade readers that we need to rethink how academic publishing works, but she does so with grace and an understanding of the challenges ahead.
What do you think of the scholarship, argumentation, and style?
Planned Obsolescence is a rare academic work: it’s provocative, convincing (although I should admit that I’m already sympathetic to Fitzpatrick’s perspective) and lots of fun to read. By examining different aspects of the information cycle—authorship, peer review, publishing, preservation, and institutional structures—Fitzpatrick organizes her book logically and tackles the complexity of academic publishing. I wonder, though, if it might be better to make the chapter on blogging and authorship the first one, since peer review typically follows (or becomes part of the process of) authorship.
I admire Fitzpatrick’s engaging style and witty, personal tone, which works for a book that seeks to persuade academics and publishers that they should embrace online communication. It’s as if she extended her blog into book form. Fitzpatrick demonstrates a talent for coining clever turns-of-phrase that reverse conventional notions and crystallize the key idea behind each chapter: “peer-to-peer review” rather than peer review, the “undead” rather than the dead first academic book, and “larger scale textual structures” rather than the “pages” of electronic books. As she makes her case, Fitzpatrick acknowledges challenges and anticipates the arguments of critics. Almost every time I found myself scrawling, “Yes, but…” in the margins, Fitzpatrick answered my concern. For instance, when I thought, “If you’re so committed to networked scholarship, why publish this as a book?”, Fitzpatrick soon explained that in order to reach audiences beyond the already-converted, she wanted to present the argument both in a traditional, book form and online. My marginal notation: “I buy this.”
I like the pacing of each chapter, the way that Fitzpatrick supports her argument with convincing examples but doesn’t get buried too much in the details. I read with keen attention and excitement, eager to see where the argument led. However, I sometimes found myself wanting more evidence, hoping that she would explore the nuances of particular ideas, or thinking about related topics that might be worth exploring. (I should acknowledge that I’m only looking at sample of the book and that the evidence I’m after may be furnished in another section.) In particular, I believe Fitzpatrick should delve more into the economic and legal dimensions of scholarly communication. What costs are associated with networked scholarly communication? Who will assume these costs, and how will they be covered? How should intellectual property rights be assigned—should reviewers and authors alike agree to Creative Commons licenses to encourage open commentary and reuse? Where do scholarly remixes fit into Fitzpatrick’s argument—for instance, Connexions’ open, modular approach to creating course content, or Chris Kelty’s recently launched project to foster remixes of his new book on open source/free software (http://twobits.net/modulate/)? Is open access necessary to facilitate the kind of open conversation that Fitzpatrick calls for, given that not everyone is at an institution that subscribes to often expensive online journals? I think Fitzpatrick could offer fresh insights on open access by examining it from the social perspective that underlies her work.
While I don’t want Fitzpatrick to lose her focus, perhaps she could address the significance of academic disciplines in informing academics’ attitudes towards networked scholarship. For instance, why is it that physicists are willing to share their work through ArXiv, but you don’t find many English professors posting preprints online? With the recent emphasis by the NSF, ACLS and other organizations on developing a cyberinfrastructure for scholarship and supporting collaboration, I also think Fitzpatrick could address the role of networked scholarship in the cyberinfrastructure. Even though Fitzpatrick acknowledges the obstacles facing scholarly publishing, particularly the conservatism of academic institutions, I do think she could discuss in more detail strategies for encouraging academics to participate in social networks. For instance, in “Why Web 2.0 is failing in Biology,” David Crotty examines a number of factors preventing the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in the sciences, such as researchers’ lack of time, inertia, and the inappropriateness of tools (http://www.cshblogs.org/cshprotocols/2008/02/14/why-web-20-is-failing-in-biology/). As Fitzpatrick argues, developing the technological infrastructure for networked scholarship is not the hard part—changing academic culture is. Fitzpatrick suggests that participation could be encouraged if reviews of scholarship were themselves reviewed and rewarded—a fascinating idea, but also, it seems, one that is difficult to implement given the emphasis of academia on original research. Fitzpatrick argues that to remain relevant and vibrant, scholarship must change—but how will this change be sparked?
Fitzpatrick has already put together an impressive bibliography. Reading this stimulating proposal brought to mind several other works, projects and questions that might be worth considering:
– Given her focus on networked scholarship, perhaps Fitzpatrick could address the notion of “social scholarship,” articulated, for instance, in a blog post by Laura Cohen (http://liblogs.albany.edu/library20/2007/04/social_scholarship_on_the_rise.html).
– John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information is a key work on community, technology and knowledge building that might be relevant here.
– Fitzpatrick’s point about the conservatism of the academy would be reinforced by recent studies on academics’ attitudes toward digital scholarship, particularly Ithaka’s studies of faculty and librarians and Diane Harley and colleagues’ work as part of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Berkeley.
– I expected to see some references to efforts to establish peer review mechanisms for digital scholarship, such as NINES. See, for instance, Jerome McGann’s “Information Technology and the Troubled Humanities”.
– Regarding the proposed chapter on authorship, it seems that one factor holding back experiments with authoring is the lack of appropriate tools—I know of no easy way to author a rich, non-linear, multimodal scholarly work. For instance, the Vectors journal must provide a lot of technical support to authors in realizing their vision for multimodal scholarship. Chapter 2 might be an ideal place to discuss Sophie, but I didn’t see it mentioned in the book proposal.
– I’m curious what Fitzpatrick makes of the Open Humanities Press, which is addressing humanities scholars’ suspicion of electronic publishing by assembling a top-notch editorial board, taking advantage of the reputation economy. I’d also be interested to get her thoughts on academic presses’ experiments with digital publication, e.g. the University of Virginia Press, University of Michigan Press, Duke UP, MIT Press, UC Press, Gutenberg-e, etc. Fitzpatrick refers to the recent Ithaka report on academic publishing, but a more thorough discussion might be worthwhile.
– What can be done to encourage grad students to engage in networked scholarship—to what extent does academic training need to change? I’m thinking, for instance, of the Carnegie Foundation’s recent report on graduate education that emphasized the importance of intellectual community to the success of graduate students. How could this idea be extended to social networks?
What audiences do you envision for the work?
Planned Obsolescence should interest anyone with a stake in the future of scholarly publishing: faculty members, whose careers are determined in part by their ability to find publishers for their work; graduate students, who are being trained to participate in the system; administrators, who use the existing peer review system to evaluate work of their faculty; librarians, who purchase and curate published works; academic publishers; and others interested in networked communications. It’s pitched particularly to the humanities, but I think it has broader relevance.
How teachable is this book, and do you see potential in it for course adoption-if so, which courses?
This book could stimulate rich discussions in a range of courses, but I especially see it being adopted in courses on library and information science and graduate courses on research and professional skills. I could also see it being used in departmental seminars that examine professional issues as well as media studies courses.
Do you recommend we publish this work?
Yes. Planned Obsolescence offers a fresh, compelling analysis of the state of scholarly publishing and how it might be transformed not only through the adoption of new technologies, but also through building networked communities and encouraging new academic practices.
Do you have any other suggestions or comments?
I do have some picky comments about a couple of chapters:
Chapter 1, on peer review, expertly dissects the various claims made to justify traditional approaches to peer review and offers a compelling alternative view: peer review should be about supporting conversation, not credentialing. I particularly like Fitzpatrick’s point that the design of Nature’s experiment with online, open peer review failed to give authors an opportunity to revise based on comments from reviewers. Given Fitzpatrick’s recommendation that scholarly works be published first, then reviewed, and presumably then revised, more needs to be said about versioning. In footnote 4, Fitzpatrick briefly alludes to the ways in which librarians rather than scholars have analyzed the changes in how intellectual authority works online, but doesn’t really dig into the point—I’d either expand it, cut it, or promise to develop it further in the final chapter on libraries.
Chapter 3, on CommentPress, persuasively argues that we should shift our focus on electronic textuality from pages to structures, from discrete ebooks to networked texts, from individual authors to social networks. I found her critique of hypertext particularly refreshing and resonant. Now for the nitpicks:
– Several times Fitzpatrick references figures that aren’t included in the version of the chapter I read. I think including screen shots would help make her descriptions more concrete. Indeed, I think more figures—perhaps even diagrams of different modes of peer review, or models of electronic textuality—could add a visual dimension to the book that would make it all the more compelling.
– I admire the honesty of Fitzpatrick’s acknowledgement in note viii that “What follows is a wholly inadequate series attempts to summarize a vast field,” but perhaps she’s too honest here, diminishing the overall credibility of her argument.
– Given that Fitzpatrick used CommentPress to produce this chapter, I expected a longer meditation—perhaps a paragraph or two—about her experience as an author using CommentPress. I’d also like to know how commentators viewed the review process, particularly the experience of making comments publicly and engaging in a networked conversation with other commentators and the author.
– Re. Fitzpatrick’s claim that PDFs are unmarkable, that’s not exactly true—annotation features are built into the latest versions of the Acrobat software, and one can follow links embedded in PDF files. But her basic point still stands.
– A side-comment: Right now CommentPress just allows discrete comments to be made, like on blogs, rather organizing conversations around different threads, like on discussion boards. Is that design deliberate, or just a reflection of its basis in WordPress?
– On page 21, should it say “not simply interested in the same subject matter as Stephens” rather than Wark?
The last sentence refers to the “textual communications circuit of the future.” Planned Obsolescence really seems to focus on text. What about audio, video, VR, and other forms of multimedia? For instance, YouTube allows video responses—could reviews of scholarly works be posted as video or audio clips rather than text, or would that make the reviews harder to index, skim and ultimately use?