13 October 2010

Thinking Out Loud: "Storming Scholarly Publishing & Peer Review", at Drumbeat next month

HASTAC will have a tent at Mozilla Drumbeat in Barcelona next month, and I'm very lucky to be a part of it. The theme is "Storming the Academy." In particular, I'll be helping us think about tools for digital publishing and peer review.

What is Drumbeat? Here's a little taste, from the Mozilla website:
Drumbeat is for anyone who wants to lend their skills and creativity to the cause of keeping the internet open. It’s a chance to for everyone — not just software developers and testers — to get involved. Who? Teachers. Lawyers. Artists. Accountants. Plumbers. Web Developers. Anyone who uses and cares about the internet.
It isn't a conference or an unconference, but a festival: we'll be in a tent, wrangling interested sundry folk from the above-mentioned list to participate in our activities. We may have some brainstorming sessions; we do some hands-on tool-building; we may have some participatory video performances. It's open to whatever creative fun we can think up!

Which is where I need your help. I've used this blog as a space to test out a few digital projects, and talk about scholarly webtexts in general. I've often expressed my frustration that more scholars aren't experimenting (despite that fact that an increasing number of journals are accepting creative webtext submissions). A frequent response is that humanities scholars aren't given the tools or skills they need to produce creative digital work -- and the few experiments in producing digital publishing tools for academics (like NINES' "Exhibits" feature) have been (in my humble opinion) less than successful. So what is needed?

Here are a few off-the-cuff ideas from a brief brainstorming session:
  • Mindmap publishing. Mindmapping software is readily available; but most tend to act as little more than photoshop-like systems designed to create connectable bubbles, and exporting options are slim and static. By contrast, some great visualizations have popped up on the web (e.g. the options from flare, a Flash/Flex data viz toolkit), but their "interactivity"is usually limited to navigating through a system someone else has constructed. Can we think of a way to transform data visualizations from presentation tools into mindmap-like authoring systems? How would you write differently if your mindmaps could be interactive, networked journeys through a chunk of information? How could these be "published" — or support traditional publications? How could they be tools for collaboration? Could an interactive, multi-user-produced mindmap produce an argument?
  • One-click digital commonplacing. Digital text is manipulable; it can be copied and pasted elsewhere with a few clicks. Printed words on paper can also be copied elsewhere. For centuries in the west, readers maintained "commonplace books," in which they would copy and categorize interesting quotes or sententiae they came across while reading. Bibliographic software like Zotero allow us to manage and manipulate documents or files (an entire article, an entire webpage) but do not, to my knowledge, allow for scrapbooking chunks from within documents. What if you could highlight text, hit (e.g.) SHIFT-S, and the highlighted text pops into a digital scrapbook, complete with citation, link and date saved? This could be done as an applet for the web, so you no longer have to sift through entire bookmarked websites to find the one quote/bit of information. This way, your research points to quotes, to words, rather than to files.
(Incidentally, we’re probably seeing a shift in how manipulable digital text actually is. Reading on an iPad is delightfully haptic, but you can’t copy/paste most text — only highlight, as in a book. So, when it comes to manipulability, you kind of get the worst of both worlds, digital and paper. Steven Berlin Johnson has a great post on this very topic.)

Maybe these tools have been made before. Maybe not. For now, the goal is to think creatively around how digital scholarship is done; then I'll spend some time researching what's out there, and where the gaps are in tools available.

Which brings me to my second point. This section of our tent activities is titled "Storming Scholarly Publishing and Peer Review" -- but I've been thinking of it more in terms of "Storming Writing and Publishing" or "Storming Writing Practices" (less aca-specific). In his keynote at Material Cultures this past summer, Jerry McGann pointed out that the biggest problems facing digital humanities are institutional, not technological — which strikes me as correct. Collectively, we have the skills to build tools to facilitate digital peer review; what we don't yet have is the critical mass (or gumption) needed to transform a slow, tedious publishing process not suited for a twenty-first century information ecology. Likewise -- again -- more and more journals are accepting digital projects; they just aren't receiving very many of them, because to produce these weird little webtexts is to rub against the grain of every "good" research habit we've adopted in academia. By shifting the focus from "Scholarly Publishing" (a phrase already laden with assumptions) to "Writing Practices" (or something similar), we're no longer thinking about how to insert technologies into our present systems, but imagining what we want our digital practices to be.

(Do you watch Mad Men? Do you remember the scene early this season when Faye Miller told Don that the experiment failed, that the women she tested for Ponds cold cream weren't interested in ritual but just wanted to get married? And Don got mad and said how do you know that's the truth, a new idea is something they don't know yet, so of course it's not going to come up as an option? It's kind of like that. If we want to see change, we have to create it.)

What if we all agreed to stop writing in MSWord? What would happen? What historical models do we have for these shifts (e.g., what can a practice like commonplacing teach us about the gaps in our own writing systems)? How does changing the material circumstances of textual production change what is produced?

These are the some of questions we want to ask at Drumbeat -- but they aren't the only ones. I haven't mentioned systems like CommentPress or the wonderful work going on at MediaCommons. I haven't mentioned much about peer review, although that will be a topic we'll be discussing. You're welcome to think with us. From the big issues to the nitty-gritty details, I want to hear what you have to say on the future of (digital) scholarly publishing.


Mark Sample said...

I've been think about many of these issues too, arguing that scholarly publishing should be loud, crowded, and out of control. I really like your idea of one-click commonplacing, which I suppose is what Tumblr could be thought of. But there's been little theorization of how this kind of commonplacing could "count"* as scholarly publishing. I don't know enough about earlier traditions of commonplacing to say, but could we learn something from the social apparatuses surrounding early forms of commonplacing that we can use in arguing for its scholarly legitimacy? (Benjamin's Arcades Project comes to mind...)

As for other tools, what about using something like PiratePad for on-site collaborative writing? Throw four or five scholars a material, textual, or digital artifact, and have them collaboratively crowd-write for 10 minutes, creating a "profile" or "abstract" of that artifact.

* Note, all scare quotes are strictly to demarcate double-voiced "discourse."

Amanda said...

I love the idea of digital commonplacing. Delicious already does something like what you describe: highlight the text you want to grab, hit Control-D or click the bookmarklet, and it automatically captures both the URL and the text you've highlighted. If something like that could be combined with something like Zotero, it would be a fantastic tool.

I also second Mark's call for bringing the history of commonplacing (which is one of my current research obsessions) into the conversation. Incidentally, one of the things I've noticed, looking at commonplace books from the 19th century, is how often they were collaborative efforts by families or circles of friends -- either handed down from one generation to the next, or formally dedicated to a particular recipient, or compiled by multiple transcribers, or some combination of all of the above. The collaboration aspect might also be interesting to think about in relation to the digital scholarly publishing environment.

Whitney said...

Thanks for the comments. I've done some more digging and have found lots of Pasteboards/Clipboards to organize clippings on your personal machine, but nothing web-based. Google was testing some kind of CloudBoard thing, which basically turned into a way to copy text between different Google applications (of course). And Delicious and Tumblr are variations of one-click commonplacing; but you'd have to invert the ordering of Delicious (which still documents the site, not the text) and Tumbler is too blog-y.

Mark, your PiratePad thrown-down is a fabulous idea, which I will probably steal. I'm wondering if it can't be used as an historical exercise, as Amanda points out. A way to renew the past by rocketing off a communal, multi-perspectival, radically *present* reading of it.

Jon Saklofske said...

Sorry for the shameless self-promotion here, but I thought I'd offer some of my recent work in response to your brainstorm related to imaginative, collaborative, argumentative mindmapping tools. We met at the last Media in Transition conference and talked briefly about my NewRadial project, which "unofficially" reconceptualizes the image contents of the online William Blake Archive as a radial data visualisation that invites users to map connections, groupings and commentaries onto this shared space.

Currently, the project (which was developed using the java-based Prefuse visualisation toolkit ) is still in an alpha stage (slow, but steady), is open source, and invites customization options for other content applications. My final intention is to produce an open, web-based database that aggregates and visualises critical activity and commentary relating to Blake's illuminated work in a dynamic, graphical workspace. Currently, it's set up to work locally with a single copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, but the customisation and content options are pretty much endless if someone wants to adapt this to other ends.

NewRadial's sourceforge site is here:
Documentation for users is here:
...and developer docs are here:

Let me know if you have any suggestions or criticisms, or find the ideas behind the project useful in any way--I certainly welcome the input!

Whitney said...

Hi Jon -- Thanks so much for getting in touch again! I certainly remember chatting with you at MiT.

I downloaded your New Radial files and like how it heads toward remixing the primary document with critical commentary in a felxible space. Would you mind if I add it to our sidetable? I'm going to have laptops open with lots of different examples of the many and varied forms of digital scholarship for people to play with and talk around. Some of the webby/techie people there might have some neat ideas for further development.

Jon Saklofske said...

Wow--That would be excellent! Thanks for taking the time to check it out, and for adding it to your sidetable at Drumbeat (which sounds like an amazing event)!

I'm excited by "unconference" and "festival" models of scholarly exchange and the ways that these creative experiments can and will affect scholarly publishing and peer review.('cause I'm getting sick of going to conference sessions just to watch people read papers, and getting impatient with a scholarly publishing industry that moves slower than a lettermail game of chess.)

Your question---How does changing the material circumstances of textual production change what is produced?---reminds me of some metaphoric ways that I perceive scholarship (after unlearning the "single vision" imposed by the very traditional English lit. Ph.D. program I was subjected to a decade ago): Similar to the way that changing the instrument one uses to compose music fundamentally affects the nature of the melody that results (given the inherent differences in the ways that instruments are configured to generate sound and produce notes), our ideas are configured, influenced and often unknowingly framed by textual technologies and traditions. Thinking outside the boundaries of the book and the page is something that William Blake did over 200 years ago.....his revolutionary experiments inspire me to do the same and to perceive the material circumstances of textual production as a malleable environment or flexible arena in which creative, critical and--most importantly--collaborative work can be done...

By the way, thanks for the imagination and energy that you put into all of your work--I've referred numerous colleagues (some who are eager to embrace today's transitional realities and some who are clinging stubbornly to traditional ideals) to your blog and they are universally impressed...

Have fun in Barcelona!