The “Wild West” of Academic Publishing: The troubled present and promising future of scholarly communication

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PUBLISHING is evolving very rapidly,” says the Harvard Library’s Sarah Thomas. “We’re having a kind of shift away from formal publications that are relatively static. In the old days, a published book would be bound between covers and sit on the shelf for centuries, maybe with some marginalia added. Now publishing has become dynamic: not individual authors, but multiple authors acting to create across geographical regions and across time. Think about scientific publication. For centuries, the journal article has been the form in which scientists communicated. Now, it’s more likely to be an idea put out online by multiple labs, and it may change from day to day. You get alerts; there will be new information added; you’ll get corrections.” And academic careers may assume new forms. A few years ago, art historian Shearer West, now head of the humanities division at the University of Oxford, observed that in the future, scholars will publish one great book, and one great digital project.

“Experimentation is what we need now,” says Jeffrey Schnapp, professor of Romance languages and literatures and an affiliated professor to the Design School’s department of architecture. Schnapp is founder and faculty director of metaLAB (see “The Humanities, Digitized,” May-June 2012, pages 43 and 74), a research and teaching unit that explores “networked culture” in the arts and humanities. In mid 2014, it launched an experimental, design-driven book series with Harvard University Press entitled “metaLABprojects.” Among the first set of books is The Library Beyond the Book, bySchnapp and Matthew Battles, a research fellow at the Berkman Center: an essay on the past, present, and future of libraries that exists as a print book, a digital book, and a deck of cards that captures its “provocations.” A related documentary on the Harvard Library’s book depository is on the way.

“The reality is that we are printing more books today than ever before in the history of civilization—and digital books are in addition to that,” Schnapp says. “Books are thriving now in different ways than they were 30 years ago. We need to think about how to revitalize our communications, rather than defend models that belong to the past. Print culture has undergone many such crises over its history. It’s time for rethinking and for growing. The scholarly book was overdue for redesign.”

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