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Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past? Have new technologies changed our essential work-craft as scholars and the way in which we think, teach, author, and publish? Does the digital age have broader implications for individual writing processes or for the historical profession at large? These are the questions addressed in this collection of essays. Here, historians discuss how our means of creating interpretations about the past are challenged and reshaped by a range of electronic tools and techniques, including crowdsourcing, blogging, databases, spatial analysis, visual media, gaming simulations, and online collaborations. Bound together as a book in paper and electronic forms, our essays seek to explicate and embody the promise that the digital age holds for writers of history, while at the same time upending conventional beliefs about and practices of publishing scholarship.
Embedded within this book are arguments for rethinking how we academics create and share knowledge, particularly in history and other humanities fields that have been relatively slow to embrace change in this new era of digital tools and publishing. We historians tend to research and write in isolation. Hiding behind our respective curtains, we typically author long monographs that may take several years to reach any sort of audience at all. Then, after such a long period of investment, the stakes are often especially high for the newly revealed work to be well received within its field. Even when we do share shorter works, such as a chapter in a collection of essays, the results can be disappointing. Reviewers politely refer to poorly implemented volumes as having “uneven quality” or, less politely, as “staple jobs.” Although individual essays in conventional edited volumes may represent good scholarship, the lack of intellectual relationship or at least of recognition between them often results in volume-level flaws ranging from sheer repetitiveness to perplexing contradiction, with many steps in between.
Part of the problem traces back to conventional practices of creating this knowledge. Traditionally, a “call for papers” announcement is circulated, individual contributors submit completed chapters, and volume editors make cuts, suggest revisions, and strive to package the compilation as a whole. Under this model, authors typically have little access to each other’s ideas or drafts during the generative or revision periods and therefore lack the capacity to share comments and build connections across the volume. A common result is a whole that is not greater than the sum of its parts. To challenge convention, we asked ourselves: Could technology help us to create a more intellectually collaborative volume, with a more transparent process, in a relatively shorter period of time? And if so, would it produce a better book?
This volume represents the results of our experiment and, in three ways, exemplifies for historians a radically different approach to publishing. First, the book is born digital, meaning that we published it on the web in stages, as it developed, and relied on collaborative web tools for contributors to share ideas, drafts, and comments. Some even coauthored their essays on the web. What better way for historians to reflect on digital tools than to use them to write a book? In the spirit of the open web, we made the normally behind-the-scenes development of the book more transparent. In the section “How this book evolved” on our project website, we trace the development of the volume, beginning with our fall 2010 pilot project and continuing through our subsequent correspondence and contract with the University of Michigan Press and early exchanges between authors during the essay idea phase in the spring of 2011. Similarly, the “How it works” section of our website shares details on the open-source WordPress platform that hosts our essays and commentary.
Second, instead of being subjected to anonymous private review, this book benefited from open peer review on the web. During an eight-week period in the fall of 2011, four experts appointed by the press, along with general readers and many of our authors, posted over 940 online comments on our essays. As our “How to comment” tutorial on the website explained, we invited public responses on three levels: general comments on the book as a whole, an individual essay page, or a specific paragraph. All commenters had to identify themselves, using a full name; no anonymous feedback was permitted. The objective was to encourage all readers—invited experts and general audiences, senior scholars and students alike, regardless of professional status or institutional affiliation —to openly participate in the process of peer review and to engage in dialogues about what “good writing” means in history. Our approach draws from open peer review innovations in other humanities fields, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Katherine Rowe’s reflections on their experience with Shakespeare Quarterly. Furthermore, to publicly recognize the work of the open peer reviewers, we invited two of the most thoughtfully engaged commentators to collaborate with us in writing this volume’s concluding reflections about the process.
Finally, the digital version of this volume is open-access, shared freely with readers on the public web. Unlike proprietary models, no subscription fee or password is required to view or comment on our scholarship. Based on open-source software, the web-book version of this volume can be read on current versions of all major browsers for desktop or laptop computers (and on most tablet and phone devices, though with limited ability to post comments). We embrace the arguments, advanced by historian Roy Rosenzweig and others, that open-access scholarship is more widely discoverable, useful, and consistent with the principles of our scholarly societies. As described in our “Editorial and intellectual property policy” on the website, all contributors agreed to distribute the content of their essays under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial (BY-NC) license for the site, whereby authors retain the copyright to their work while making a nonexclusive agreement to freely share it with others, as long as the original source is cited. Furthermore, as outlined in our book contract, upon approval of the final manuscript, the University of Michigan Press also agreed to publish it under a Creative Commons license in at least two formats: a print edition (for sale) and an online version (for free).
Wrapping all three qualities—born digital, open peer review, and open access—into one volume makes a unique contribution to our field and illustrates our rethinking of the meaning of “publishing,” how we do it, and why. In Writing History in the Digital Age, our proposition is simply that wisely implemented web technology can help us to collaboratively create, constructively criticize, and widely circulate our writing in ways more consistent with our scholarly values. Our challenge was to openly test and demonstrate a different way of working together as writers to build a better-quality edited volume. Our call for essay ideas, conducted in the spring of 2011, required prospective contributors to express their initial ideas on the public web, where others could respond and cross-fertilization could take place before essays were fully drafted. Welcoming invited experts and general readers to participate in our open peer review in the fall of 2011 allowed the “wisdom of the crowd” to shape our developmental editing and our final decisions on which essays should advance to the final round. Finally, partnering with an innovative academic press to publish the volume in dual formats (paper for sale and online for free) vastly increases its audience beyond the typical high-priced hardbound-only edition. In all of this, we have seen technology not as the goal but, rather, as a tool that enables us to rethink scholarship-as-usual.
Changing the Culture of History Writing
Historians value good writing. All scholars construct new forms of knowledge, but we historians tend to hold our profession to a particularly high standard when it comes to writing about our discoveries. As readers, we prefer clear and persuasive prose over data tables or abstract jargon. As a discipline, we favor book-length monographs over the article-based publishing traditions of the social sciences. As writers, we aspire to wrap meaningful insights about the past into a good story.
Despite the central role that writing plays within our profession, its practice remains mostly hidden from public view. By and large, we historians do our work—the acts of researching, writing, and publishing—alone, rather than in collaboration with others. While we prize the influential books that hold a special place on our bookshelves and in our minds, historians rarely reveal the underlying processes that led to these finished products. Writing is our shared craft, the glue that unites our profession, but we tend to be private about it. “Do not circulate or cite without permission of the author” is an all-too-familiar warning label appearing on drafts of papers delivered at our conferences. Given this state of secrecy, how do we expect historians-in-training to learn our craft? How do we expect them to develop their skills as writers, particularly of dissertations and books, without openly sharing and comparing our writing processes? How can we advance the overall quality of writing in the profession without asking each of us to reinvent the wheel for ourselves? Collectively, the ideas presented here seek to interrupt this norm of silence within our profession, pull back the curtain, and make our individual work processes more public.
The fact that this volume about writing has been digitally conceived, developed, and published is anything but coincidental. We see this volume and the essays in it as an intervention into a complex and changing landscape of digital scholarship and scholarly publishing. On the one hand, in the last decade, self-described digital humanists have delineated and demonstrated the numerous and wide-ranging ways in which technology might speed up and improve the quality of research and writing in the humanities. Discipline-specific efforts in the field of digital history have been led by such institutions as the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, encouraged by the American Historical Association, and undertaken by individuals and groups of scholars both in and outside the academy. As CHNM’s Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig explained in their seminal 2005 how-to guide, digital technology allows historians to “do more, reach more people, store more data, [and] give readers more varied sources; [with it] we can get more historical materials into classrooms, give students more access to formerly cloistered documents, hear from more perspectives.” In addition, digital media both extend and fundamentally change the way we read and understand information, by rendering it manipulable and interactive and allowing us to access it in nonlinear form.
Despite these potential benefits, however, scholars in humanities disciplines—and historians in particular—have been especially slow to embrace digital technology for the research, writing, and dissemination of their scholarship. The findings of recent surveys indicate that the vast majority of history faculty are neither engaging with digital tools for analysis nor digitally disseminating their in-progress or completed work. These same scholars use e-mail, word processing software, online search engines, and digital archives in the course of producing scholarship, but they do not avail themselves of the many technologies designed to assist in data analysis, text composition, and public dissemination. Approximately 20 percent of historians claim to have published scholarship online, but more than half of those publications may have been digitized versions of articles published in print journals. That leaves only about 10 percent of historians who have shared their scholarship in digital form on the open web, whether on personal blogs or institutional or project-specific websites, as digital documentaries, through games or apps, or as essays in web-born journals or in Wikipedia. Why have so few shared their scholarship in this way? Clues to understanding this phenomenon lie both in the circumstances that shape the process and products of historians’ writing and in the reasons why historians publish in the first place.
For historians—as for all authors—writing is an individual and highly personal process, as well as one that is materially and culturally situated. There is something understandable and even commendable about scholars wanting to stay with what they know, appreciate, and do well. Until very recently, people who wanted to publish short pieces to be read by a broad readership on a regular basis became journalists, not historians. So although we might all benefit from having more historians blogging their scholarship, for example, it hardly comes as a surprise that most do not. Moreover, as applied linguist Ken Hyland emphasizes, “Academic writing is not just about conveying an ideational ‘content,’ it is also about the representation of self.” In other words, we are what we write—and what we read—and historians on the whole appear disinclined to alter themselves, however compelling the arguments for doing so may be. Yet, as the essays in this volume attest, the arguments are indeed compelling, as is our responsibility as intellectuals, in Donald Hall’s words, “to question, reinterrogate, unsettle, and dissipate familiarities,” since “we—our selves—should hold no privileged position vis-à-vis that critical engagement.”
Beyond the personal, historians’ willingness to engage in digital history hinges, too, on perceived and real material, technological, and temporal constraints. By definition, digital history utilizes different tools, differently, than most historians are used to. It has its own vocabulary and requires different skills sets (emphasizing, for example, curation as opposed to detective work). Would-be digital historians who are accustomed to working alone, with only a word processor, may be daunted or dismayed by the prospect of managing a multisoftware or multicontributor project. Many of us lack the basic literacy in digital genres, technologies, and information architecture to be able to articulate our ideas, and some are hesitant to immerse themselves in the new technologies, lest these technologies become obsolete before the historian’s work is even finished. Historians may not have access to the time, money, or technical support necessary to realize some forms of digital scholarship. Or we may be unaware that we do in fact have access to these resources or that we can do some forms of digital history—including joining extant projects—without them.
The third major influence on historians’ engagement with digital history has been the culture of scholarship within the discipline itself. To date, historians’ culture and modus operandi have typically been the opposite of the speed and openness, the collaborative spirit and do-it-yourself mentality, that characterize the Internet at its best. In their work, historians largely seek to be comprehensive rather than (necessarily) innovative—and comprehensiveness takes time. “On the ‘slow side of sharing,’” we hoard and hone our ideas prior to publication rather than widely circulate working papers or preprints like those in other disciplines. Once submitted for peer review, our articles and monographs may take up to three years to appear in print. In the interim, we fear that the exposure of our messy path to supposed perfection will lead others either to scoop our ideas or else to discover that we are not as clever as our peer-reviewed published works would have them believe. Ultimately, secrecy about our work may indeed support the harsh competitiveness that some feel has come to define the academy more broadly. To the contrary, in accordance with the do-it-yourself culture of the Internet, the sharing of thinking-in-progress seems to encourage more collaboration than competition among scholars (and others), while at the same time modeling the “historical habits of mind” we seek to teach our students.
Why Do We Publish?
Pose that question to any humanities scholar, particularly a historian in today’s uncertain publishing and academic job markets, and you’re likely to hear a confusing mix of answers that reveal the competing interests we face. Historians are an anxious breed. As we write our conference papers, journal articles, and book manuscripts, we worry about money, ownership, status, and tenure. While obsessing over these individualistic factors, we often lose track of the broader scholarly values that fundamentally motivate us to share our knowledge and engage with the ideas of others. The current disruption caused by digital publishing leads us to pause and sort through the different arguments for why scholars do what we do.
Publishing for Financial Gain
For most historians, we can quickly dispense with the money argument. If your primary goal is to get rich quickly, then publishing scholarly monographs in the humanities is not your best route. Based on our general knowledge of the field, today’s typical academic press considers a book to be successful if it sells at least 1,000 print copies. Assuming a royalty of 5 percent based on books retailed at $30 each, this arrangement yields the author a modest sum of $1,500. But most historians probably have spent an equal or greater sum on out-of-pocket expenses in researching and producing a book such as this. In addition to time that is uncompensated for many of us, many historians commonly pay their own costs for research travel, photocopying, copyright permissions, and indexing. Indeed, the financial payoff for a best-selling trade book or popular textbook published by a trade press is far greater. But those experiences are not the norm, and the primary motivator for most historians is something other than money.
In fact, our current models of scholarly publishing place a growing financial burden on university and college libraries. In practice, faculty members effectively give away journal and book manuscripts to publishers for the privilege of seeing them in print. In turn, publishers sell faculty scholarship back to our academic libraries and charge them a price for the right to lend out print copies or disseminate digital copies on proprietary databases. As a result, higher education pays twice for scholarship produced by its own faculty: first, in the form of salary or sabbatical support for individual professors, and second, in fees for the right to distribute the work. (The financial burden is more extreme in the grant-funded sciences, where commercial publishers charge substantially higher journal subscription fees to libraries and publication fees to contributing authors.) The current business model benefits neither the average historian nor the institutions of higher education that employ many of us.
Publishing for Professional Status
Another argument is that academics publish to avoid perishing. Writing an important book matters greatly to the gatekeepers of academic success—the committees and deans that hire faculty and evaluate them for tenure. While an individual history book may yield only modest author’s royalties, it may indirectly determine whether a candidate receives a job offer with a stable long-term salary or is promoted to a higher-paying rank. But for most historians, what matters most is our reputation within the profession, and this tends to be based largely on our publications, which are more widely visible to our peers than is, for example, our teaching. The problem arises when scholars insert their perception of a publisher’s status as a proxy for the quality of a particular book, without evaluating the latter directly. Many historians carry with us a vague pecking order of scholarly publishers, assuming that those near the top exercise more selective editorial filtering than those below. With so many books produced and so little time to read, we tend to substitute our vague notions of the publisher’s prestige in place of informed judgment about the quality of the text. Moreover, publishers have warned universities against basing faculty tenure decisions solely on their decision to accept or reject a manuscript. When academic publishers rely on revenue from book sales to pay their editorial and production costs, their definition of a “good” book is inevitably tied up with a “marketable” one. Of course, quality, status, and marketability are neither identical nor interchangeable.
Publishing to Share Ideas
The most principled reason for academics to publish is to share ideas and engage with the ideas of others, as part of a larger process of enriching the body of knowledge. At its best, producing scholarship means stepping out of individual isolation and into a public forum, where we test out new ideas, build on foundations offered by others, and challenge ways of thinking that conflict with our own point of view. By sharing ideas in our writing and by reflecting on and responding to the writing of others, we contribute to the creation of intellectual communities. The more widely ideas are shared, the better off we all are. Neither personal gain nor professional status is the primary motivation here. Instead, we publish to become part of something larger than ourselves.
While we aspire toward this noble goal in Writing History in the Digital Age, we also recognize the pressures for professional advancement faced particularly by newer scholars entering the field. At a conference workshop where we demonstrated our digital pilot project, we heard from many graduate students and junior faculty who were eager to share their historical writing online but who also needed affirmation that it would “count” in the eyes of future hiring and tenure committees. Could we find an established peer-reviewed journal or press whose role would lend sufficient status to enable them to fully participate in our collective effort? At the same time, we wondered whether we could find a journal or press that embraced our ideal of sharing our scholarship on the open web. Might there be a middle ground where all of these competing needs could be met?
One intriguing possibility was the University of Michigan Press. In 2009, the University of Michigan restructured its press to become part of its library, with a pioneering mission statement: “to use the best emerging digital technology to disseminate such information as freely and widely as possible while preserving the integrity of published scholarship.” The press maintains its editorial role and quality standards, but as a budgeted unit within the library, thereby reducing the pressure to recover costs through book sales revenue (though not alleviating it entirely). The boldest model of this library-press collaboration is its digitalculturebooks imprint, which disseminates peer-reviewed scholarship in two formats: print-on-demand books (for sale) and its open-access website (for free). At present, the press is still straddling old-world publishing and its new-world aspirations, with an increasing percentage of its books to be distributed in print and open-access formats, under Creative Commons licensing. As we drafted our proposal for this edited volume, the University of Michigan’s hybrid model—a reputable academic press combined with open-access digital publishing—offered the best means of accommodating our scholarly goals and realities.
Why Not Publish on the Open Web?
Two words that strike fear in the hearts of many historians are blogs and wikis. The problem is not simply that these web technologies may be new and unfamiliar but also that they challenge us to reconsider established norms about what counts as scholarly work in our colleges and universities. For instance, if the new history professor at the other end of the hall starts a blog, should that count as a publication? What if it is a long, expository blog essay with scholarly footnotes? If there are readers’ comments on a blog, especially from other historians, should this count as peer review? Or must a publisher other than the author be involved in the process? If so, does that mean we should “count” an essay that a historian contributed to an online publication, such as Wikipedia? What if the Wikipedia entry was expanded on or modified by other contributors? Would that make it count more or count less? And what on earth does it mean to “publish” scholarly work in this digital age? Unsurprisingly, these questions make many historians nervous.
In fact, it is neither blogs nor wikis but, rather, another trend entirely that historians should fear: the creeping price of scholarly monographs. As authors, our worst nightmare is to toil away for years on a book that no one reads. Many of us are watching academic publishers issue hardcover-only editions and holding off on paperbacks in an effort to squeeze as much sales revenue as possible from libraries. Our jaws dropped over a year ago when a major publisher listed a colleague’s hardcover historical monograph at $95. That copyrighted text is effectively locked inside a very expensive box that very few can afford, and the author has no legal recourse to let it out. Some of our academic libraries will refuse to buy it. When our books are priced this high, who really has access to our work? What happens to our noble goal of publishing to share and engage in the ideas of others?
Understandably, many historians still favor printed books as a familiar and reliable mode for sharing knowledge. Books offer a stable technology that does not rely on Internet access or operating systems. We enjoy the feel of books in the palms of our hands, the ease of reading wherever we choose to sit, and the ability to display our acquired knowledge on our bookshelves. We can purchase printed books from local booksellers and online vendors or borrow them from academic and public libraries (provided that these institutions continue to be supported by tuition and tax dollars). But one serious limitation of printed books is that they are built to provide only one-way scholarly communication of ideas, from author to audience. Information is disseminated to readers, who play no part in the knowledge-development process, unless they also happen to discuss it in a class or book group, send a letter to the author, write a book review, or incorporate it into their own scholarship. Certainly, readers can take the initiative to dialogue with the author or other readers, but printed books, by themselves, are not designed to promote a two-way exchange of ideas.
Despite the fanfare surrounding e-books, the current generation of this digital technology comes with limitations. The e-book formats currently found most commonly in academic libraries allow users to flip through images of book pages on our browsers, search the text, and copy passages into our notes, but they do not alter the one-way flow of scholarly communication from author to audience. Consumer-oriented e-books, such as those available for Amazon’s Kindle, now permit readers to pay for an upgraded service to create highlights and notes on the text, which may be publicly shared online. However, Amazon’s initial e-book licensing agreement was not library-friendly and did not legally permit the lending of content. Only in September 2011 did the company appear to have shifted its policy by launching a beta program for selected public libraries to distribute e-books, but users are redirected from the public catalog to Amazon’s commercial website with sales pitches. Moreover, critics have questioned the practice of using taxpayer-funded public libraries to boost Amazon’s hardware sales (ranging from $80 to $200 per unit). Whether proprietary e-books are a cost-effective means to expand public interaction with historical scholarship remains doubtful.
Our Web-Book Design
When proposing this volume, we sought a digital format that matched our scholarly values of sharing and engaging with ideas in public. Unlike most e-books (which emphasize one-way communication) or proprietary formats (which require subscription fees or the purchase of a new device), our solution was to create what we call a “web-book”: built with open-source tools, it allows readers to freely access and respond to the text online, using a standard web browser. We believe that open-web scholarly publishing can merge the best of digital innovation and traditional practices. It should:
Look Like a Book
While not all digital history products are (or should be) book-like, we recognize that historians are skilled in writing in the traditional long-argument book format and comfortable in reading and evaluating others’ works in that format. Our model uses a combination of open-source WordPress tools to deliver what historians seek: easily readable pages of text divided into chapters and sections, with clear attribution to individual authors or coauthors and Chicago-style footnotes. All of our software is freely available, and we were able to modify portions to fit our specific needs.
Protect Authors’ Attribution Rights While Maximizing Public Access
Our text is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license, an extension of standard copyright that allows readers to freely share the essay content, with a citation to the author. Furthermore, our WordPress technology welcomes readers’ comments in the margins while assuring authors that others cannot “rewrite” their original text (as wiki-style tools allow). As the book’s editors, we also serve as website administrators, with the power to moderate any comments deemed inappropriate according to our editorial policy.
Integrate Narrative Text and Multimedia Source Materials
This quality strongly interests historians whose arguments rely on evidence not easily captured in conventional print. Visual historians can display images and video, social science historians can upload datasets, and spatial historians can walk us through maps. With open-web publishing, authors can link to any source that is freely available on the Internet. By contrast, Amazon’s current best-selling historical e-books with audio and/or video clips provide only a limited selection of media content, packaged inside the proprietary book file, not on the public web.
Speed Up Distribution While Preserving Archival and Print Formats
Historians want it both ways: we desire instant access to the newest works in our field, while also demanding that the past be safely archived. We also insist on having the choice to read on screen or in print. While we acknowledge that this volume’s publishing formats are imperfect, they do represent a step forward. At present, our web-book platform allows us to immediately distribute the latest version and maintain internal links to prior versions, with a basic archival copy, including comments, in PDF format. Although text links to external sites may break, our style guide requires a full citation and URL in the endnotes. In addition, our contract specifies that the University of Michigan Press will publish the book in two formats: a print-on-demand edition and an open-access online edition, which will be preserved by its Library.
Be Findable with Existing Library Search Tools
Currently, the Writing History in the Digital Age web-book is hosted on a server at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where librarians created a MARC record for the item and uploaded it to WorldCat, to increase its likelihood of being found by other scholars.
Promote Peer Review with Two-Way Scholarly Communication
As authors, we cannot judge whether our own writing successfully communicates complex ideas without receiving some type of feedback from our intended audience. When publishing a scholarly print book or e-book, we generally have little idea how it is received unless a reader happens to contact us directly or an academic journal prints a review, typically a year or two later. By contrast, socially networked texts allow substantive communication between writers and readers. In the case of this volume, online commenting, combined with view data for the web pages, tells us exactly which passages readers praised, panned, or never even bothered to read.
Perhaps the scariest question of all is, do we really want to know what our readers think or how many readers we actually have? The risk of having our ideas openly criticized, on the very same digital pages that we labored over, is very real. But it also forces us to reflect on the central question—why do we publish?—and on whether we genuinely desire to share and engage with the ideas of others in public or prefer the traditional norms of writing in private and publishing in increasingly expensive and exclusive outlets.
Whether they prefer print, e-books, or web-books, all historians agree that the quality of the work is what truly matters. Yet we sometimes lack agreement on how scholarly work should be evaluated (particularly in the humanities) and at what stage(s) of the process it should happen. In the traditional publishing model, academic presses employ editors and external reviewers to filter their products prior to publication, to signal that books meet their selective standards and are deemed worth reading. Several models of digital publishing reverse this equation by placing content on the Internet and relying on the wisdom of the readership to sort out what is—and is not—worth reading. Both exercise a form of peer review, but at different stages in the scholarly communication process. Media studies scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick elaborates on this point.
In a self-multiplying scholarly commons, some kind of assessment of the material that has been published remains important, but not because of scarce resources; instead, what remains scarce are time and attention. For this reason, peer review needs to be put not in the service of gatekeeping, or determining what should be published for any scholar to see, but of filtering, or determining what of the vast amount of material that has been published is of interest or value to a particular scholar. As Clay Shirky has argued, “Filter-then-publish, whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter.”
For many historians, our interest in the “publish-then-filter” concept arose independently of the Internet. Arguably the most widely discussed issue of the Journal of American History in recent decades was a controversial roundtable issue in 1997 titled “What We See and Can’t See in the Past.” Editor David Thelen published an article on the history of lynching submitted by Joel Williamson, followed by the reports of six reviewers. After receiving all of the reports, Thelen persuaded everyone to attach their names to the original documents, “to demystify our own practice,” and openly published them in the journal alongside Williamson’s article. In his introduction, Thelen justified this nonconventional approach, arguing, “We live in an age when historians are as interested in the doing of history as in the products of that doing.” As it happened, the reviewers sharply disagreed on the strengths and weaknesses of Williamson’s historical analysis of race, and the numerous letters to the editor published in the subsequent issue of the journal revealed the need for a deeper discussion about how historians judge the quality of each other’s scholarly writing.
Elsewhere in the humanities, we have been inspired more recently by innovative combinations of web technology and open peer review that invigorate scholarly communication. Some of the most prominent examples are hybrids—a mixture of invited and public reviewers—that retain an editorial board’s sense of confidence in its appointed experts, while reaping the benefits of the crowd’s wisdom. In 2009, under the auspices of MediaCommons Press, Kathleen Fitzpatrick released a full draft of her book manuscript Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy for open peer review, in an agreement with her prospective publisher, NYU Press, which simultaneously sent it out for blind review and subsequently published the book two years later. In 2010, MediaCommons Press hosted an open-review edition of a leading literary journal, Shakespeare Quarterly, where contributors’ submissions received open-review commentary from designated and self-selected reviewers. What is most striking about these hybrid models is their mixture of public space (for open commentary) and private space (for final editorial decisions).
We propose Writing History in the Digital Age as one (but certainly not the only) model for rethinking publishing in ways that preserve our scholarly values. As you immerse yourself in the individual essays on history, technology, and our craft as authors, consider the argument embedded in this book’s born-digital format, open-review editorial process, and open-access distribution. We have already asked, why not publish scholarship on the open web? Now it is time to flip the question and ask, why are we still holding onto proprietary print and e-book publishing if there are better ways to achieve our goals? As academic authors, our primary aim is to maximize the quality and distribution of ideas. Whether we are motivated more by individual status or by broader principles, the rising price of hardcover-only books and commercial databases should cause alarm and lead us to seriously consider alternatives. Is there any reason to limit peer review to a small number of readers, when hybrid open-review online models reap the dual benefits of invited experts and the public at large? Does it still make sense to lock our texts into proprietary digital formats, when open-web publishing can protect authors’ rights and connect us with wider communities of readers?
We do not claim that the transition to open-web scholarly publishing is simple, and we have always seen this volume as a very public experiment, with its failure a distinct possibility. Several questions that have continually arisen in public conferences and private conversations reveal many tensions that historians feel about these issues. How do we create communities of authors, readers, and commenters to enhance the quality of born-digital works? Does the open peer-review process discourage candid criticism from commenters who may be reluctant to post negative remarks on the public web? Finally, is open-access scholarly publishing, as exemplified by the University of Michigan library-press partnership, a fiscally sustainable model for the future? We address these questions in our concluding reflections in this volume, drawing on our experience with this volume’s development. But in large part, the discussion of whether to change what and how historians write is moot. Scholarship-as-usual no longer appears to be a sustainable model, as much for historians as for others. We hope Writing History in the Digital Age will inspire others to join in rethinking how and why and even what we publish, all in the service of improving both our scholarship and others’ access to it.
1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Katherine Rowe, “Keywords for Open Peer Review,” Logos: The Journal of the World Book Community 21, nos. 3–4 (2010): 133–41, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/brill/logo/2010/00000021/F0020003/art00015.
2. Roy Rosenzweig, “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?,” Perspectives, April 2005, http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2005/0504/0504vic1.cfm, reprinted in Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 117–23; John Willinsky, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?tid=10611&ttype=2.
3. “About the Licenses,” Creative Commons, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/.
4. See, for example, the work of the scholar-led NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, http://www.nines.org); the pioneering Stanford Humanities Lab (http://humanitieslab.stanford.edu/Metamedia/9); and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Collaboratory, http://hastac.org/).
5. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, http://chnm.gmu.edu/.
6. See, for example, Edward L. Ayers, The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/; American Historical Association, “Intersections: History and New Media,” Perspectives Online 47, no. 5 (2009), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0905/.
7. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History. A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Fairfax, VA: Center for History and New Media, 2005), http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/.
8. Robert B. Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” Perspectives Online 48, no. 8 (2010), http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm; Diane Harley et al., Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: An Exploration of Faculty Values and Needs in Seven Disciplines (Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, 2010); Rebecca Griffiths, Michael Dawson, and Matthew Rascoff, Scholarly Communications in the History Discipline (New York: Ithaka Strategic Services for JStor, 2006).
9. Sean Takats, “Adoption of ‘New’ Media by Historians,” The Quintessence of Ham, October 28, 2010, accessed August 14, 2011, http://quintessenceofham.org/2010/10/28/adoption-of-new-media-by-historians/#identifier_1_279.
13. John Updike, “The End of Authorship,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 25, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/books/review/25updike.html; Ken Hyland, Writing in the Academy: Reputation, Education, and Knowledge (London: Institute of Education, University of London, 2007).
15. Sean Takats, “Time Shifting and Historical Research,” The Quintessence of Ham, March 20, 2011, http://quintessenceofham.org/2010/10/28/adoption-of-new-media-by-historians/#identifier_1_279.
17. E. Bell, “Barriers to Institutional Digital History,” Jefferson’s Newspaper: A Blog about Information, Education, and the (Digital) Humanities, May 17, 2009, accessed September 19, 2011, [formerly http://jeffersonsnewspaper.org/2009/barriers-to-institutional-digital-history/].
18. Dan Cohen, Stephen Ramsay, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Open Access and Scholarly Values,” in Hacking the Academy, ed. Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), http://www.digitalculture.org/hacking-the-academy/hacking-scholarship/#scholarship-cohen.
24. Jennifer Howard, “U. of Michigan Press Reorganizes as a Unit of the Library,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/U-of-Michigan-Press/47128.
26. Barbara Fister, “Blog U.: Why There’s No Kindle ‘Freedom’ in Libraries,” Inside Higher Ed, September 24, 2010, http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library_babel_fish/why_there_s_no_kindle_freedom_in_libraries.
27. Brier Dudley, “Kindle Library Lending: Good Deal for Everyone?,” Seattle Times, September 26, 2011, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/technologybrierdudleysblog/2016323413_kindle_library_lending_questio.html.
28. Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Spring 2012 version, http://www.worldcat.org/title/writing-history-in-the-digital-age/oclc/756644249.
29. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 46, quoting Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), 98.
30. David Thelen, “What We See and Can’t See in the Past: An Introduction,” Journal of American History 83, no. 4 (1997): 1217, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2952898.
31. Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: MediaCommons, 2009), http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/.
32. Jennifer Howard, “Leading Humanities Journal Debuts ‘Open’ Peer Review, and Likes It,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2010, http://chronicle.com/article/Leading-Humanities-Journal/123696.