How to Hack Academic Book Publishing in Two (Not So) Easy Steps

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

The book based on the Hacking the Academy project is now online and soon will be available in print from Digital Culture Books, the innovative open access imprint of the University of Michigan Press – also known as MPub. This publishing enterprise, integrated into the library and beyond, is where you should look if you want to know what the open future could look like.

It’s marvelous that this book is coming out just as Joshua Kim is wondering why a university press book he would like to read is priced at $69.50. (It’s a delicious irony that the book is on how university management has led to a drift away from the academy’s true purpose.) Essentially, Hacking the Academy demonstrates how new technologies and new attitudes can revolutionize the creation and distribution of scholarship. It also demonstrates that it’s not as easy as it looks. More about that later.

The book is a collection of intelligently-articulated and provocative ideas submitted via Twitter within a single week on the subject of how we can rethink the academy – teaching, learning, scholarship, libraries, and everything related to what we do. I have harvested a few provocative points to give a sense of the flavor of the book.

Tad Suiter asks “Why ‘Hacking’? and explains “a hacker is a person who looks at systemic knowledge structures and learns about them from making or doing.” This is exactly how I envision the library being used by students – when it’s working. I hope students will become hackers in this sense of making and doing. Suiter points out that play is also part of the hacker ethos. As I’ve said elsewhere, the OED offers multiple definitions of the word “play”: freedom of movement, a performance of music or theatre, mimetic representation, a setting of one thing against another. Sadly, “engaging in an activity for enjoyment and diversion,” the OED adds, is “now chiefly used of children or young animals.”

What, we can’t enjoy ourselves while engaging in free movement and performance?

In the section on hacking teaching, Jeff Jarvis says (in his title) “Lectures are Bullshit” and compares shifts academics must make to shifts happening in his field of journalism. “Life,” he writes, “is a perpetual beta.” We need to help students learn to deal with that fact. Michael Wesch contributes “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able” pointing out that our academic architecture and course structures are designed for acquiring knowledge, but they work against creating and sharing it. He writes, “our old assumption that information is hard to find, is trumped by the realization that if we set up our hyper-personalized digital network effectively, information can find us.”

That’s worth thinking about. For the experienced scholar it does find us. We know who’s doing what, where the frontiers lie, what the next big thing is. How can we help students develop their own sense of what’s happening and what’s possible? And how can they simultaneously study the unfamiliar landscape of the academy to figure out its terrain while managing the massive amounts of information for which they have few filters? This is a great zen koan for librarians.

Other contributions in this section that I want to read more closely contrast digital storytelling versus to the traditional essay and Larry Cebula’s recipe for “how to read a book in one hour.” (It includes Miller Time.)

There’s lots of interesting stuff in the section on hacking scholarship. Jason Baird Jackson opens it up with five easy steps to get yourself out of the business of publishing – which, given you are not employed by corporate publishers seems wise. The prestige that these publishers control makes these steps a bit tricky. But hey, Open Folklore shows it can be done with panache.David Parry offers another koan for scholars and librarians. “If you publish in a journal which charges for access, you are not published, you are private-ed. To publish means to make public.” He has some incendiary ideas about how to change the system.

Parry also reflects on an essay and response by Brian Coxall who had a proxy present a paper at MLA about why he, as an adjunct, could not present papers at expensive conferences. The paper he didn’t present went viral and had a far greater influence than conference papers generally have. “Brian has a lot of ‘coin’ in the realm of network capital,” Perry writes, “but this hasn’t yielded any ‘coin’ in the realm of bricks and mortar institutions. If we were really seeing the rise of the digital humanities someone like Brian wouldn’t be without a job, and the fact that he published his paper online wouldn’t be such an oddity, it would be standard practice.” My response: it’s unfathomable that one would write a paper and not post it online, unless you really don’t want people to read it. The old expensive conference circuit is an incredibly inefficient way to share knowledge. Isn’t sharing our research exactly what we should be doing – and what we should be rewarding?

And there’s more food for thought. Why are we replicating online the constraints of print, disabling the ability to share, link, compare collections, assemble, disassemble, and recombine? Why do we still limit vetting to two or three readers when many peers can review? Why is Twitter banned at some conferences? Why not replace conferences with unconferences?

As for libraries, Andrew Ashton’s essay, “The Entropic Library” does a nifty job of encapsulating a significant shift. He writes that the entropic library’s “first concern is not to get digital things into the library as new collections, but to get the library to where the digital things are being used, and make them accessible and sustainable.” There’s more on archives, on disciplinary silos, on . . . well, you go read it. It won’t cost you a dime.

But there is an interesting lesson, one Dan Cohen describes in a blog post. It only took a week to get submissions. The surprise was that there were over 300 of them.

In order to turn them into a book, it took months to read and rank all the submissions and decide which to include (and why – developing a “why” also took time). The editors had to squeeze that work in while already busy with other things. The old-fashioned concept of permissions took up loads of time simply because not everyone granted it in a formally articulated way. And the way copyright works (or fails to work), you have to know where you stand legally.

A lot of hours went into taking an online collection of stuff and doing what publishers do: acquire, edit, organize, and edit again. It took time and hard work for all the good reasons that publishing is not without cost.

So that’s the last koan to contemplate: how much does free cost? However that paradox is worked out, it’s worth the price.

Published originally on September 12, 2011, at Inside Higher Ed

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