Friday, 12 July 2013

The future of the book Or, what is right about getting it wrong

I missed what looked like a brilliant evening at the Wellcome Collection last week. Wrong! was a celebration of scientific failure; a recognition that the things that don't work are sometimes as useful as the things that do. This really echoes some work I've been doing recently with charities which fund medical research. Although interested in open access, many of them are more concerned about ensuring negative findings get published. They don't want to fund researchers to replicate mistakes that have aready been made; they want them to do new work and -  perhaps - make some mistakes of their own which will inform the next steps taken in the field.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of open access books (call it OAPEN-UK-itis). We know that the monographs market isn't working. In the last ten years, sales of the average monograph have declined from 2000 to just 200. Authors are concerned that their work isn't reaching its widest possible audience-and to be honest, it probably isn't. Editors have to turn down books that they think important and dearly want to publish because they can't make the sums add up. This is not a system in healthy working order.

Open access is touted as one possible solution to the so-called 'monographs crisis': indeed, this was part of the rationle for setting up the OAPEN-UK project. And certainly a business model which doesn't rely on print sales at upwards of £50 a pop could do a lot to resolve some concerns about the reach of academic texts. But I wonder whether this is enough. Are we really engaging with the core reasons that academic monographs are failing? Or are we just setting ourselves up for another fall?

I think part of the difficulty is that we don't always interrogate and articulate what a monograph is actually for in the humanities and social sciences. Compared to a journal article or a conference paper, it does two main things. First, it communicates an author's research findings, viewpoint and accumulated knowledge through a sustained, lengthy argument. Second, it signals to the scholarly community that the author has reached a certain level of attainment. In some disciplines, it is a prerequisite if you want a job or a promotion. 

Now, I would argue that we ought to question both those functions. Do we really believe that monographs are the only, or even best, way to share the findings of academic research? There seems to be a growing debate. One thing I took away from the Open Access Monographs conference last week was a strong sense of the book as an artefact; a codefied and partial (in both senses of the word - incomplete and also highly personal) record of the more fluid and ongoing conversation which constitutes acdemic research.

Secondly: can we justify the book as a sine qua non for employment in academia? Yes, it certainly does take a certain set of skills to write a monograph, but are those the only skills a professional academic needs? Probably not. Is a monograh the only way to display them? Probably not. The importance of the book as a marker of success is a relatively recent phenomenon: a professor of English told me that twenty years ago you could be an eminent researcher in her field without publishing a monograph. As I'm writing this, I'm sitting in a university library cafe listening to a supervisor reminding his PhD student that Foucault and Derrida didn't publish their significant books until they were in their forties or fifties 'years after they finished their PhDs' (I'm not making this up).

But as well as questioning the two functions of the monograph, we ought to question the connection between them. It occurs to me that, just as a book may arrest and 'set in stone' a process of academic research, somehow, the monograph's role as a signal of academic success has ossified the wider conversation about the best way to communicate research outputs in the humanities and social sciences. The book's unquestioned importance in an academic's professional life makes it hard for them to question its role in their intellectual life.

So when we talk about the failure of the monograph market, we need to think beyond failing business models. We need to ask whether the book itself, and the cult that's grown up around it, is failing researchers. Could it be that some monographs are simply very expensive, very time-consuming, 150,000 word insurance policies to prevent job applications from going straight into the waste-paper basket? Could there, in fact, be a better way to communicate certain pieces of research, which scholars are prevented from exploring because they feel they need to write a book in order to support their careers? Conventions have grown up around the book which make it a useful way of judging quality: scholars know, within their own field, which presses maintain the most interesting list or have access to the best peer reviewers. But we must not think that these conventions could not develop, in time, around other ways of communicating research. Just because we don't know, now, how to peer review a collaborative community, doesn't mean we never will. 

There's a Samuel Beckett quote which I believe it's almost obligatory to mention when discussing this subject. 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better'. Well, I don't think you can fail better unless you really understand why you failed the first time. Yes, declining library budgets and journal big deals are part of the problem with the monograph market. But it might not just be the business model. Maybe - maybe - another part of the problem is monographs themselves. Let's not set out to solve the monograh crisis without really understanding why it's happening. Let's not create a solution which in five, ten, twenty years' time will fail in exactly the same way. Let's dig a bit deeper, take some genuine next steps towards sustainable scholarly communications in the humanities and social sciences, and make sure that whoever comes after us has some really interesting failures to play around with. That's success. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

In praise of diversity

Those of you who follow my Twitter feed will have seen that in the past couple of weeks I've been to two really excellent conferences. The first was the OAI8 conference organsied by CERN; the second was the Open Access Monographs conference at the British Library, organised by OAPEN and Jisc Collections.

This post was actually already half-written, in a sort of breathlessly-excitable tone, after the first conference. But my inefficiency turns out to have been a blessing in disguise. Despite their very different subject matters and quite different audiences, the two conferences got me thinking about a similar set of issues. 

My standout presentation from OAI8, a conference officially on 'open access innovations' but actually covering a lot more than that, was Kevin Ashley. Kevin was talking about 'quality' in data sharing. He argued that, at present, quality is defined by the data management profession, and usually means clean, corrected, perfectly beautiful data. But, he asked, is this a definition of 'quality' that everyone would agree with? What abou the researcher whose interest lies in seeing the original, messy data? What about the one who wants it as soon as possible, not in the fourteen months that one data archive proudly cited as evidence of their very thorough work?

Kevin argues that our notions of quality currently privilege one kind of user, the one who wants reuse-ready data and doesn't mind how long it takes to get it, but ignores many others. We need more diversity in our understanding of data 'quality' to give researchers the choice that they need.  

And diversity, for me, really encapsulates the spirit of the OA monographs conference. Cameron Neylon, in a mind-numbingly brave closing keynote which involved 60 randomised slides and no script (no script!!), mentioned how nice it was to be at a conference where speakers turned to each other on stage and said 'let's make sure we talk about this afterwards'. And he was right. The feeling at the conference was collegiate; lots of different ways of 'doing' open access monographs and a sense that there was space for everyone to have a go.

There were some models that were new to me: I was particularly interested in the EU-funded Agora project which is experimenting with Green open access monographs in philosophy and seems to be turning out some interesting data. It was also good to hear a bit more about developing models like OpenEdition, a French infrastructure project for OA books, and the Open Library of the Humanities.

But the best thing, as Cameron said, was a feeling that everyone wanted to engage with each other; that competition, if there was any, was friendly, and that we're expecting to see the diversity of traditional book publishing recreated in an open access world. Books are heterogenous, and authors want different things from their publishers. Some will want to experiment with open peer review and new ways of exposing the process of writing a book (as Kathleen Fitzpatrick elegantly discussed); others will be keen to integrate different types of content such as data, video, text, or even objects that the reader can reassemble using a 3D printer (Cameron again!). Others are going to be more concerned about brand and reach, and will feel that a traditional publisher with an open access option is the best route for them.

So we need to make sure that the open access monograph environment serves all these users. Let's not, as Kevin Ashley discussed at OAI8, trap ourselves by prioritising a single type of author, or a single set of needs. Let's preserve this diversity, and deal with the issues that it raises (such as visibility and trust of newer publishers) with new solutions (such as the Directory of Open Access Books).

A final anecdote from OAI8. Carlos Rossel is the Publisher at the World Bank, and over the last year he has implemented an open access policy for all publications funded by the Bank (there are a lot). He didn't want to: it was a directive from higher up which he couldn't ignore. But in the first year they have had over ten thousand deposits into the Bank's repository, and over a million downloads.  'I came to open access reluctantly,' he said, 'but I was proven wrong and the people moving towards openness were proven right.'

That's the journey we need to take researchers on in relation to OA books. There's a lot of scepticism out there; many researchers in HSS still see OA as something to be afraid of. To get them to travel alongside us, we need to give them a means of transport which feels safe, comfortable and built for them - in other words, we need to preserve the diversity which will give them choice.