Book of the Week: Planned Obsolescence

Book: Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, forthcoming from NYU Press. New York University, 2009

Presentation by the author Kathleen Fitzpatrick:

“The last few years have seen a significant uptick in discussion of the crisis in academic publishing, particularly in the humanities. This discussion has played out on conference panels, across blogs, and in publications including Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, missives including the now-famous Stephen Greenblatt letter to the membership of the MLA, and reports such as that produced by the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. There have been, as well, many arguments made about the role that electronic publishing might play in rescuing the academy from this crisis, including those in John Willinsky’s The Access Principle, Christine Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age, and venues such as the Journal of Electronic Publishing — and including my own writing about the issue, much of which circulates on and around MediaCommons. And much of what has come out through this discussion is direct, clear, and to the point: the old ways of circulating the results of scholarly research are no longer working as well for us as they should, whether because they’re too expensive, too slow, too text-based, too linear, too static, too univocal, or too proprietary. The answer, such texts often indicate, may be found in the Internet, or some subset thereof: digital network-based publishing can enable the free (or at least less expensive) distribution of more scholarly work, in a more timely fashion, to more people; it can enable scholars to write in more inventive, multi-modal forms; it can facilitate collaboration and discussion of scholarship, thereby resulting in the production of more compelling new work. All of this is, to varying extents, true, and this text like those that have gone before it will trumpet a number of the core values of Internet-based publishing, including open access, Creative Commons licensing, the gift economy, and the like.

What such arguments about the digital future of scholarly publishing often fail to account for, however, is the fundamentally conservative nature of academic institutions and of the academics that comprise them. In the main, academics are resistant to change in their ways of working; it is not without reason that a senior colleague once joked to me that the motto of our institution (and, I’d argue, the academy more broadly) could easily be that often attributed to the Presbyterian church: “We have never done it that way before.” As Donald Hall has noted, scholars often resist applying the critical skills that we bring to our subject matter to an examination of “the textuality of our own profession, its scripts, values, biases, and behavioral norms” (Hall xiv); such self-criticism is a risky endeavor, and those of us who have been privileged enough to succeed within the extant system are often reluctant to bite the hand that feeds us. Changing our technologies, changing our ways of doing research, changing our modes of production and distribution of the results of that research, are all crucial to the continued vitality of the academy — and yet none of those changes can possibly come about unless there is first a profound change in the ways of thinking of scholars themselves. Until scholars really believe that publishing on the web is as valuable as publishing in print — and more importantly, until they believe that their institutions believe it, too — few will be willing to risk their careers on a new way of working, with the result that that new way of working will remain marginal, undervalued, and risky.

In Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, I focus, then, not just on the technological changes that many believe are necessary to allow academic publishing to flourish into the future, but on the social, intellectual, and institutional changes that are necessary to pave the way for such flourishing. In order for new modes of communication to become broadly accepted within the academy, scholars and their institutions must take a new look at the mission of the university, the goals of scholarly publishing, and the processes through which scholars conduct their work. We must collectively consider what new technologies have to offer not us, not just in terms of the cost of publishing or access to publications, but in the ways we research, the ways we write, and the ways we review.

There is a significant irony, of course, in writing a book that argues for the digital future of scholarly communication. I’m thus experimenting with process in the publication of Planned Obsolescence, in an attempt to practice what I’m preaching. I’ve posted a full draft of the text online in a CommentPress-based format for open peer review; CommentPress allows for reader comments and discussion and a range of levels of granularity, from the paragraph to the page to the document as a whole. The commented draft of the text will remain persistent, even once the revised print version has been published by NYU Press, thus making the process of the text’s production visible. Despite the primacy of the digital version, the printed book is necessary to the text’s efforts at advocacy; after all, if this argument is only published electronically, the book will likely be able to do no more than preach to the converted. Planned Obsolescence thus tries simultaneously to model the change that it argues for and to direct that argument to a broader audience, one that might as yet be a bit resistant.

Responses to the digital version have thus far been quite positive; the manuscript has received a total of 232 comments at various levels, and something on the order of 6500 unique readers since it was posted. I’m now in the process of revising the manuscript for print publication, and the comments I’ve received online have been an enormous help. NYU Press has also sent the manuscript out for more traditional peer review, and one of my reviewers, Lisa Spiro, has generously allowed us to post her review online with the manuscript, so that it can be discussed as well.

We’re still studying how this mode of online peer review might best be structured in order to produce the best feedback for authors, but thus far, the experiment with Planned Obsolescence appears to be a success.”

More Information

* The “welcome” page has some information about the process

* Original proposal for the book:


“Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, forthcoming from NYU Press. Copyright (c) 2009 New York University. This text may be distributed in part or in whole on condition that (1) distributed text is not sold, whether or not such sale is “for profit” and (2) distributed text bears this notice in full. Except as permitted by law, all other uses are prohibited without written permission of the publisher.”

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