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. 

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