Fight for gold, excommunications and vampires: a day in the life at Gut Siggen

While the conference (which I also mentioned in my previous post) is aiming at a manifesto-esque text production on the future of digital scholarly publishing, I had to leave this morning and promised a contribution in the form of a blogpost. The following hence recapitulates the content of my presentation of yesterday, some of the following discussion (partly integrated in my argument to make it more explicit), and puts these in the wider context of the topic addressed at Gut Siggen.

I could have talked about reputation, about peer review, about blogging, but there were other experts to talk about that. As I was presenting in the theoretical section, I assumed it was expected from me to go to the bottom of a few basics, so I chose to speak about the concept of author and whether there still was an author as we understand it in the world of digital publications. I presented a dense version of two much longer papers I delivered recently, one in which the literary theories underlying my position were explained at more length and the other one being my paper of last week in Antwerp, which I will post soon. Also, the historical part of the analysis is derived from the monograph I submitted as part of my habilitation. So: dense it was.(I recommend to take a look at the livetweeting under the hashtag #siggen to get a better sense of how the discussion evolves)

My starting point is that authorship as it was implemented in the print world is a historical construction that was economically and juridically efficient at the point where the book market took shape under the influence of a new upcoming profession, namely publishers. The following centuries seem never to have had to change this structure fundamentally. The fact that book covers usually carry one author name and one publishing house name is simply extremely convenient. You know who should receive what kind of money, who has which juridical status. This situation is very comfortable for those in a dominating position, e.g. mainly publishers, and sometimes authors when they have a solid reputation. Also, we are used to this domination, some even argued that it was oftentimes an explicit and conscious choice not to appear as an instance on the book cover. And it is true that, for instance, for a wide majority of women who contributed to sustaining their family by copying, translating, or even writing – ancillary services to the overall production of the family that appeared under the name of the family head -, they didn’t consider for a second putting their names on any cover of any kind. But the limit between the deliberate and the socially/morally imposed is thin ice, really. I wouldn’t say this has to do with free will, much more so with social constraints.

Anyway:  when you start looking at the digital version of the same process, you see the different contributors to one production in a much more transparent way. Versioning and attribution are key techniques of how IT is structured, of how it archives knowledge. But then, when you start naming each contributor to a digital resource, the list is inevitably long: designer, software engineer, encoder, the variety of roles is wide and Digital Humanities are good example of how we are still at a point where very few people are able to take over several of these roles (for a digital scholarly edition for instance, having the same person do the transcription and the encoding is still not usual everywhere). My argument there is twofold: first, we need a change in mentality to have this variety of roles acknowledged in digital scholarly publications; second, this is difficult to implement in practice because, at this point in our scholarly history, this kind of information belongs mostly to the backend of textual work (the source code), and not yet to the visible end of the mirror. I insist that one of the most important notions to convey to the community at large is the twofold existence of text as backend and text as front end, which are documenting different things and should be much more differentiated in the overall assessment of scholarly practices.

I won’t come back in detail to the rest of my paper, which was less theoretical and more pragmatic. When Eric Steinhauer said in response I could try anything I want, it wouldn’t matter, because it is law-makers that determine the way things go, especially when it comes to authorship, I realized that the concept of authorship itself is a vampire. It sucks out all life from other concepts. It lives from other concepts being only, more and more, a shadow of themselves. The more we try to work with and revive other concepts, the more vivid (and, at the same time, morbid) the authorship concept will emerge. We are never going to be able to do anything shiny with “contributor” without “author” seeming to be the better concept, for instance.

This idea of how much the shiny matters and vampirizes brings me back to something I mention at more length in my monograph on the relationships between writers and publishers. My argument there is that, under the umbrella of friendship and confidence, what is really at stake is the gold, meaning all that is valuable: the shiny of reputation (reputation even after one’s death!), of money, of finding the right recipe for the publication to become a philosopher’s stone. And this is, of all, one thing that doesn’t seem to change at all. Even Open Access seems to be coming down to a series of recipes that are to be sold for the opposite of what they are: not access to knowledge, but access to reputation, convertible to cash according to the good old rules we only know too well. Now if there is one space where we should be able and entitled to protect authorship, then it is that very simple idea that authorship is primary to its production (and not, as the German law and the term “Zweitveröffentlichungsrecht” has it, secondary). This is what digital publications in general and Open Access in particular should be about: allowing to open a space of scholarly communication that does simply not need publishers. Because we do the hard work among peers anyway, and I still want to believe that there is a reason why research infrastructures are funded with such astronomical sums, namely in order to preserve scholarly space – in some way – for the scholarly communities to experiment with it (Who is willing to experiment nowadays anyway: objection granted, point taken. But still. They should.).

Excommunication from my scholarly community awaits me for having such a radical position. If you look at it closely, I am just being an idealist. But an idealist who takes evaluation, reputation and certification and tries to make something out of it – what kind of a scholar does it make me? If nothing else, and even if several participants seem to believe that the golden age of blogging is over, I would say I am a blogger. Which says everything, in a way.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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