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My Digital Publishing Update: Nothing

2017 June 4
by Sheila

Since 2012, I have been working with University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books imprint to produce what I had imagined as a hybrid digital publication: Stamping American Memory. My accepted proposal for the HASTAC-Michigan digital publication prize called for launching a revised version of my dissertation for WordPress + CommentPress, open peer review only, and, with the help of WP plugins, would offer print-on-demand option for readers wanting to pick and choose sections for generating an ePub or PDF. I insisted that any peer review be based on the online version, because I wrote and framed the project for the medium. I never intended for there to be a traditional book, instead, this was going to be a digital monograph. I believe that one reason for my selection was based on the probability that I would complete what I proposed– scholarly and technically.

Five years and three editors later, my open access digital monograph exists. It has been peer reviewed openly and blindly, (2014 version and 2016 final revisions), and people are reading it (eg, it’s been cited in a Smithsonian Magazine article ). Objective achieved! The publication, however, still lacks the official imprint of Michigan Press and a DOI. The latter is easy, the former, not so much.

Throughout this long process, I have received little guidance from Michigan Press. I also feel as if no one has read or explored what I produced at any stage. As a result, the production staff is now trying to determine how to deal with my relatively straightforward digital monograph, and how it can be produced in accordance with existing workflows and procedures. I remain surprised since Michigan was one of the first presses willing to experiment with and support digital-first writing projects (blog-to-book and open peer review).

Since I started this publication with the Press, I saw the beginning and end of Histories of the National Mall (2012-15), where I co-directed an amazing content and technical team, and we implemented workflows and style guides for researching, writing, revising, and copy editing 500 historical items and 45 online exhibits. Then, I led the writing of a guide that described our process, which we published in WordPress, made available as a PDF, and deposited that PDF in Mason’s digital repository.

As an individual, I contributed to Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016 Edition that began with the submission of a proposal in January 2015 and ended with an online and print publication by May 2016. Minnesota Press, together with co-editors Matt Gold and Lauren Klein, managed each stage of the publication carefully with 60 different authors, working in two different digital platforms (WordPress + Comment Press for review and their new Manifold platform), and then in Word docs for the final copy editing and approval for the physical volume.

Below are a few key ways that my digital project has been stuck from its early stages.

Platforms and Domains (ongoing): In 2012, Editor #1 told me that I would be responsible for my digital project: for selecting the platform and format; for getting and maintaining a web domain; for any web design or technical work required to do the work of this project; for sustaining the project once completed. Since I run digital projects, and have developed workflows for a variety of projects, none of these steps were a big deal for me. I really wanted to demonstrate that a junior scholar could mount their own digital project, have it peer reviewed in the open, and receive approval from a university press.

I consulted with the few authors of online open access publications at that time (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Jack Dougherty, Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt) regarding platforms and workflows. I leaned toward using WordPress and CommentPress developed by the Institute for Future of the Book because of the success of other open peer reviewed texts. I wanted the functionality of CommentPress to facilitate discussion. In Stamping American Memory, I examine particular moments of public dialog between the federal government and its citizens during the early twentieth century through commemorative stamp selection and production. When I learned from a colleague in 2013 that UMP was testing out a new workflow in WordPress to copy edit and publish, I was convinced I had made the right decision.   I also never planned for Stamping American Memory to become a traditional print publication.

In 2015, Editor #3 told me that the digital version might live in the press’s new content management system, and that UMP would be printing a book as well.

My project remains stuck as the digital and the editorial teams decide whether this will be mounted in original UMP platform, used in the Digital Culture Books series you’re probably familiar with, or the new Fulcrum platform, which to-date has only published online collections that serve as addenda for print books.

Peer Review (2014-2015): In September 2014, I notified Editor #2 that my project was ready for peer review and sent a link to my entire project. I asked some questions about the open review process and asked if the Press could help me with that phase. I was told no. I asked about how the blind peer review process would work, and emphasized that it needed to occur within the WordPress site. (Read more about this process from my blog post in January 2015).

In May 2015, Editor #2 emailed me to ask how things were progressing. I informed him that the open peer review process was mostly over (he never looked, didn’t read any of the comments). I mentioned I was waiting for reader reports from the blind peer review. It turned out that he hadn’t actually solicited reviews. His words were, “I didn’t have a manuscript to ask reviewers to work with. A vestige, I suppose, of print workflows, my engagement of reviewers is always triggered by the arrival (even virtually) of the ‘complete manuscript.’ ” He had a complete “manuscript” available through a URL, which he would have discovered had he looked at my digital project.

Editor #2 did solicit three reviewers (2 collaborated on 1 review), and sent along the reports with no commentary or synthesis. He asked me how I wanted to address the reviews –both recommended publishing the project without hesitation, but conflicted in a few assessments. When I responded with my plan for what and how to address the reports, he did not respond or confirm that my plan for moving forward with revisions would be brought before the board.

Final Revisions & Formats (2015-17): By November 2015, Editor #3 contacted me to say she would be taking over my project, bringing it to the board for approval as both a digital and print publication. This was the first I had heard of a print version.

In August and September 2016, I delivered an export of the final online content as XML and the print manuscript files, formatted according to the UMP specifications.

The team is just now addressing my project, and trying to determine how to handle publishing two sets of images (my online version contains nearly 90 images, and the print contains 39), and how to copy edit two versions of a “manuscript.”

It appears that nothing has been mounted in a UMP content management system and my actual manuscript hasn’t been touched.

These are labor and people issues, which I totally understand, but these are issues I assumed the Press had already worked through in the Digital Culture Book series.

What comes next? I really do not know.

It is extremely difficult as someone who is part of a web publishing software project and has published different types of content-driven digital projects to sit on the sidelines for her own publication.

Had I been asked two years ago if my project could have served as a prototype or guinea pig for the digital publishing initiative UMP is leading I would have been glad to help shape the development and design for authors producing narrative-driven digital publications.

For now, I am stuck in the middle, and all I want is for this project to be called done.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Charles Watkinson permalink
    June 6, 2017

    As Director 0f University of Michigan Press I’m afraid to say that everything you say in this post, Sheila, is true. We’ve struggled over the last few years to bring innovative digital projects into the mainstream press workflow, and you’ve been caught in the middle. Fulcrum is not only a new platform, which will start to present integrated narrative and data projects this fall, but an effort to adapt our processes throughout the organization to reflect that not everything will be a print book. But we’re not done yet and are going to continue to wrestle with how projects produced in other platforms fit into our systems without compromising the author’s intent. Anyway I know that we’re finally moving to conclusion now with your project, but I do want to apologize and also thank you for your post which provides a useful case study. Charles

    • Sheila permalink*
      June 6, 2017

      Thank you very much for your response, and I appreciate your candor. I also appreciate that the Press is undergoing some major transformations throughout the organization as you all adapt and develop a new platform and new projects, and that is never easy. I would be happy to speak with you at some point if you wish to hear more about my experiences, and also to comment and discuss my view point as an author of digital projects. And, I look forward to finishing this project together with you and your colleagues.

  2. June 6, 2017

    I noticed your tweet from Utah and was curious about the person behind it, which is what brought me here.

    Fascinating post, somewhat painful to read.

    My background is tech/new ventures, not the academy. My strong bias is information sharing and collaboration.

    I realize that there are some traditional approaches in academia, but it seems like your post is a great argument for directly sharing information online and collaborating with others freely, rather than following and being held up by a process (?) driven by a traditional publisher.

    Knowing what you know now, would you still choose to delay publication to work with a publisher, be it the University of Michigan Press or any other?

    • Sheila permalink*
      June 6, 2017

      Thanks for your comment, Lee. I did directly share my project online, as an open access publication, and it is still available for anyone to read.

      Academic publishing is a curious thing. It is intertwined with the promotion and tenure process for faculty, and also as a means for acknowledging a high level of scholarly work for authors who are not faculty. I definitely could have published this work with a different type of press. Part of the reason I did not walk away from Michigan, was that I was awarded a digital publication prize given by the Press and another organization that is a coalition of digital humanities scholars. I felt committed to complete the project, and along the way never expected it to take this long. Also, if I needed this publication for tenure, I would have needed to go somewhere else.

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