My notes on Kember, S. (2016). Why publish?. Learned Publishing, 29, 348-353.
This short piece is based on Sarah Kember’s inaugrial professorial lecture at Goldsmiths, its writing timed to coincide with the launch of Goldsmith’s new press. Its establishment was explicitly motivated by a sense of “the opportunities afforded by digital technologies and the new DIY spirit of scholarly publishing”, as well as the challenges raised by contemporary scholarly communication. As Kember puts it, it was informed by “a stubborn refusal to accept the constraints of genre, style, and format; and a conviction that there is more to the future of publishing than it being online and open access” while also reflecting the specificity of Goldsmiths as an institution (348).
Racism and sexism is rife in publishing, “if not at the level of editorial decision making, then at the level of infrastructure (through marketing strategies; publishing systems that classify and categorize like with like; through policies that privatize higher education, introduce exorbitant fees, and preclude those from more diverse ethnic and social backgrounds from becoming students and practitioners of writing and publishing” (349). This is matched by discrimination reproduced through citation and review practices in a scholarly publishing culture driven by audit, metrics and professionalisation. These control mechanisms favour the already established academics, with their unsurprising demographic profile, as well as the already established ideas. Goldsmiths Press joined other new new presses (UCL, Westminster, Open Humanities Press, Open Books, Mattering Press, Mute and Meson) constituting a “collective manifesto for future publishing” (pg 249). This is Kember’s account of what that entails:
- Digital first, not digital only: digital first for Goldsmiths means being digitally led rather than solely digital. It is a context for publishing rather than an end point. People still like print books and digital can’t provide a magic bullet to solve the problems of publishing: books are sensory things. Unfortunately, the enormous changes in how books are produced and distributed hasn’t been matched by a change in what they are. Being digitally led can help prompt this reevaluation: “looking again, in a digital context, at once new, provisional, provocative but largely analogue forms like the essay, the pamphlet, and the manifesto” (350).
- Open out from open access: a terrifying percentage of journal articles and books are published but not cited and hardly read. However the solution to this fast publishing, taking place without much concern for demand, isn’t to go more slowly. Kember takes issue with the open access movement which “rightly challenges the spiralling costs and price barriers put up by commercial journal publishers in particular and the fact that they are draining library budgets while profiting from academic free labour” but increasingly encourage a “pay-to-say model of publishing” which is “not only exploitative but also dangerous because it makes the ability to say contingent on the ability to pay” (350). Furthermore, openness is too often openness to commercialisation, redesigning the public sector on behalf of the private sector. Both the top-down and bottom-up open access movements “conflate access and accessibility”: mistaking something being freely available online or it being readable. Instead, we need a research commons in which universities invest in an infrastructure to support grassroots publishing against the offerings of private platforms.
- Intervene below the line: established practices of scholarly publishing reproduce inequality off the page, through the mechanisms identified earlier. This is why alternatives need to intervene ‘below the line’ and explore new techniques, norms and routines which can avoid this careless reproduction of inequities.
- Crisis, what crisis? Crisis talk is psychologically enticing but it has little practical value and we should avoid it, not least of all because it gets in the way of recognising how new initiatives inevitably prop up existing power structures in some ways while resisting them in others.
- Take responsibility for companion species: a failure to recognise the particular circumstances facing different groups and career stages is a failure to recognise the opportunities which these differences offer for rethinking the forms and practices of publishing e.g. “Our forthcoming poetry pamphlet series, which puts undergraduate and postgraduate work alongside that of established poets, is just a start”
- Work harder there, unwork there: the criteria built into promotions mean that withdrawl from the journal system is impossible for most, leaving us with the question of how to reroute labour into less harmful and explotiative outlets. This is why academic run presses are so exciting, creating opportunities to work as publishers rather than for them.
- Write! It’s necessary to resist the pervasive instrumentalisation of writing, reclaiming a sense of what it do. The professionalisation of academic writing has forced us “to substitute the more writerly, discoursive forms, such as the essay, for the more measured and measurable –largely unread and unreadable – quasi-scientific journal article” 352). We need to make contact with a sense of writing as something that evades and exceeds the possibility of measurement.