The Oxford English Dictionary’s overarching definition of the transitive verb “publish” is “to make public.” An early use, dating to 1382 is “to prepare and issue copies of (a book, newspaper, piece of music, etc.).” This is probably how most publishers think of the term: public distribution of a text. In usage dating from 1573, however, the item in question and the manner of its distribution is more expansively conceived: “to make generally accessible or available for acceptance or use . . . to present to or before the public;” in more specialized (and obviously more recent) use “to make public . . . through the medium of print or the internet.”
Recent contretemps in history, covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education and featured in an unusual forum in the American Historical Review, re-raise critical questions about what it means “to publish” in a digital era and suggest that the earlier, tighter usage is still central for historical scholarly practice.
The short version is this. (Disclosure: I know three of the principals professionally; one of them is a good friend. Such is this small world.) David Armitage, chair-on-leave of the History Department at Harvard and Jo Guldi, an Assistant Professor of History at Brown, wrote The History Manifesto, published in an open access manner by Cambridge University Press (CUP) and copyrighted October 2014. The History Manifesto called, among other things, for a return to, if not longue durée, then a longer durée in historical scholarship. They contended that historians in the last decades have been occupied with smaller chronologies, smaller geographies, and smaller topics, and have thus lost the platform for addressing – or showing leadership on – big problems of global urgency. The book was widely reviewed, with some plaudits and some pans. There were blogs and departmental conversations. There were debates about the correlations of scale and impact, and the definition of each.
And there were questions about methodology. In the AHR forum Deborah Cohen, Professor of History at Northwestern, and Peter Mandler, Professor of History at Cambridge and the President of the Royal Historical Society, summarized some of these and raised more of their own. For example, when Armitage and Guldi assayed the bigness or smallness of dissertation and monograph topics, did they fundamentally misinterpret the data — particularly the analyses of other scholars on this subject?
But things really heated up in the late winter, months after the initial round of reviews and just as the AHR forum was made available online (for print publication in its April issue). A new, revised version of The History Manifesto was posted on the CUP website. For weeks there was no notice that this was a revision, and the new version still showed the October copyright date. The website now heralds the revision as dated February 5, although it was not posted until late March, and offers a page with both the original and revised versions and a modest list of changes to the latter (most of which seem to be in direct response to various criticisms of the Manifesto, including those of Cohen and Mandler). Armitage and Gould contend in posts on Guldi’s blog in the last few days that there is nothing nefarious in the delayed acknowledgement of the revision, and that they, and CUP, were learning as they went along, blazing a new path to open access humanities publishing. I haven’t seen other reviews of the original version post a notice to this effect, but the AHR forum now carries a note that Cohen and Mandler’s critique, and the forum discussion, was based on the first version of the Manifesto.
There is a lot of grist for any mill here. The issue that I think will linger has to do with what Armitage and Guldi have claimed as the brave new world of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence — a world of free-flowing exchange and revisable text. Guldi’s blog post on April 9 notes that in the midst of both the time consuming efforts to update the website and the “bloggingly fast” critique and revision, “there are scant precedents for appropriate habits of keeping readers updated with what version they are reading.” Indeed.
Also this month, Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association, which also publishes the AHR, featured a series of four essays on the theme of “History as a Book Discipline.” The authors considered a range of issues about the role that books (as opposed to articles or other forms of scholarship, including public history work and digital humanities projects) play in the discipline as a method for advancing humanistic knowledge and as a professional credential. Claire B. Potter, a Professor of History at the New School and widely known for her blog, Tenured Radical, asked “Is Digital Publishing Killing Books?” (Answer: nah, there’s been a crisis of books since the nineteenth century, and besides, books seem to be thriving alongside all sorts of digital media.) But none of these authors considered whether “the book” was a fixed text. They assumed. And as most readers of this blog will know, Fitzpatrick imagined, and enacted, a process of open review of her manuscript in process, not post-“publication.”
It is uncertain how review and revision should function in practice, “post-publication.” But it is also unclear why we should evaluate work that might – or might not – be complete, One explanation is that because print publications have often made corrections to subsequent editions of a work, this online revision really isn’t much of an innovation. On the other hand, some argue that online publication offers a new form of scholarly communication, and with the speed of the digital age it should not be surprising that the traditional stages of peer review, publication, and critical evaluation, are stepped up and intermingled. Another rationale holds that because post-publication revisions improve the work, we should revise in this way to better scholarship. Perhaps diversity in forms and expectations of a “published” text should simply be welcomed; to quote the great French philosopher Pepe Le Pew, “vive le difference.”
But isn’t scholarship built on an architecture of citation? Even if one doesn’t credit the whiggish notion that we will know more and be better for it over time, the structures of scholarship are such that one builds on what has come before. Citation, the essential scholarly building block, requires some measure of fixity, a version of record. Open access requirements to deposit “accepted manuscripts” that have not yet been through the editorial and production processes have already been called out for creating too many confusing (and uncitable) versions of scholarship. In the case of The History Manifesto and the AHR Forum, reviews were written about one version of the book while another was in the works. Reviewers quoted passages and cited pages that changed. Perhaps the AHR book review editors would have paused before assigning reviews if they had known the book was a moving target. Or perhaps they might have encouraged their reviewers to engage with the project in a different manner.
So what does it mean for scholars to “publish?”