Camping in Baltimore

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend ThatCamp Publishing, a day long unconference in Baltimore. (That in this case stands for The Humanities and Technology.) There are regular ThatCamps all around the world on various topics, and if you get the chance to attend one, jump at it. The fee is only $20, and even that is waived for those who can’t afford it.

In common with other unconferences, the structure was very open. The 75 participants were invited to propose sessions on a conference blog in the preceding weeks, and the first hour of the event was devoted to deciding what would be covered that day, and at what time. It was an experience that was refreshingly unlike the megaconferences I usually attend. Since there were more proposed sessions than slots, we combined some. Someone’s leaving early? No problem. Her session can be in the morning. The room’s too cold? Let’s meet in the coffee shop. Even after combining sessions, the schedule was still overflowing, and lunch became an extra slot.

Our brief was to react to the idea that New structures, tools, and services for scholarly publishing require new discussion venues and the development of new communities to nurture these discussions. Sessions included debates on overhauling peer review, the digital future of heavily illustrated books, tools for online document annotation, and LJ contributor Barbara Fister’s session on creating a Desert Island Press (sign me up, Barbara!).

Apart from generating a Twitter storm, every session I attended drifted toward a common refrain: we can’t publish that/publish in that way because it won’t be accepted by tenure committees. Attendees noted, for example, that many such committees have adopted Ivy League-created lists of journals in which it is acceptable for tenure candidates to have published. These lists are far from dynamic‚ Irene Perciali of bepress assured me that it was no exaggeration to say that getting an online-only journal onto one of those lists could take 20 years. Not only does tenure stifle academics’ willingness to publish in new forms, in many cases it also shuts down their long-term creativity. Once the rigors of attaining tenure are over, attendees asserted, book publication drops, and academics are more likely to publish article-length work only.

Take also the participants’ comments about reform of peer review. Some interesting projects were mentioned‚ Monica McCormick, who has an interesting position as a liaison between NYU Press and the school’s libraries, described an experiment in which a special Shakespeare and New Media issue of Shakespeare Quarterly was subjected to open peer review using online annotations on MediaCommons Press. This project, the subject of an upcoming white paper, generated far more comments than the journal’s average articles. But questions arose.

Some questions concerned the issue of intellectual property rights. What if the articles were rejected? Would they be considered already published since they had appeared online, rendering them ineligible for publication elsewhere? This problem was worked out beforehand‚ the material would not be considered published‚ but questions remained concerning ownership of the comments. A greater problem was that performing closed, paper peer review counts toward tenure. But will the online commenters get credit for this work when it comes time for tenure consideration? As the system currently stands, they will not, and so many are loath to engage in this new practice, which takes time away from traditional pursuits that will count.

One solution, proposed by Emily Arkin, Editor for Digital Publication Development at Harvard University Press, is that online commenters in open peer review get microcredit, which will presumably add up over time for tenure purposes. Adeline Koh, a professor of literature at Richard Stockton college, NJ, went further, suggesting that peer review could happen post-publication.

These were all creative solutions, but when I asked the group who could make these changes, and why things haven’t changed already, there was near silence except for a few chuckles at my naiveté. Leaving the meeting, I passed by the tents of Occupy Baltimore, and it occurred to me that nobody had mentioned a more revolutionary possibility: stop chipping away at lists of acceptable journals and just abandon the tenure system altogether. While I couldn’t decide whether the tent-dwellers would think tenure was a deserved perk for the working man or a tool of the 1%, it did seem that a system that stifles innovation and keeps younger academics toiling as armies of low-paid adjuncts is ready for an overhaul.

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Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. Barbara says:

    It was great being at this event with you – I, too, found it exhilarating both for content and the way it reimagines the scholarly conference as something dynamic and real-time.

    I don’t think tenure is the problem. The problem is production-model criteria in which tenure committees outsource the job of deciding who is a good bet for future contributions to publishers – and only those publishers whose credibility has long been established. T&P committees that do things this way (and that would be most of them) are falling down on the job of evaluating their colleagues. It’s fixable without doing away with tenure.