Toward Best Practices: The Infrastructure of Digital Publishing

I'll preface my answer to this survey question with a counter-question: what constitutes "digital publishing"?  Is it everything that is on the Web? Or do we apply constraints that specify publishing as engaging an editor-function (to riff on Foucault's author function in terms of who is allowed to transgress/publish), or perhaps limiting our definition to specific generic forms and their containers (books, which become e-books, journal articles, which become webtexts, and so on). I think many of the issues I bring up below may be broadly applied, but I will limit myself to speaking from experience and focus my answer specifically on academic publishing that engages some form of review and editorial oversight (thus, not self-publication, and not creative publications, but yes, collectives and blogs and new venues can fit). In the response that follows, I attempt to make some suggestions about what digital publishing can do -- and what it should do. 

Early in my academic career, I joined the staff of a new digital journal that aimed to do something a little different with academic writing, with a particular focus on the teaching of writing in the networked, digital spaces made possible by computer classrooms and the emergence of a new network paradigm called the "World Wide Web." The journal would bridge the traditional and the experimental by keeping the genre conventions of the academic journal (such as articles, volumes, and issues), as well as peer-review, but it would jettison the traditional print essay in favor of multimodal texts that could take advantage of links, images, audio, video, and interactivity. That journal is Kairos, which published its first issue in 1996, and has been continuously publishing since then -- and also continuing to walk a fine line between tradition and innovation. I've been with the journal in various capacities since the end of that first year, and much of my thinking about digital publishing has formed rather organically in the context of this particular publication.

I think that many of the experiments and innovations that digital publishing make possible are not as visible, at first glance, to readers; in fact, I would say that the most interesting work in digital publishing is at the level of infrastructure -- the tools, platforms, and activities that lead up to and support the publication of new scholarly works in networked digital spaces. I'd also like to suggest that some of the infrastructural work of publishing can be viewed as either theoretical infrastructure (the values and ideologies that support new forms of publication) or practical infrastructure (new tools and platforms, technical decisions, and the actual editing process, which is in turn founded upon the theoretical infrastructure). I make this claim because I think there is value in shifting the notion of infrastructure (from a systems perspective) from a pragmatic concern to an epistemic one -- infrastructure isn't just the wires or the pipes; it's also the theories and methods that drive assessments of optimal pipe placement and wire usage.

Four key infrastructural issues that I think emerge from a close look at contemporary approaches to (academic) digital publishing are: 1) the possibilities inherent in championing new forms of writing and new forms of argument; 2) the importance of engaging the relationships among rhetoric, design, and code; 3) the ability to imagine and test new models of peer review; and 4) technical and temporal challenges that editors and publishers must not ignore. Although I could write a book (or e-book) on each of these, I'll limit myself to brief remarks that I hope will encourage some questions and comments.

New Forms of Writing

The most visible ways that digital publishing continues to innovate come from the new forms of writing that are not only possible, but with the availability of new tools, more easily crafted than ever before. Weaving together audio, video, and a hypertextual network of lexia architected through links is still more labor-intensive than traditional print-based writing, but it is getting easier. On the other hand, even with new tools, crafting this kind of writing requires additional media literacies and developing new literacies takes time (that is, the most scarce resource in all of academia). Because of this increased complexity, I think that digital publishing tends to support more collaborative work that brings together experts in designing and writing through different media -- and as such collaborative work becomes commonplace, perhaps it can be appropriately valued in those fields and disciplines that still operate on the fiction that knowledge making is a solitary, individual endeavor. I believe we will also see more new forms that require greater interaction between text and reader; I've been approached by a number of potential authors about the possibility of publishing a digital, playable game as a scholarly argument, and I hope that we get to do that in the next year or so.

Rhetoric, Design, Code

A key insight for me was to recognize that a scholarly argument could be made through design itself, and not just contained in words. What this means for scholars who wish to explore new forms of meaning-making is that rhetorical skill has to be leveraged with a deeper understanding of (and facility with) design. Rhetoric, design, and code interact in the webtexts we publish at Kairos, and in so doing, arguments are not so much recited as enacted. If new forms of writing are made possible through a synthesis of media and interaction, the fundamental architecture -- the infrastructure -- of these new forms is in the interaction of rhetoric, design, and code. And my answer to the question of whether scholars in fields like computers and writing or the digital humanities should learn to code is: yes. At least learn the basic literacies and functions of code so that you can effectively collaborate with coders.

New Models of Peer Review

New forms of writing may require new forms of peer review, at least in terms of the mechanics of reviewing. When we review submissions at Kairos, we look at the overall work and how well it uses rhetoric, design, and code to further its arguments. This means that reviewers need to be able to competently review multiple media, which is a different approach from the review of a traditional print text. We're still working on building systems that will help support this kind of evaluation and assessment (certainly a need in digital publishing is improved infrastructure for the many new and more complex review needs that arise when new kinds of work are submitted).

I'm also encouraged by the way that digital publication in general supports experimentation with peer review. I have seen examples of pre-publication review (which has been around for awhile in the sciences, but isn't likely to get much uptake in the humanities, as evidenced by recent arguments in favor of embargoing online access to dissertations), crowd sourced peer review (here at MediaCommons), traditional double-blind peer review (which is difficult to pull off for digital submissions), and post-publication review (e.g. the Journal of Digital Humanities). At Kairos, we have been using a system that isn't blind, but does involve group review by the entire editorial board, followed by a closer review by a sub-group; this model provides the checks and balances provided by blind review and also grants our editorial board access to the full range of submissions. I think there are still a number of options for finding working models of peer review for digital publication and I'm interested to see where those appear and how they turn out.

Challenges of Digital Publishing: Accessibility, Usability, Sustainability

Finally, a word about challenges and the need to build infrastructural means to meeting them head-on. Accessibility continues to be a serious issue for digital publishing, particularly as technology and media continue to evolve. By accessibility, I mean that we want the most number of people to have access to our work regardless of their location, economic standing, or physical ability. Authors and editors need to be aware of the consequences of decisions about the media they use -- such as bandwidth requirements, the need to provide transcripts and best practices for accessibility (not just meeting basic ADA requirements)1. I would also suggest that we continue to create and champion open-access journals (but that we need to start working on means to counteract fraudulent journals that claim OA status). Accessibility and usability are closely linked, of course, and I would urge digital publishing venues to consider both as integral elements in the development or review of submissions (and not as post-hoc additions). Finally, the issue of sustainability means maintaining stable archives of the work we publish, which requires careful thinking about whether to use proprietary publication formats. And committing the resources needed to keep those archives available in perpetuity--scholarship should not be ephemeral.

As a closing, I'll end with a query: what kinds of infrastructure do we need to develop and expand? What's missing from our current models? What happens next?

1 The current issue of Kairos includes a number of excellent webtexts addressing questions of accessibility in digital scholarship and teaching.


Doug, you have obviously brought up some of the biggest questions in digital publishing. Of them the one I am most interested in is the question of infrastructure, specifically in how we make the information we have accessible and how we show connections along years worth of content?  If your publication isn't something that would be archived through traditional databases, and/or traditional, stable publication volumes, then how  do you create a way for individuals to search it through the interface itself? I obviously don't expect you to have the answers to these questions of structure and usabiity, but they are on my mind. 

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