Great books have always been an interactive conversation between the author and reader. But Columbia anthropology professor Neni Panourgia’s new project takes the concept of an “interactive conversation” a step further. The recent online release of “Dangerous Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State” by far exceeds the publication of the book by the same name (published this September) in being revolutionary. Instead of being your average Kindle e-book or online PDF, the new Web site is a freely accessed interactive, multimedia text that exemplifies an exciting but problematic pathway for published scholarship.
Diana Price, communications officer of the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, explains that the online adaptation of “Dangerous Citizens” is not a replacement but an “enhancement” of the published book. Panourgia set out to tell the stories and history of Greek Leftists who were tortured in the 20th century but found that she could not include all the material she wanted in the print version. A collaboration with CDRS, an organization dedicated to enhancing scholarly communication with new media, allowed Panourgia infinite room to include additional archival material, unpublished memoirs, and conversational side notes. For example, readers seeking more information about events referenced online can follow hypertext links explaining various events or leading them to videos. Other media features include interviews, songs, interactive maps (a Google map that allows users to upload pictures), and chronologies, all of which heighten the interaction between text and reader. The last two features—the interactive map and chronology—will be completed a month after the online book is launched.
The ability to work on the book after it is launched is another advantage the Internet offers. It’s an advantage for the author but also for the audience; contributions and comments can be added to the Web site (that is, after being vetted by Panourgia). This collaborative interface embraces and concretizes the potential the Internet offers for collaboration across disciplines and innovation of the research process.
In the traditional publishing model, academics submit articles for free to a subscription-based journal, which, after editing and peer-reviewing the articles, publishes them online or in print. This limits the size of the audience and speed of dissemination due to the associated fee. Although the creative features of “Dangerous Citizens” are powerful, the fact that it’s freely accessible is perhaps even more remarkable. Open-access scholarship, due to its low distribution costs, increases readership and publicity, both of which are needed in the highly specialized field of academia. Publicity through free, online versions has empirically translated into higher sales of the printed work, which is why more and more publishers like National Academies Press are releasing their publications online for free. This is the business model that Panourgia is following, one of the many models that are being debated in the world of publishing, especially among academic journals who store the bulk of academic knowledge.
But who’ll pay? According to Kathryn Pope, head of the Scholarly Communication Program at CDRS, while distribution costs of digital scholarship remain low, production costs are still rather high. The most successful model is the author-pay model, in which the author pays a processing fee with his submission. In another model, a university subsidizes the production costs of an article that one of its own faculty members publishes, which Columbia University did for “Dangerous Citizens.”
The bottom-line is also important for faculty members who worry that underfunding would eliminate the peer-review service that journals provide, a process that establishes the respect and credibility that professors need for tenure. This is especially true in the humanities, in contrast to the sciences in which the drive to be the first to claim a discovery is integral for future funding, according to Pope, who has talked to Columbia professors about publishing their articles online for free.
“Columbia is definitely not ahead of the curve [in open-access scholarship],” Pope comments. Faculty members elsewhere, such as at Harvard and MIT, have already voted in favor of open-access policies. However, she states that Columbia is planning to sign an open-access compact within a few weeks and set aside funds to subsidize fee-based, open-access publications.
The bottom line, Pope says, is that scholarly publishing is currently not sustainable. Partly because of a fear journals have that their articles will be released online and partly because there are fewer and fewer journals, subscription fees are rising and universities are complaining. Just like every other business, the academic publishing industry must keep up with the changing media landscape not only to increase access to information but also to survive.