« The book is a conversation ». Really ?
Original version in french. Translation with help from Google translate. Opinions are mine. Errors are Google’s. 😉
The 1st and 2nd of July , the Jisc and the consortium OAPEN jointly organized a conference at the British Library in London to invite a large community to work together on the future of open access books in the humanities and social sciences.
A changing context
Particularly well organized and offering a first-choice program, the conference will remain in my memory as one of the most interesting that I was able to attend. Long confined to very marginal position of experimentation, the open access publication of books in the humanities is clearly becoming important today. It is true that the debate on open access to research results after the Finch report or the european recommendation, was focused until now not on humanities monographs, but rather on journals, and firstly in science. Nevertheless, the great hall of the Conference Center of the BL was packed and it reflected the growing interest in this issue in the academic community. And from beginning to end of the conference, we felt very clearly that the context was changing. Complementarity with the Berlin Conference EPA in 2013 that I was also able to attend earlier this year is remarkable: more technical and more focused on economic models, the Berlin conference also showed the same trend. In London, the conversation was more theoretical, more intellectual, and was just as interesting.
The « hundred flowers » of open access
Different keynotes, the panels and workshops in parallel showed a wide variety of non redundant initiatives, and, and it was striking, pointing in the same direction. It was also a choice from the organizers of the conference to display without bias on their part, the « hundred flowers » in the publication of open access books in the humanities. There were both Open Book Publishers , a new publishing house with a contagious enthusiasm by Rupert Gatti, and Palgrave McMillan , an old commercial house developing as many equivalents, an « open » publishing program in APC mode. We had on one hand the young academics from Lincoln who do a lot to develop an Open Library for Humanities and want to revolutionize the practice of scientific publication (the so called « left wing of open access »), and on the other hand Toby Green, head of the publications of the OECD , impressively professional, who manages with high precision a large annual budget based on an economic model Freemium (yes!). We had France Pinter, whose Knowledge Unlatched project seems to have much refined its funding model from libraries and is about to liberate the first batch of thirty books in this way, and we had MPublishing represented by Shana Kimball, who has developed a real technical expertise in digital publication from the library of the University of Michigan.
A highlight was the launch of the Directory of Open Access Books (Doab) which wants to be a common catalog of open access academic books, somehow on the same model than DOAJ. One of the main issue is to establish quality criteria as a condition for entry of titles in the catalog: publishers must adopt an open access licence and ensure that their manuscripts undergo a formal evaluation procedure, publicly displayed. Eelco Ferwerda, director of OAPEN, quickly introduced the Doab, and Janneke Adema, whom I had invited to come at the last summer university of OpenEdition , explained more in details how DOAB works, during one of the parallel strands.
I could not attend all the strands, but I also enjoyed a good presentation of ORCID, a unique identification system for authors. Very interesting also was the presentation by OAPEN-UK of its new guide on publishing books under CC license. Another workshop in parallel, which was attended by my colleague Dasa Radovic , proposed to funding agencies to come and present their policy to support open access publishing. The german DFG was there, but also the Max Planck Society, which is very active in this area. Several other organizations were present (the important dutch NWO in particular), but no french one, unfortunately. Incidentally, one french speaker was present at this conference. It was Philippe Aigrain , author of the must read book Sharing, published in 2011 at Amsterdam University Press. I was thrilled by anticipation to hear him come and bring a broader political context to our discussions. But it was not his role. He had only to bring a testimony from an author publishing under Creative Commons license, which was a little bit disappointing because he could not discuss the contents of his book.
And then there was the keynotes. We were very fortunate to have three exceptional talks, with three different styles, but, and this is the most striking, remarkably consistent.
At first, Jean-Claude Guédon had the difficult role to open the conference. I heard many times conferences from Jean-Claude and I appreciate his rhetorical talent, erudition and depth of his thinking. But here it was the first time that I heard him in English, and I admit I enjoyed it more than usual, because he didn’t indulge into spikes, criticism and sometimes sarcasm he intersperses his speeches in french when he is invited in France. Nothing like that here, and we could enjoy a subtle thinking, leaning on an immense knowledge of the domain. In short, I already liked the french version, I love the english one !
Kathleen Fitzpatrick was a different style. The author of the excellent Planned Obsolescence and current director of scholarly communication at the MLA , wrote a high-profile speech inviting us to question current academic publishing practices and try to imagine new ones, more adapted to the digital environment in which we work. We got a very convincing speech and perfectly built, advancing toward its goal with the efficiency of a war machine.
Cameron Neylon was at last proposed to conclude the conference, and he did that in a totally different way. Cameron is the « advocacy director » of the Public Library of Science. His position on the edge of our subject gave him an observer status, and it was his mission to catch to the most important ideas that flied by during the conference. In this case, he chose to play as an acrobat without any safety net and proposed a talk « improvised » by bouncing freely on 60 slides scrolling automatically in loop on the screen. The result was awesome. Chapeau l’artiste !
If I stop for a moment on these three interventions, it is because I found them brilliant and admirable, but also somewhat disturbing : the three of them proposed a deconstruction of the concept of book, which is quite ironic in a conference meant to celebrate open access book publishing. The three speakers put on the forefront the social dimension of the book: Jean-Claude Guédon calling to consider first what he calls the « sociology of the document, » while Kathleen Fitzpatrick developed in length about procedures for ensuring the quality of the work, that we must completely rethink in the context of digital networks. Cameron Neylon for its part, insisted on the tension between « the desire of fixity of the monograph as an object on one hand, and the role to be played by that object in the academic sphere on the other. » But he went further and invited us after that to litterally melt the book in the network: « The book is a conversation, » he concludes, revealing retrospectively the red herring that run through the conference since its beginning: if the book in humanities deserves to be released open access, it is in the name of the conversational paradigm of its social uses that the open web amplifies.
Questioning the conversational model
Books in humanities and social sciences have obviously a close relationship with the conversation. One needs only to browse through the forewords of the best monographs to understand that these are very often the result of dozens of presentations in seminars, individual and group discussions, and many comments on drafts. Books are also meant to initiate conversations, criticisms and rebuttals, continuations and sometimes distorsions. In short, the book comes from and creates conversations. This is its very mode of existence. But to say that the book is a conversation, this is a step I will not cross. And I would say instead that to a certain extent, the book is an anti-conversation!
Inevitably, the expression « the book is a conversation » suggests and probably refers specifically to two other famous citations: « blog is a conversation » that I discovered in 2007 on Gerrit Visser blog Smart Mobs on one side, and the famous « a book is a place « proposed by Bob Stein at TOC Conference in 2009. But guess what: a book is not a blog or an email or a tweet. A book has another dimension, irreducible that escapes at least in part from the conversation. The « desire for fixity » is not necessarily a pathological behavior and it would be simplistic, I think, to reduce it to an hysteresis inherited from the print era. I had the opportunity already to explain my own definition of the book, going back to Herodotus who provides both the first instance and the model for it. In my opiniion, the book in humanities is a large scale « enquiry » that aims at examining human reality with the tools of rationality.
In that case, the book grounds on a temporality (for writing and reading) that is much larger than the day-to-day conversation and defines goals that are really different and often in contradiction with the social consensus that is conveyed through conversation. Conversation, comments, argumentation are essential to the academic work, because they foster the circulation of ideas and make possible the construction of consensus in the field which is condition for science to exist. But we also know that the conversation as a social interaction model strenghtens conformism in any community. Without any external input, the conversation goes in circle, runs empty and becomes useless babble. Conversation to be rich and interesting, needs external elements, namely strong proposals that could be discussed. And it is is the role of the book to bring these proposals in counterpoint of daily communication. A book should be a shock, regardless of its genre by the way ; it must be unique and must be able to move the intellectual framework, to propose another way to see what we thought we knew, and in short, to bring new ideas, big or small, but always with a necessary dose of radicalism.
Do we need to debunk the book as a monument, fixed, immutable and to some point asocial, to defend its free dissemination on the Internet? I’m not so sure, and I would actually support the opposite proposition. If the free and open web has developed on the model of social network and conversation, we shouldn’t reduce the world and especially the social world to this unique model. It would be a terrible failure for the human spirit that would inevitably stagnate. Opening the network (social and digital) to a form of alterity that comes from elswhere is instead required. And it is precisely for this reason that the book, because it is, since its inception, a form of intellectual production most likely to bring this alterity, must be present and active, circulating and reused in the network. The advancement of the arts and sciences is like breathing, or like a two-stroke engine. In sanctifying the author and the work of creation, we forget the socialization of the book, we lose sight that it is part of culture and knowledge which are common goods. But we shouldn’t switch to the complete opposite and destroy the originality that books brings and dissolve it in the horizontal network. I don’t propose a tedious mitigated middle way between the two principles. Rather, what I propose is the challenge of holding together the two terms of the contradiction and imagine practices, models, interfaces, systems, platforms, tools to rise to it. And it’s hard work.