Change in Humanities publishing is being driven in part by what has become known as the "crisis in scholarly communication." This refers to a short-circuit in the publication and research cycle upon which scholarship depends. Published scholarship isn't reaching its destined readers who rely upon it for their own work, and scholarship meriting publication is not getting published. Both problems are due to economic woes: Journal subscription costs have escalated astronomically, causing libraries to cancel them, and academic presses "are being forced to reject high quality scholarship submitted for publication, because they can no longer afford to publish such work" (Cornell, citing MLA).
This crisis has hit the sciences and technical fields hardest, but Humanities scholars are having the same frustrations. The problem was spelled out in 2002 by The Modern Language Association in its statement on the future of scholarly publishing. Decreased outlets for Humanities publications plus increased pressure upon scholars to publish have created a bleak outlook. As the report states:
The impact of the crisis can be measured in three ways:
- The inability of academic libraries to support scholarly research as they cannot maintain costly subscriptions;
- The difficulties scholars face in tenure and promotion when conventional print publishing is becoming more difficult (while electronic scholarship has quasi-legitimacy); and
- Institutional lag-time in adjusting infrastructure and academic cultures to accommodate the new modes of producing, accessing, evaluating, preserving, and promoting scholarship in the digital age.
That last point is loaded and will be explained more in later posts. My chief point here, though, is to argue that the causes for these unpleasant consequences is not a matter of unfortunate economics. It is attractive to see these problems rooted in economics, and even more attractive to see the electronic world as an easy solution (see the posts that follow). However, the root problem is the centuries-old academic publishing model that insists upon restricted access to scholarship. This model requires scholarship to be a commodity within a market whose economics are based upon selling access. It's all we've ever known, so it seems silly to argue with it. But in the electronic age (as will be argued in a later post regarding Open Access), knowledge does not have to be sold. In fact, it shouldn't be. It's value increases with access and use, and the restricted-access paradigm is keeping Humanities scholarship quarantined.
The problem with conventional publishing is both in its mode of distribution and in its very form. As I will discuss in later posts when breaking down the various types of publications, the scholarly monograph and the journal article are highly limited modes of conveying knowledge. They have been and will remain significant, but less so as digital alternatives dim the glory of the "discursive monologue." But more of this when I discuss the genres of publishing in later posts.
For many, there is no crisis in Humanities publishing because they have established their reputations and continue to publish in conventional outlets. In some ways, the problem is convincing the established scholars that there is any problem at all. What do you think?