Reflections on the Post-Digital Scholar Conference #pdsc14

Having just returned to London from the Post-Digital Scholar Conference in Lüneburg, I thought I’d share some immediate and brief impressions of what was a thoroughly engaging and informative meeting.

In the opening session, Clare Birchall helpfully defined post-digital as a kind of ‘working through’ the digital sphere, rather than leaving it behind. This is a particularly helpful frame for the conference as a whole, which highlighted the various approaches, both practical and theoretical, to humanities publishing in the digital age. This is pertinent given the conference’s subtitle: Publishing between Open Access, Piracy and Public Spheres – specifically the ‘Open Access’ component of the meeting.

I’ve attended a number of conferences on open-access publishing, though few specifically on its relationship with the humanities. In general, however, conferences on OA can often descend into arguments over the implications of Creative Commons licensing, government mandates and the ‘proper’ definition of openness. PDSC was different in that discussions seemed geared towards issues surrounding content: digital methodologies, the nature of authorship, the future of writing/reading, etc. This for me is the best way to explore Open Access, as a broad, performative approach to new ways of publishing in the digital age, rather than any defined end point that needs implementing by institutions, funders or governments (as when has that ever realistically worked in the humanities favour?). This is similar to a point made by Janneke Adema in her talk on messiness in open-access publishing. Here Adema argues that messiness is to be encouraged as without it we presuppose a defined (non-messy) problem that a particular kind of OA is supposed to address, as opposed to a range of mutating issues to be continually engaged with through experimentation (echoing Willard McCarty’s ‘Remember that the struggle is the point of it all’ from his Roberto Busa award lecture last year [1]). Adema also mentioned the crucial point that humanities monograph publishing has always been subsidised, so perhaps the search for the mythical OA business model will always prove fruitless and publishers should purposefully maintain a more messy approach to simply getting things done, in a way that a number of newer OA book publishers do. [In fact, in their talk on traditional publisher approaches to open access, Armin Beverungen and Helge Peters show that ‘business model’ is itself a relatively new concept arising out of Silicon Valley in the 90s, and not something that has been traditionally relied upon throughout the history of capitalism.] Therefore, only through experimentation and messiness are we able to navigate (or ‘work through’) the digital and its relationship with the humanities, especially when it comes to OA.

That’s not to say that more traditional institutional/governmental themes were not implicit in the discussions – the threats of job losses and managerialism certainly loomed large – but they were not allowed to dominate in a way that can often stifle productive discussion. Maybe this is because humanities scholars are so used to the feeling that our disciplines are under threat and so this no longer needs to be vocalised. As it happens, the most conservative voices came from the more scientific participants such as Martin Haspelmath, whose talk was a fervent defence of highly selective journal publishing (Nature, Science, etc.) as a way of showing researchers the research they should read. For Haspelmath, mega-journal publishing biases against younger, less established scholars, or those from less prestigious institutions, whose names might not carry enough weight to attract readers to their research. This affirmation of the status quo assumes that everything is OK with scientific publishing and that the current system does in fact help early-career researchers and those from smaller institutions – I’m not convinced that’s the case.

Where I feel the conference was strongest was in highlighting the important connection between humanists and digital artists & designers. Obviously I understand that this was a unique crowd of researchers, but it’s no coincidence that the majority of the presenters were very comfortable with experimentation in scholarly communication (book sprints, crowd-sourced/anonymous authorship, piracy, etc.), especially those connected to the more artistic elements of the humanities. This relationship is a huge benefit to the humanities, and one that certainly sets them apart from the more scientific disciplines, especially as artists are naturally comfortable with experimentation, collaboration, feelings of precarity and DIY approaches to sharing their work. As an advocate of OA in the humanities, I think a lot can be learned from this and hope to attend more such meetings in the future. I’ll update this post with links to the videos and presentations when they’re available – but in the meantime, visit the conference website for interviews with participants that are an excellent introduction to the material covered: http://www.postdigitalscholar.org/.

[1] McCarty, Willard (2014) ‘Getting there from here: Remembering the future of digital humanities’, Literary and Linguistic Computing, Vol. 29, No. 3. http://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqu022

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