Thursday 4 July 2013

Martin Hall and Jean-Claude Guédon ponder the future of research and the monograph in the humanities and social sciences

Professor Martin Hall
The crisis in monograph publishing in one form or other has been with us for over twenty years. Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Salford and Chair of the morning session of Open Access monographs in the humanities and social sciences conference observed that the great university presses started to lose the ability to publish monograph research in an affordable format way before digital developments accelerated. With the advent of thin clients - cheap, affordable devices - the challenge for scholarly publishing is how to manage the transition into realising possibilities of the future.

The amount of research money that goes into the humanities and social sciences is disproportionate compared to the impact and significance of these disciplines. Drawing on his own experience as an archaeologist, there are so many possibilities. Words can translated into digital, but what about the garage loads of stuff such as broken pot pieces? We also need to consider the potential for wider participation, for example, the general public going out, finding and recording archaeological material with mobile phones.

Jean-Claude Guédon from the University of Montreal followed Martin Hall as the keynote speaker at this JISC Collections conference. He urged the audience to forget about monographs and go beyond them. It is about making the conversations of the humanities as great as that of scientists; about making discussions as frictionless as possible to improve understanding. He outlined three sociologies of e-books: sociology of documents (production); society of documents (how they relate to each other); and sociology 'tout court' as knowledge of society (co-evolution of the two above so we know where we are going).

Guédon observed that 'we are in a situation where we are used to a fixed form of production'. Because of our author obsession we stick to the idea of a one-person authored product. But research is taken by all sorts of people, amended and debated to create a new argument or thesis. This is followed by the documentation of the process. In digital we translate the exact same approach and try to do the same thing in documenting the idea(s). 

It is easy to pick flaws in this linear, print or object-bound way of developing and documenting research in the humanities and social sciences. Think about the potential of communities when developing thesis. Why is it so important to have one author for a piece of work? Isn't it better to have several brains working on it to improve the quality of the work? Think of science - very few articles are written by just one person. There is nothing wrong with working together. One of the paradoxes of universities is they train people to work in a way that you will never work in the real world. It is about a flow of work or 'a stream of thinking in the river of humanity'.

If you accept that maybe more people should get involved, it helps reveal how you can approach the documentation. What form of publication works? Does the book have a place in that kind of conversation? Continuing with Hall's earlier example, archaeologists (as well as scientists) sit on treasure troves of images and artefacts. We only get one view point of this resource. This is a potentially flawed way of interpreting and developing knowledge.

There is a reward system in place that reinforces this approach, with an economy of prestige that constrains it. What kind of social entity do we have to create to make this work? Guédon believes we have to rethink the notion of the author. We have to really examine the peer review process. And we have to do this to rethink value in research.

It's not an issue of finding the right format. It is about considering how this new digital communication is going to fit into our society.

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