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Thinking Experimental Publishing: introducing COPIM Work Package 6

Published onJul 23, 2020
Thinking Experimental Publishing: introducing COPIM Work Package 6

Photomediations: An Open Book:

COPIM’s Experimental Publishing and Reuse Work Package wants to promote the publication of experimental books and emergent genres of scholarship, while examining those technologies and cultural strategies that are most effective in encouraging the interaction with and reuse of open access book content. However, rather than building our own tools for experimental publishing, our work is focused on examining ways to more closely align existing software, technologies, workflows and infrastructures for experimental publishing, with the workflow of open access book publishers and with the infrastructures that COPIM is creating. As part of this, we are creating a set of pilot cases of experimental books (including by ScholarLed presses Open Humanities Press and Mattering Press) which will try out some of those existing tools and technologies, a process which we will document along the way. In this post we want to explain a bit more about what we’re doing, how, and why.

Transforming Infrastructure

With respect to experimental publishing, it is important to emphasise how the ecology or infrastructure around books in a digital environment has increasingly become embedded in our cultures of reading, writing and publishing (Andersen and Pold 2013, 2). At the same time this infrastructure is increasingly controlled or populated by commercial entities on the one hand, and governed by specific stakeholders within scholarly communication (universities, publishers, libraries) on the other. This becomes all the more problematic when researchers want to experiment with the forms, formats, concept, materiality, temporality, situatedness, and relationalities of their publications. For example when they want to challenge the linearity of this infrastructure and its focus on standardised book objects authored by individual humanist authors, instead of more experimental, open-ended, multimodal and collaborative research and publishing projects and processes.

As Massimo Riva argues in this respect: ‘the transformation of the “academic book of the future” is inseparable from the transformation of our research infrastructure, as a whole, including in particular current and emerging forms, or genres, of scholarly communication’ (Riva, 2019). We see this when universities for example only offer specific tools, equipment, or online environments (such as the Microsoft Office 365 Suite) for their researchers to use in their research; when publishers use static workflows that incorporate specific (again often commercial) tools and services; and when libraries are only able to store, preserve and make available in their systems specific book objects that fit to their rules and topographies of what qualifies as a book. But most problematic perhaps in this context are the closed access ownership and copyright systems that underlie these infrastructures, which have been detrimental for and severely restricted further re-use, engagement, sharing, remix, interaction and uptake of research.

This explains the difficulty experimental formats or publications have in entering this environment (even beyond the difficulty open access books already have—which is what the COPIM project is wanting to address) and it also explains why many of the most interesting experiments with experimental books or publications have happened outside of these realms, either set up by researchers or groups of researchers themselves (see the journals Vectors and Kairos for example), or by technology providers developing software and platforms to support these experiments outside of established infrastructures and workflows. Publishers have been experimenting with this too, but it has mainly been smaller and not-for-profit presses (such as Mediacommons Press, Open Humanities Press, and that have taken the lead in this, whereas larger and commercial publishers have often taken a wait-and-see approach; partly because their infrastructures are not flexible enough to adapt, and partly because they do not want to adapt and give up their corporate control of the distribution and consumption of academic books.

Cultural Inhibitions and Strategies

What this project wants to do is start making it easier for authors and publishers to take up these kinds of experiments, to integrate them into their workflows. We will be doing so by highlighting the open source tools, technologies, platforms and software that are already available to support experimental forms of publishing, whether they are custom-designed for academic books or not. But instead of presenting this as some sort of techno-solutionist answer to the problems sketched out above (where simply building and pointing out solutions will overcome your hesitations), we are keen to explore in more depth what the inhibitions and the barriers towards uptake of these kinds of experimental works and processes are, both for authors and for presses. As such we will be working closely both with author communities and with presses to create case studies and communities of best practice, to explore how to best do experimental publishing with them and learn from the process along the way. This process we hope will be useful for others and will help us as a project to see how we can address the previously mentioned inhibitions and barriers more head-on.

One of our first steps was the organisation of a workshop on experimental publishing at the beginning of July that brought together some of the most cutting-edge open source software and platform providers working on reimagining the academic book, with a selection of scholar-led and new university presses, to collaboratively explore: how can we better enable the production and publication of experimental books; and what is already out there to support this? The Jisc report Changing Publishing Ecologies (Adema and Stone, 2017) highlighted that although many scholar-led presses are interested in exploring (and are in some cases already quite involved in) more experimental and multi-modal forms of book publishing, they feel they do not always have the technical skills, know-how or finances to engage with this, even thought the overall feeling of the presses involved in this study was that there were not enough places for scholars to produce research and publications in forms that were not textual or print-based, but multimodal or non-linear.

Next Steps

We will write up the notes of the workshop into a couple of blogposts that we will share with you soon, and from there we hope to begin the work to identify how we can best support the different parties involved in experimental publishing. What we will be working on amongst other things is:

• A series of 3 pilot cases with scholar-led presses focusing on the development of experimental books together with communities of authors and technology providers. We aim to document the processes involved in doing these experiments and will write about our first experiences setting up the first two pilot cases in the near future.

• A scoping report outlining the main technology and software developments currently taking place in experimental academic publishing

• A mapping of the types of experimental books that are currently being produced within academia.

• A literature review outlining inhibitions around open access book content interaction and reuse and cultural strategies to promote this.

• The beginning of a community of practice or a conversation around experimental academic publishing: bringing open source/not-for-profit publishers and technologists/projects together (beyond their own projects, fields and contexts).

• Ultimately: an online guide for publishers and authors listing technological possibilities and cultural strategies to promote experimental publishing.

More from us on the COPIM blog very soon!

Terry Thomas: