- Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, professor of Media Studies at Pomona College and director of scholarly communication for the Modern Language Association, is a leading thinker in the digital humanities. In her book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy she deftly addresses the changes "necessary to allow academic publishing to flourish into the future" and "the social, intellectual, and institutional changes that are necessary to pave the way for such flourishing." (p.10) It is a very readable account by a professor of media studies who is pushing the boundaries of her own field, while at the same time fulfilling the academic professional requirements developed before the appearance of the first personal computer. Because of this, she is in an ideal position to examine many of the issues that lie at the heart of the profound organizational, technological, and financial challenges that academic libraries and scholarly publishing face.
In five chapters entitled Peer-Review, Authors, Texts, Preservation, and The University, Fitzpatrick describes the possibilities available for a new publishing ecosystem as well as the existing barriers that are slowing this transformation. Her analysis is smart and well informed, and she resists the urge to make reckless predictions about the future. Not only does Fitzpatrick analyze the core issues, but she also provides countless examples of innovative projects, scholars, and researchers.
The title for Planned Obsolescence comes from Fitzpatrick's eponymous blog, which she started as a follow-up to her first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, in which Fitzpatrick addresses the anxiety of cultural elites - represented by literary culture - as they contend with the popularity of new media like television, radio, and the Internet. After its publication, she "was left with the detritus of many smaller ideas that demanded immediacy and yet seemed destined to fade into nothingness." (p. 6) Her blog allowed her to share those ideas in a format that carried few expectations of completion or permanence. Her book Planned Obsolescence has much to do with the anxiety in the academy over the future of scholarly publishing, where the technological and institutional arrangements that once supported the scholarly monograph are collapsing.
The first chapter will be of great interest to many academic librarians who are [End Page 455] frustrated with the current peer review process in scholarly publishing. While the Internet is a wonderful system of distribution, the peer-review process has made certain publishers and publications the sine qua non of career advancement. In the sciences and social sciences, this process raises prices to astonishing levels and limits access to scholarly materials. Though prices are not as great a problem in the humanities, the scholarly monograph from prestigious university presses is generally the accepted ticket to tenure. Dependence on the monograph tends to exclude from consideration much of the other creative work faculty members do and slows down a transition to a truly Web-based scholarship. Fitzpatrick discusses the history, uses, problems, and misconceptions of peer-review, and the reasons that adjusting current procedures would benefit scholarly publishing but would also provoke quite a bit of anxiety among scholars.
As one of the founders of MediaCommons (a project sponsored by the Institute for the Future of the Book), described as "a community network for scholars, students, and practitioners in media studies, promoting exploration of new forms of publishing within the field," Fitzpatrick and colleagues have experimented with peer-to-peer review as an alternative to peer review. (http://mediacommons.fu-tureofthebook.org/about-mediacommons) In peer-to-peer review, the anonymity of pre-publication review would be replaced by open online peer review, encouraging a conversation about a particular work of scholarship. In the conclusion, Fitzpatrick shares her experience with opening up the manuscript of Planned Obsolescence to this process.
Reference and instruction librarians should appreciate the openness of peer-to-peer review, as they regularly encourage undergraduate students to think of scholarship as a...