I’m vastly behind schedule, I’m afraid, but am at last pressing forward with revisions on Planned Obsolescence for the print edition. One of the things that’s been most useful to me in working back through the early parts of the text has been the comments from readers who suggest that I’ve grazed too lightly across a point with larger significance than I realized. As Michael Roy pointed out on the last paragraph of the introduction,

you should consider turning up the volume even further in this section, suggesting that the crisis is not just around scholarly communication, but more generally around higher education in general and liberal arts education in particular. By making this link, you are more apt to capture the attention of presidents and trustees who worry about such things, while not necessarily worrying so much about the details of the tenure system. But the problem is not something that a single college can solve all by itself; there is a way in which you need to differentiate between individual schools that are institutions, and the industry/institution of higher ed. The issues you are grappling with are industry issues that no school all by itself can come to grips with.

So I’ve attempted to do that as I revise, moving from the local issues to that larger significance:

In the end, what I am arguing is that we in the humanities, and in the academy more broadly, face what is less a material obsolescence than an institutional one; we are caught in entrenched systems that no longer serve our needs. But because we are, by and large, our institutions, or rather, because they are us, the greatest challenge we face is not that obsolescence, but our response to it. Like the novelists I studied in my first book, who may feel their cultural centrality threatened by the rise of newer media forms, we can shore up the boundaries between ourselves and the open spaces of intellectual exchange on the internet; we can extol the virtues of the ways things have always been done; we can bemoan our marginalization in a culture that continues marching forward into the digital future ‚Äì and in so doing, we can further undermine our influence on the main threads of intellectual discussion in contemporary public life. The crisis we face, after all, does not stop with the book, but rather extends to the valuation of the humanities within the university, and of institutions of higher education within the culture at large. We tend to dismiss the public disdain for our work and our institutions as a manifestation of the ingrained anti-intellectualism in U.S. culture, and perhaps understandably so, but until we take responsibility for our culture’s sense of our irrelevance, we cannot hope to convince it otherwise. Unless we can find ways to speak with that culture, to demonstrate the vibrancy and the value of the liberal arts, we run the risk of being silenced altogether.

And we will be silenced, unless we can find a way to create new ways of speaking with that culture, and amongst ourselves. We can build institutional supports for the current undead system of scholarly publishing, and we can watch as the profession itself continues its decline. Or we can work to change the ways we communicate and the systems through which we attribute value to such communication, opening ourselves to the possibility that new modes of publishing might enable not just more texts but better texts, not just an evasion of obsolescence but a new life for scholarship. The point, finally, is not whether any one particular technology can provide a viable future for scholarly publishing, but whether we have the institutional will to commit to the development of the systems that will make such technologies viable, and keep them viable into the future.

Peer Review as Dialogue

One of the most exciting parts of Planned Obsolescence for me has of course been the open review process we’ve been conducting at MediaCommons; it’s been fantastic getting speedy, focused feedback from scholars already invested in new digital modes of communication. And NYU Press has been extremely supportive of my desire to test out that review process, to see how it might affect the ways I revise, and the ways the project is received.

But of course the press has some understandable questions about that open process; will the scholars who participate in it be willing to take the same critical risks that more traditional, blind reviewers take in approaching the project? Will they be able to create the same kinds of thoughtful, synthetic response that traditional reviews provide? Will they be better at responding to certain kinds of details than at probing the broader logic of the argument as a whole?

In part as a result of these questions, the press sent the manuscript out to two readers for traditional peer review, first sending them the book proposal and sample chapters prior to extending me an advance contract, and then sending them the completed manuscript at more or less the same time it went up online. Those external reviews are now in, and they’re great, carefully reading and responding to the manuscript as a whole, and pointing the way for some of the revision I’ll be doing in the coming weeks.

The press’s editor-in-chief, Eric Zinner, had a fantastic further idea, though; what if we could get the external reviewers into dialogue with the open reviewers? He asked the reviewers if they’d be willing to participate in our online process, and happily, one of them agreed; Lisa Spiro’s preliminary and second-round reviews are now up alongside the manuscript, available for reader discussion.

Lisa, for those of you who may not know her, is the ideal reviewer for this manuscript; as director of the Digital Media Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library, author of the blog Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, and developer of the Digital Research Tools wiki, she’s been at the forefront of research and practice in new modes of scholarly communication for some time. I’m thrilled to have her response to the manuscript, which is extremely thoughtful and thorough, and even happier to have her agree to engage with the project’s online reviewers.

Many thanks to Lisa and Eric for making this possible, and to the many readers and commenters at Planned Obsolescence for making the project so exciting thus far.


So up inbetween the droning “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod” of the last couple of weeks of the semester, I’ve got some pretty exciting stuff going on. First, I’ve gotten the outside reviews (old-school style) of Planned Obsolescence, and I’m really fired up about them, and looking forward to getting into the revision process. (Plus there’s a bit of other excitement about the reviews, which I’ll be sharing soon.) And it looks like I’m starting to line up some talks in the spring that will bring parts of the book to a series of audiences I’m really hoping to reach: library folks, small college IT leaders, and so forth.

In the meantime, though, there’s this semester to finish, and that article that’s got to be gotten out — oh, right. Today.

More on all this soon.

Planned Obsolescence Updates

There’ve been a few updates on Planned Obsolescence in the last couple of days, most notably that the text is now running in CommentPress 3.1, just released by the Institute for the Future of the Book.

The basic functions of CommentPress 3.1 are much the same as in the early-release version in which Planned Obsolescence was originally posted: readers can comment paragraph-by-paragraph, or page-by-page, discussing a lengthy text in some detail with one another. The site also provides a community blog on which registered users of the site can post and discuss in a more free-form fashion. But the 3.1 software release adds a number of nifty features:

— All readers, registered or unregistered, can now also leave comments on the text in its entirety, via the “general comments” page.
— Comments can now be explored in themselves, not only as comments-by-page, but also as comments-by-author, and each comment read this way links back to the comment in its context within the original text.
— The toolbar has also been significantly streamlined, and it now provides drop-down table-of-contents access at any point in the text.

CommentPress 3.1 is a WordPress plugin that can be used with your own WordPress theme, or with the included CommentPress theme.

So far, my experiments with CommentPress as a review tool have been quite positive; though many of the folks I’d like to get feedback on Planned Obsolescence from have been (I assume) too busy this fall to get to it, those readers who have commented have left me great advice that will be extremely helpful in my upcoming revisions.

But I’m still seeking more feedback, of course. And I’m looking forward to some upcoming new MediaCommons Press publications.

Planned Obsolescence Community Blog

(cross-posted, with some edits for clarity, from the other Planned Obsolescence)

So I left a post on the blog associated with the book project the other day, driven by the fact that I’d woken up in the middle of the night thinking, gee, where will readers of Planned Obsolescence do the kind of summary, synthetic commenting that attempts to make connections across the book? Not knowing how else to manage it, I figured I’d start an open thread, and let anybody who wanted to leave non-site-specific comments do so there.

As it turns out, however, the CommentPress installation that the book is published in runs in this nifty software package called multi-user WordPress — you may have heard of it! — which allows blogs to have as many authors as the blog’s owner (that would be me) would like. And those authors can create posts themselves, can organize discussion themselves, can tag their ideas themselves, and so on.

Boy, it’s amazing what these blogs can do!


So… the short of it is that the developers have woken me the rest of the way up and shown me how to provide a much more free-form space for open discussion of the book. All you have to do is register for an account over there by clicking “Log In” in the toolbar, and then clicking “Register” under the login form. Those of you who’ve already created accounts have been made authors, so you now have full posting privileges; I’ll add those privileges for other registered users as they appear.

I hope you’ll use that blog however you would like, to have any discussions around the book that you’d like. I’ll be interested to follow along!

Planned Obsolescence: Now Online

Today’s the day: the project that I’ve been working on for the last year and a half is at last live and open for your reading and commenting pleasure. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy will, if all goes according to plan, come out in print sometime next year from NYU Press, but it’s available right now, in commentable form, via MediaCommons Press.

Today’s also the day I get to unveil MediaCommons Press itself, a project we’ve been working toward for several months now. MediaCommons Press is the second major project hosted by MediaCommons, and it is dedicated, as the header has it, to open scholarship in open formats. MediaCommons Press hopes to promote the digital publication of texts ranging from article- to monograph-length, in forms ranging from the traditional to the experimental, serving all areas of scholarship in media studies.

So, with these two announcements together, today’s the day I put my money where my mouth is, both by demonstrating the effectiveness of the MediaCommons publishing model and demonstrating, as I argue most strongly for in the book, the importance of open online peer review.

I hope you’ll come by and join the discussion. And I also hope you’ll consider joining in by publishing with us. MediaCommons has developed into a thriving community network in media studies; we’re excited to take the first steps today in transforming that network into a viable, community-based scholarly publishing system.

Um… Is This Thing On?

Oh. Hi there! Gee, um… long time no see.

So I’ve just five minutes ago submitted the book manuscript that I’ve been working on for the last bit. (And just FYI, the deadline was today. And I took the last two days to fiddle with formatting, proofreading, screenshot collection, and the like. I’m stunned to be on time, because honestly, I never thought I’d make it.)

Anyhow, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking to myself, you know, one of the nice things about finishing the manuscript will be that I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’ve got some projects in the pipeline, don’t get me wrong, but no big, focused Project. Which means that I’m actually going to get to pay attention to the small things — which is to say that I’m going to get to be a blogger again.

The first order of business, however, is knocking a few things off the to-do list, where they’ve languished all summer while I sprinted for the finish line. And then I’m going to be working on getting the manuscript posted online, at MediaCommons, for open review. I hope that participating in the discussions coming out of that review process will constitute my primary scholarly work for the fall — and so I hope that you’ll come by and read and leave me whatever feedback you have to share.

Which is to say that I’ll be haranguing you to do so. But hopefully I’ll be able to pay attention to other things going on in the world, too…

The Cost of Peer Review and the Future of Scholarly Publishing

As is being discussed a good bit around the academic blogo-/twittersphere this morning, Jennifer Howard reports in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education on a new report soon to be released by a committee organized by the National Humanities Alliance, entitled “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations.” This report seems to have a couple of compelling findings: first, that the per-article cost of journal publishing in the humanities and social sciences is more than three times as much as in the science, technical, and medical (a.k.a. STM) fields, and second, that this increased cost is due in no small part to the increased selectivity of those journals. Where the STM journals under study (which seem to be primarily the official journals of learned societies) have an acceptance rate of around 42 percent, the humanities and social science journals publish about 11 percent of submissions. Journal articles in these fields also tend to be about 50% longer, meaning fewer articles per journal issue. The tighter pre-publication filtering needs of these journals results in an extremely heightened expense for peer review in humanities and social science journals, resulting in a per-published-article cost nearly four times that of STM journals. And given that, as the Howard article notes, the author-pays model of journal funding will never work in the humanities, where the vast majority of research is either self-funded or funded by the author’s home institution, something else has got to change if journal publishing is going to remain feasible.

So here’s a wacky thought, one I’ve been writing and talking about for a while now: what if we stop doing pre-publication peer review? It’s of course the economics of print that require such gatekeeping — because there can only be so many pages and so many issues of any given journal, we end up only being able to publish a little over a tenth of the material submitted. But if the primary venue for the journal is the internet — and really, honestly, how many of a journal article’s readers come to it first through the print version? — then those economics radically shift. We’re no longer constrained by the bounds of what we can print and ship, but instead by what we can put into our publishing format. In that case, we’d be much better served, I believe, by eliminating pre-publication peer review. Perhaps the journal’s editorial staff reads everything quickly to be sure it’s in the most basic sense appropriate for the venue (i.e., written in the right language, about a subject in the field, not manifestly insane), but then everything that gets past that most minimal threshold gets made available to readers — and the readers then do the peer review, post-publication.

It’s those readers, after all, who are the article’s true peers, not the two or three editor-selected reviewers who now give the article the up-or-down vote. It makes no sense for the labor of the same small set of reviewers to be drawn upon again and again when there’s the potential for more broadly and fairly distributing that work. And it makes no sense for article publishing to be subject to the crazy delays that now hold a lot of work hostage, first waiting for the peer reviews to come in, and then waiting for the journal’s backlog of accepted articles to clear out. Why shouldn’t readers be able to read and respond to that work right away, and why shouldn’t that reading and response constitute the article’s peer review?

This of course depends on the assumption that readers will actually bother to respond — that they’ll be sufficiently committed to the maintenance of the collective enterprise of the publication that they’ll take the time to comment on and review submitted articles (as opposed to the mostly anonymous peer reviewers of today, who have proven themselves willing to do that work). One way to ensure such participation might be a pay-to-play model, in which readers are asked to do a certain amount of reviewing in order to earn the “credit” required to submit an article.

But another, even more basic, assumption made by such a model is that the “journal” function will continue to exist in a fully networked publishing model. After all, there would be no particular point in waiting for some arbitrary moment to release an “issue,” when new material could be made available as it is ready. A more likely scenario is that we develop either institutional or disciplinary publishing systems that function like blogs, featuring new articles (or texts of whatever length, as those restrictions fade away as well) as they appear, but keeping the archives available and in play in perpetuity.

This is the kind of publishing model we’re attempting to build at MediaCommons. It’s been very slow in developing, but the tools we need to put such peer-to-peer review in place should be ready for testing very soon. I hope that all of you with a vested interest in developing new publishing models — in ensuring that scholarly publishing in the humanities can survive — will keep talking about these issues, will join us when we start testing our new systems, and will find ways to help us build a working structure for the future.

Back to Work

I began the summer’s work yesterday morning by starting a read-through of the manuscript thus far, and was thrilled to discover that the introduction is not as far off as I thought it was. It needs a bit of tinkering, but a small enough bit that I’m comfortable putting it in the category of “revision.” So here’s what I think needs to be done between now and August 14:

— finish last section of Chapter 5 (on the university)
— research and write Chapter 4 (on the library)
— figure out how to turn CommentPress article into Chapter 3 (on networked publishing structures)
— possibly write a conclusion
— revise!

It’s not as bad as I feared, but it still makes me want to hyperventilate.