Words to the Wise: Things to consider when experimenting with digital scholarly publishing (March 2013)
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In view of the queries we continue to receive from other scholars keen to experiment in similar ways with born-digital, open-access, and/or open peer reviewed scholarly publishing, we’ve put together this list of points to consider. These are based on our own experience with Writing History, in which over 20,000 unique visitors have visited our book-in-progress. During our 8-week open peer review phase, 71 individuals contributed 942 comments, totaling more than 83,500 words (the text under peer review at that time had 120,000 words altogether). The volume – now relatively svelte at around 100,000 words, is forthcoming in paper and digital versions from the digitalculturebooks imprint of the University of Michigan Press.) 1
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The concluding chapter of Writing History in the Digital Age, which we co-authored with Charlotte Rochez and Timothy Burke, is subtitled, “What we learned”, and we hope that interested parties will find much of use there. What follows here is intended to complement that chapter in providing more nuts-and-bolts advice as well as prompts regarding digital publication efforts that may be very different to Writing History, whether in form or aim. Given that Writing History may be categorized by the triple-whammy — the trifecta, if you will — of being born-digital, open access and open peer review, we have loosely divided up our suggestions among those three, admittedly somewhat overlapping, categories. The points are listed in no particular order, and we may be adding to these from time to time on our site. As is apparent from the Writing History site, we advocate transparency and openness at pretty much every turn, evidenced by our having made public nearly everything, from our initial proposal to the University of Michigan Press to reviewers’ feedback to authors of accepted essays, and other material related to the process of creating this volume (but not private rejection letters to authors). We hope others will, too, so that we may all learn from each other.
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- There are numerous advantages to born-digital scholarly publication, including that it allows you to make use of multimedia in a way that traditional print does not, it brings your writing to readers more quickly, and it makes lighter work of collaboration, including the exchange of ideas between authors and commenters/reviewers. On the other hand, it’s still relatively new terrain, which means that while it’s good to take heed of lessons learned by others, you may well need to invent things as you go along. Don’t let that put you off.
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- If at all possible, don’t go it alone – project managing/editing a scholarly digital product is time intensive and it’s a good idea to share the responsibilities for the site, author contacts, contacts with presses, PR, content editing, comment moderating, and so on. In this relatively uncharted territory of scholarly publishing, having someone else within the project to bounce ideas off of can be invaluable. So can the ongoing or even occasional support of an information technology professional, if at all accessible.
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- Start small. Find a few like-minded colleagues and set out to accomplish some small, achievable steps (like our first handful of essays for a conference panel, published on a modest WordPress site) to build more trust and the necessary skills before taking on bigger digital projects.
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- Every born-digital project is different and potential (or already committed) participants don’t like feeling lost or confused. Clearly define the terminology you use to describe your project, its product and process. What do you mean by open review (vs. open peer review, vs. digital workshop…)? Be prepared to educate your authors and readers as to how to interact with the software (however user-friendly it may be). Video tutorials such as ours can be very helpful in this regard.
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- Keep all (potential) participants well informed as to what your goals and process are (not only in content terms, but also in publication/product terms). In our case, we set up a detailed editorial and intellectual policy statement that explained all steps of the process, and required contributors to check the box that they had read it before submitting their essays.
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- Make clear to the first-time visitor on your site’s start page where in the publication (development) process you are at the moment and what is coming up next.
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- Open not only your content but also your process up to feedback from others and have a centralized place on your digital site for those queries and suggestions to come in, and for you to deal with them. And, of course, appreciate that feedback, even if it’s not helpful in an obviously meaningful way. The fact that you receive feedback means that people care enough to give it to you, and that is a good thing.
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- We’ve said this elsewhere, and we think it’s worth repeating: In open peer review it’s not just about publishing; it may also be about unpublishing what you’ve already made public. Be clear about how many versions of an open peer reviewed work will remain publicly accessible under your aegis and for how long. Will the open peer review version and comments be removed from public view once the ultimate version of that work has been published? What happens to the open peer reviewed version of work that does not get carried over for publication in your journal or volume? Such decisions have a significant effect on the “life” of scholarly works, including their accessibility and citability, as well as authors’ chances of having them accepted elsewhere in the case that they do not succeed in open peer review in the first instance. For our part, all versions of essays submitted to Writing History in the Digital Age remain publicly available, and we encourage the citation of the various versions much as working papers are cited in other disciplines, with the ultimate version then serving as a capstone (or tombstone, in Paul Krugman’s description).2
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- Back everything up! (See, for example, paragraph 5 at http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/how-it-works/.)
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- Details of the open-source web content management system we used is available at http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/how-it-works/
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- Your intellectual property policy ought to be made 100% transparent, and all contributors – including commenters — should be informed about its implications before they type anything on your pages. Think ahead to what a university press or other outlet might require for a derivative publication of material on your site. We decided upon a Creative Commons BY-NC license for ours.3
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- Communicate with the software designers and others to trouble-shoot, draw on their experiences, to improve upon what’s available.
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- Keep your eyes open for software updates and for new plug-ins as well.
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- Schedule wisely. We thought of the WHDA digital birth and open peer review process as a sort of academic conference in several parts. We chose to have the essay-composition phase of our project during the northern hemisphere summer months, when we felt colleagues would have the most time to write. Our open peer review phase was then in October and November, at a time of year when we and our colleagues in North American and European universities would be at our desks (or on our devices, anyway) but not (yet) overwhelmed with marking or running up against end-of-semester deadlines.
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- When seeking participation, offer a long lead time and have the scheduling of different phases made clear so potential participants know what’s coming and when. It worked well for us to keep phases of development (online brainstorming, composition, open peer review) to about 6 weeks each, though we ended up extending the open peer review to 8 weeks by popular demand. This sort of scheduling helped us to keep momentum going. It also let people know that if they couldn’t participate in one phase (e.g., they hadn’t time to write an essay by our deadline) they could still jump in at the next phase. It also meant we had a major PR wave about every 6 weeks, announcing the start of the next phase and specifically mentioning the type of participation we sought.
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- If you want to spread the word, tweet! Even if you’ve never tweeted before. Use a short but recognizable unique hashtag for your project and use it all the way through. Also use Facebook, (guest)blog 4, and use discussion-group mailing lists and platforms (H-Net networks or others, as appropriate).5 Contact the newspapers, have your institution or local organizations feature your work on their homepage or blog.
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- Campaign for your project to get it the eyeballs on which it will depend. Shake hands and kiss babies. Give out badges (or at least home-made business cards and stickers) to spread the word. Talk your project up at conferences, offer to visit nearby campuses, speak to colleagues’ students and students’ colleagues (you get the picture) to invite them to visit your site to share their views.
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- Invite essay authors and some colleagues to comment on essays (or on other features of the site or project) before the official opening of the site and before the initial PR blast. This allows you to test for any bugs in the software in general, and to make sure you are familiar with whatever moderating responsibilities you have set up for yourself within the software. Giving invited early-birds suggestions or even guidelines for how to comment and respond to comments can help initiate a healthy culture of commenting on your site which will help other visitors to the site see what is expected or even possible for comments, including vocabulary and tone. E.g., Do commenters write to or about each essay author? Are copyediting notes welcome? How are contributions from non-specialists responded to?
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- Having clearly differentiated process phases mean you can do renewed PR waves tailored to each phase. Being able to keep (potential) participants up-to-date on what is coming next helps to keep momentum going, and keep your project on people’s blogs and twitter feeds. Make sure it’s clear what you want from readers/commenters/authors at all phases – put this on your site and make it clear in each new PR wave.
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- Include at least some low-threshold means of participation for readers to dip their metaphorical toes into commenting/reviewing without having to commit whole-hog up-front.
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- Consider the intellectual property issues regarding comments just as much as the primary content on the site. Who “owns” comments posted onto your site? In Writing History, commenters retained the copyright to their own words, but had to agree to this statement before clicking on the submit button: “I understand that my name and comment will be shared publicly under the Creative Commons license for this site.”
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- Make all contributors responsible for spreading the word about their own contributions and the volume/project as a whole. Consider having a GoogleDrive or other shared document where contributors can share with each other their strategies and other info regarding their PR/outreach efforts, both to avoid unnecessary duplication and to develop and highlight new means of reaching potential participants/readers. Authors and the editors should invite people individually to participate (we used email for this, mostly), and try to engage them personally.
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- Encourage all contributors to put some “skin in the game” by commenting on each others’ texts and to reply/respond to online comments as appropriate. One of the great benefits of a born-digital edited volume is that all contributors can see and comment on all parts of it, which can result in a more coherent volume of essays which productively cross-reference each other, whether in agreement or debate. Commenters feel encouraged to participate much more extensively and intensively if they know their ideas are being read and responded to.
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- Suggest a format for citing comments, as well as the primary content, to ensure that scholarly credit and recognition are granted to all contributors. For example, in the footer of Writing History, we inserted a recommended citation that looked like this: “How to cite: [Insert author/commenter and essay/page title], in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. Forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Trinity College (CT) web-book edition, Spring 2012, http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.”
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- If developmental editing is a goal of reader engagement, encourage authors to comment on/query their own writing. E.g. “Does my use of this metaphor work here?” Or even: “Which is preferable: the sentence as-is, or this alternative: …?”)
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- Consider what it might mean to make one’s writing “commentable”, and to encourage reader engagement and participation. For example, are there openings for discussion in the text or could some be inserted? Does the text itself raise (non-rhetorical) questions for the reader to consider and, perhaps, to respond to?
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- Communicate with authors about open review in advance, reminding them that this is a chance for dialogue with readers of all kinds. Much like at an academic conference, they should feel free to express disagreement, but ought to avoid responding defensively (in the case of online open peer review sleeping on it before submitting a response often helps). Defensiveness isn’t a crime, but it is counterproductive.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Fundamentally, the most important element is the content of the work itself, and whether it speaks to issues sufficiently important for readers to want to engage with it. Without that core quality, none of these recommendations will guarantee success for your born-digital, open-access, open-review scholarly work. But when paired with quality writing, these suggestions can improve the likelihood of better communication between readers and authors, something which can benefit the scholarly enterprise immeasurably. We hope they also offer a sense of the scope and scale of the editorial labor behind Writing History, which we have experienced not only as eminently do-able, but also as enjoyable and meaningful in ways very different from our experiences working on conventional scholarly publications.
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A version of this text was published as Nawrotzki, Kristen, and Jack Dougherty. “Thinking of Experimenting with Digital Scholarly Publishing? Words to the Wise.” Impact of Social Sciences: The London School of Economics and Political Science, April 3, 2013.http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/
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- http://www.digitalculture.org/ . ↩
- Paul Krugman, “Open Science and the Econoblogosphere,” January 17, 2012, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, The New York Times, accessed on 19 March 2013, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/open-science-and-the-econoblogosphere/ . ↩
- Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC 3.0 US), accessed March 18, 2013, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/us/ . ↩
- For examples of our guest-blogging, see Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, “Building a Born-Digital Edited Volume,” ProfHacker blog, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2011, accessed March 19, 2013, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/building-a-born-digital-edited-volume/33819; and Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, “Online history book takes peer review to the next level,” November 21, 2011, The Guardian Higher Education Network blog, accessed March 18, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/nov/21/peer-review-online-history-book. ↩
- For an example of the text we used for one such announcement, see “Open review invitation for Writing History in the Digital Age”, October 6, 2011, H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, accessed March 19, 2013, http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=188612 . ↩