The Digital Turn
A couple of days ago I received an e-mail informing me that one of my articles on digitisation was about to be published in Media History. I still feel pleasantly surprised whenever my work materializes in print, but this news was particularly unexpected – by the time it finally appeared I’d almost forgotten about writing it.
Looking back through my files, it seems that the first draft of the article was finished on 8 October 2010. The piece was accepted by the guest editors of a special issue of conference proceedings and, in March 2011, I submitted the finished version to the journal. 10 months later, the piece was peer reviewed and I submitted some minor revisions. It was officially accepted on the 18 of June 2012, and finally appeared online in January 2013.
More than two years have passed since I first wrote the article. A lot of things have happened to me in that time: I completed my PhD, wrote four other articles, worked at three different universities, moved house three times, crossed the Atlantic twice, learned to drive, and started this blog. The article, on the other hand, is largely the same as it was in October 2010. The editors, peer reviewers, and proofreaders that I worked with during this time all did a great job and I’m grateful to them for their help – the problem lies with the time it takes for the academic publishing system to process our work.
This isn’t an unusual situation. Most of us who submit our work to journals and edited collections endure a similarly lengthy wait. I’m fed up with it. Not because I’m inpatient, but because these delays diminish the value of our work and impede the free flow of academic conversation. My article was hardly at the cutting edge of digital humanities research back in in 2010, but in 2013 it’s definitely starting to look a little dusty. The ‘digital turn’ that I predicted is now well underway. Jim Mussell’s brilliant study of the Nineteenth Century Press in the Digital Age, a landmark text which came out in the intervening years, isn’t mentioned. Will anybody want to read an article that was outdated before it was even published? I suppose I’ll know in 2 years time when references to my work begin (or, more likely, don’t begin) to appear in the footnotes of subsequent articles.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, conversations between Britain and America suffered from a similarly debilitating lag:
On Saturday 15 April 1865, Americans awoke to find their country in crisis. The previous evening, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in a Washington theatre. Within hours of the President’s death, details of the “dark and bloody tragedy” had begun “trembling over the wires” of the country’s telegraph network. By 10am the following morning, flags in San Francisco were flying at half-mast. By midday, newspapers in the East and mid-West had begun to publish detailed eye-witness accounts of the assassination. The story continued to loom large in the American press throughout the following week; the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, the inauguration of Andrew Johnson, and a range of public and political responses to the “national calamity” all commanded extensive coverage. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, news of the assassination was nowhere to be seen. Entirely unaware of events in Washington, the foreign intelligence columns of the London press dissected the closing chapters of the American Civil War – events which had taken place more than a fortnight earlier. The Glasgow Herald even published an unfortunate ‘Address to President Lincoln’ in which a local anti-slavery association wished him health and success during the next phase of his presidency. A week later, the situation remained unchanged. As grief-stricken crowds poured into Washington to witness the departure of Lincoln’s funeral train, London’s Morning Post summarised the proceedings of an Irish cattle show, the Leeds Mercury weighed the threat of a Russian plague epidemic, and the Daily News reported on the Home Secretary’s visit to Newcastle. It was not until the 27th of April that a Canadian mail steamer finally delivered news of the assassination to Britain. By the time Victorian readers had the opportunity to engage with the story, the President had been dead for almost two weeks…
The limits of transatlantic communication made it impossible for the media to keep up with the pace of events. Academic publishing suffers from a similar problem; it can’t keep up with the pace of our ideas.
Back in the nineteenth century, technology provided the answer:
Sixteen years later, when President Garfield was shot by a deranged office-seeker, the relationship between America and the British press had changed beyond recognition. This time, news of the attempted assassination reached Britain within hours. As Garfield’s life hung in the balance, hourly updates on his pulse, temperature, and respiration were telegraphed to British newspaper offices via the new Atlantic Cable. These updates were printed alongside the latest accounts of the shooting, descriptions of the assassin, reactions from the American press, responses of world markets, and messages of sympathy from international leaders. A President’s death, whilst generating a predictable surge of interest, was only part of a wider journalistic phenomenon. Each morning, the latest news stories from ‘across the pond’ appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Accounts of a political speech in Washington, a devastating fire in Nevada, a gruesome murder in Chicago, a gunfight in Indiana, and the closing prices at the New York stock exchange were printed by British provincial and metropolitan newspapers hours after being published in America.
Bob Nicholson, ‘Looming Large: America and the Late-Victorian Press, 1865-1901′, PhD Thesis, University of Manchester (2012), pp. 7-8.
Our version of the ‘Atlantic Cable’ is already in place. We live in an age of instantaneous global exchange, driven by the internet and realized most prominently through Twitter, blogging, and other forms of social media. Researchers are already using these platforms to communicate their ideas more rapidly. However, our professional careers remain frustratingly dependent on an antiquated system of academic publishing that only serves to impede the flow of conversation and restrict access to ideas.
The Open Access movement promises to provide some solutions to these problems. However, as Lucinda Matthews-Jones recently pointed out, the new financial models proposed by the Finch Report (which promises to transfer the cost of publishing to researchers and/or their institutions) are worrying. Under these proposals, the average cost of publishing an article is estimated to be somewhere in the region of £1700. Even if this amount is halved for humanities articles, it’s hard to account for such a large sum. The key labour (writing the article, peer review, editing) is all done for free by academics, which just leaves the cost of hosting the articles online. It costs me about £50 to run this blog for a year – in that time I’ve transmitted 15,000 words and received 12,000 hits. To put these numbers into context, no 7,000 word article I’ve written for an online journal has been viewed by more than 100 people. The numbers don’t add up.
Back in April, The Guardian described the open access movement as an ‘academic spring’ – just like protesters in Egypt, we need to make sure that our own revolution doesn’t end up back in the wrong hands. The solution is painfully obvious: cut out the publisher. All we need to do is develop a simple online publishing platform (something like JSTOR), charge UK universities a small fee to meet the hosting costs, and then publish everything on there with complete open access. We can still have journals with distinctive identities, issues, editorial teams, and peer review. We already do this stuff for free. Nor, for that matter, is there any logical reason why these journals should be any less prestigious than those offered by commercial publishers. We are the producers and the consumers. It’s time to put our foot down.
In the meantime, if you’d like to take a look at my article (I know I’ve done such a good job selling it to you) then here’s a link and an abstract:
Advances in digital technology have made the recent past seem like a foreign country. Media historians did things very differently in 2002. In the last decade, hundreds of historical newspapers and periodicals have been digitised and made available to researchers via online archives. Whilst the emergence of these resources has generated contrasting responses from historians, an increasing number of researchers are now embracing the new methodological possibilities created by keyword-searchable digital archives. As the first examples of this scholarship begin to appear on the horizon, this paper considers whether media history is on the cusp of a ‘digital turn’. It outlines the existing responses to digital methodologies, deconstructs digital newspapers in order to explore how they differ from their paper originals and uses case studies drawn from my own research into the late-Victorian transatlantic press to demonstrate how new methodologies might be applied.