Digital Publishing-Getting Beyond the Manuscript

Here is the original submission I made to THATCamp followed by some additional background ideas and thoughts:

Forget the philosophic arguments, I think most people at THATCamp are probably convinced that in the future scholarly manuscripts will appear first in the realm of the digital, I am interested in the practical questions here: What are born digital manuscripts going to look like and what do we need to start writing them? There are already several examples, Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, Wark’s Gamer Theory, but I want to think about what the next step is. What kind of publishing platform should be used (is it simply a matter of modifying a content management system like WordPress)? Currently the options are not very inviting to academics without a high degree of digital literacy. What will it take to make this publishing platform an option for a wider range of scholars? What tools and features are needed (beyond say Comment Press), something like a shared reference manager, or at least open API, to connect these digital manuscripts (Zotero)? Maybe born digital manuscripts will just be the Beta version of some books which are later published (again i.e. Gamer Theory)? But, I am also interested in thinking about what a born digital manuscript can do that an analog one cannot.

Additional Thoughts:

So I should start by saying that this proposal is a bit self serving. I am working on “a book,” (the proverbial tenure book), but writing it first for the web. That is rather than releasing the manuscript as a beta version of the book online for free, or writing a book and digitally distributing it, I want to leverage the web to do things that cannot be accomplished in a manuscript form. It is pretty clear that the current academic publishing model will not hold. As I indicated in the original proposal above, I think that most participants at THATCamp are probably convinced that the future of academic publishing is in some ways digital (although the degree to which it will be digital is probably a point of difference). But, in working with this project I have come to realize that the tools for self digital publishing are really in the early stages, a pre-alpha release almost. Yes, there are options, primarily blogs, but for the most part these tend to mimic “book centered” ways of distributing information. To be sure there are examples of web tools which break from this model, namely CommentPress, but I am interested in thinking about what other tools might be developed and how can we integrate them. And at this point I think you have to be fairly tech savvy or have a “technical support team” to be able to do anything beyond a simple blog, or digital distribution of a manuscript (say as a downloadable .pdf). For me one of the early models we can look to is MacKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, but he had several people handling the “tech side.” For me I can get the tech help to do the things I cannot on my own, but is seems pretty clear that until the tools are simple and widely available digital publishing will either remain obscure or overly simple/conservative (just a version of the manuscript).

So, what tools do we need to be developing here? Should we be thinking about tools or about data structures and than developing tools around that? (I realize this is not an either or proposition.) I am imagining something like WordPress with a series of easy to install plugins that would open up web publishing to a much wider range of scholars. Perhaps a “publisher” could host these installs and provide technical support making it even easier for academics. I have a fairly good idea of what I personally want for my project, but am interested in thinking about/hearing about what other scholars, particularly those from other disciplines would need/want.

7 Responses to “Digital Publishing-Getting Beyond the Manuscript”

  1. Jmcclurken Says:

    Great idea for a session and great questions!

    It seems to me that there’s a grant (several grants) waiting to be started here. It might be particularly interesting to see a collaboration between a digital humanities center (for tech support and vision), an academic publishing house (for publishing “credibility” and editing/publishing experience), and 2-5 scholars willing to put their work forward like Dave (and take risks in publishing in a new format that might not translate easily to the old format). One question I’d want to explore is how to avoid the problems faced by the gutenberg-e program of the AHA (

    Another is to see what such a project might gain from the HASTAC discussions on the subject (, including the experiences of the multimodal journal Vectors (

    I’d like to see this session brainstorm tools _and_ data structures (with potential tools) needed to move forward on this process. I like the idea of a flexible, open-source, easy-to-install set of tools. I also think the notion of central hosted space has some strengths (ease of use, potential for increased credibility) and weaknesses (potentially viewed as limiting as the “publisher” makes choices about what to support/not) that we should explore in the session.

  2. kfitz Says:

    As you might guess, this is a proposal near and dear to my heart. I haven’t posted anything about my proposal, because it basically went “I want to demo and discuss MediaCommons as a means of thinking about new digital scholarly publishing models,” and so would love to link that conversation to this one. The issue that I’d specifically raised with respect to MediaCommons had to do with the peer-to-peer review system we hope to build, as I’m increasingly convinced that answering the “what are you going to do about peer review” question — without the disastrous move (I’d argue) of simply importing current models of review online — is the primary roadblock to broader buy-in for such new models. So count me in, absolutely; I’ll look forward to the discussion.

  3. jamesdcalder Says:

    sounds really interesting. i’ve recently started to think about ways in which digital “manuscripts” (or any digital material) could begin to evolve in ways that don’t mimic books or other print media. i’ll leave it at that for now, but i’m looking forward to the discussion.

  4. Sherman Dorn Says:

    I think the most important step here would be to break away from the long-form monograph as the most important product of scholarship, or at least as the single-stream product of scholarship where someone engages in research, produces a dissertation, maybe one article or at most two, and then ZAP! comes the long-form monograph. The model for that is derived at least in part from the reluctance of academic presses to accept book manuscripts where a number of chapters (or their equivalent) have already seen the light of day.

    But if there is no longer that chain, then lots of other pathways to publication become feasible. Maybe someone creates a multimedia website that is open to comments/reviews, and out of that come several journal articles, or a few semi-long monographs available in a university repository. The more experimental products will probably be ephemera from an archival standpoint, but that’s always been the case with working papers and similar works-in-progress-that-are-still-readable. Eventually, some publishers will accept previously-seen monographs in a print-on-demand series, one will sell like hotcakes, and a different model will evolve. I hope.

    Fortunately, MLA has started to open the conversation about the inherent value of the long-form monograph.

  5. zachwhalen Says:

    This is an interesting topic and I’d love to sit in on this conversation at camp. I too am in the figuring-out stage of a book or book-like project, and this is something I’m starting to explore.

    On the question of which tools to use, I really think this is less important than the question of what you use them for. I mean, if it’s a project I’m doing, I’ll probably use Drupal, but that’s me. I think, as your post and kfitz’ comments suggest, it’s may be more important to keep thinking about why and how a digital work leverages “impact” in a way that t+p committees can understand.

    One possibility that occurs to me, though, in line with what I think Jeff is getting at, is that the access to a tool or platform for publishing this kind of scholarly work could intersect into the process of dissemination at a point similar to or in place of the standard academic vetting process. In other words, if it’s possible to develop the kind of innovative but accessible tool I think Dave is seeking, perhaps part of that tool can include a means for centralizing distribution, where access to that center is in somehow vetted.

    (Actually, now that I type that out, I don’t like it. Not only does it just import the intellectual model from print [i.e. expertise based on scarcity of informaiton], the whole point of the web is that distribution and the means thereof don’t have to be centralized. Duh. Web hosting is cheap. Domain names are cheap. Content is king. I’ll leave the previous paragraph in place, though, in case someone else wants to run with it either way.)

  6. THATCamp » Blog Archive Says:

    […] For example, what does it mean that one can use Drupal to think through an answer to ShermanDorn’s question as well as Dave’s? […]

  7. cball Says:

    *this* is the thread I want to be in! 🙂 I’m tossing around several projects/ideas in coming to THATcamp, but digital media scholarship/publishing is what is closest to my heart.

    My school just gave me the OK to produce my tenure materials in completely digital format, which is a good thing since half my work is born-digital (and I want tenure readers to SEE the work, not just read about it in a line on my vita).

    I’m also in the middle of a born-digital book project to be published by Computers and Composition Digital Press ( The press is open-access, peer-reviewed, sponsored by a well-respected university press (Utah State, a top choice in rhetoric and technology studies), and wants to publish more multimodal “books” (yes, the scare quotes, for all the reasons y’all are discussing above: What comes next?!). Although the first book CCDP published was pretty linear (mostly PDFs), this book, which will hopefully be their third, is set to be along the lines of the kinds of stuff that Vectors Journal — or closer to my heart, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy (which I edit; — publishes.

    I’m happy to share the in-progress discussions we’ve been having with the press editors. And I’m happy to share the ways I’ve been able to make such work count in my tenure process. And, more over, I want to hear what the rest of y’all are working on!