The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing

When Roy Rosenzweig and I finished writing a full draft of our book Digital History, we sat down at a table and looked at the stack of printouts.

“So, what now?” I said to Roy naively. “Couldn’t we just publish what we have on the web with the click of a button? What value does the gap between this stack and the finished product have? Isn’t it 95% done? What’s the last five percent for?”

We stared at the stack some more.

Roy finally broke the silence, explaining the magic of the last stage of scholarly production between the final draft and the published book: “What happens now is the creation of the social contract between the authors and the readers. We agree to spend considerable time ridding the manuscript of minor errors, and the press spends additional time on other corrections and layout, and readers respond to these signals—a lack of typos, nicely formatted footnotes, a bibliography, specialized fonts, and a high-quality physical presentation—by agreeing to give the book a serious read.”

I have frequently replayed that conversation in my mind, wondering about the constitution of this social contract in scholarly publishing, which is deeply related to questions of academic value and reward.

For the ease of conversation, let’s call the two sides of the social contract of scholarly publishing the supply side and the demand side. The supply side is the creation of scholarly works, including writing, peer review, editing, and the form of publication. The demand side is much more elusive—the mental state of the audience that leads them to “buy” what the supply side has produced. In order for the social contract to work, for engaged reading to happen and for credit to be given to the author (or editor of a scholarly collection), both sides need to be aligned properly.

The social contract of the book is profoundly entrenched and powerful—almost mythological—especially in the humanities. As John Updike put it in his diatribe against the digital (and most humanities scholars and tenure committees would still agree), “The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.”

As academic projects have experimented with the web over the past two decades we have seen intense thinking about the supply side. Robust academic work has been reenvisioned in many ways: as topical portals, interactive maps, deep textual databases, new kinds of presses, primary source collections, and even software. Most of these projects strive to reproduce the magic of the traditional social contract of the book, even as they experiment with form.

The demand side, however, has languished. Far fewer efforts have been made to influence the mental state of the scholarly audience. The unspoken assumption is that the reader is more or less unchangeable in this respect, only able to respond to, and validate, works that have the traditional marks of the social contract: having survived a strong filtering process, near-perfect copyediting, the imprimatur of a press.

We need to work much more on the demand side if we want to move the social contract forward into the digital age. Despite Updike’s ode to the book, there are social conventions surrounding print that are worth challenging. Much of the reputational analysis that occurs in the professional humanities relies on cues beyond the scholarly content itself. The act of scanning a CV is an act fraught with these conventions.

Can we change the views of humanities scholars so that they may accept, as some legal scholars already do, the great blog post as being as influential as the great law review article? Can we get humanities faculty, as many tenured economists already do, to publish more in open access journals? Can we accomplish the humanities equivalent of FiveThirtyEight.com, which provides as good, if not better, in-depth political analysis than most newspapers, earning the grudging respect of journalists and political theorists? Can we get our colleagues to recognize outstanding academic work wherever and however it is published?

I believe that to do so, we may have to think less like humanities scholars and more like social scientists. Behavioral economists know that although the perception of value can come from the intrinsic worth of the good itself (e.g., the quality of a wine, already rather subjective), it is often influenced by many other factors, such as price and packaging (the wine bottle, how the wine is presented for tasting). These elements trigger a reaction based on stereotypes—if it’s expensive and looks well-wrapped, it must be valuable. The book and article have an abundance of these value triggers from generations of use, but we are just beginning to understand equivalent value triggers online—thus the critical importance of web design, and why the logo of a trusted institution or a university press can still matter greatly, even if it appears on a website rather than a book.

Social psychologists have also thought deeply about the potent grip of these idols of our tribe. They are aware of how cultural norms establish and propagate themselves, and tell us how the imposition of limits creates hierarchies of recognition. Thinking in their way, along with the way the web works, one potential solution on the demand side might come not from the scarcity of production, as it did in a print world, but from the scarcity of attention. That is, value will be perceived in any community-accepted process that narrows the seemingly limitless texts to read or websites to view. Curation becomes more important than publication once publication ceases to be limited.

[image credit: Priki]

48 thoughts on “The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing

  1. Micki McGee

    Dan Cohen, Awesome analysis. Kudos to you and Roy Rosenzweig. Brilliant description of the dynamics around print v. digital publication in academe.

  2. Alan Christy

    When I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence or read a good blog post with a better comments thread, I have no idea what Updike is talking about, save a demand on the reader to continue reading at book length. Both of my examples here are successful because they capture attention with compelling opportunities for feedback.

    On other fronts, it really is a long hard slog. My colleague on our campus’ academic personnel committee tells me that the fetish for the Humanities book is finally starting to crumble there, but since it is being replaced by an emphasis on paper journal articles (which are hideously slow) I’m not sure their notion of how a publication should be recognized as valuable has changed. In the meantime, I was recently warned by a senior colleague that my shift toward digital humanities is “not good for [my] career.” And I’m already tenured!

  3. Patrick Murray-John

    Interesting…and makes me hyper-conscious of my own woefully neglected blog!

    Seems to me like one value trigger in broad general use is Google ranking. The first three pages of results gives the perception of that limiting process (tho I might go beyond calling it “perception” into “illusion”)

    So, what would a Google for digital humanities look like? Curation would get us partly there — we need the (meta)data — but I worry about creating Yet Another Portal for digital humanities. I’d like it if I could define on-the-fly the criteria for value and get the results. For one task value is measured by author, another task by incoming or outgoing links, another task by which people in my trusted network have commented on a post, etc.

    In other words, perceived value, I think, can and should be fluid, and we should work toward tools that help people consciously define the criteria for value as a starting point.

  4. Micki McGee

    Dear Professors Cohen and Rosenzweig,

    While your analysis of the relationship of digital to print publication has considerable merit, I would strongly recommend that your turn your attention to a more specific use of the term “curation.” Recently the term curator/curate has moved away from its roots in a culture of care (Latin curare ‘take care of’, from cura ‘care’), as in taking care of an object to a culture around attention or attending. I would argue that care and attending are related, but separate functions that are sometimes at odds with each other.

    Anonymous Manuscript Reviewer

  5. Jack Dougherty

    A thoughtful essay on the social contract of books, Dan. But I’m still curious about the conventional author-publisher financial book contracts in the digital age. In any of your writings or podcasts, have you ever explained how you, Roy, and UPenn Press came up with an arrangement that allowed your Digital History book to be simultaneously published for free (on-line) and for a price (in paper)?

  6. Micki McGee

    And so this pair o’ comments tries to show the difference between the attention and tone of each milieu you’re describing.

    If I were reading your post online — as I did — I would be more likely to bring my “wow-fandom” response and thinking to your post (as I immediately did).

    If I were reading your post as part of a blind-peer review, I would likely ponder more carefully your use of language and its implications. I would mull and ruminate. I would consider issues in the field. And I think there is still some value in this sort of consideration.

    The social contract of peer reviewer and press/editorial board is that we spend the time to think deeply (or as deeply as our teaching loads allow) about each others’ work. In the best blogging context, that level of consideration can be found in the comments, but for the most part, that sort of social contract has not yet been fully developed for online commentary.

    I believe that’s the part of the shaping of the demand side that needs development. I think that in our undergraduate and graduate curricula we ought to be teaching courses in Web Comments and Commentary as this will be the most salient rhetoric our students will need in the future. That would certainly develop the demand side in more interesting ways.

    Okay, now onto grading midterms.

  7. Boone Gorges

    Thanks for a great and thoughtful post, Dan.

    Your penultimate paragraph struck me as especially insightful. I wonder if the problem of “intrinsic” v. “perceived” value is more intractable in the humanities because intrinsic value for a work in the humanities is so much more difficult to quantify, or even define, than in the social sciences. I have an inkling that this might be related to the fact that what we might call the “practical applicability” of works in the social sciences is more direct, or at least more directly understandable and verifiable, by those outside the field.

    If, for example, a sociological study reveals a statistical correlation that helps legislators to make more efficient and effective laws (not that this ever actually happens!), people who are not sociologists can affirm the value of the work, thereby providing some sort of independent (if only partial) benchmark of the quality of the work. It’s harder to imagine similar external validation for, say, a piece of literary analysis. In the absence of of readily available external validation, the community has to lean on traditional, and mostly internal, means of valuating their own work. And the smaller the community determining the conventions underlying a work’s value, the more likely that those conventions will have some arbitrary aspects – think of it like a lack of checks and balances.

  8. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Jack: Roy and I got contracts from both Penn and from another (very prominent) publisher. Penn offered to do it open access as well as in print after we asked nicely and told them it matched the thesis of the book. The other press was adamant that a web version of the book would destroy sales. The opposite has clearly been the case, as Penn will tell you.

  9. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Patrick: I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the algorithmic preciseness of Google, but I suppose what Digital Humanities Now is doing is similar. But it’s probably only a first pass of instant assessment that needs to be supplemented by another editorial layer that is less precise.

  10. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Boone: Great point about the arbitrariness of small communities. And I didn’t use the comparison to wine randomly; the value of the humanities is hard to measure.

  11. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Micki: That’s why I like using Google Reader to read blogs: it formats all of them in the same way and reduces my propensity to judge posts by the design or reputation of the site.

  12. Luke

    Really thought provoking post. I’d second what Boone raises in relationship to your reference of 538… which became what it is because of timely crunching of polling data in the run up to the election, and ultimately the accuracy of its model in predicting outcomes. I’d argue that Silver is valued much more because of his statistical analysis than his political analysis … his data gives others better tools to do their work. So 538′s value is both communal and related to its timeliness, elements heightened because of their intersection with what the web does well (tie us together in the now). As Boone notes, it’s harder (but not impossible) to imagine a work in the (digital) humanities developing this kind of authority because its value is much more diffuse.

    I’d also note that we shouldn’t lose site of the value in this decentering of cultural authority. I went to the “turning your diss into a book” panel at the AHA in NYC in 2009, at which one of panelists shockingly announced that “digital publishing is off the table; we won’t be discussing it.” Now I know that many university presses have evolved beyond such a response in the past year, but these questions are especially acute for those of us between dissertation and whatever comes next. The question at the center of your post and the discussion it anticipates is very welcome.

  13. john theibault

    Timely and important thoughts.

    Picking up a couple of the threads: the 538 example in relation to the humanities is complicated by the fact that 538′s utility could be assessed in over a short time span — it had a direct relationship to ongoing events. That sort of instantaneous relevance is hard to deliver in the humanities. Indeed, it’s often antithetical to humanities practice. History blogs/websites can provide an interesting stream of information and acquire an audience without in fact making any new arguments.

    I like Boone Gorges’ point about problems in separating perceived/intrinsic value of projects. Unlike in sciences and social sciences, citation impact (beyond a handful of key names) bears almost no relationship to perceived value in the humanities. I think informal networks are very important for establishing value. And by informal, I mean even more hidden than tweets and blog posts — names dropped in conversations while working at archives, etc. We need to have more people dropping the names of blog posts and websites in these out of the way conversations to make progress. And then the fragmentation of disciplines begins to weigh things down.

    I’m a bit of an obsessive about Marshall Poe’s self-published prosopography of the Muscovite elite. It’s interesting that it was eventually published in book form (albeit from a Finnish academic publishing house, not exactly mainstream). There’s at least one interesting “book” that has been self-published in the interim on humanist education theory in the Renaissance. I think it’s possible that more really good self-published efforts could start to change the landscape — but the pioneers in the genre will not reap the rewards of the change.

    I suppose I’m somewhat more skeptical of the DH vision of bridging the scholarly/popular divide in the humanities than many. But I’d say on the demand side that the principal issue is that there is no blogpost or website that is as intrinsically interesting to scholars as the best books or articles. The “best” websites are often “best” for teaching, or thinking about the profession, or facilitating research, rather than for changing our thinking about humanities subjects.

  14. Jana

    When I get to posting the audio for the Peter Stallybrass talk at “The Past’s Digital Presence” conference, I can quote more directly from what he said when he addressed this issue. But in a nutshell, he looked historically at how early print culture actually fostered a more vigorous culture of “digital” (handwritten) texts. He challenged the contemporary argument about print vs. digital media and suggested that the future will involve both.

    As someone currently in the throes of dissertating, I use my online writing as daily lubrication for my writing muscles, and for stimulating my thinking. I also experiment with writing style in my personal blogposts–to learn how to be a better storyteller. Having a readership to comment on my writing often teaches me more than the feedback of my adviser on my work. Perhaps because I haven’t faced the reality of tenure yet, I continue to be optimistic about the future of academic publishing. I believe that smart writing (whether peer-reviewed or not) will find its audience.

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  16. Glen Gatin

    Great post and important concepts to sort out. Is this the social contract or is traditional publishing a “a meaningless and intangible social construct.” http://onion.com/bpQCMQ as the Onion satirically observed about money.

    I was going to make a comment about the responsibilities of public intellectualism when I realized I hadn’t created a blog entry for a while. I’ll try to work out a few things there.
    Thanks

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  18. Mark Sample

    Dan, thanks for the thought-provoking piece. I was going to leave a short comment here, but it ended up being rather long, veering off into other territory. It starts with me unpacking the pernicious misconceptions evident in the wonderful passage you include from John Updike, and ends with me calling for a model of scholarly publication that is loud, crowded, and out of control.

  19. Douglas Knox

    Thoughtful post and a good discussion. In further iterations of these arguments it might be helpful to disentangle debates about quality measures from considerations of access. Many scholars confuse open access with lack of peer review, and some are not eager to be unconfused. By contrast with books, humanities journal articles have already renegotiated digital social contracts between their writers and readers, but the intelligent and curious general public is effectively excluded from this contract. This is not the fault of Google nor of bloggers, nor is it a limitation of technology. Somehow by a series of acts of policy, practice, and technology investment, real effort has gone into making what scholars themselves think is already some of their best work largely invisible and ineffective in public culture. I don’t believe anyone really wanted this. Presumably the contradictions have been held together by “a merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.”

    In Comment #13 John Theibault may be referring to my colleague Paul Gehl’s book in CommentPress, Humanism For Sale: Making and Marketing Schoolbooks in Italy, 1450-1650.

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  22. Rob Townsend

    Isn’t part of the problem the seemingly diversity of alternative forms of digital communication? Each new project seems to develop with its own structure and conventions, forcing attentive readers to develop new skills for comprehending and assessing them. The struggle is not just against biases in favor of old print forms, but also the need for a better discourse and framework for describing the value of the new.

  23. tony grafton

    What a great post and thread, thanks so much to all involved. Rob’s point seems very important to me: without a network of university-based centers, each of which is doing a recognizably similar form of peer-reviewed, copy-edited digital publishing with a strong guarantee of archival publication, Dan’s goal will be hard to achieve. That could of course be a network of university presses doing for others what Penn did for Roy and Dan. It would be really, if Penn would allow it and Dan didn’t mind, to make the numbers on that enterprise public. As to 538, of which I am a regular user, I have one worry: his financial model evidently depends on advertising. Will T-Mobile pay for space in the margins of scholarly monographs? I doubt it.

  24. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Tony: A preservation path is indeed essential. Right now the Center for History and New Media, not Penn Press, is running the Digital History book website, and we can probably do that at very low cost for a very long time (but we are not in the forever business). The site receives over 100,000 unique visitors a year, and has not hurt the sales of the book at all (in fact, being available online for free almost certainly helped sales).

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  27. Dean

    From the final paragraph: “one potential solution on the demand side might come not from the scarcity of production, as it did in a print world, but from the scarcity of attention.”

    Was there really a scarcity of production? The vast output of print publishers–at least until recently–suggests otherwise. There was always more published than the market could bear–many books and journals lost money. We have now enter an era where print publication becomes more difficult, due to the scarcity of attention, the proliferation of forms of publication, and the decline of library and professional budgets.

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  31. Anonymous (Yes _that_ Anonymous)

    fiarst Poast!!!1one

    Upvote main item, I for one welcome our interactive ranking system peer reviewing overlords.

    … Do we really want yet another portal as you observe? Do we really want a slashdot.org of the humanities? Even if we did, how are we going to gain the attention of the militaria, geneology and crank-riding autodidacts who comprise a significant proportion of the committed readership for production in my discipline? And do they have twitter accounts?

    That’s trivial, I think, for my imagined reader is a scholarly peer who has a marginal interest in my research output as content for a further paper of theirs. I want an upranked google scholar hit on key search terms, not 4chan trying to rig my voting scheme so that Justin Bieber goes to North Korea, or so that the most esteem-factored journal publication on [future publishing mode] is a Sokal Hoax.

    Moving beyond the trivial to immediate toolsmithing: do I really need to become a twit to participate in a blog roll such as “Digital Humanities Now”? The core system elements I’m looking for as a writer aren’t there: indication of a review prior to publication thresh-hold, permanency of work, etc.

    As a scholarly reader there’s no author information on the articles, other key metadata is missing or unexposed, the commenting system is on the hosted object’s external site, there’s no search system immediately exposed (yeah sure, source is google site:digitalhumanitiesnow.org +labour +contest*).

    Developing a reader may involve changing the output of work. A blog post can be a considerable academic investment if the blog post is a stripped down version of an academic statement… kind of the body of the article without the theory/literature review and the discursive exploration. If we post small sections of what would be an article (with process), does that mean I get to count five blog posts each as an article equivalent? I doubt it :).

    Returning to this theme, my attention span for blog posts is short. I reply to maybe one in twenty academic blog posts, and read relatively few (though many more than I read journal articles). I don’t commit to reading blog posts because so many are off-field, or meta- in a way I find would just trigger my ideology or methodology in a non-productive way. When I do commit to read I expect short digestible elements. If I wanted a more thorough-going presentation of work, I would seek a journal article with _exact matching_ via scholar.google / etc to my research needs.

    I’m certainly not going to commit to a book-length blog argument. The scholarly monographs I read tend to be absolutely vital to developing the theory and methodology of my research. And when I commit to one monograph, more often than not, I commit to the entire academic output of that scholar’s work. (Non scholarly books I read as source material… there’s no commitment issue to them.)

    So if there is a “space” in the academic reading public for sub-journal article length works, what do I want as a reader?
    * Metadata
    * Search hits
    * Exposed evidence of peer-reviewing structure (at least an upvote / downvote count, hopefully with an exposure of the broad quality of those up and down vote counts)
    * An expectation that the environment is totalising, that it can handle encapsulation of external content in any format, but that it preserves the external content internally as a published record, and that its index is complete. (I’m not going to commit to reading a blog roll)
    * Publication modes that allow for a twenty minute read. That’s right, I’m expecting works less than two thousand words, or if exploratory, less than the commitment of reading two thousand scholarly words at article standard. Short ideas, published often.
    * Threading, including a differentiation between “off hand” comments and full academic responses with the brain switched on as publications of identical engagement.
    * Reader population. Walking into a empty forum is disappointing. If you feel the need, sit in the grave yard of a once successful USENET newsgroup. I can’t get a high feedback high context reader environment from reading a journal article. I don’t want to invest effort in “yet another humanities email list” that dies in three months.

    Extracting from the above. My existing social contract with authors is about the volume of commitment to reading and thinking, which is expressed broadly in a set of “lengths” of work. Monograph, journal article, [some sub article length]. The mode and media of publication aren’t important to me. What matters is meta-data, totalising searches, and exposed systems of peer review (Oh that’s OUP / OUP free online, oh that’s the hardcopy of J. Foo Studies, that’s the Journal Equivalent Peer Reviewed article site indexed by scholar.google J. Bar Studies). Also, and obviously, publication permanency, if I want to cite it, I want it to be there when I cite. DOIs please!

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