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Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

from individual to collaborative

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Beyond this, however, it is also important to recognize that even if we never return to an article and revise it after it’s been published online, the article’s meaning will nonetheless shift and change depending on the ways that other writers interact with it, as links to and from other texts, past and future, will expand the text’s connections within the network. This has of course always been true of scholarship — critical authority exists in a state of continual reassessment, as new texts are published and fields grow and transform — but print publishing hasn’t made the changes produced by a text’s reception and the responses to it quite so materially evident. In a digital publishing environment, the links among texts are literal, and thus each text published exists in direct interaction with those to which it is linked. Even further, comments left on a digitally published text will expand not only its meaning but indeed the text itself through the ongoing give-and-take of discussion in that text’s margins.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 We are thus presented with another point of potential anxiety for the author considering digital publication, as the relationship between this give-and-take and the text that it alters is itself a nervous one. While the reviews of a published book may well affect its reception, they don’t change the text itself; similarly, articles that respond to or argue with previously published articles don’t leave traces on the original text. We are very much accustomed to drawing boundaries around our texts, understanding them to be separate from those of other authors. In fact, our understanding of authorship is in part contingent upon such separation; the name of the author imprinted on a text serves as a kind of contract with the reader, indicating that the text has been at least primarily, and preferably wholly, written by that individual, and thus that text must be clearly separable from the texts that it cites, or that it is cited by.[2.17] The interconnections of the network, however, make some of those boundaries between texts a bit fuzzy, and that fuzziness can be quite troubling to our understanding of the relationship between our work and the work of others. As Bloch and Hesse note in thinking about the complex structures of future textual collections, “for some, this conception of the library as an ever-expanding web of intellectual freeplay is, again, the source of profound anxiety, rooted in the fear of losing a cherished liberal conception of cultural authority: the self-contained individually authored text, whose author can be held accountable to a reading public” (7). What, exactly, will we be given credit for — or held accountable for — when our texts form part of a larger network, when other authors’ responses appear within the same frame as our own writing? How will the multivocality of such texts transform our sense of authority?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 It’s obvious, but still bears pointing out, that such anxieties will be most pronounced in those fields, predominantly within the humanities, in which single authorship is the norm. As Christine Borgman points out in Scholarship in the Digital Age, “[t]he humanities are at the opposite extreme from the sciences, where ‘collective cognition’ is valued. They have the lowest rates of coauthorship and collaboration of the disciplines, with the higher rates of collaboration occurring in digital projects. E-Research is expected to promote collaboration in the humanities, due to the size of projects and the range of expertise required” (219-20). Certainly such large-scale projects as those Borgman imagines will necessitate a form of multiple authorship that resembles that in common practice in many of the natural and social sciences, and this development will require us, again, to rethink the ways that we give “credit” for publications, as many scholars in the humanities report difficulty having their coauthored publications taken seriously as part of their record of production.[2.18] But we need as well to reconsider the individualism with which we approach our authorship with respect to projects for which we would continue to consider ourselves “sole authors.” If, as Mark Poster suggests, digital writing “separates the author from the text, as does print, but also mobilizes the text so that the reader transforms it, not simply in his or her mind or in his or her marginalia, but in the text itself so that it may be redistributed as another text” (What’s the Matter 68), networked writing will require us to forge a new understanding of the relationship between the author and the reader, and between the reader and his or her own authorship practices. To some extent, all of the texts published in networked environments will become multi-author, by virtue of their interpenetration with the writings of others; our task will be, first, to acknowledge the ways that our work has always been collaborative, relying upon texts that precede and follow, and second, to understand the collective not as the elimination of the individual, but rather as composed of individuals — not as a hive mind within which we all become drones, but as a fertile community composed of multiple intelligences, each of which is always working in relationship with others.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 These relationships may be partnerships; dozens of articles, written by scholars from across the disciplines, have pointed to the benefits of collaborative authorship. Many of these articles, however, particularly those originating outside of the field of rhetoric and composition, point toward “increased productivity” as a primary benefit of collaboration, a phrase that should either raise specters of old forgotten Soviet jokes about new tractors and five-year plans or remind us of Readings’s assessment of the university’s drive to produce competitive quantities of intellectual capital.[2.19] Other benefits, however, resulting from the combination of collaborators’ different knowledge bases as researchers and strengths as writers, include the potential for “increased creativity and deepened analysis of research questions and data” (Mullen and Kochan 130) — not just more work, in other words, but better work, and a more enjoyable work process: “Researchers who collaborate with others to accomplish mutual aims can experience a fertile synergy that enhances the work of all” (Mullen and Kochan 128), in no small part by reducing the loneliness and isolation of writing itself.[2.20]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 However, the kinds of collaboration I’m interested in need not necessarily result in literal co-authorship; given what Ede and Lunsford refer to as the “socially constructed nature of writing — its inherently collaborative foundation” (355), even the work that appears to take place in isolation nonetheless remains part of a fundamentally social process, as each author writes with and against the writings of others. The shift that I’m calling for may therefore be less radical than it initially sounds — less a call necessarily for writing in groups than for a shift in our focus from the individualistic parts of our work to those that are more collective, more socially situated. In some sense, when we write, we are entering into conversation with the scholars with whom we work, both those whom we have read and those who will read us; focusing on this social mode of conversation, rather than becoming obsessed with what we, unique individuals that we are, have to say, may produce better exchanges. One need not literally share authorship of one’s texts in order to share the process of writing those texts themselves; the collaboration that digital publishing networks may inspire might parallel, for instance, the writing groups in which many scholars already share their work, seeking feedback while the work is in process.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 That mode of sharing work, however, takes on a new resonance in the network, as the responses to the text appear in the same form, and the same frame, as the text itself. Moreover, the openness of such digital practices produces concerns for many writers about sharing material too soon. It’s no accident that both Tim and Laura indicated in their conference papers that one of the most significant anxieties produced by the thought of writing-in-public is that of being “scooped” — of giving away our ideas, such that they no longer remain “ours,” before we’ve had a chance to mark our authorial imprint upon them. Of course, authorship has always been, in part, a practice of giving ideas away; one of the key notions behind the “death” of the author is the recognition that, at the moment of publication, the author cedes all control over the text and the meanings drawn from it to its readers, as well as to future authors’ characterizations of the text. Electronic publishing, particularly of the sort that shifts its focus from final, closed products to open-ended processes, will require creating new understandings of the movement of ideas from one author to another, of associating texts and ideas with authors, and of accounting for the ways that we influence and are influenced by our colleagues, as we read and comment upon their texts, and as they incorporate our readings and comments as well.[2.21]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 That we cling to a profound individualism in thinking about scholarly productivity, however, is relatively easy to see: as Ede and Lunsford point out, no matter how much we might claim to privilege collaboration, the multi-author dissertation remains literally unthinkable; when it comes to assessment, every tub, as it were, must sit on its own bottom. And so, the many texts published in the last decades calling for reform, for the acceptance, if not the privileging, of collaboration in the humanities — including Ede and Lunsford’s Singular Texts/Plural Authors, David Damrosch’s We Scholars, and so on — have gone more or less unheeded. Network-based publishing technologies, however, add a new impetus for scholars to revisit these issues, to face down our individualism, as the network’s interconnections among texts reveal the porous boundaries of their authorship, making collaboration all but unavoidable.

  • These assumptions about singular authorship have of course given rise not only to the devaluation of coauthored texts, to which I now turn my attention, but also to concerns about plagiarism and appropriation, and to the scholarly citation practices intended to mitigate them. I’ll turn to those issues in the next section.
  • See Joseph Harris: “almost all the routine forms of marking an academic career — CVs, annual faculty activity reports, tenure and promotion reviews — militate against [collaboration] by singling out for merit only those moments of individual ‘productivity,’ the next article or grant or graduate course” (quoted in Ede and Lunsford 356).
  • See, for instance, Fox and Faver: “the separation of tasks and the joining of specializations may enable collaborators to increase their efficiency” (349). See also Austin and Baldwin, Gelman and Gibelman, Neubauer and Brewer, and Hart.
  • It should be noted, of course, that all of these scholars point as well to the costs involved in collaboration, which can include slower production (through delays incurred in waiting for collaborators’ responses), higher research expenses (incurred in travel and communication), and emotional requirements (incurred in the need to maintain good working relationships in circumstances that can be trying). New digital technologies can potentially, at least, reduce the financial costs of collaboration.
  • The irony, of course, is that while electronic publishing creates anxieties about our ideas being appropriated, it in fact presents a kind of protection against such thefts; when I publish a blog post containing part of an argument I’m working on, that blog post is time-stamped, thus creating material evidence that I wrote those words then. If anything, that evidence should powerfully mitigate against our ideas being stolen.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/two-authorship/from-individual-to-collaborative/