Tag Archives: Digital Scholarship

The Perfect Storm Gathers Strength

It’s not really news that electronic publishing is wrecking havoc on the traditional publishing industry. In fact, it’s such old news, that I feel a little funny even writing a post about epublishing. But this past weekend, it became clear to me just how doomed academic publishers are.

What happened to finally convince me that it’s time for university presses and other publishers of the conventional academic monograph to give up completely on the analog book as a source of revenue (or more likely a source of losses these days)? Recently, I wrote about the publication of Hacking the Academy (edited by my colleagues Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt). In that post, I mused about wishing for an epub version of the book so I could read it on my iPad and presto!, Mark Sample made one and posted it up for me and anyone else who wanted it.

How could it be so simple, I wondered?

Anyone who knows me knows that of all the key staffers at CHNM, my tech skills probably rate at the bottom of the heap. I can write some wicked html (does anyone still do that?) and know just enough php and MySQL to be dangerous. And I can make PhotoShop do everything I want it to (which isn’t all that much). Other than that, I’m pretty sad when it comes to real tech skills. For instance, I can’t remember the last time I actually saw the command line on my laptop screen.

So I approached the whole question of how to create an ebook with some real trepidation. It must be difficult, at least for people like me with not much in the way of serious tech skills. Or so I thought.

Instead, it turned out to be shockingly easy to create an epub that looked very good when ported over to my iPad. It was so easy, that it became clear to me just how liitle I need a press to publish my work. Of course, I’m not the only one who has come to this revelation–in fact, I’m coming to it pretty late in the game. But the very fact that I could go from knowing nothing to publishing a nice looking ebook in about three hours shows just how low the bar has gotten when it comes to publishing one’s work in a format now widely accepted in the marketplace.

How did I do it? I downloaded the free program Sigil and started copying and pasting text into it. Because Sigil uses a WYSIWYG editor, it couldn’t be much easier to use. My test case was ten entries from this blog, which I simply copied into the editing window and in minutes I had created a book from my posts. The book had chapters, a table of contents, and page numbers, all at the click of a mouse. Adding an image to the cover turned out to be more difficult than I thought–remember, limited tech skills–but I’ve seen how it’s done and am confident that with another hour or so on my hands, I can do it. The final product needs some cleaning up and I’ll probably end up changing the fonts, but if I weren’t picky about the look and feel, I could publish it online right now.

If I can create a book in under three hours from text I’d already written, imagine what this means for the scholarly endeavor. We all know how it used to work. A scholar completes the research and writing of a book, sends proposals around to appropriate presses, one of them issues a preliminary contract and sends the book out to readers, the readers report in, the editorial board decides whether or not to publish the book, if the answer is yes, the book goes into production (and maybe still editing) and about a year or even two years after the scholar mailed out his or her proposals to publishers, a book appears at last. Journal editors receive free copies which they dutifully farm out to reviewers, who take their sweet time writing their reviews, which then appear sometime (we hope) within a year of the date of publication of the book.

Now imagine an alternate universe where the scholar completes the research and writing of a book, identifies two to four experts in the field, sends them the manuscript for review, gets feedback, makes any suggested changes he/she feels are warranted, maybe hires a grad student in the English department to read the whole thing for typos and syntax problems, then ports the text over into a ebook creator like Sigil, fusses with the formatting for a few weeks, and publishes the book on his/her website, and via various platforms such as iBooks, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc. Journal editors are notified of the publication of the new ebook and then send links to reviewers, requesting formal reviews. But the author also receives reviews over the transom on his/her website and so the process of peer review begins much more quickly.

Oh, and any profit from the sale of the work goes to the author, not the press. In the case of my first book, I’m guessing that might have added up to $500, i.e., $1 per book sold, but that’s still $500. And as a recent article in the Washington Post pointed out, some authors who follow my second model, cutting out the presses, are making a very good living writing and self-publishing.

But what about the peer review process you are wondering? In an interview I did back in 2008 with our Provost, Peter Stearns, a man who knows a thing or two about peer review, Stearns argued that peer review does not have to take place prior to publication to qualify as peer review. I agree with Stearns on this issue, because, it seems to me, what matters is the quality of the work and the quality of the peer review, not the order that these two things happen.

But no matter. The forces of disintermediation are already more powerful than the inertial forces holding the remnants of the scholarly printing industry together. And, like Shiva, they will blast the world asunder sooner rather than later. Now that I know how to publish an ebook, I no longer fear that perfect storm.


Zotero 2.0

[This post originally appeared in the blog hist.net.]

zotero-smZotero 2.0 became available for public download on May 14. This new version of Zotero provides many exciting features that unlock the research archives of individual scholars making those research archives (or portions of those archives) available for a wider audience. Think about it this way. In what my students like to call the “olden times” (anything before 2000), scholars collected materials into their personal research archives then sat down and wrote a book, an article, or a conference paper. That publication provided the scholar’s audience with a glimpse into the source materials he or she had collected from various archives, libraries, etc. But only a glimpse, and mostly in the footnotes. If you wanted access to those same sources, you had to replicate the research already completed by the author of what you were reading.

Zotero 2.0 potentially puts an end to this re-research process. Now, a scholar can make any portion of that personal research archive available online via Zotero’s collaborative capabilities. So, for instance, as I collect materials for an article I am perparing for a volume of essays on “getaways” in communist Eastern Europe, I can make my Zotero folders available to anyone or just my collaborators in the volume. Once the book is published, I can choose whether or not to make my sources available to those readers who want to work with the sources I collected. In this way, the “hidden archive” of scholarship will begin to migrate to the surface. The potential for transformation of scholarly work is, I think, quite significant.

Zotero 2.0 also taps into the potentialities of social networking for scholars. Once logged in to the Zotero server, one can create a personal profile page, create or join affinity groups, and track (“follow”) the work of others who are part of the Zotero community. For a brief summary of the features of Zotero 2.0, read what Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media, has written (and will continue to write) in his blog.

Should Grants Count?

Not long ago I wrote a series of posts about digital scholarship and whether or not digital work should “count” in the classic sense of counting on American college campuses, i.e., for promotion and tenure. Because digital scholarship is very difficult to pull off without external funding, it’s a reasonable question whether or not writing grants and getting grants should count as well? After all, you can’t do one (digital scholarship) without the other (funding).

For an answer to this question, don’t ask the AHA’s Professional Division.

As Rob Townsend reported on the AHA’s website, the Professional Division recently responded to a query from a department chair who was being pressured by his administration to count grant funding the same as an article in a peer reviewed journal. The response of David Weber, the vice president leading the Professional Division, was (to my mind anyway) very unhelpful.

In the first paragraph Weber argues that the receipt of a grant is an honor and recognition of past achievement, not the same thing as the “completion of a project,” which Weber defines unequivocally in only two ways–a book or a peer reviewed article. As he writes, “past achievement is past and scholarly promise is not scholarship.” But, of course, one could just as easily argue that a book or an article was also a “past achievement” and no indication of “future promise” (for Weber an important part of scholarship).

He adds, “I think we all know senior scholars who have received fellowships for specific projects but who failed to complete them. I once had a colleague who received a coveted Guggenheim to finish a book. He never did.” But, of course, one could just as easily say, “I think we all know scholars who published a book, got tenure, and never did another lick of scholarly work.”

I guess it’s not clear to me how winning a highly competitive grant is somehow less of an indication of future promise than an article or a book.

Weber goes on to say, “Grant monies in the humanities are notoriously tight, and the major competitions receive many hundreds, or even thousands, of applications every year. This means that in a given year, large numbers of high-quality, deserving applications are rejected. Should a scholar who tries for a prestigious grant and narrowly misses out, or is named an alternate, be penalized in the same way as his/her colleagues who never even bother with grant applications?”

But don’t we penalize those scholars who write “high-quality, deserving” books or articles who fail to find venues for publication of their work? Speaking as an East Europeanist, I can testify to the fact that publishing opportunities in my field are likewise “notoriously tight” and that in any given year many high-quality and deserving books fail to find a publisher, much to the consternation of colleagues who have read the work and know how good it is. Somehow I doubt the Professional Division would advocate rewarding these scholars for doing such good work, but not getting it published, despite the fact that the decline of academic publishing has made it so difficult to get published in what are known in publishing circles these days as “marginal fields.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Weber that institutions of higher education should resist the trend toward metrics for evaluation of scholarly merit. Like Weber, I think it’s the quality of the dossier that matters, not the quantity of what’s in it according to some defined counting scheme.

But to disqualify the effort of those who write significant grants as somehow nothing more than a “past accomplishment” is to reject the very logic of his own argument. To provide some perspective on what I’m talking about, let’s examine a case I know very well–the writing of a major NEH grant for a digital project.

Three years ago, two colleagues and I wrote the grant that funded our project Making the History of 1989. This grant was funded by the NEH with an initial grant of $180,000 plus a $10,000 matching requirement for a total of $200,000 once we raised the matching funds. The narrative for the grant runs 20 pages and when the entire document with all of its associated appendices, budgets, and workplans comes in at around 150 pages. When I came up for tenure two years ago, part of my dossier was evidence that, with my to colleagues, I had written successful grants (I left out the ones written but unfunded) totaling $730,000.

But this, apparently, is not an essential activity of a scholar–at least not in history. In biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, psychology, and plenty of other fields–just not history. Or at least, so says the AHA’s Professional Division.

Clearly, those of us in digital humanities have more work to do when it comes to convincing the AHA that digital scholarship is something completely different and needs to be examined on its own terms, not on the basis of how it is or is not like a book or an article.

Digital Campus on Digital Scholarship

As a follow up to my series on making digital scholarship count, Tom, Dan, and I spent some time discussing the issue on Digital Campus this week. If you’ve been following my series, then I think you’ll enjoy our discussion because Dan and Tom offer some very interesting and contrasting perspectives on the issues I brought up in the series. We also offer our usual eclectic picks for websites to check out and consider yet another copyright issue. So, give us a listen and don’t forget to write…