Innovations in Publishing

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is the director of Scholarly Communications at the Modern Language Association*, and her newest book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, advances the thesis that scholarly publishing is in a crisis and “technological changes — especially greater greater use of internet publication technologies, including digital archives, social networking tools, and multimedia — [are] necessary to allow academic publishing to thrive into the future”. Is it any wonder then that the publication of Planned Obsolescence showcases some of those technological innovations?

First, the entire text of the book is available for reading and commenting online. The site that hosts Fitzpatrick’s book runs a system called CommentPress, which is “an open source theme and plugin for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text”. With CommentPress, a reader can “[a]nnotate, gloss, workshop, debate” and “do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation”. The book has been posted online since fall 2009 and received such extensive input from this medium that Fitzpatrick thanks some of these online readers by name in the Acknowledgments section of the print edition of her book.

Second, Planned Obsolescence went through an open review process. This means that instead of the usual Chinese wall system under which a) the referee does not know whose work he is reviewing, b) the author does not know whose comments she got, and c) the readers do not know how much the final product was changed as a result of the peer review process**, Fitzpatrick knows exactly who her publisher, New York University Press, selected to review her manuscript. Moreover, the referee report is then “made public and commentable alongside the manuscript“.

Third, the print version of Fitzpatrick’s book contains some innovative features of its own. For example, a QR code graces the book, making the book webpage accessible to, say, an impulse-buy-prone bookstore browser with a smart phone. Also, the image used on the cover (“green wooden box containing type”) is available from Wikimedia Commons, meaning that anyone can reuse the picture for free.

Ain’t obsolescence (sometimes) nice?
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*:  The MLA is only the most prominent scholarly society for the study of language and literature, although I will confess that I know it mostly as acronym behind the the MLA style guide. Thank goodness Wikipedia knows better than that.

**: This is how the standard peer review system works in theory. In practice, however, referees who want to know the authorship of the work can do a Google search using the paper’s title and find a working version on the author’s website with her name emblazoned across the top. Likewise, authors can make educated guesses about who reviewed their works, especially if they work in a relatively small field.

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