We are living through a frontier moment of online publishing. The dynamics of open access are new, and the internet opens up the possibility of an ongoing process of revision that is new to publishers, writers, and readers in the academy. Jo Guldi reflects on the experience of releasing The History Manifesto and the subsequent criticism of the lack of a robust versioning protocol. Critique and revision in an online world come bogglingly fast and there is great utility in establishing a “manuscript of record”.
Our October book, The History Manifesto, reached broad audiences. It was a first for academic history to follow in the trails long ago paved by Radiohead: we put the book online for free; we started a twitter hashtag; we invited the public in, and when they tweeted at us, we read, and sometimes tweeted back. But open access has new rules, and the rules keep one busy. Somewhere in the midst of watching the commentary and making revisions, we fell afoul of some of our readers, when we accepted their suggestions and updated our text accordingly.
I believe that we (and the Press) made a mistake in February by releasing a new edition of The History Manifesto without announcing that a revised manuscript was available. There was a new edition of The History Manifesto, in two parts. A revised version of Figure 2 came out on November 20, 2014. Ten lines of tightened prose and five revised footnotes came out on February 5, 2015. Some readers took this failure to announce a revised edition as evidence of the intent to deceive.
It’s important to differentiate, however, between an intentional conspiracy to sabotage one’s critics and the active, ongoing, evolving task of experimenting with a new format of publishing. We had no desire to lead our readers astray, nor to cover up the ongoing debate, when we issued a revised edition. Far from it, we believed that we were living into a commitment to bringing new, online, open-access forms of publishing into the heart of scholarship. Publishing on the internet opens up the possibility of an ongoing process of revision that is new to publishers, writers, and readers in the academy. I believe that our experience is an exemplary moment for the institution as a whole to learn from, and to benefit from, the lively public engagement that the new frontier of open-access publishing makes possible.
Image credit: The National Archives (UK) CC BY 3.0
The concession that we should have announced the “revised manuscript” has been backed up by action, a collective action undertaken not only by us the authors but also by the whole host of staff at Cambridge University Press. On Monday March 30, a revised website came out that went go beyond merely remarking a “manuscript of record” in the way suggested to us in private correspondence by Peter Mandler – that Cambridge University Press should announce that there has been a revision posted. On March 30, we listed all of the revisions in detail – the tightened lines of prose, the footnotes, and the altered illustration will are available on the front page, where a document describes them exactly as they were given to the typesetter. Those who select “download” on The History Manifesto website now have the opportunity to choose between an “original edition” or a “revised edition.” The process is meant to be as transparent as we, the Cambridge University Press editors and designers, could possibly make it.
Charges of an “ethical breach” highlight larger questions of publishing process that we, as scholars, will have to reckon with in an era of new technology — questions all of us must grapple with. The dynamics of open-access publishing are new, and there is great utility in establishing a “manuscript of record” to which subsequent criticism can refer in detail. Some of them have participated in publishing discussions in higher education that have underscored the importance to the scholarly record of having a publication of record, noting when particular parts of the text have been changed. We, and the leadership of the Press, were persuaded. Revision should not be an unlimited process; there should be an official “revised manuscript” available to readers alongside an original version.
Dealing with these issues is new not only for us but also for Cambridge University Press, a point that was driven home abundantly in our conversations with senior editors and staff. In book form, “revised editions” are rarely issued with this level of detailed annotation. Standard practice for a traditional print book, our editors quickly pointed out, would be summed up by one quick line on the copyright page of a standard print book: “revised edition: some text has been altered from the original.” Even when there have been meetings with positions drafted and recognized, activities such as these are still new to Cambridge University Press.
It is also important that scholars understand that an institutional delay does not signal unethical intention, but is part of a necessary ingredient of rethinking how texts are released when publishing experiments are underway and many individuals are involved. Delay makes room for a minor public relations crisis in publishing and digital humanities. From the outside, the two-month delay in clarifying the process of revision smacks of conspiracy. In reality, there was a two-week-long turn-around between the time that our critics directly contacted us and the issue of a new statement online clarifying what had been changed. That two weeks was an incredibly efficient process, given the number of editors, lawyers, and in-house web-designers who had to be consulted to make such a change happen. There was immense good will on behalf of all parties, scrambling to get the changes clarified as quickly as possible.
Actually effecting the updates to the website required both time and the work of an entire staff – including a series of Cambridge editors with book and journal experience, and the Cambridge New York staff who are responsible for the website. We, the authors, were happy to post a detailed list of the ten lines of tightened prose and five footnotes revised in February. The press saw the wisdom of all of this, and recommitted themselves to clarifying what had been done. But even when everyone is on board – consensus is formed, the will is good, and everyone has signed off – it can take a minute to coordinate a dozen people, including various editors, website curators, coders, and even legal counsels – to make sure that the act happens.
We are living through a frontier moment of online publishing. It should be remembered that of the five university presses who we spoke to initially about releasing the manuscript, none had released an open-access book in the humanities before; the sole precedents were works from MIT press like Peter Suber’s Open Access not issued in the field of history. There are scant precedents for appropriate habits of keeping readers updated with what version they are reading. Critique and revision in an online world come bogglingly fast – indeed they can be consuming for editors and authors who have other obligations. Remember that these November to February revisions came atop a book that had only been published on October 2, 2014; in the traditional world of academic publishing, we would count ourselves lucky to be receiving the first published book reviews so early.
Other scholars who study digital media have nevertheless been optimistic about the opportunities that this new form of publishing holds for revision as a process. In her 2011 book Planned Obsolescence, media scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick delivered a positive verdict on her experience circulating a manuscript for “open review” on the internet where all readers could comment, instantaneously, on her text.
Because we were persuaded by arguments such as these, we published The History Manifesto open access (a first for Cambridge University Press). David Armitage and I had been part of a world of digital humanities conversations in Cambridge, MA from 2010 to 2014, one where open-access advocates like Margy Avery, Martin Eve, and Caroline Edwards were in meetings with the History Department, Harvard Press, the Metalab, and the Harvard Libraries about how and whether Harvard would move from a digital open repository to more daring attempts at open access, for example releasing its back catalogue of academic books to a public readership.
Advocating for open access was, for us, a moral issue of how scholars should negotiate when working with publishers. We believed that we should work with the institutions around us to bridge the gap between the academy and a broader public readership, indeed global readership, at present barred from much scholarship by the obstacle of the pay wall. It also felt like an important issue for institution-building, for helping our departments and universities to adapt to the opportunities of a digital age, and for modeling a form of scholarship that thinks critically about the organs of publishing and dissemination at a moment of technological change. When we took the manuscript for our new book around to various university presses, we thought of the book negotiations as an important opportunity for faculty to engage publishers about the ethical and pragmatic questions of how scholars engage the public. We were pressing for open access because we wanted there to be a path for engaged scholars to reach a broader audience and to learn from them, still paired with the credentials offered by a university press.
Like Fitzpatrick, we too have profited from the particular demands for clarification voiced by Danny Loss and others. In contrast, how many footnotes in traditional monographs go unread for want of a twitterverse or blogosphere filled with active, commenting readers? Most academic monographs are reviewed by three readers, a process that sometimes extends from months into years and conflicts with timelines for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Blind peer review for journals is likewise slow. Our lightening-quick reviews from the public pushed our manuscript towards even greater standards of perfection than those to which most manuscripts are held.
One of the ways that open access invites new frontiers in publishing is that it opens up a wide window to feedback from the public, whether scholars or members of the public at large. For the first four months of the book’s life, we were closely watching twitter and the blogs, reading the praise and blame alike, and noting for ourselves opportunities to improve the text. It seemed to us that this process might be one of ongoing receptivity and revision. Thus, at the time, it made sense to talk about a process of revision rather than to announce a revised edition. We had already released a general statement about revision as a process in a blog entry of November 20, 2014.
In the process of engaging with our readers, we closely examined the substance of the critiques, some of which were valid inquiries into what we meant in a footnote; others of which simply evidenced that readers on the internet were unfamiliar with the conventions of writing in the historical profession. For instance, an anonymous twitter personality whose critique was cited by senior colleagues in their footnotes as evidence of sloppy scholarship appeared, upon deeper inspection, to be unfamiliar with historians’ convention of using a footnote to allude to a body of historical writing that may be useful for further reading, rather than exactly matching the content of a sentence or paragraph to the conclusions of the works in the footnote, as is the convention in disciplines like economics.
This is an important moment in terms of setting a model for engagement by academics with the public. It is our hope that the model of engagement that we choose, individually and collaboratively, can remain one that is open to critique from without, one that bears out the idealism of sharing and long-term thinking that we talked about in The History Manifesto in terms of a practice of sharing manuscripts designed to circulate for the long term.
What Cambridge University Press, as publishers, and we, as authors, are modeling is a new form of engagement with open access publishing — new for the press and new for scholars. We hope that our commitment to establishing a manuscript of record, and our ongoing commitment to open-access publishing, will be read in the light that we intend it: as a positive example of engagement by scholars with scholars, by scholars with the public, and by institutions with the longue duree and the collective good.
This piece first appeared on the author’s personal blog as “of conspiracies and frontiers: the scandal of open access publishing” and is reposted with permission.
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Jo Guldi is Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of Britain and its Empire at Brown University. She is author of Roads to Power: Britain invents the infrastructure state; What is the Spatial Turn?; and The History Manifesto, as well as designer of the digital toolkit Paper Machines.