APA and Digital Publishing

American Philological Association logoAcademic professional associations are playing key roles in making sense of the changes being wrought upon intellectual life and academia by the advent of digital publishing and media. As gatekeepers and upholders of standards they inject important notes of critique and caution into the too often hype-filled world of digital humanities. And by pronouncing on such things as citation practices and evaluation techniques they can help everyone navigate in the quite uncharted waters in which we find ourselves. So every year I read with great interest the statements by the candidates for leadership positions in the American Philological Association. Here’s my short annual round-up of where things seem to be going, based on the candidates’ statements. For further background and context, see last year’s post.

At the moment, the APA has nothing like the Modern Language Association’s Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media. The American Historical Association has been proactively sponsoring discussions about digital methods in the research and teaching of history at its annual conference. This is not really happening at the APA either, so far. The focus for the APA  has been the building of some kind of online gateway or portal to knowledge about the classical world. A substantial amount of money was raised to make this happen. But the vision is still very much under negotiation.

Marilyn Skinner, a Latinist and candidate for APA President, puts it as follows:

With the Gateway Campaign concluded, designing and implementing the digital portal that was its primary objective is now the APA’s most immediate internal challenge. The recent establishment of a “Cabinet” to weigh strategic planning initiatives will be crucial for setting organizational policies. Studying, in collaboration with other academic societies, the feasibility of a Digital Latin Library Project giving access to all Latin texts presently available on the Internet is a welcome first practical step, because on-line availability of scholarly editions of ancient Greek and Roman primary sources is an essential need. The APA President and the Board of Directors must play major roles in furthering discussion of how this digital gateway is to be structured and what features will most greatly benefit all its users.

John Marincola, a Greek historian and the other candidate for President, sounds a note of caution regarding large digital initiatives:

As many have noted, the success of the capital campaign offers new opportunities for the APA; but it’s important to remember that the APA has only a small (if very dedicated) staff, and relies greatly on the work of its officers, committees, and members. So even with this new endowment, we need to proceed carefully with projects that make sense for an organization of our size. The current state of technological change mandates a flexible approach, since today’s innovations can be outdated two years hence. That means that we must be committed but nimble.

The key unresolved question is that of audience. Is the gateway to serve scholars, who want reliable textual editions (as Skinner says), or is it  for students, who want reliable but concise scholarly information about topics they are interested in? Marincola is undoubtedly right that in the long run the APA is just not staffed in a way that would allow it to make a better Perseus, or a better version of the classical articles in Wikipedia. 

What can the APA contribute? Probably not vast new reference works or digital tools. That’s Gregory Crane’s job, and he’s got some very exciting and well-funded new initiatives on the way. What the APA can contribute is something that digital humanities desperately needs: peer review. Solid, rigorous peer review is the something that digital projects need, that print publications have as a matter of course, and that consumers of digital projects would rely on to tell the wheat from the chaff. Only peer review will ensure  the long-term rise in quality of digital projects, and motivate scholars to spend time on open-access digital projects.

Yelena Baraz, a candidate for the Publications and Research Committee, seems to understand this:

On the one hand, it would be useful to produce a set of guidelines for members (to be updated regularly) about the status of various existing publishing venues. On the other hand, the committee may well wish to be proactive by drawing up a plan for the kinds of ventures, both digital and traditional, that it thinks should be promoted and by seeking out partnerships to help do so.

This seems to see digital publishing as analogous to print journal publishing, with “venues” that need to be monitored. But she’s got the right idea: quality control, guidance. Laurel Fulkerson, the other candidate for the Publications and Research Committee, while she acknowledges that “the world of publishing is changing, drastically,” is more inclined to try to find ways to safeguard the status of the traditional monograph.

At the same time, most authority figures in academia (e.g., tenure committees) remain attached to physical manifestations of research, and many of us like writing books, so it is imperative not to overanticipate the pace of change. To me, the discontinuation of the monograph series is regrettable, and, if it does not make sense to bring it back, I would be very interested in replacing it with a series whose scope is very clearly defined, and well-promoted.

Fulkerson is of course right that many of us like writing books. Me too! There’s no either/or proposition here. But the overwhelming preference for books among academics has a lot to do with the lack of regular channels of peer review for non-books, and the associated quality control, editing support, and prestige that go with that. When it come to the APA’s own journal, TAPA, she talks rather vaguely of “blending more traditional [journal articles] with more innovative ways of making scholarship available.” But to focus on the delivery method (paid print vs. open electronic) is to mistake the central role of the professional association: not to anticipate and manage publishing trends, but to foster networks of peer review for scholarship, no matter how it appears.

So what would I like to see? MLA-style guidelines, for sure. More talk at the national meetings, as with the AHA, definitely. But I think the best thing the APA could do is to create a digital brand, kind of like what Anvil Academic is trying to do more broadly in different humanities fields. No massive funding scheme needed, just a merry band of hard-nosed scholars willing to be honest about which digital projects are worthy to be issued under the APA name (whatever that name ends up being–a name change is also on the ballot).

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6 thoughts on “APA and Digital Publishing

  1. Thanks for this! You’ve articulated a lot of good ideas about what the APA should be doing with regard to its digital initiatives.

    I can’t speak on behalf of the APA, but as its information architect, I do have a few things to say in response.

    The subject of peer review has come up at several of the committee meetings that I have attended over the past couple of years. I have been pushing for some sort of peer review service for digital resources, since that is sorely needed for those of us who do digital humanities work. We’ve also discussed the need to produce a set of MLA-style guidelines. Progress has been slow, but there has been progress, and I’m hopeful that we’ll eventually produce some guidelines that will serve the profession well.

    As for the portal, much has changed since the APA launched that campaign, including the notion that a portal is a good idea. We’re looking into better ways of serving the needs of members and others looking for information about the profession or the subjects we study. Currently, almost all of my effort is in migrating the APA’s website to the Drupal platform, which will open up a lot of possibilities, including guest blogs, discussion rooms, comments, etc.

    Regarding reference works and digital tools, I don’t think that I need to mention the APA’s support of L’année philologique, but your readers might not know much about the Digital Latin Library, a joint project of the APA, the Medieval Academy of America, and the Renaissance Society of America. Part of that project involves creating a platform for publishing open access, born-digital critical editions, using a Linked Open Data framework. We just finished a yearlong planning phase, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and we will soon apply for funding for the implementation stage. Eventually, the DLL will publish not only critical editions, but also commentaries and student editions.

    So, you see, the APA is doing quite a lot of the things that you suggest it ought to be doing. I’m eager to see even more progress. We’re all the more likely to see results if you and others keep the ideas coming.

  2. This is a great response, Sam, thank you very much. In last year’s post I emphasized the important work APA has done since the 1980s on L’Annee and other digital resources, and I should have highlighted that again. And the fact that you are on staff is for me the most powerful proof of the APA’s commitment to thriving in the digital realm. Good to have a perspective from someone who (unlike me) is actually part of the discussions inside the APA. Thanks for chiming in.

  3. As a former classicist turned economist (in which electronic publishing and working papers are the norm), it’s amazing to me that Classicists are so reluctant to make this change. Peer-reviewers are not paid (they often are in Economics); there are several resources (such as BMCR) that review practically every book that is sent to them, thereby minimizing marketing costs; and traditional publication is getting too expensive (the Mnemosyne Supplement costs upwards of a dollar a page). What good is a great new edition if it costs $200?

    Moving to a world of zero-cost journals and self-publishing not just reduce costs – it would also speed up the transmission of ideas, something that is painstakingly slow and breeds “in” cliques of those well-established and funded enough to attend conferences.

    All this takes is some department to allow electronic publications in tenure reviews, and I hope that starts the dominoes falling.

    • Thanks, this is very well put. I think the conservatism of both classicists and tenure committees is often overestimated. Both groups care above all about quality of scholarship, as measured primarily by peer scholars. But the economics of combining quality, peer review, and open access is still being worked out. A paper opportunity for you?

  4. Chris, it was good to read this post, and I enjoyed reading Sam’s response and Harald’s, too. I can tell you that the ASCSA is facing these very same issues now regarding born-digital, online, peer-reviewed publications of archaeological material, and these are exciting times to balance that against the traditional monographs we do (and will continue to do), and to be able to deliver content to a diverse readership in a variety of formats. I’m wondering then if the APA will broaden the net to include sister organizations like the AIA, ASCSA, ASOR, and others to form a publications working group to consider these questions and to create a set of best-practices and standards which can then be adopted across our disciplines. We know what the issues are, and they’re bigger than any one organization, so let’s find a way to address them responsibly together.

    • Good points, Andrew. Seems like ultimately it’s about recruiting qualified reviewers, and creating the mechanisms to certify and signify quality that are so taken for granted in the print realm. The more connections between professional associations, the more possible that becomes.

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