This weekend, I read over Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU 2011). The book does pretty much what the title says. It explores the impact of technology on academic publishing and the role it plays in transforming academic discourse (and, potentially, university life). The book provides a nice overview of recent innovations in the area of peer review (including open peer review), challenges to the idea of authorship and texts, as well as some considerations of preservation in the digital age. A more speculative chapter considers the future of university presses in light of the changes outlines in the first four chapters. While the book does not necessarily say anything novel for people who are familiar with the basic structure of the debates on digital publishing and academic, the book is clear about the interdependence between professional standards and the health, vitality, and relevance of academic publishing.
In general, Fitzpatrick views scholarly publishing as divided between producers and consumers, and this is clearly the case. Consumers represent the libraries, academic departments (hiring promotion, and tenure committees), and other scholars. Producers are the various scholars who rely upon academic work to promote their ideas and, ultimately, their careers. Of course, producer and consumer can switch positions throughout their careers as producers of academic works typically serve to evaluate the academic work of their peers. At the same time, in this model, the decisions (and perhaps even the responsibilities) to accommodate the transformations in the publishing world appear to rest squarely on the shoulders of the various consumers of academic texts. The reality is, of course, that some of the willingness to recognize the value of digital texts of various kinds – whether they are blogs, electronic journals (or books), or other more dynamic and interactive kinds of texts – has to come from scholars who are producing scholarly works as well. In other words, scholars have to recognize in a critical way the value of digital texts for their own work.
To explore this idea a bit more deeply, I decided to look at Fitzpatrick’s bibliography and reflect on how much of her book drew upon digital texts of various kinds. My study was pretty unscientific, but I tried to be consistent. I created a spreadsheet of the 350+ publications cited in her bibliography. Then, I separated works in her bibliography that were “primary sources” such as an “About” page for a web service, reports from publishers, or a general address for a blog. These represented about 18% of her bibliography. From the group of “secondary sources” (ranging from traditional books and articles, to blog posts, digital articles, ebooks, or even comments on blog posts), I also culled out “popular” sources – like articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Time, or the New York Times that mostly served as primary sources but also contributed to her arguments in various ways. These were almost entirely digital in form.
So here are the digits from the academic works:
53% were cited in paper form, and 51% of these were books and 49% were articles.
47% of her academic citations were in digital form. 4.5% were digital books of various forms, 35.7% were articles published digitally, 38.4% were blog posts, and 21.4% were comments on blog posts or on manuscripts in CommentPress.
The average age of a paper citation was 12.2 years old; the average age of a digital citation was 4.5 years.
The point of this little statistical exercise was to suggest that even scholars agnostic toward digital publishing will like come to accept the new forms and media as quality academic works come to engage and rely on digital publications. The producers of both traditional works and digital works are consumers of digital works as well.