#OAbooks in the HSS: Contexts, Conversations, Technologies and Communities of Practice

Last week I attended the first major conference entirely dedicated to Open Access books in the HSS, in the British Library, organised by OAPEN and JISC. The two-day conference had a fantastic line-up of keynote speakers, established and new experimental projects in open access book publishing, and practical strands on funding, publishing for scholars and the Open Access supply chain. The atmosphere was great, attendance high and everything looked very promising.

Underneath my notes to some of what I thought were the highlights of the conference: the talks by Jean-Claude Guédon and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and the showcases by the Open Library of the Humanities, the Hybrid Publishing Lab, and Mpublishing. But there were many other interesting talks, such as Cameron Neylon’s keynote, showcases by Open Book Publishers, OpenEdition, etc. etc. If you want to know more about these presentations, some of the talks have been video recorded, and there has been an excellent Twitter stream on #OAbooks. For further reports of the conference in the blogosphere, I can refer you to Ellen Collins’ In praise of diversity, Mercedes Bunz’s On the Status of Open Access Monographs, Lucy Keating’s Forget about books to save books?, Suzanne Kavanagh’s report, and Pierre Mounier’s « The book is a conversation ». Really ?

I also gave a talk at the conference: Find a reputable OA publisher – Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB). My presentation is available here.


Context trumps content

Jean-Claude Guédon (University of Montreal) delivered the first keynote entitled 3 sociologies of ebooks. Guédon focussed foremost on the monograph as a term or idea. He wondered how we are to forget about monographs, or go beyond them? For him the main focus should not be on monographs but on how to make the great conversation of humanists flow, to make it as frictionless as possible. This conversation should be about finding out who we are, what we are and where we are going. But in order to do this we might first have to take a small step back, to the idea of documents, Guédon argues. He goes on to outline 3 overlapping perspectives with respect to documents: the sociology of documents, the society of documents, and sociology tout court as knowledge of society. The first term, sociology of documents, refers to D.F. McKenzie’s sociology of texts, which includes the technologies, techniques, workflows and communities that are involved in the production, dissemination and consumption of documents. A second layer is made up by the society of documents: how do documents relate to each other via footnotes, references, bibliographies and links? How do they relate and refer to each other? The third layer then refers to how it is all about people and communicating ideas, not about monographs. Here the importance of the human element is foregrounded, as is the importance of communities, in layers 1 and 2. We should think of a co-evolution of the documentary and the human layer; of documents, ideas and technologies, Guédon suggests. A co-evolution of what we are doing and where we are going. Sociology then refers to the human usage of and interaction with the sociology and society of documents.

bookwheelThe notion of the author is important here. Since it is a function of print, can we get beyond this in the digital age? As an example and summary of the humanist vision of the 3 sociologies Guédon uses the image of the bookwheel, as a form of knowledge production by a scholar in isolation. But here the integrity of the book is threatened by a technology that shows that they are related to each other. Each book is created from the others and we will again create a new book on the basis of them. Thus, ‘we need to start thinking differently about the networked relationship among our texts, and about the readers who interact with them’, Guedón quotes Kathleen Fitzpatrick. And he adds to that, that we also need to think beyond the book or codex as a container. As Brian O’Leary has said: ‘context trumps content and context comes first’. For O’Leary context is a mixture of elements, from tags to footnotes, metadata, audio and visual material etc. This is a good beginning, Guedón remarks, but we need to go even further with this. We are used to a very fixed system of production when it comes to the publishing process. With the digital world, all of this will be done differently.

Guedón mentions the example of the PhD dissertation: a dissertation is a process of social writing. It arises out of a variety of different contexts and slowly transforms into writing. But because of our author fixation we stick to this one person, this one author doing the work although the work itself is a remixing of different sources. In the present digital system nothing really changes, we do the same thing but then digitally. As Fitzpatrick has already noticed, we don’t look at how a book works but at its form. It would be nice to continue the work of the seminar in grad school, Guedón argues: to have communities of young scholars work on connected topics in more collective forms of production instead of focussing on reproducing the paper codex in printed environments. But the problem is, as Mark Rose has already argued in Authors and Owners (1993), that the notion of authorship is also a notion of ownership. If we start working in communities, socially, we can extend the great conversation with friends and colleagues and in this way we can further develop our theses. Why does it need to be just one author and a thesis, when you need more than one brain to write a thesis, Guédon asks. The thesis shouldn’t resist the trend of collaboration and discussion.’s Hypothèses platform is a good innovation in this respect, Guedón remarks: a community of research blogs. Next to battling single authorship, however, we also need to stop assuming that when we publish or write about something that this is the end of it. The essence of the research exercise should not be to produce books and/or authors, but it should be about how we do the research, about how we communicate together to create research that is good for the world. So texts should obviously be amendable, changeable, and comment-able, and should be catering towards the creation of a community, and a current of discussion. This again reshapes the community, though the flow of ideas. This is all far more exciting, Guedon proclaims. We should move on to the idea that texts should be connected, where publishing a publication should be about the quality of the dialogue going on, about thinking what the best form for that specific discussion is. At what level of the discussion should we go the form that traditionally we call the book? In what kind of circumstances does it make sense to do so?


But we have a big problem. We have a system that is set up towards rewarding people. Scholarly publishing is an economy of prestige centred around the notion of the author. What kind of social entity do we have to create to make this more connected collaborative system work? We might have to rethink the nation of the author very very deeply, Guedón says. The way free software has been developing might be helpful here. The free software movement created a new system of visibility and responsibility in authorship, in which code is attributed. We need to be responsible for our work, that is why we should be identified, and the model of open source software might be a way to start thinking of accrediting multi-authored works. It is also important that we start to re-examine the way we create value in research: we need to rethink peer-review and find a way to reward all the individuals that were involved in the creation of knowledge; we should not just value the publication. And we need to figure out how this new system of communication is going to fit within our society and within the sociology of texts. Important is that the great conversation of scholarship is a fundamental part of the research process. Hence, Guedón argues, publications should be subsidised as part of this process. Now is the perfect time for universities and libraries to work together to enable this to happen.


Communities of practice and the value of reviewing

Kathleen Fitzpatrick from the Modern Language Association (MLA) gave a talk about open review and open scholarship, focussing on new forms of quality control and the anxiety towards these as well as towards Open Access amongst scholars. As Fitzpatrick notes, traditional modes of peer review are not always the best way of reviewing digital scholarship. This is why she set up MediaCommons, a media scholars’ community, and talked with NYU Press about how to develop a platform for open review. Fitzpatrick remarked that the challenges we are facing concerning open review in the humanities are far less technological than they are social and institutional in nature. Hence we need new ways of thinking, she states, of working together to create the change we seek in the academy. But we also need to take into consideration the different communities of practice when it comes to peer review, and the different values they attribute to its execution. This means that an alternative peer review system needs to be extremely flexible.

MediaCommons and NYU Press jointly conducted a study on the issues, merits and pitfalls of peer review and the criteria for successful open reviews. What kind of technologies would be required for instance? They also asked more contextualising questions such as what is peer review? Peer review should be about providing critical feedback to scholars in the process of developing their work, but it also has a selection function. Peer review is also to represent the best of scholarly values, and it needs to do so in absence of biases (rank, gender, institution etc.). Criticism of traditional peer review focussed on how the anonymity of the peer reviewers gives them a kind of power without responsibility. Might we devise better ways online, Fitzpatrick asks? In the online realm a scholar might have the potential to become a peer based on the quality of their review, not on credentials. This means that here we also have the opportunity to rethink our peer reviewers. The study also explored new practices that would enable direct communication between peers. And it looked at how we can open up to new kinds of peers. Don’t we aspire to engage our students, colleagues and a range of others? What do we hope P2P review will accomplish? What are the possibilities of open practices? Can there be degrees of openness?

9780814727874_FullFitzpatrick gives examples of a range of existing experiments in open review such as McKenzie Wark’s GamerTheory, the CommentPress wordpress plugin, MediaCommons Press, her own Planned Obsolescence and the journal Shakespeare Quarterly. Recently there was Writing History in the Digital Age (forthcoming), and Matthew Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities. The publication Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom had a review process structured around the community of authors included in the publication. The journal postmedieval conducted crowd review for their Becoming Media issue using blog software. Digital Humanities Now uses the Press Forward platform and crowd filtering methods to highlight existing work.

What are the challenges of open review processes? Does a review process need to be successful? Now the history of the review process itself is available for assessment too: how many comments is enough, how many commenters? Are the commenters prestigious enough, is the conversation critical enough? These are all new kinds of questions related to assessment that start to pop up. And what about alternative means for accounting impact such as altmetrics and online environments such as ImpactStory? There seems to be a sweep of possibilities if we have a robust set of technologies that enable participatory review processes. The final report looked at the different communities of practice, at issues they should consider when implementing open peer review. Things like what should be the outcomes of your review processes, what should be measured? Why is the review being conducted: for conversation, credentialing, filtering? At what level should the review take place, through what means (reading, liking, commenting)? Communities must decide what for them the ground rules for public communication are, Fitzpatrick argues. Openness can take several forms in this respect too: from giving access to the review process, to removing anonymity. Here the value lies in reciprocity and public cooperation.

But then there is the labour problem related to the expanded amount of review that needs to be done and that is not evenly distributed. With open review processes this work can become visible and the value of reviewing can become more important. How will the reviewing of the reviewers take place within communities of practice? How will communities promote social engagements in open review, how will they articulate these values for themselves and create processes that might promote these values, Fitzpatrick asks? In order to provide to the needs of a variety of communities, we need a system that is flexible enough the deal with a diversity of needs.

The left wing of Open Access publishing

Caroline Edwards, Lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln, gave some more background concerning the Open Library of the Humanities, which she co-founded, and how this project relates to monograph publishing in the humanities. Edwards said that they see OLH foremost as a way to rethink the humanities, positioning themselves on the left wing of Open Access publishing. Their goal is to set up a mega platform for all kinds of publications. But they also want to evaluate current forms and models of publishing and what kinds of labour are involved. How can we make those processes more transparent, Edwards asks? She refers to the serials crisis, and the exclusionary APC model. The OLH is proposing a gold route to publication, but they are looking for an APC free solution to increase access for more people. Open Access is not the same as free access, she reiterates. OLH is interested in increasing access. What could in this respect be the options for monographs? Including free labour and free submission? How can we connect with other Open Access publishers? Edwards proposes that the OLH will ask libraries to pay a small rate to pay for these services in the form of a library-partnership model. She states that we need to be careful with respect to the prestige trap: the gatekeeping model, which she says is a legacy of print culture. The logic of exclusion does not seem to be applicable anymore in the digital realm. This is a transformative modus we are in now, in which we rely on implicit standards of peer review and still distinguish the distinction phase from the publishing phase. The OLH has started a monograph pilot, including an Open Access monograph scheme. This pilot is supported by 5 world-leading university presses (including a born open-access press). With these high-profile partners they want to break the prestige trap whilst giving legitimacy to their projects. Their financial model will be a library partnership model, whether via Knowledge Unlatched or by connecting with directly with libraries via a library specific model. They will cross-subsidies monographs from their platform.

Martin Eve then talks about the deliverables of the monographs pilot. He states that we need traditional formats in the HSS but we also need to go beyond ‘the damned PDF’. XML/HTML formats are essential to go beyond this; open formats are also crucial; as is digital preservation via LOCCKS and CLOCCKS, but Eve suggests we could also have a community effort in the form of p2p protocols. So how to get books out there, he asks? There is no typical book so which model should we use? But in order to get an indication of the fees for monographs, Eve says the OLH will conduct a cost-breakdown study: what are the labour time, infrastructure costs, hard-copy revenues etc. that are involved? Is there a digital symbiosis, do we need a hard-copy book, can we get digital and print to work together?  We need more data on this, Eve stresses.


Dynamic Publishing

Mercedes Bunz and Simon Worthington talked about the Hybrid Publishing Lab, an international lab researching the digital change in publishing in order to help small publishers and universities. The project will run until 2015 and employs 20 researchers. They want to form a bridge between the university and small publishers, by focussing on technological solutions. They do this by pushing Open Access and open source technology to create multi-platform publishing software, software that enables people to collaborate. They promote activities such as book sprints, where writers and peer reviewers are merged, they become all in one. Book sprints are based on a tool developed by Adam Hyde, using sourcefabric, which is a collaborative writing software. This enables people to create high quality literature in specific topics. The Hybrid Publishing Lab will create a manual on book sprints (which they will of course produce via a book sprint). The background to these kinds of ideas is grounded in the open source movement, related to things such as hackatrons. The Hybrid Publishing Lab wants to do a sort of mapping of what it is we are doing when we publish. They want to rethink the university press. The Hybrid Publishing Consortium (within the HPL) will develop an open software infrastructure for publishing. This is based on single source, a method of document making for doing multi-format conversion, enabling what they call dynamic publishing: formats that are not stable and use multimedia, were the book becomes unbound. The fact is, Worthington stresses, that at the moment we cannot do everything on our own, this is why we need to do things together by working in the open source community. HPL wants to be the connector within these developments, by having industry partnerships. Then there is the issue of breaking up the book and of thinking about new ways of presenting research, not just by publishing a print book in digital form. The workflow for multiplatform books or unbound books is still using a workflow that is based on print production where you need to add on everything at every step, which leads to an insane workflow. The high-end publishers already have their own publishing tool chain. The HPC is trying to find out what it is the bigger publishers do, and how can we bring this down to a level that is cheap or free and usable for institutions: creating an open source tool chain. This is also where the notion of dynamic publishing comes in again where it is important that multi-format books become readable into library systems. We need to think of ways to deliver content and we can achieve this by gluing different elements of technology that are already around together, creating a stack. We need to be able to deal with the transition from print to digital and hybrid publishing and towards the unbound book. The fundamentals of publishing are in flux, Worthington states. What goes on beyond the stage of taking the book beyond the digital, what will happen to long-form text? What happens with things that go beyond the book such as the social book, how can you recombine the book again after it has been unbound? All the other things around the book are changing too, and this is also part of the breaking up of the book, when the elements around it are all in flux. We need different automated layouts and different automated distribution systems to accommodate this. In August the HPC will have a beta up that will work with Google docs. It will be a software package for multi-format conversion: from Googledocs to a range of outputs such as ebooks, PDF, POD, XML etc.


Complementary strengths

Shana Kimball talked about Open Access monograph publishing at Michigan (Mpublishing). She talks about the viability of the book referring to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: the book is still required but no longer viable. Opening up the monograph could be a way to stimulate engagement with the text, Kimball states. Mpublishing sees itself as a positive intervention in the economics of scholarly publishing, taking care of preservation, scale and realigning strengths with the institution. They use a robust technical infrastructure and skill sett and apply these to new forms of publication. They started working as a library-based publisher. The thinking was to focus on books, digital, free, new forms of born-digital scholarship as opposed to the closed print paradigm. They wanted to carve out a niche that wasn’t competing with The University of Michigan Press. They started with books to try and revert the monograph crisis. Their first foray was in cooperation with the press: the Digitalculturebooks imprint. As Kimball explained, authors in the fields of media and digital culture increasingly wanted their publications to be available in Open Access; being mostly heavy users of social media they wanted to share links to their long-form work via social media. Mpublishing also partnered with Open Humanities Press. This is a scholar-driven press that wanted to change how Humanities scholars think about Open Access publishing. The library did the technical stuff for them, they did editorial etc. The idea was to capitalise on the complementary strengths of both. 7 titles have now been published but workflows still need to be streamlined. And it is viable: a partnership driven on good will.

Kimball talked about the viability of institutional support for library publishing, which is also at the same time a vulnerability (reliance). Recently the press and library merged and the University of Michigan Press emerged as a new imprint. Now the situation is more like that with OHP and Digitalculturebooks: authors keep their copyright, CC licenses are used etc. The strong institutional support to make publishing possible is a vulnerability too. What if budgets change and the institution or its goal changes? This is why joining groups like the Library Publishing Coalition might be good where there is support across institutions to develop expertise and develop this activity of library publishing further. Will all libraries become publishers, Kimball asks? This she doesn’t know but it would be good if we could get more libraries participating into this changing publishing dynamics. Joining Knowledge Unlatched is a way to get even more libraries involved, Kimball concludes.

And last but not least: The Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) was officially launched, as you can see underneath.

One comment on “#OAbooks in the HSS: Contexts, Conversations, Technologies and Communities of Practice

  1. Pingback: Twitter Open Access Report – 9 Jul 2013 |

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