[See also Liz Losh’s analysis of these talks at Virtualpolitik]

This past week N. Katherine Hayles (now of Duke) and Lynne Withey of University of California Press met on neutral territory to discuss the future of academic publishing.  Well, maybe not entirely neutral, as they spoke in the “new books” room of a very old-fashioned, telegenic library. Their complementary talks offered visions of digital scholarship and digital humanities publishing (respectively). While there were no direct confrontations, the implications of their talk left some irreconcilable differences in the air.

For her exemplars of innovative work, Withey offered:

  • UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: notable for its ability to withhold its 3D models for those who pay for access.
  • Plan of the Monastery St. Gall: Notable for making a work widely accessible and offering:
    • Zoom in
    • Move around
    • Very Fine Detail
  • Todd Presner’s Hyper Berlin: Notable for its ease of use and adaptability to other citiies.
  • The USC journal Vectors:a mix of traditional and new publishing, as it follows the model of a journal.
  • In the context of these innovations, Withey turned a list of functions that traditional university presses serve, considering their adaptation in the new world of digital publishing:

  • Selection
  • Shaping
  • Dissemination
  • Promotion
  • Cost Recovery
  • Preservation

For each of these functions, Withey imagined a new version for the age of digital media publications.

At the time, this list seemed clear enough as applied to print book publishing. However, as applied to online publishing, most of these functions seem to have been seriously challenged by recent experiments in online vetting and publishing.

While it was clear that Withey was not ready to go into the world of MIT Press’ Expressive Processing experiment of blog-based review, she expressed an interest in possible productive collaborations between universities and publishers, where they might both share the burden (probably in the realm of design and hosting) of these new forms of publication.  However, offering a caution strikingly similar to my panel from Visionary Landscapes (with Juan Gutierrez, Laura Borràs, and Pablo Gervás ), she argued that developers needed to set the creation of information systems (though she did not call them these) at the forefront, while de-emphasizing innovations in interfaces.  In her view, publishers need modes of publication to be more than one-offs.  This was an interesting comment given the presence of USC Vectors‘ Tara McPherson and Eric Loyer, who create such wonderful custom renderings of scholarly work.  Of course, they’ve mentioned that Vectors is moving more toward templates.

In fact, the only function in this list of traditional publisher activities that seems to retain meaning in the age of online publishing is preservation, a problem that is perhaps endemic to attempts at scholar-based publication. Consider the work of the Electronic Literature Organization in this regard. (Though publishers do not always decide to preserve the works they have published.) Scholars are not always so good at cost-recovery but that economic language seems to come out of a very different world-view than the one that promotes open source, open knowledge, et cetera.

Withey seemed to be stand with the frustration of the museum curator who must maintain the collection made up of works of paper clips, chewing gum, post-it notes, and raisins. Ah, if only these creative scholars had to shelve their own multimedia works.

One claim she made in Q&A struck me. At some point, she said:

If you’re willing to pay for a book in print, why aren’t you willing to pay for an electronic text?

Clearly, this is very different academic calculus than what is in the air like bolts from a Tesla coil.

Hayles’ Case Files

By stark contrast, Hayles saw surface-level innovations as a stepping stone to digital humanities scholarship that more fully engages in the processing and aggregating potential of networked computers.   She offered two case studies of scholars who eventually decided they would have to learn some programming in order to more fully engage in a computer-enhanced scholarship, where the networked computer is a collaborator.  Like Withey, Hayles also cited Presner as a ground-breaking digital scholar. However, Hayles emphasized the way his first book was inspired (in a Kittlerian sense) by computer networks, while his later work on maps seemed to more fully engage the possibilities of networked, digital multimedia machines.

Her example of Tim Lenoir (of Duke) showed a trajectory that led him from Latour-style science sociology/history to Moretti-style maps, graphs, and trees.  If in his early project he was conducting a “microstudy” of one technological development, in his more recent work, he was conducting a macrostudy of the kind unimaginable without computers. She described his project of employing computer processes to help him map out technological innovations by scanning 5K articles and over 5 million patents. In other words, he began to move from close readings of actor-networks to large scale machine-assisted “readings” of millions of documents for trends and meta information. Becoming a digital scholar, in her view, means learning how to use the computer as a collaborator.

For Hayles, ultimately, digital scholarship changes what it means to be a humanities scholar. She concluded that this new kind of scholarship:

  • Decenters the individual human researcher (solitary work of genius)
  • Pushes toward collaboration (humanities scholars working with designers and other programmers)
  • Shifts expertise
  • Puts data-collection over meaning making

Of course, it is perhaps no coincidence that such a model moves humanities research closer to the model of the hard sciences where collaboration, research questions, and data take priority over individual critics, theories, and interpretation.

If one were to set these two presentations in dialogue with one another, the afternoon might appear to offer two conflicting views of digital humanities scholarship:

  1. A cautious expansion of traditional publication venues to include new forms
  2. An ambitious venue for the scholarly practice to engage with the possibilities of processing

Ultimately, it was less clear to me that Hayles cares what form the results of the digital scholar’s work take.  (Her most recent book project, New Horizons, had a CD-Rom and blog, but did not position itself as a breaking new grounds in delivery media the way her quite artfulWriting Machines did in print).  In fact, she seemed to position a fixation on the form of the communication as an intermediary stage in the development of the digital scholar, that moment when scholars are more interested in accessories than processes.  For Hayles, later stages require developing skills as a programmer (understanding more about the possibilities for computation).  For Withey, I’d say the later stages required the publishing house developing skills as a designer and a new kind of archivist.

Throughout presentation, the newly acquired books on the library’s shelves sat judgmentally, albeit glad for some company.


N. KATHERINE HAYLES is a noted postmodern literary critic, particularly in the fields of literature and science, electronic literature, and American literature. Hayles has taught at UCLA, University of Iowa, University of Missouri–Rolla, the California Institute of Technology, and Dartmouth College. She was the faculty director of the Electronic Literature Organization from 2001-2006. Her books include the recent Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary and the award-winning How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics.

LYNNE WITHEY joined UC Press in 1986 and was appointed Director in 2002. She has played a major role in shaping editorial programs—acquiring books in history, music, Asian and Middle Eastern studies, and public health as well as launching UC Press’s electronic publishing program. In 2005–06, she served as president of the Association of American University Presses. A historian and author, Withey holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley. She has taught at UC Berkeley, University of Iowa, and Boston University.



Monday, September 8, 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Intellectual Commons, Doheny Memorial Library, 2nd Floor

1 Response to “Digital Scholarship and the Future of Academic Publishing”

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    The difficulty lies in the control of the distribution of electronic copies. For a hard copy, it’s easy to control and collect money. But even if the first buyer pays, the second one may share it with the first one at lower cost or even for free. And such use in academy will not be limited by law.

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