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The Forever Decline: Academia’s Monograph Crisis

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A decade or so ago you’d be forgiven for thinking that the monograph was in terminal decline. Just take the now 13-year-old words of Stanley Chodorow, who in his work, The Pace of Scholarship, the Scholarly Career, and the Monograph, claimed that the specialization of the academic monograph signalled “Its evolutionary track is at an end. It is heading for extinction”. Such strong words would’ve likely been the sentiments of many individuals at the time. Still, even before we were talking about online access, journals found themselves becoming increasingly dominant: both the growing number of journal titles and their steep price increases were gradually taking a larger slice of university library budgets. Indeed, for Chodorow, the only saving grace was the potential cost-reducing powers of the digitization:

If we are going to revive the monograph, we need to find a way to reduce its cost, do that individual scholars and libraries can acquire it. Today, it is obvious that only the electronic medium can do this. We will save the monograph if we provide a way to publish it on-line.

Well, now that we’re in the midst of mass digitization, it begs the question: is the academic monograph on the verge of being saved? There is cause to think so: rapid dissemination and cheaper publication costs are good reasons why we should have cause for celebration. Yet, despite all these advances, I’m still inclined to view them as bricolage, rather than the saviour of the monograph: that is, they are necessary pre-conditions, but by no means the crucial tipping point. These are what you would refer to as disruptive technologies: they preserve “the output the market desires, but reshuffles the underlying value chain in such a way that old players are sidelined and new ones emerge.”

What the monograph needs is a disruptive innovation. Here, the purchasing preferences of the market undergo change through improving a product or service in a manner that was not expected by current market leaders. Kent Anderson uses several good examples to make his point:

The mass-produced Model T changed the purchasing preferences of millions, despite being based on old technology. The disruptive innovation wasn’t the car — it was the assembly line. For music, the disruptive innovation wasn’t the MP3 or digital, but the iPod. In both cases, and many more, the market changed forever because the innovation made the market better. The e-book existed for years before the true disruptive innovation arrived — the Amazon Kindle, with its built-in Whispernet connection at no cost, low-cost books, and so forth. The market responded quickly.

We’re all well aware that OA is becoming a powerful force of change in both academic journals and monographs. One potential disruptive innovation is the shift in market emphasis for publishers. As Anderson mentioned: “These journals don’t view readers and their proxies (institutions, aggregators) as the market, but rather view authors and funders as the market, and they sell services rather than an end product. New value proposition? Check. New market? Check”. This sentiment was also mirrored by Sven Fund of de Gruyter when he said: “I think we are selling a service to customers and, in a way, also to authors. We help them in fostering their careers and their research. I think we are the missing link between the library and the academics”.

More broadly, I would say that OA is a disruptive innovation in that it’s led to a diversity explosion in academic publishing. We’re not just talking about a Green versus Gold distinction, but rather a whole new ecology, where there are many numerous paths an academic might take when considering what they want out of a publisher/service. It might simply be the case that the big change is diversity: there’s no a priori reason why we should expect this diversity to vanish. Indeed, if I were to hedge my bets, then it would be to expect a ratcheting up of diversity over time. Each OA service will occupy a specialised niche that will be suited for some authors and not others.  Of course, there will be key principles, such as peer review, but even here we might see differences in services offered e.g. pre- versus post-peer review (also see multi-stage open peer review).

Another change we’re currently seeing is a shift in readers’ preferences. Amazon singles, to take but one example, shows that medium-length pieces on dedicated topics do have an audience that’s willing to pay. As readers adopt technologies, such as the Kindle and the iPad, then they’ll come to expect more interactivity from the material they are reading e.g. trackbacks on quoted areas of text would be a great feature, directing you to other possible areas of interest. In short, as these products shift our leisurely reading habits, so too does it increase the likelihood that it will gradually engulf our academic reading. Monographs are perfectly positioned to take advantage of this change – they just need to reach the right audience.

A possible future here is a shift towards a community model for monographs. Naturally, when writing a monograph, you want it to eventually end up being a polished product. This doesn’t mean it has to stay static in some fixed, pre-packaged product. Instead, the emphasis should be on building up a community around a particular monograph, similar to that of a Wikipedia page, which gradually edits and updates the content over time. It’s not too dissimilar to that of the Open Source movement where a community is built up around a piece of software. Furthermore, such a move would open up the possibility of networking with other monographs, subsequently creating feedbacks into one another. To do this, you need community editors as well as readers – something Wikipedia understands better than anyone else.

This leads us to the crux of the challenge facing monographs: they need to find an impetus. That is, why should academics publish monographs and why should we read them? I’ll leave these questions as food for thought and instead offer John Willinsky’s take to close:

The monograph provides researchers with the finest of stages for sustained and comprehensive—sometimes exhaustive and definitive—acts of scholarly inquiry. A monograph is what it means to work out an argument in full, to marshal all the relevant evidence, to provide a complete account of consequences and implications, as well as counter-arguments and criticisms. It might well seem—to risk a little hyperbole—that if the current academic climate fails to encourage scholars and researchers to turn to this particular device for thinking through a subject in full, it reduces the extent and coherence of what we know of the world. But then I am not the first to raise such concerns about scholarly responsibilities for the scale of thought.

Willinsky, John (2009). Toward the Design of an Open Monograph Press JOURNAL OF ELECTRONIC PUBLISHING, 12(1) DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0012.103

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  1. James, did you have a source for that distinction between “disruptive technology” and “disruptive innovation,” other than Kent Anderson’s article? I can’t find support for Anderson’s version of Christensen’s theories either in Christensen or discussions of him, and it seems to me Anderson may just be misreading him. As far as I can tell Christensen initially used the former term to describe the disruption scenario, then later switched to the other term after rethinking the concept — as opposed to contrasting the two concepts/phenomena.

    1. Other than the wikipedia page on Disruptive Innovation I haven’t got any other source: “The term “disruptive technology” has been widely used as a synonym of “disruptive innovation”, but the latter is now preferred, because market disruption has been found to be a function usually not of technology itself but rather of its changing application. Sustaining innovations are typically innovations in technology, whereas disruptive innovations change entire markets.”

      If I had more time, I would go and read Christensen’s book, but let me know if you find anything that contradicts or supports Anderson’s interpretation. To me at least, the distinction made sense, even if I haven’t really given it much thought. I’ll get back to you if I find anything else out.

      Thanks for your comment.

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