Friday, July 11, 2008

The future of academic publication

In my usual daily wandering through a number of blogs, most of them concerned with foreign policy and American politics, I ran across this post at the blog Open Left. It is a response by Chris Bowers to another blog post by David Appell that basically argues, in an unfortunate ad hominem fashion, that blogs are worthless for discussing any serious issue. (The critic includes his own blog in his rather sweeping statements.) Rather, he says one should go to serious magazines and journals for the real stuff since what you find there is backed up by in-depth investigation.

I could reply to Appell myself, but I am more interested in something that Bowers says in defending his own devotion to blogging:

I have a personal stake in this, of course. Before I became a blogger, I spent my entire 20's trying to become an academic (English and critical theory was my focus). While I struggled to produce a handful of conference papers or publishable articles during that decade, in my four years as a blogger I have published about 4,400 articles that have received about 50,000,000 direct page views, 46,000 incoming links, and over 100 Lexis Nexus mentions. Had I stayed in academia, none of this would have been possible, and I would have continued to receive an endless series of rejections from the gatekeepers. The "experts" that Appell describes did not see the same value in my writing huge numbers of other people clearly have. Either they were wrong about my writing, or I just wasn't writing about the best topics for me. Probably a combination of both, but I'm pretty sure the balance of evidence shows they were wrong. (Man, I am still really angst ridden about this.)
It seems likely that somewhere in Bowers's soul he thinks of himself as a failed academic. I, as an employed and high-ranking academic at a small but respectable academic institution, think he has nothing to apologize for (I am talking about activity level, not the specific things that he has written.) He does talk about important issues. And I note that if he and others like him had left it to the established media to cover and interpret what is going on in the world, things would be much worse than they are now. But again that's not the point of this post. The point is this:

50 million freaking direct page views!

In that fact I see the doom of the academic journal as it now exists, in particular the paper version thereof. Fifty million direct page views!
I don't fear for the academic book actually, because I think books, at least good ones, provide an in-depth experience that nothing else has been able to rival so far. But when it comes to investigating the small pointsthat lead to the big insights, or clear up the small mysteries that clarify the big picture, why not do it all electronically? (Preservation questions apart of course; again, nothing beats paper yet. And there are other practical questions to be considered.)

I am quite aware that most so-called academic blogs, including my own, are made up of snippets that may or may not be developed into some important scholarly contribution -- and usually not. But blogs and the habit of reading them is a rather new thing. See how they grow.

One example of the direction they might go can be seen in the medievalist group blog In the Middle. Here some like-minded scholars, with a penchant for complex literary theory that sometimes leaves me behind, are throwing out some of their best new ideas in what might be seen as half developed form, so that their blog partners and any passing reader can think about them and comment, favorably or unfavorably. This is not instead of the usual academic activity. Material on In the Middle relates directly to conference papers, potential articles, and monographs being worked on by the blog owners, material it should be noted that otherwise I never would have heard of (being a more or less conventional historian). I'm part of an unexpected audience that was attracted to the blog by a reference to some other blog. And there must be many others, all of whom are in a position to comment, at whatever length. Who knows what some half-random reader may say that may contribute to this remarkable productivity?

This is just one way the Web can work for you.

Working academics who are reading this: be honest. When was the last time you sat down with a congenial group and really kicked around an idea that appeared in an academic article? There's nothing better for getting the intellect really working, for shooting down mistaken ideas, for putting together half-formed thoughts into useful ones. But they are rare, those in-person opportunities. But the Internet, for us lucky ones, is always available. And damned cheap to compared to paper journals.

PS: what about copyediting, you ask? It's dead anyway, as I'm here attest on the basis of much recent reading of ink-on-paper publications by big-name scholarly presses.

Image: Fifty million marks, Germany, 1923.

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