Digital Chimera: Neither Monograph nor Article nor Chapter

I’m thinking my way (leisurely, as befitting a sabbatical) through self-publishing vs. traditional academic publishing. Dan Cohen’s blog Digital Humanities has been at the forefront of the academic push for digital self-publishing, and a presentation of his at a recent conference is worth highlighting because it suggests a middle ground. He noted in his talk that there is a big nether region in between (below?) the monograph and journal article. Dan mentioned a variety of ‘works’ that don’t easily fit into the categories of book or article, including genres that used to have their own sections in journals, but no longer, or very rarely, appear. I really think our discipline is poorer for this. To summarize and expand Dan’s list of things perfectly postable:

  • bibliographies (putting bibliographies in print today seems an utter waste of time: think re-entry)
  • bibliographic essays (maybe once every 5 years the JMilH will publish one)
  • historiographical essays (a bit more common, but usually very cramped due to space considerations)
  • short notes and documents (a few journals still do this, like JSAHR)
  • databases/datasets (putting them in appendices is a start, but still a pain for readers to re-enter)
  • methodological essays (extremely rare in history publications)
  • archival guides, research tips (many on the web nowadays, including my own from a decade ago)
  • COLOR illustrations
  • photographs and images (much more expensive to print, if even possible)

    Fortress of Salses, Eastern Pyrenees

  • discussion/debate impossible to sustain in a journal published 3-4 times a year, or in a 2-day conference once a year
  • imagine a short case study prompted by a passing reference in a book (author X mentions that nobody has looked at Y, so you write a few thousand words looking at Y without adding the filler and two years needed to turn it into a published journal article)
  • all sorts of interactive projects that are impossible on the printed page: animation, hyperlinks, unlimited page dimensions, zoomability…

In other words, we’re talking about many (usually shorter) works, sometimes less polished, but all part of the scholarly apparatus that we develop as we do our research and writing. This work is important, it’s the foundation of what we do, yet too often it gets left on the dustbin of History and lost to the future as well as the past. If you’ve ever thought to yourself “man, I did a lot of work on this and wish there was someplace I could share it,” or, if you’ve ever been annoyed that you had to recreate the wheel that a dozen other scholars had already individually chiseled, ridden on, then broken into little pieces, then you know what I mean. Or if you’ve read someone’s work and noticed a fatal flaw that could have easily been fixed with just the right feedback at just the right stage of the research process, you’ve been there.

The advantages of posting such small bits are large, cumulatively if not individually. For those of us who don’t publish an article every year, even more of a reason to get mileage out of all the work we did; otherwise it will go completely unnoticed, unused and unappreciated. The economics of print publishing preclude the publication of such small chunks of academic labor, but the Internet, including blogs like this one, offer the perfect space for such thought particles to roam freely. You never know what other people will find interesting, and maybe you little idealets will even fuse and form the core of some exciting new element. But you, we, have to make it happen – not everyone gets their papers donated to Cambridge like the fortunate Lord Acton.

Concrete examples of this form of freecycling (to coin a phrase): many of the posts and graphics I’ve been posting on this blog over the past month are things that I’ve thought/read/talked about off-and-on over the years. These include illustrations I spent 2 hours creating four years ago, to be discussed in a class of 25 students for fifteen minutes, to be repeated every two years when the course is offered. Or there are versions of charts that I just rediscovered as I was going through my old files, graphics abandoned and practically forgotten as my conception of the book significantly changed [speaking of, to come in 2012: a short piece on the 1710 siege of Douai that includes some of those charts that didn’t make it into my Vauban book]. I know that I’ll never have the time or passion to convert them all into a formal journal article or book chapter (sometimes they don’t even deserve promotion to this status), and I’m in a fortunate position that I now don’t have to choose between publishing and perishing. Having an academic blog doesn’t mean that you won’t publish in print ever again, and the big project is still doable. But even without creating lots of new material, you undoubtedly have old bits scattered here and there, and these shorter works are interesting, even important in their own limited way. At the least, they offer the opportunity to discuss not only the minutiae they entail but the broader issues they raise as well. Certainly such short works are more likely to be read by a wider audience than the entirety of my 390-page $180 book, if only because they are shorter, they’re free, and anyone in the world with an Internet connection can read them. My charts are going to be seen more widely here than at their current PowerPoint rate of 3.125 student-hours per year (15 minutes of 25 students every two years). Heck, maybe other people take your ideas and use them in their classrooms – you double the exposure!

For argument’s sake, say you saved your short ideas for a conference presentation: how many people would attend your session? If audience attendance at EMEMH panels at the SMH is any indication, 30 is a good crowd. But then, how easy would it be for that attendee to recall your talk a year later, vs. looking up your blog post and reading the discussion it prompted? Finally, since these works are more informal than a print publication, they have the further advantage that they can be knocked out in a few hours or less. With feedback from an online community, they are made that much stronger for eventual print publication, if the desire/opportunity arises.

One final issue: the concern that the ideas you post online might be ‘stolen’ is somewhat justified, especially for young scholars. On the other hand, I don’t think there have been any truly new ideas for decades and we overestimate our originality anyway: many epiphanies are often ‘obvious’ but unspoken (unpublished, more likely). Plus, there are so few people working in EMEMH that there is little overlap; every panic attack I’ve had about getting scooped has turned out to be a false alarm. However, if you still need reassurance, realize that anyone can, with a deft Google search, quickly discover that you had that same idea back in ‘aught-eight. As with the detection of plagiarism in the classroom, it’s easier to catch academic plagiarists today, thanks to the web. To give a personal example, my dissertation was liberally used by a foreign publication without what I consider to be appropriate attribution, but the fact that they got my dissertation online, with the date of 2002 stamped on it, means that anyone else can do the same. The web now has a long-enough memory for that kind of detective work, a memory that is much more accessible than that contained on library shelves or in oral conference papers.

So comment, even start your own blog. Help create a community online to share ideas – and get your ideas into that community. Academic history should be about the vigorous advancement of knowledge on the open plain, not skulking behind fortress walls, nervously watching closely-guarded gates (wait, I’ve heard that metaphor somewhere before).


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