Open Publishing at the Digital Press

DigitalPressLogoThis weekend, I’m Skyping into an Open Access workshop at the University of Ottawa at the invitation of Kyle Conway, the co-founder of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. It is a really nice opportunity to think about open and digital publishing in the heels of our recent SAA paper and amid a couple of almost finished projects.

The talk is only 15 minutes so instead of writing it out, I think I’m going to just try to hit on a few main points. Since the conference will feature earlier sections on open data and open publishing (and my paper will be the first in a section on Open Educational Resources), I’ll try to weave together some of those themes into my little talk which will focus on five themes.

1. DIY and Cooperative Publishing.

The first section of my talk will basically tell the story of The Digital Press with particular attention to Punk Archaeology. With the clarity of hindsight, there is a connection between my instinct toward DIY, my appreciation of punk rock music, and my desire to publish my own stuff, my own way. And this connection propelled The Digital Press forward far ahead of any effort to think in a critical way about the nature and character of open access publishing.

It was my relationship with friends and colleagues that gave The Digital Press a pool of willing collaborators and this helped me frame the idea that a cooperative publishing model could work. Today, when we accept a proposal, we work with the authors or editors to decide on our shared responsibilities within the project. For example, I might, as publisher, take on the responsibility for coordinating peer review and, then, doing layout while the authors or editors might coordinate copy-editing and correspondence with contributing authors. We might together work out a marketing strategy. In other instances, I might work out copy editing and review, while the author would take on more technical tasks.

2. Academic Attitudes.

This model for publishing, of course, relies on finding groups of collaborators who (1) see the practice of publishing as part of scholarly and academic work, and (2) want to contribute and control the publication process.

In my field of archaeology, there is a persistent call for reflexive practices in the field and during analysis, but in some ways, these reflexive attitudes stop at the publication process. Once the book or article goes into production, academic work, at worst, stops, or, at best, enters a Latourian “black box” in which a manuscript take on the trappings of academic authority through the process of peer review, the style of formal publication, and the imprimatur of a press. We engage in a pious fiction that these provide a kind of sincere authority to our work, while at the same time acknowledging that many of the trappings of conventional publishing are, in fact, much more complicated.

The point of this statement is not to juxtapose open, collaborative publishing with traditional publishing – after all, they share many of the same authority-making practices –  but, instead, to suggest that cooperative publishing offers one way to open the entire knowledge-making process to critique and to unpack both discipline specific strategies and long-standing techniques from across the academy.

3. Open Publishing Ecosystem.

While open practices can unpack the messy character of publishing (and complicate even the tidiest of books or articles), I am not suggesting that they supplant them. For academic publishing to thrive, a dynamic ecosystem needs to exist. This includes open access publishing, non-profit, non-open presses, for profit-presses, and maybe even the massive commercial behemoths of Springer and Elsevier. Each niche in the publishing ecosystem offers particular advantages from commercial reach to technical expertise, technological sophistication, and speed. As open publishing asserts itself in the academic and scholarly market, we have an opportunity to influence the shape of publishing in all industries by providing a realistic and significant alternative to traditional publishing.

At the same time, open publishing has the opportunities and responsibilities to support the development its own open publishing ecosystem. This means supporting archiving platforms, data publishing platforms, and various open publishing platforms in such a way that our ecosystem remains dynamic, flexible, and diverse. This means making sure that we give to the system at least as much as we take away!

4. Open Education is doing.

Part of what we’re working toward at the University of North Dakota is taking our cooperative model of open publishing and involving more people in the work. For example, this winter, a colleague and I did a “quick book” that collected a series of original essays and reprints on the American Electoral College system. Making this book allowed for a faculty member to understand more fully the publication process and understand the opportunities presented by open publishing. The book was completed in 5 weeks over Christmas break and was released prior to the inauguration.

We’ve also started to work more closely with classes in the Writing and Editing program in the Department of English here. For example, two classes this semester are helping prepare books for The Digital Press: one class is, under supervision, copy editing a small volume of essays, and the other has prepared a book of original essays and documents preserving the memory of the 1997 Red River Flood.

The Digital Press is looking, then, to expand the nature of open educational resources for being open textbooks and the like, to opening the process of producing a book to students and interested faculty. In this model, open education involves cultivating a commitment to open knowledge making that includes participating in the process from the ground up. As readers of this blog know, one of my classroom projects involves having students produce a textbook in a introductory level history class. By pulling publication back into the knowledge making and even learning process, we offer a way to think about what we know in ways that challenge the view of the published work as final and definitive.

5. Balancing “collectivity” and the “gig economy.”

I’ll end my little paper with a few caveats that are lingering in my head as we move forward. Open publishing, in my little corner of the world, relies on the goodwill of lots of people. Some of these people are colleagues, some are students, and some are copy editors, graphic designers, and other people who make a living in the so-called “gig economy.” In some way, small presses like mine and especially small, open presses with tiny margins depend upon certain kinds of economic relationships that range from collaboration and various collectivities to traditional piece work.

As open publishing matures and open educational resources develop, I hope we continue to think critically about it as both a product, but also as a practice. This short presentation sought to locate open academic publishing in the context of collaborative and cooperative academic knowledge making, but as some recent commentary on both the world economy and academic culture has shown, innovation (and worse, “disruption”) carry ethical burdens. By locating publishing in the already critical and reflexive space of research, we can maybe do more to ensure that it protects the world that our research seeks to serve.

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