Posted by: mhdiaz | August 24, 2011

Academic E-books and their Role in the Emerging Scholarly Communications Landscape

The following post is the fifth in a series from Leslie Lees, VP of Content Development from ebraryAcademic E-books – The Shifting Landscape discusses changes that are occurring with ebooks and implications for libraries and their users.  –Mike

The changing expectations of readers are creating reverberations throughout the entire chain of scholarly communication, and impacting the role of scholarly readers as writers of the books that support that chain.  The monograph has long been important to academia, especially in the humanities, but why should that necessarily be so? Are books themselves simply an artifact of the print world and do e-books persist only as a transitional mode on the path to new methods of scholarly communication in the digital culture?

Long-form scholarly and philosophical works clearly pre-date the print era, but the invention of the printing press made their production and dissemination economically feasible. Sharing research became easier and university training began to emphasize developed argumentation in the form of dissertations as the ‘rite of passage’ into the scholarly community.  It is ironic, therefore, that, from the earliest days, arguments that were painstakingly constructed by scholars over the length of a book, were then deconstructed by those same scholars into collections of ‘snippets’ as they used them. The secondary publishing output of compendia, reviews and other reference tools that support this model of ‘reading’ were some of the earliest examples of curated content!  The scholarly conversation thus resembles a real conversation. Sometimes scholars have been good listeners and have paid close attention to the developed arguments of other scholars and sometimes they have used the work of other scholars as simply grist to their own conversational mill!

Authors certainly have an emotional attachment to their own books that goes way beyond any they feel for other forms of writing. This is reinforced by the loving care with which many University Press books are designed and produced.  But the digital environment now offers cheaper and faster ways to communicate ideas, so if the printed book is no longer the most economically viable way to communicate, then how long will such emotional attachment persist?  Reviews in the New York Review of Books, for example, illustrate how the book-length elaboration of ideas is still taken very seriously. While we might imagine  that book chapters could at some point be treated akin to journal articles and that scholarly communications could occur instead via specialized blogs, discussion groups or other social web environments these vehicles are far from proven, despite the fact that they are employed by many scholars.

The stability of print books and of the institutions that supported their circulation and reception formed a culture that anchored the identity of authors. That identity comprised both ‘authority’ and ‘ownership’ and the legal framework for intellectual property mirrored the cultural one; mediating the relationship between the individual idea and the intellectual ‘conversation’.  In the digital culture, the identity of the author is always in danger of being dissolved into the ‘traces’ left in the multifarious communication forums on the web.  Much is therefore tied up in the culture of the book as a vehicle for ideas, and reports of its death are greatly exaggerated!  Scholars still require ways to maintain their identity, authority and ownership in the new culture.

Maybe the future of the book lies in the social nature of scholarly research. The platforms that scholars use to discover and read books could incorporate social tools to share insights, give and receive recommendations, organize instruction, discover collaborators, and promote research. The activities which were formerly spread out across the scholarly value chain between readers, writers, publishers, booksellers and librarians might be organized in a space that allows scholars to communicate and debate with colleagues; publishers to discover new authors and topics of interest to the academic community; and librarians to develop deeper insights into the needs of their users.

The academic monograph as a container of ideas will be with us for a long time, but not necessarily forever. We still have much to learn from the culture of the book as we seek to preserve the values inherent in scholarly research in the new digital culture.

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Responses

  1. Is it really just the fact that the book is a physical object that causes an author to be ‘attached’ to it? What about the many hours of painstaking research and testing of ideas that result in the creation of a sustained piece of intellectual work? While undoubtedly digital practices will start to increasingly change the way that people work, should academics embarking on PhD type research be made to engage increasingly in what will by its promoters be called ‘collaborative learning’ and the like…? While this new approach to work doubtless has merit and is somewhat necessitated by the modern economy, its pworth keeping in mind the actual shifts in ‘attention’ brought about by such new ways of working – sustained attention and concentration are required for scholarly work, and we need to able to make sure that these efforts are not broken up too much by the needs of technology-based organization…

    • I appreciate your insightful comment. The academic monograph has an important role in the scholarly communications landscape and that sustained, rigorous intellectual work is important and valuable. How, where, when, and to what extent the latest technologies and platforms for collaboration will impact this form of scholarship remains to be seen but I think that there will an impact. Mike

  2. Thank you, Mr. Lees, for this series. Those interested in learning more about the history and culture of the book, as well as its future, are invited to look into SHARP, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (http://www.sharpweb.org).

    • Thank you for this suggestion. I definitely agree that SHARP is a good source for insight on the history and future of the book.


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