Review of Planned Obsolescence
November 23, 2009
What do you regard as the main argument of the manuscript?
Planned Obsolescence makes a persuasive case for revamping the scholarly publication system, focusing on the social and institutional changes required to make scholarly communication more engaged, collaborative and sustainable in this digital age. It proposes “peer-to-peer” review (rather than peer review), a shift away from an individualist approach to authorship, networked, conversational structures for the monograph, community-based approaches to preservation, and making the university press a core service of the university rather than a cost-recovery operation.
Will the work be a significant and unique contribution to the field? How does it compare to recent related scholarship?
Absolutely. While Planned Obsolescence builds on work such as Willensky’s The Access Principle and Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age, this book makes a vital contribution to the discussion of scholarly communications because it:
- Takes a holistic view of the publishing process, from authorship to peer review to preservation
- Focuses on the humanities monograph, an area that has been neglected in most of the discourse about electronic publishing and open access
- Expertly weaves together the technical and the social
- Offers a media studies perspective on scholarly publishing, delving into the history of publishing practices such as peer review and offering nuanced discussions of the relationships between technology and culture
What do you think of the scholarship, argumentation, and style?
Planned Obsolescence is well-argued, witty and beautifully written—it’s a delight to read. I like Fitzpatrick’s frank, open tone; I never doubt her integrity or feel that she is overselling an idea or making solving a problem seem easier than it will be. Within each chapter, Fitzpatrick structures her argument well, as she first poses a problem, then looks at the historical context or specific examples to demonstrate that “things have not always been like this,” and finally builds to a compelling argument for new approaches. The book coheres well, with the individual chapters connected by an emphasis on community. Still, Fitzpatrick might consider adding a conclusion or afterword that pulls together the various components of the argument and reinforces the main themes.
What audiences do you envision for the work?
Planned Obsolescence already has created a buzz in the digital humanities community, so I anticipate it finding a big audience there. I think it will also appeal to librarians, publishers, academic administrators, humanities faculty, and grad students interested in scholarly communication and professional issues.
How has this version of the manuscript changed since the previous one? Has it improved drastically? Are there still areas for improvement, clarification, or refinement, or has Kathleen addressed them all in this latest iteration?
The manuscript was already quite strong, but it has improved in this iteration. Kathleen has folded in elements that I felt were missing in the earlier (partial) version that I saw, such as discussions of open access and the economics of publishing. The new chapters on preservation and the university address key concerns about electronic publication: how to ensure that scholarship is available for the long-term, and how to pay for it? I appreciated Fitzpatrick’s lucid, engaging discussions of topics such as LOCKSS, CLOCKSS and Portico and the history of university publishing. I think that the first three chapters are, for the most part, in excellent shape; the fourth chapter needs a little tightening, but is also quite strong. As Fitzpatrick acknowledges, the ideas expressed in the fifth chapter are probably the most “speculative” and most likely to provoke debate. Although I don’t think Fitzpatrick needs to provide a detailed economic plan for reforming scholarly publishing and I certainly find real value in stimulating debate, I would like to see more support for her proposal that the university press become a service just like the library or IT organization. (See my specific comments below.)
As I was reading the manuscript, I kept mulling over two questions:
1. What is the relationship between scholarly networks and scholarly publishing?
While most of the book argues for collaborative, networked approaches to scholarly publishing, the final chapter proposes that publishing be supported at the local level, so that university presses would focus on publishing the work of their own faculty. Although I don’t think that local publishing and networked communities are incompatible, I would like to know more about how these two approaches would work together. If publishing occurs at the university level, how would communities be built around particular (sub-) disciplines or topics? In this model, for example, would MediaCommons have a relationship with a particular university press with expertise in media studies, or with all of the university presses with which participating scholars are affiliated? What is the role of scholarly societies in supporting scholarly networks and scholarly publishing? Fitzpatrick points toward a possible answer by suggesting that scholarly societies could filter and curate rather than publish content. Would scholars be more inclined to participate in scholarly networks supported by disciplinary communities rather than by their universities, or are there ways link the two? It seems that the most successful digital repositories have been those with a disciplinary focus—e.g. arXiv and SSRN—rather than those based at universities, although the situation might be different for scholarly monographs rather than pre-prints.
2. What does it take to get scholars to participate in scholarly networks?
Too often ambitious plans for online scholarly collaborations seem to falter because of a lack of sustained participation. Fitzpatrick offers some smart strategies for fostering participation by giving people credit for reviewing and commenting on colleagues’ work, but I think this problem needs to be examined further. As Fitzpatrick suggests, creating community seems to be a “pre-condition” for the success of peer-to-peer review and the collaborative model she’s proposing, so I’d like to learn more about how such scholarly communities can be established and sustained. MediaCommons might provide an instructive case study: how and why was it founded? How are people encouraged to participate? What’s been difficult about developing MediaCommons? Some of the literature on social participation in online communities, e.g. Bruckman & Forte on Wikipedia, might be useful here, as would examples of successful scholarly networks such as Romantic Circles.
Chapter 1 is, I think, the strongest chapter, argued with wit and insight. Fitzpatrick shows how remaking peer review as peer-to-peer review could benefit authors, reviewers, and the scholarly community by providing transparency, credit, and access to scholarly works.
– Footnote 35: “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing among Social Science and Humanities Associations” has been now released at http://www.nhalliance.org/news/humanities-social-science-scholarly-journal-publis.shtml. Also, the sentence “These figures might suggest the importance for the humanities of a continuing review of its communication and credentialing processes” could be more pointed. What should be the outcomes of such a review?
– In note 51, Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the peer-to-peer review system that she is proposing would require “a phenomenal amount of labor,” but suggests that crowdsourcing could provide a solution. How so?
This chapter offers a compelling analysis of how we’re caught between 18th notions of original authorship and 21st century remix culture and makes the case that we need to move toward collaboration, writing as a process, and remix. It provides an excellent discussion of versioning, linking and commenting, one that I would recommend to colleagues not familiar with blogging. But I wonder about another feature of blogging, one associated with linking: embedding. What’s the significance of embedding—for instance, the way that In Media Res embeds videos that “curators” select, both pulling in content created by others into the flow of the argument and linking out to it? Could embedding facilitate the twenty-first century equivalent of the commonplace book?
– Is there a word missing in this (rather lengthy) sentence on p. 99?:
“As numerous recent explorations of the history of copyright and intellectual property have demonstrated, the original reasoning behind this legal protection of authors’ rights over the distribution and use of their texts was the assumption that such protections would reserve to [creators?] the ability to benefit financially from their labor, if there were benefits to be gained, thereby encouraging new invention and production.”
– Fitzpatrick briefly describes Creative Commons licenses, but doesn’t really say whether they should be adopted by scholars embracing the “gift economy.” If scholars want to promote remix and sharing, don’t they need to be explicit about how their work may be used?
– This chapter gives a good discussion of versioning, but it might be useful to include a screenshot from Wikipedia or another source illustrating versioning in action. (The figures were not included in my copy of the manuscript, so I may be missing something that will be present in the book.)
– Fitzpatrick claims that blogging enabled her to pull her ideas together and see areas that needed further development, but a specific example would be helpful. For instance, can she point to a particular passage that was improved through the feedback given via blogging?
– The final section of the chapter, “from text to… something more,” contains some smart thinking about multimodal works, but it seems abbreviated. Fitzpatrick says what “multimodal” is not, but doesn’t really give an explicit definition for the term. Although I know the focus of the book is on written text, I think the analysis could be made more concrete if a couple of examples of multimodal scholarship were provided. Vectors might furnish an interesting example, given that producing a Vectors essay is itself collaborative process involving the author(s), designer and programmer.
The chapter makes the important argument that we need to think about the future of the codex (rather than print) and create new textual structures. I find the critique of hypertext persuasive, as well as the idea that it’s the binding that makes a book a book. Fitzpatrick makes a nice turn in suggesting that in re-conceiving texts as electronic media, we need to think about how they operate in/as social networks. In discussing “database-driven scholarship,” Fitzpatrick might offer more analysis of curation as a form of scholarship, and about how curation can provide the basis for conversation. For example, both NINES and Omeka use the term “exhibits” to describe scholarly selection of and commentary on digital objects. What does she make of the “exhibit” as a form of scholarship?
– There is a long, awkwardly constructed sentence on p. 146:
“Bringing together the modes of interaction between readers and texts that CommentPress fosters with the modes of interaction among texts that are produced by database-driven scholarship of projects such as NINES — creating a publishing platform that will not only allow for ease of reading and for engaging discussion, but also for the curation and remix of existing texts and digital objects into more new exciting kinds of texts — could finally result in a digital mode of publishing that doesn’t just rival but indeed outdo the codex.”
– The phrase “convincingly argued” is a little overused (twice on p. 123).
This chapter continues the focus on community by arguing that preservation is more of a social than technical problem. I like the arc of the argument, exemplified both at the beginning of the process through standards development and at the end through collaborative preservation initiatives such as CLOCKSS. Fitzpatrick provides a concise summary of the differences between LOCKSS and Portico.
– Fitzpatrick may want to describe the difficulties of preserving scholarly digital projects that are often founded by a passionate scholar who then moves on to other work, leaving the scholarly web site in limbo. Developing such projects in collaboration with an institution such as a library or a university press may help to ensure their preservation.
– I agree that standards such as TEI are important, but I would suggest acknowledging some of the challenges in implementing these standards, particularly the time, expertise and resources required to mark up and publish a text. Authoring tools that make it easy to create content and conform to standards might be part of the solution.
– As part of the argument about preservation and open access, it might be worth noting that adopting Creative Commons licenses facilitates replication of content, so that “many copies” can legally be redistributed.
– On institutional repositories, I don’t really agree that they lack “the ability to migrate or emulate their contents on newer platforms as needed.” For instance, the DSpace software was designed with preservation in mind and offers several tools for ensuring the long-term integrity of data. (See, for instance, Smith, “External Bits,” http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/external-bits/0). DuraSpace is working on a community framework for digital preservation. Likewise, the MetaArchive Cooperative is using LOCKSS software to preserve digital assets in IRs from participating institutions.
Ultimately, it seems, many arguments for open access publishing get hung up on the question of how to make it economically feasible. I’m intrigued by Fitzpatrick’s recommendation that publishing be re-positioned as a core service of the university like IT and libraries, but these services, too, are being challenged to cut costs and find new economic models. Providing greater economic support to university presses at a time of significant cutbacks will be a big political challenge, as Fitzpatrick recognizes. But, as Fitzpatrick also suggests, universities have a strong interest in disseminating research by their faculty, as demonstrated by the launch of the Futurity web site. I think that skeptical readers might be more convinced that reform of scholarly publishing is possible if they were made aware of promising projects such as SCOAP3, Open Humanities Press, and Athabasca University Press. I like the analogy that the press can bring the university to the world just as the library brings the world to the university, which nicely captures the important service that the university press can provide.
Perhaps two of the most significant concerns that people will raise about the re-orientation of academic presses around the local university are the risk of being seen as a vanity press and the difficulties for scholars at institutions without a press. Fitzpatrick deftly turns the “vanity press” fear by suggesting that having a outstanding press will be a competitive advantage for a university, just as having an excellent library is (although the strength of a library’s collection matters less in this highly-networked environment). But I wonder: If universities have strengths in particular disciplinary areas, wouldn’t it make sense for them to continue to focus on these areas rather than publish the work of faculty more generally? Will they publish everything produced by faculty and use peer-to-peer review to filter content, or will some faculty work go into, say, the institutional repository rather than be formally published by the press? My larger concern, though, is how faculty at institutions without presses will disseminate their work. The AAUP has 125 members (few if any associated with liberal arts institutions); there are almost 6000 institutions of higher education in the United States. Fitzpatrick suggests that “press-less” institutions could pay other university presses for providing publishing services to faculty, but wouldn’t that disadvantage those at institutions that cannot afford (or refuse to pay) such charges? Isn’t this approach similar to the “author-pays” model of open access publishing that Fitzpatrick aptly criticizes?
Certainly the “publishing-as-service” model that Fitzpatrick suggests is compelling and should be part of the solution to the publishing crisis, but I do think that the situation is complex and other approaches are probably also required. Planned Obsolescence emphasizes the importance of the community, so why not look actively to community-based solutions to make publishing more efficient? How can publishers avoid replicating efforts and instead share expertise and resources through consortial publishing operations, common software development projects, etc.? Fitzpatrick briefly mentions that publishing consortia could be established, similar to library collection-sharing cooperatives, but I’d like to hear more. Perhaps Fitzpatrick could discuss the recently announced collaboration by NYU, Penn, Temple & Rutgers to investigate establishing a consortium for e-book publishing (http://www.fromthesquare.org/?p=563).
I understand and agree with Fitzpatrick’s insistence that publishing be treated as a fundamental part of a university’s mission and freed from the cost recovery burden, but I do think the argument would be more convincing if she pointed to some ways that costs could be lowered, such as through the adoption of software that decreases publishing expenses (another recommendation of the Brown et al report). For instance, it might be worth looking at the Open Journals Systems, which appears to have lowered the administrative and technological costs associated with journal publishing. Now the OJS model is being extended to books through the Open Monograph Press. Some of John Willensky’s recent work may be worth citing here, particularly “Toward the Design of an Open Monograph Press” (http://pkp.sfu.ca/biblio). Fitzpatrick may also wish to cite recent reports about the economic advantages of open access publishing, such as JISC’s “Economic Implications of Alternative Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the costs and benefits.” I’d be interested in hearing more about the institutions that are beginning to move toward the university-based publishing model that’s being suggested here, such as the University of Michigan (which has partnered with Open Humanities Press) and Utah State.
This is an important, well-argued and well-written book, one that is making a substantial contribution to the conversation about the future of scholarly publishing.