On and Off the Bookshelf: Scholarly writing (and thinking) in the Digital Era

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of academic journals and publishing in general in the digital age. In a mere 47 pages, the author summarizes a wide range of issues of interest to the millions of educators, librarians, university press editors, authors, and readers who are now struggling to adjust to the new world of digitized content. Planned Obsolescence is not only a well-reasoned exploration of the problems and challenges now facing academic scholars and the journals and university presses that publish their work; the book itself is an attempt to push the boundaries of academic writing—the author has released it online with an open invitation to other scholars to comment on the text paragraph by paragraph. By doing so, the Fitzpatrick illustrates two of her book’s main themes: the desirability of fostering communication channels among academic peers researching and writing on similar topics and the necessity of reforming the present peer review system that almost everyone agrees is falling short of its original function of guaranteeing the quality of scholarly work that is published.

Katherine Fitzpatrick is Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association and co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons. Her rigorous approach to both media studies and the humanities makes Planned Obsolescence a compact and useful guide to the nuts and bolts of the digital humanities that deserves a place on everyone’s digital bookshelf. The author steers away from mystifying buzzwords and overblown claims about where technology is taking us and methodically sets out an easy-to-follow history of the continually evolving framework that supports digitally encoded content for those of us who, although far from being Luddites, still have only a hazy idea of how it functions.

Although no one would deny the benefits of digital technology, Fitzpatrick points out its drawbacks to those who might be naïve enough to regard digital archives as the ultimate panacea for the problems of limited shelf space and deteriorating paper. She quotes Lou Burnard, a member of the Text Encoding Initiative, who observes, “Scholarship has always thrived on . . . the ability to protect and pass on our intellectual heritage for re-evaluation in a new context; many . . . [have] suspected (and events have not yet proved them wrong) that longevity and re-usability were not high on the priority lists of software vendors and electronic publishers.” She also testifies to a hacker attack on a MediaCommons website that caused such extensive damage that the group’s developers finally suggested replacing it with an entirely new site. Nevertheless, we’re now accustomed to enjoying the advantages of digital technology. Document sharing, interconnectivity, the incorporation of various media into a single document, and mass access to content are now all accepted facets of the way we assemble, share, and receive information.

These and other attributes of digital media underpin Fitzpatrick’s most radical proposition: to foster a more open peer review process for scholarly articles and give recognition for peer reviewers’ work that would hold weight in university decisions concerning promotions, tenure, and research grants. The author warns that informal scholarly network systems are already proliferating outside the ivy walls of academic institutions and universities that resist the trend may one day end up seriously behind the curve: “As new systems of networked knowledge production become increasingly prevalent and influential online, the university, and the scholars who comprise it, need to find ways to adapt those systems to our needs, or we will run the risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant to the ways that contemporary culture produces and communicates authority.” Although it’s easy to scoff at Fitzpatrick’s proposal to open up the peer review process, some organizations have already done it with very satisfactory results. Fitzpatrick cites the positive testimony of the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: “Our statistics confirm that collaborative peer review facilitates and enhances quality assurance. The journal has a relatively low overall rejection rate of less than 20%, but only three years after its launch the ISI journal impact factor ranked Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics twelfth out of 169 journals in ‘Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences’ and ‘Environmental Sciences.’ ” PLoS One is an example of an open online peer-review network for the scientific community.

The fourth section of Planned Obsolescence deals with the complex issues involved in the preservation of digital works and compares the long-term viability of commercial and community-based open source systems and standards. It also includes a clear description of the role metadata plays in the cataloging and retrieval of data essential to the work of researchers in the social sciences. It’s no surprise that Fitzpatrick makes an appeal to universities to align their IT and library operations more closely. She also makes it clear that libraries now face the possibly of weathering the perfect digital storm. Particularly worrying are the changing terms and conditions of a library’s subscriptions to digital publications. Digital publishers increasingly sell access to subscribed content via their own remote servers rather than the content itself, opening up the possibility that subscribers could suddenly lose access in the event that “a publisher fails to maintain its archive, goes out of business or, for other reasons, stops making available the journal on which scholarship in a particular field depends.”  The same issue of ownership versus access affects the future of eBooks and digital audiovisual material. There is no doubt that preserving archived digital files and guaranteeing their accessibility as standards and technologies evolve will carry a hefty price tag. Where is this money going to come from?

Although I pedal hard to keep up with new technology, reading Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy has made me aware that mastering digital techniques is only part of going digitally native. I experienced a profound “while you were sleeping” sensation as I read Fitzpatrick’s description of the evolution from the Dewey Decimal System to a DOI (Digital Object Identifier) system; I realized that my knowledge of digital technology was manual and fragmentary and that I had a very flimsy grasp of the profound technical and economic ramifications of the digitization of content for the humanities and sciences. Fitzpatrick’s book is compelling reading because it outlines the challenges ahead for the sciences and humanities, university libraries, professional journals, and the scholars who aspire to share their research with colleagues and the greater public. For readers interested in knowing more about Kathleen Fitpatrick’s groundbreaking work and the future of communications, her website Planned Obsolescence is an invaluable online resource.