Saturday, November 24, 2012

Academic Publishing, A Personal History, Part 1: An Outside Move

When I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in the Fall of 1965 academic publication was all hard copy; back then, that was the ONLY kind of copy there was. Computers were the size of gymnasiums and the internet didn’t exist. Academic publication consisted of articles, books and this that and the other, but all on paper.

And that’s still how most of it is, especially the prestige tier. If you want to get tenure and fame at schools that prize publication, you have to publish well in the hard copy literature, books if you’re a humanist, articles otherwise.

When I set out in academia I wanted a good permanent post, at a good school, and, yes, a bit of fame, enough to help the ideas along. Things didn’t work out that way. Instead, I’ve watched, and published from outside academia.

I figure that, by the time that the old ways have crumbled, perhaps some of the fugitives will be ready to listen to what I’ve been thinking over the past three decades or so. And I’ll have lots for them to read, some of it published in the traditional way, even well published; but some of it published in non-standard ways.

But this post, and a later one, isn’t about those ideas. It’s about how I’ve published my work and how that’s been changing. In this post I go from the beginning of my career though the microfiche experiment of the American Journal of Computational Linguistics and up to yesterday (well, five years or so ago), when I published four longish articles in a new online journal, PsyArt. In a second post I’ll discuss the blogosphere and beyond.

The Old Way

My first academic publication was a page and a half in an edited volume, a comment on Neville Dyson-Hudson’s essay in Macksey and Donato, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. That came out in 1970, when I was a master’s student in the Humanities Seminar at Hopkins. My first article, “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics,” came out in 1976 in the Comparative Literature issue of MLN. When the issue came out I got a packet of off-prints, copies of my article that I could give to people.

In the months following publication I received a some postcards requesting copies of my article. The postcards were mostly preprinted forms with a blank line where the name of the article and journal would be printed or scrawled. That’s how it was in those days and, presumably, going back decades before. Photocopying existed but it wasn’t so cheap and ubiquitous that scholars could routinely make photocopies of articles rather than collecting off-prints.

The system didn’t work particularly well. Even then it was clear the most articles didn’t get read and that journals were routinely backlogged. But it was what we had.

Microfiche Experiment

Then, while I was in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, I took part in an experiment, an innovation in journal publication. David G. Hays was the editor of the American Journal of Computational Linguistics (now just Computational Linguistics), the journal for the Association for Computational Linguistics. And he decided to address two of the issues plaguing journal publishing, 1) relatively high production costs and long lead times and 2) article size.

Print publication is relatively expensive. Once an article has been refereed and accepted the article must be typeset and illustrations, if any, photographed and engraved. Proof copies are made, corrected, returned, and the corrections entered into the system, whatever it was. Then the journal issue could be printed. All of that took time and money.

Further, articles were limited in size, usually no more than ten to twelve-thousand words or so and generally less, often much less. Books and monographs, on the other hand, were generally fifty-thousand words or more. So anything that was over 12,000 and less than 50,000 words long didn’t fit into the system.

That constraint has nothing whatever to do with the “size” of ideas, with the number of words (and perhaps diagrams as well) required to express an idea in a coherent and intelligible way. It arises from the economics of hard copy publishing. But it affects what is published and how.

Hays proposed to deal with these problems by publishing on microfiche. In this format individual pages where photographed onto a piece of film measuring roughly six inches wide and four inches high. One piece of film could image 98 pages of standard typing paper (8.5 by 11 inches) in a 14 by 7 array. At roughly 250 words per double-spaced typed page you could get almost 25,000 words on a single piece of film.

This format allowed for longer articles and a shorted production time. Authors would submit articles and they’d be refereed in the usual way. Once an article was accepted the authors themselves would prepare camera-ready copy on standard letter-size pages, including any illustrations (gray scale only). Most papers were typed, but some authors had access to new-fangled laser printers and used them for their copy. When it was time for an issue to go to press, the editor’s assistant (I held the post for three years) would prepare hard copy for the index cards that accompanied the microfiche and the whole stack of papers was shipped off to the production house, where the pages were photographed, printed to film, and the journal packets mailed to subscribers. Here’s two examples from the journal:



The first image shows the association’s newsletter, The Finite String, which consisted of a bunch of short pieces of one kind or another. The second fiche contains a single article, The Yerkish Language for Non-Human Primates by Ernst von Glasersfeld.

The system worked fine. Long articles were no longer a problem nor were illustrations an issue. You can photograph an illustration as easily as a page of type. And the system shaved months off the standard publication schedule.

The only problem was the format itself. You needed a reader to read microfiche. Libraries had them and there were small units individuals could buy. But it was awkward.

The experiment was discontinued in 1978 and the journal resumed hard copy publication in 1980. Meanwhile I finished my Ph.D. and proceeded to publish a variety of articles in various academic journals, all hardcopy, all with reprints, and so forth. One journal in particular, The Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, edited by Paul Levinson, become something of a home base for me, and for David Hays as well.

The Web

And then the web appeared in the mid-1990s. It was built on back of the internet, which the Defense Department and academics used for email and file transfers of all kinds. AOL, CompuServe, and others offered commercial internet services to users of all kinds but the explosion didn’t begin until the browser was born and the internet became the visually oriented world-wide-web.

In 1994 a Shearson-Lehman banker named Bill Berry started an email newsletter called Meanderings and he also showed up on AOL under the name of Cuda Brown. That’s where I met him. We liked one another and, in short order, decided to see if we could have some fun and make our fortune by creating an African-America website. Bill refitted Meanderings for the web; I contributed articles and art. Meanderings was then incorporated into Gravity.

We had a nice run for a year or so in the mid-1990s but didn’t come anywhere near a commercial venture. So we folded shop.

(And, yes, I know this article is about academic publication. I’ll get there before too long. But this internet and web stuff is important. It’s what I knew by the time blogging was born.)

But we did some interesting things. We knew the future was interactive so we had a Bright Moments Contest in which we asked readers to send in their stories of Bright Moments. And they did. Bill coded up a discussion forum and we had some wonderful discussions, which are, alas, lost (unless they’re hanging around in the Wayback machine). We did a collaboration with Vibe magazine about the OJ Simpson trial. And, while we were not an academic journal, one up-and-coming African American intellectual, Lester Kenyatta Spence, published in Meanderings: Black Colleges Should Be Black.

And, on the side, I coded up my own personal website which Bill hosted on the domain, which he bought for our project and which he still owns. There I put some of my academic work, in particular the work that David Hays and I did on cultural evolution. During that period I also taught an online course on African-American music through a degree-granting online media studies program run by Paul Levinson through the New School in New York City. David Hays taught a course on the history of technology in that same program; one of his students, Paul Kelly, now hosts the academic portion of that old hand-coded site, which includes the book (The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks) that Hays wrote for his course.

Which brings us back to my topic, academic publication. In the various pieces I wrote for Meanderings/Gravity I was writing for a general audience, though on topics that interested me as an academic. I have since republished many of those pieces first on The Valve, group blog of literary critics and philosophers, and now New Savanna, my personal blog. At the same time I was teaching a credit-earning online course via email exchanges. Both activities involve writing, but for an electronic medium, not hardcopy.

Thus when the blogosphere hatched itself I was ready, though for this that or the other reason I didn’t jump right in.

Beethoven’s Anvil and PsyArt

During the late 1990s and on into the new millennium most of my time was tied up in a software venture that eventually failed. By that time I had a book contract with Basic Books and was working on Beethoven’s Anvil.

That book was and is a strange beast. Basic Books is a trade press, not an academic press, but it publishes fairly scholarly books such as (I’m looking over at one of my bookshelves) the three volumes of John Bowlby’s Attachment and Loss, Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Volume II, and Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. Beethoven’s Anvil was aimed at the general audience that buys books by Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and others. As such it had ample citations, but it did not have full scholarly apparatus, nor was it academic in style and approach. I didn’t spend a lot of time, for example, weighing the merits of various discussions of this that and the other account on a given issue. To have done so would have doubled or tripled the size of the book and put it even further beyond the reach of a general audience than it already is.

The fact is, my overall argument was more abstract than the arguments of just about any of the books published into the general interest mind-and-society market. The book was, in effect, written for full-time intellectuals but NOT for specialists in any particular discipline. It required the sort of intellectual sophistication and intense curiousity that comes with academic specialization, but it did not require specialization in any particular discipline. The discussion ranged widely over many disciplines, including neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and music history.

It was, and is, a crazy book. Too sophisticated for a general audience, too wide-ranging for an academic one. How it got published I’ll never know.

Once I’d finished writing Beethoven’s Anvil I returned to my old intellectual territory, literary studies, and between 2000 and 2006 ended up publishing four articles in PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. “Online”—that’s crucial. That’s a major reason I submitted to PsyArt. Each of those articles ran over 20,000 words and each had diagrams, some of them fairly complicated. Quite independently of the intellectual content of the articles, those features alone would have rendered the work unpublishable in the hard-copy world. They’re too long for journal publication and too short for book or monograph publication. In either case, they involve diagrams that would entail added expense, especially if they were to be printed in color.

On the web diagrams are no big deal. Nor is the difference between black-and-white and color diagrams. As long as the author provides suitable digital files, publishing diagrams and illustrations is no more difficult than publishing text. Not so in the world of hard-copy publishing. Black and white diagrams and illustrations aren’t so bad, assuming the author prepares them to spec; but color diagrams require a much more expensive printing process, which may also involve special paper and thus make binding more complex and expensive as well.

So, having a journal that can deal with my diagrams is very important. The diagrams are central to my thinking, especially where I’m undertaking the analysis of complex cognitive structures, which I did in those four articles. Those diagrams aren’t mere illustrations of ideas that can be adequately expressed in prose. The diagrams ARE the ideas. Without them there’s nothing to talk about.

Thus, while it is certainly a good thing that the editors of PsyArt were willing to consider my distinctly unconventional ideas, the process wouldn’t have gotten even that far if the publication platform hadn’t been able to accommodate the physical expression of those ideas in the form of diagrams. And color diagrams at that. While I could have made do with gray scale diagrams, the fact is that some of the diagrams were complicated enough that color-coding was, in my opinion, helpful. Gray-scale diagrams would not have been as readable.

The medium may not in fact be the message, but in this case the flexibility of the digital medium made it practical to present and communicate the message. Print simply is not up to that kind of job. I might have been able to write those articles back in, say, 1990, but there wouldn’t have been any place to publish them.

And now that they’re published, and on the web, anyone can access them from a web-connected computer. As PsyArt is free to all, you need not pay annoying charges to access its articles, nor do you need to be a member of a university community. You just need to have an internet connection and a modest computer. That’s a major change from what existed during my freshman year in the 1960s.

But technical change isn’t enough. We need institutional change as well. That’s much more difficult and much messier.

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Part 2 is HERE. There I discuss email lists, the blogosphere, and how I'm using blogging as a means of developing ideas for possible use in more formal publishing.