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Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

mla task force

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This exchange with Matt, and a number of other conversations that I had in the ensuing months, convinced me to stop thinking about scholarly publishing as a system that would simply bring my work into being, and instead approach it as the object of that work, thinking seriously about both the institutional models and the material forms through which scholarship might best circulate. I began, in early 2004, to discuss in a fairly vague way what it would take to found an all-electronic community-run scholarly press, but it took a while for anything more concrete to emerge. What got things started was a December 2005 report by the online journal Inside Higher Ed on the work that had been done to that point by an MLA task force on the evaluation of scholarship for tenure and promotion, and on the multiple recommendations thus far made by the panel. At the request of the editors of The Valve, a widely-read literary studies focused blog, I wrote a lengthy consideration of the recommendations made by this panel, and extended one of those recommendations to reflect one possible future, in the hopes of opening up a larger conversation about where academic publishing ought to go, and how we might best take it there.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Many of the recommendations put forward by the MLA task force (which were of course later expanded upon in the task force’s final report, published in December 2006) were long in coming, and many stand to change tenure processes for the better; these recommendations include calls for departments:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 * to clarify the communication of tenure standards to new hires via “memorandums of understanding”;

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 * to give serious consideration to articles published by tenure candidates – thus, as I noted, decentering the book as the gold standard of scholarly production – and to communicate that expanded range of acceptable venues for publication to their administrations;

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 * to set an absolute maximum of six letters from outside evaluators that can be required to substantiate a tenure candidate’s scholarly credentials, to draw those evaluators from comparable institutions rather than more prestigious ones, and to refrain from asking evaluators to make inappropriate judgments about the tenure-worthiness of candidates based on the limited portrait that a dossier presents; and, perhaps most importantly, at least for my purposes,

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 * to acknowledge that scholarship of many different varieties is taking place online, and to evaluate that scholarship without media-related bias.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 These were extremely important recommendations, but there was a significant degree of “easier said than done” in the responses that these recommendations, and particularly the last one, received, and for no small reason: these recommendations require a substantive rethinking not simply of the processes through which the academy tenures its faculty, but of the ways those faculty do their work, how they communicate that work, and how that work is read both inside and outside the academy. Those changes cannot simply be technological; they must be both social and institutional. This recognition led me to begin two projects, both aimed at creating the kinds of change I think necessary for the survival of scholarly publishing in the humanities into the twenty-first century.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 The first of these is MediaCommons, which I began working on with the support of the Institute for the Future of the Book in January 2006. MediaCommons is a developing all-electronic scholarly publishing network focused on media studies, first launched in an alpha stage as “making MediaCommons” in October 2006, with three main sections – In Media Res, an ongoing feature focusing on just-in-time commentary on media texts; the blog, which chronicled the site’s development; and an initial call for experimental papers. In February 2007, I published the first full-length article on MediaCommons, using an early prototype of CommentPress, as a means of testing the format’s capacity for producing discussion of a text, and thus the role that it might play in a net-native peer review process. Development on the site slowed dramatically in 2008, however, as we underwent a major software migration, in the midst of which hackers managed to inflict enough damage on the old site that our developers decided it was better just to take it offline for the time being rather than to stop work on the new site in order to repair the old one. The rollout of the new, improved MediaCommons began in early 2009, and is still continuing, with new features (including Tim Anderson’s podcast, The Lion’s Share, as well as a blog aggregator called In Syndication) and plans for more. Working on this project has taught me several things that I mostly knew already, but hadn’t fully internalized, one of which is of course that any software development project will inevitably take far longer than you could possibly predict at the outset, and the second, and most important, is that no matter how slowly such software development projects move, the rate of change within the academy is positively glacial in comparison.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 5 And it’s my need to advocate for such change that has led to this project, the one you’re reading now. For while there have been numerous publications in the last few years that have argued for the need for new systems and practices in scholarly publishing, including, just to name two, John Willinsky’s The Access Principle and Christine Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age, these arguments too often fail to account for the fundamentally conservative nature of academic institutions and – the rhetoric of a David Horowitz notwithstanding – the similar conservatism of the academics that comprise them. In the main, we’re extraordinarily resistant to change in our ways of working; it is not without reason that a senior colleague once joked to me that the motto of our institution (one that I think might usefully be extended to the academy as a whole) could well be “We Have Never Done It That Way Before.” As Donald Hall has noted, scholars often resist applying the critical skills that we bring to our subject matter to an examination of “the textuality of our own profession, its scripts, values, biases, and behavioral norms” (Hall xiv); such self-criticism is a risky endeavor, and those of us who have been privileged enough to succeed within the extant system are often reluctant to bite the hand that feeds us. Changing our technologies, changing our ways of doing research, changing our modes of production and distribution of the results of that research, are all crucial to the continued vitality of the academy – and yet none of those changes can possibly come about unless there is first a profound change in the ways of thinking of scholars themselves. Until scholars really believe that publishing on the web is as valuable as publishing in print – and more importantly, until they believe that their institutions believe it, too – few will be willing to risk their careers on a new way of working, with the result that that new way of working will remain marginal and undervalued.

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/introduction/mla-task-force/