The future of the monograph is of great interest to many humanists, scholarly publishers, and academic librarians. Last year, I wrote an issue brief, Stop the Presses: Is the monograph headed toward an e-only future?, that suggested the monograph’s digital future would prove to be much more complicated than what has been experienced thus far for journals. Yesterday, ARL’s fall forum, provocatively titled Wanted Dead or Alive – The Scholarly Monograph, served to confirm that the possible transition from print to digital format may in fact be an opportunity to revamp the nature of scholarly communications for the humanities. Here are some highlights.

The morning featured an opening keynote and panel that worked to imagine the form of the scholarly monograph. Laura Mandell, director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities at Texas A&M and a literary scholar, spoke about transforming from a monograph to what she called a “virtual research environment.” She argued that static forms of disseminating scholarship will give way to interactivity, so that a reader can examine the underlying primary sources and data to reach one’s own conclusions while reading a work of scholarship, reaching down towards the primary sources. In describing a future where “we will communally examine evidence,” Mandell seemed to envision a role for the author more as facilitator of a dialogue about a given set of evidence than as the authority on that evidence. While the discussion was engaged and wide-ranging, what stuck most with me was Mandell’s observation that “the paradox for English [graduate students] now is that while it is very difficult to get tenure and promotion for digital projects, it is very easy to get a job,” suggesting troubling pipeline incentives.

The panel that followed engaged richly with all these questions, although using somewhat different formulations. Stefan Tanaka, a UCSD historian, suggested that the form of the monograph – the impenetrable academic analysis – restricts scholars’ audience and sterilizes the joy of learning. He suggested a number of ways to rethink the way that history is organized – moving away from linear narratives, or towards problem-based rather than place-based instruction – which would suggest a very different future for the monograph, the textbook, and the course reader. Perhaps because he focused on history rather than literary criticism, Tanaka’s approach was more about moving up from the primary sources towards their analysis. Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore professor, touched on a number of related issues, including especially how digital scholarship is recognized. He emphasized that digital scholars have to assume the burden of explaining their work, time and again, but that some translational efforts, such as a panel of experts assembled by a scholarly society, could be helpful for peer review and tenure case efforts. David Schulenberger took more of an economist’s perspective. He spoke convincingly about the need for humanistic scholarship that is more accessible to the general reader if for no other purpose than to serve as an enabler for interdisciplinary scholarship, and he emphasized that some of the challenges facing efforts to reshape the monograph are generational and therefore transitory. In the discussion period following this panel, Tanaka spoke suggestively of the heartbreak for a scholar to have time to write a book only to a standard “good enough for tenure” rather than crafting the best possible work on a given topic. And there was general agreement that, as Burke suggested, “we have allowed…a lot of the purpose of scholarship to turn into a type of productivism,” where work is created for its own sake, rather than in response to the needs of one’s scholarly community or audience.

It was extremely interesting to hear about some of the major initiatives taking place globally. Roger Tritton shared some key highlights of Jisc’s National Monographs Strategy, which recognizes the essential connections among licensing strategies, changing business models, digital platforms, and library systems. Even if a national-level strategy would prove elusive in the US, such systematic thinking about how to draw disparate elements together in a way that supports the real needs of students and academics has relevance to all. At Athabasca University Press, leadership from now-retired university president Frits Pannekoek helped to bring forward an open access strategy for monographs, journals, course books, and soon textbooks as well. An organizational synergy, given Athabasca University’s mission and the real personal commitment of its then-president, unquestionably helped to pave the road for innovation in these areas. It was refreshing to have untraditional business models, such as advertising, on the table during this session.

Elliott Shore of ARL spoke about the AAU/ARL prospectus for an institutionally funded first-book subvention. First books are an especially challenging issue, and it is reassuring that AAU and ARL are spearheading new thinking in these areas, since challenges facing PhD programs and the tenure track are richly if problematically connected from the dissertation through its revision as the first book. Don Waters of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided an overview and update about the foundation’s contemplation of a broad rethinking of humanistic scholarship and scholarly communications.  Waters made clear that Mellon does not have an ideological perspective in support of open access but rather is looking for opportunities to ensure that the humanities stay relevant and vital as the role of text changes in our society. To this end, Mellon is considering support for the universities that serve as the home for humanists, to help support the placement of their scholarship on a more open basis at presses.

There were a number of other excellent presentations, and many good respondents and facilitators. As I reflect, there were several key themes across the day: moving away from bolstering the monograph and towards supporting the humanities; issues of audience and whether and how it might be deepened or broadened; and the possibility of a reduced role for the author as expert authority. The efforts coming out of Mellon, AAU/ARL, Jisc, and beyond,  have a tremendous opportunity to shape our response to these themes.

For more on the Fall Forum, see Colleen Flaherty’s piece in Inside Higher Ed, “Can the Monograph Survive?