An (apparently) non-academic writer, Sarah Kendzior, has an article in the new “Vitae” project of The Chronicle of Higher Education called “What’s the Point of Academic Publishing?” Is hers a good question?
I am not sure, for I am not sure what “academic publishing” means. Not any longer. Today, I believe it is becoming something of a distinction without real difference behind it. Which leaves us with the question, “What is the point of publishing?” Something else, entirely.
Perhaps the Chronicle understands this, for the picture accompanying the article is of a newspaper printing press of a type rarely seen since the middle of the last century. This type of press has little to do with “academic publishing,” not by any definition and certainly not today… though it certainly has a lot to do with publishing.
On the other hand, there is, certainly, a type of publishing that retains the appellation “academic,” but it is becoming less and less important to scholarly communities. It is based in peer-reviewed journals of smaller and smaller distribution thanks, in part, to corporate ownership interested in keeping work behind paywalls. For this same reason, it now has minuscule impact on the public sphere–and is, therefore, merely a pale reflection of what academic publishing once was, when academic journals were readily available in libraries and scholars’ homes and when there were, quick frankly, only a few of them.
Yet there is another, more expansive type (or definition) of “academic” publishing, and it is on the verge of consuming the old one. Most of us in scholarly communities know this and are adjusting to it–both in our own writings and our judgments on the efforts of others. After all, we are involved in it, in blogs, in open-access publishing, in the use of social networking, in all sorts of things that are making academic publishing quite a different creature from what it was even a decade ago.
To put it simply, Kendzior is only seeing a part of the picture–and in a dichotomy of black and white. Academic publishing and non-academic publishing. She even quotes a professor who is giving up on blogging because it takes too much time away from the ‘real’ work of an academic. Neither she nor the professor she cites seem to see the changes that have been going on this past decade and more, the expansion of academic publishing into new and vigorous venues along with the shrinking of the importance of traditional academic publishing venues. Scholars in all fields are struggling to find ways of bringing the new publishing possibilities into hiring, tenure, promotion and re-appointment decision-making in a coherent fashion–and most of them are already considering them as valid parts (in many cases–there are problems arising from the changes, too, after all) of scholarship.
There is also, within many contemporary college and university administrations, a growing recognition that the most important scholarship is that which extends beyond a narrow cadre of specialists. The institutions are looking for people who can publish in a wider variety of venues than their older colleagues ever considered. Yes, traditional academic journals still hold an important place within ivory towers, but those towers themselves are beginning to fall, the distinction of inside and outside fading just as divisions in types of publishing do.
To me, the most problematic of Kendzior’s comments is this:
Most scholars hesitate to take this approach ["a hybrid approach that combines academic rigor with public accessibility"] even when their writing has had proven appeal, for it appeals to those who do not “count”.
That might have been true even a decade ago, but it is not really true today. We scholars have learned a great deal as a result of the digital revolution, including that there are not very many people who do not “count.”
The point of academic publishing today is to reach as many different audiences as possible. In differing ways through distinct venues and language appropriate to each audience, scholars are expanding how they present their information, which is also changing how they think about what they do and have done.