The academic book of the future: just a change of delivery or something more?

A keynote speaker at a recent conference was particularly good. In the pub afterwards we were still talking about him. We envied his ability to distil complex ideas (Adorno et al) into an easily understood context for what he wanted to say. He provided his listeners with a shared idea of where he was going and when he got there he just delivered a few plainly stated propositions that made perfect sense and gave us more than enough food for thought. It was not until one member of the audience asked a question from which the word ‘paradigm’ tumbled that I noticed it had been free of academic jargon too: ‘trope’ was not mentioned once. We reflected that the best academic papers we had heard or read had the same qualities: they were relaxed, comprehensible and embraced readers and listeners in a shared, but often fairly intense endeavour to think deeply about a topic in a new way.

Why are such experiences relatively rare and why do they make their mark so strongly when they appear? Well, some academic questions cannot be given this treatment - the complications are inherent in the complexity of the subject. But this is not always the case; often it is because the weight of the academic tradition bears so heavily that it encourages a sort of professional self-consciousness that only the best feel sufficiently confident to cast aside.

These thoughts transmit easily to current debates about the future of the academic book. Many of the best and most enjoyable books I have encountered are academic, indeed the one I am reading at the moment (on fifteenth-century vocal music) is a real page-turner. But that is not really the issue. The academic book of the future is almost certainly going to be online and, if wisdom prevails, will be open access. Ideas about the business models that might enable such a future are difficult to contemplate, but that is only the start of it. The idea of the online ‘book’, rather than the academic project ‘website’ (which is not at all controversial), is attended by severe anxieties that are at heart cultural: for many it implies a step too far.

There is good evidence showing that some academics liberally use online sources when researching, but cite only hard copies in written output. Why is this? In the early days of the internet this may have been because protocols for citation were not well-established, but in those early days there was not a lot to cite anyway. The problem is that the printed book and its cataloguing by the great libraries of the world has status, gravitas, permanence and faithfulness to a core tradition in the academic humanities. Furthermore, printed academic books are personal, even emotional achievements, they mark stages in careers: physical trophies conferred with credence by publishers and peer review. That an online equivalent holds the potential to reach vastly more people and offer a host of accompanying benefits is not widely perceived as compensation for all that is implied by the printed book.

It should not surprise us that any move to online publishing should stir emotions for it is one of the momentous episodes in academic history, marked less by the challenges of the new as by the potential demise of the old, and there is a lot at stake for all the major players: publishers, academic institutions, writers and readers. Three factors seem to be at the foreground.

Firstly, for online, open access book publication to move forward there has to be a widely shared belief that the prevailing integrity of academic publications will be neither impaired nor perceived to be impaired. Actually, there is scope to question whether the process that is supposed to guarantee this integrity is as sound as it is supposed to be anyway: it is a secretive system and one wonders how universal and rigorously exercised it is.

Secondly, there needs to be an acceptance that academic online book publication implies more than an alternative mode of delivery: it posits the possibility for a new species of academic product that is more flexible, containing greater opportunities for multimedia, linked data, and offering a place where discourses, resources and critique may stand side by side. It promises a more accessible democratised process for a potentially wider readership in whose interests the finest services of the World Wide Web can be harnessed.

And thirdly, national libraries need to find ways of elevating the presence of such publications in their cataloguing systems, perhaps by devising new data registration requirements for publishers and writers. This is one of the major challenges and its solution needs to be truly creative rather than merely administrative.

Writers and publishers will need to accept in their hearts as well as their minds that this mode of publication - if it is open access - holds the potential to reach a new global audience, in which vast numbers who presently have little scope for access to such material can be embraced and be part of communities of free and informed debate. Academics will be leaders in a process that is ultimately enlightening and liberating. In short the academic book of the future holds the potential to make public intellectuals of us all - in ways that are unprecedented.

By Trevor Herbert

Trevor Herbert is Emeritus Professor of Music at The Open University.