Editors’ Choice: Why experiment? A critical analysis of the values behind digital scholarly publishing

Last month I presented a paper entitled ‘Why Experiment? A Critical Analysis of the Values Behind Digital Scholarly Publishing’ at the 9th International Conference Crossroads in Cultural StudiesParis, France, July 4th, 2012, hosted by Sorbonne Nouvelle University and UNESCO. This presentation was part of the panel: ‘Publishing Cultural Studies, Now and in the Future’, with excellent papers by Ted Striphas and Mark Hayward, and by Clare Birchall. Striphas and Hayward studied the publication practices of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS) during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s for their paper “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature“, which is available as a working paper (and open for comments) on the Differences & Repetitions Wiki. Clare Birchall explored the relationship between publishing, transparency and secrecy in her paper entitled ‘Liquid Theory TV: Publishing, Publicity and Secrecy’ which was based around a screening of the latest installment of Liquid Theory TV entitled ‘The Post-Secret State’ (see underneath).

Why experiment? A critical analysis of the values behind digital scholarly publishing

Digital scholarly publishing and the Humanities—their relationship can hardly be perceived as a classic love story. However, after an initial period of distrust and apprehension, digital publishing—although not yet ubiquitous—is gaining ground fast in the Humanities. The publishing practices that have been dominant in the Sciences, Technology and Medicine fields for some time now, are being explored and adapted in this context too. Increasingly Humanities journals are available online, and, although still lagging behind, books are following at a swift pace. Commercial publishers, not-for profit presses, libraries and academics, platforms like Google and Amazon; a variety of old and new players in the field of scholarly communication are experimenting with new publishing and business models to make Humanities research available online.

However, the motivations behind these experiments with communicating research result online, differ substantially. In this paper, I will argue how experiments with digital publishing in the Humanities, and especially with respect to making knowledge available for free on the web, without barriers to access and reuse, are increasingly being accompanied by a neoliberal rhetoric pertaining to the knowledge economy and its demand for continual innovation. Following the demands of innovation, sustainability, and transparency that this rhetoric relates to, experimenting with making research results available online is seen to aid the search for new sustainable business models, to help the creation of competitive advantage, and to sustain the successive testing of new products to satisfy consumer demand. Experimentation with digital, open, online publishing increasingly takes place with a specific result, or outcome already in place: to ensure that a new publishing or business model is sustainable, that it is effective, in order for it to become a model which can be monetarised with the ultimate goal to increase return on investment.

However, as I will argue here, not all experimentation in digital online publishing abides to this discourse. This paper explores the motives underlying a series of radical experiments in the Humanities—in cultural studies more specifically—that endorse and promote an alternative set of values, based on different underlying ethics. Here experimentation is understood as a heterogeneous, unpredictable, singular and uncontained process or experience. Mostly academic-led and centered, these experiments with making research available in Open Access, with new formats such as liquid monographs, wiki-publications and remixed books, and with the establishment of new, alternative institutions and practices, try to challenge and reconceptualise scholarly communication. This paper shows how their approach towards openness, exploring new formats and stimulating sharing and re-use of content, can be seen as a radical alternative to and a critique of the business ethics underlying innovations in the knowledge economy.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: