debating the humanities—how u presses can best compete in the post-digital landscape

Plenary 3 took the “crisis in the Humanities" as read, treating it as backdrop to an analysis of how u presses can enhance their role(s) in the post-digital landscape, specifically in light of the struggles humanities departments face; what to hang on to, what to look forward to, and what to explore.

Fred Nachbaur (Director, Temple University Press) kicked things off with a nod to la crise by showing results of a recent Google search on the subject—yielding 10.2M hits (second slide). Nachbaur then pointed to the AAUP taskforce report on Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses, properly identifying it as a must read for this and most every discussion in 2011-12. Assuming everyone had happened on one or two of the above, the panel dove in. Nachbaur ran panelists through a gauntlet of questions; ensuing debate can be heard in the AAUP recording; highlights are as follows.

Avoiding all “mimicry of traditional forms” when exploring digital opportunities was roundly emphasized as “absolutely vital” for u presses from here on out; indeed, approaches for “enabling the scholarly discussion” were stressed over “publishing solutions” per se.

“Collaborative scholarship” was touted as “the next point of tension.”

Monographs took some shots—but also found champions. Can there be a “plan b” for publishing theses that are clearly for tenure-review purposes only, while still holding “plan a” publishing for authors who write something of broader interest. Frank J. Donoghue, (Associate Professor of English, Ohio State University), hoped there would be, citing the long-form argument as something of unique value that we will need to protect. Bob Stein, (Founder and Co-Director of the Institute of the Future of the Book) added that the monograph may take new forms—he also promised a view to a sample of possible things to come in the next session, Exploring New Models for Scholarly Publishing.

Discussion lingered on and returned to peer-review. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, (Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College), allowed that in many cases the peer-review process could be held in an open forum; that readers and authors are often known to one another (or they figure it out as things proceed), and that if the peer-review process were opened up to the public, before, during, or after, it might lead to new, fruitful exchanges for all concerned, ones that could advance the interests of scholarship and publishing alike.

Reader reports and possibly exchanges with authors could “prime the pump” of interest and further debate and drive sales well in advance of publication. Clearly each discipline may embrace such an approach differently, and the degree to which it could be done live/without a net would have to be examined. Debate ensued accordingly, but all agreed, as Donoghue put it: “the pros far outweigh the cons,” and they recommended that u presses consider exploring open peer review in some instances.

So here again, as others had throughout the meeting, panelists encouraged u presses to hold our contributions above and beyond the peer-review process (i.e., before and after) as the real value-added benefit that u presses bring to the table; that the imprimatur of the editor and press is unimpeachably distinct from the peer review process itself and that therein our expertise lies. I.e., what sets us apart is not that we manage peer review really, really well, but rather that we publish peer-reviewed content expertly well—we have the unique, learned skill set of having intercourse with academe during our publishing process; we advisedly select work for peer review, and make expert publishing decisions based on the issue. Or so the panel left us to consider.

Opening up peer review in certain disciplines is further intriguing in the context of our next session, Exploring New Business Models for University Presses, as Fitzpatrick was, in essence, holding the resultant content of peer review apart as a new product (even if a free or promotional one), and the hosting of the peer review in a public forum as a potential new service.

Makes one wonder: Would peer review have evolved differently within the humanities if current technologies had been in place from the hop, and given what technology may be crafted to support, where might we go from here?