The University of Liverpool
"Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so:
Some said, It might do good; others said, No."
(John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress)
The urge to seek public interest or acclaim for the things we have written is as old as the invention of letters itself, as is the corresponding fear of ridicule which such an act of dissemination might incur. Although nowadays we tend to think of publication primarily as the production of printed material, the practice of making multiple copies of manuscripts goes back to ancient times (and indeed persisted into the seventeenth century in France, as research currently being conducted by Margaret Sankey is showing). With the introduction of printing into Europe in the fifteenth century, writing and publishing started to become truly separate activities, yet authors of all kinds have constantly had to face the dilemma of deciding when to let go of their texts, or when to let the pack of critical hounds start tearing them apart. Publish and perish, the traditional motto, points us along the path of caution and prudence. For it is always possible to amend an unpublished text, add to it, change one's opinion, do a better proof-reading job, or simply consign it to the dustbin if one is subsequently embarrassed by it. (Flaubert wrote of his early novel Novembre: "Ah! quel nez fin j'ai eu dans ma jeunesse de ne pas le publier! Comme j'en rougirais maintenant" [Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, ed. Jean Bruneau, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, vol. II, 1980, p. 460]). On the other hand, the stigma of having a badly reviewed book to our name - whether we are critics, historians, writers of fiction or poets - can be as embarrassing or as disempowering as the imprudent utterance which pursues a politician years after it has been made. Thus did Horace in the Ars Poetica advise the aspiring author: "if at any time you do write anything [...] then put the papers away and keep them for nine years. You can always destroy what you have not published, but once you have let your words go they cannot be taken back" (Ars Poetica in Classical Literary Criticism, ed. T. S. Dorsch, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965, p. 92).
Nine years might nonetheless seem an unusually long sentence to solitary confinement by modern standards. What if new material should come out and render obsolete in the meantime what we have written? What if we believe that the scholarly community or general public really stand to benefit from our writings? Or what if we simply feel that we have had our say and that we want to move on? Is it really a case of publish and perish? Or is not the threat hanging over many heads nowadays precisely the opposite one - publish or perish? In an era of accountability, performance indicators, productivity costings and the cult of the efficiency gain, quantity of publications has (most noticeably in the academic environment) become the undisputed and almost unquestioned criterion of our value, the very paradigm of excellence. In the modern university, especially in Humanities disciplines, everything is affected by our publications status: our chances of employment in the first place, our prospects of gaining tenure and promotion, our credibility when we seek research funding or apply for study leave, and our profile as scholars in the academic community at large. And associated with the pressure to get work printed are a number of other sacred cows. On the one hand, for example, there is the mandatory participation at conferences, usually perceived as an act which precedes the production of publishable copy - though the sharp increase in publication of conference proceedings now suggests that conferences are being seen less as an initial staging post than as a final destination for the academic who wants to get into print. On the other hand, publication nourishes - and is perhaps nourished by - that spectacular modern invention, the curriculum vitae. The art of the successful curriculum vitae in academe is intimately bound up with the art of achieving a lengthy list of publications, so much so that it has now become common practice to list absolutely everything one has ever published, right down to the shortest and most trivial book review. Such indeed is the pressure to publish, that bogus references to published material, or elastic use of the terms "in press" and "forthcoming", have become all too frequent on academic job applications. Alternatively, vertiginous lists of entirely genuine publications may often conceal tricks and sleight of hand in their presentation. There must be a dozen ways of legitimately listing an item twice in a curriculum vitae, and there is as well the now standard practice of double publication (where a piece is published first as an article, then as a chapter in a book). It could be interesting to do an in-depth study of the "mythology" of the curriculum vitae, in Barthesian mode, with its implicit cult of the individual and its sub-text equating productivity (the absolute value) with quality. Such a study could concentrate on the technique of listing, which gives a veneer of credibility to even the most minor texts or activities (often equating unpublished conference papers or private reports with genuine printed material, for example), and it might look at the historical and social causes for the incredible rise of the curriculum vitae as a genre. (Perhaps there is a simple, if somewhat cynical explanation for the ingenuity of CV-writers, for as Gough Whitlam observed, writing in the London Daily Telegraph on 19 October 1989: "The punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post, whereas the Nag named Self-Interest always runs a good race".)
Although university staff are traditionally contracted to contribute in three domains of activity - teaching, research and administration - anyone who has worked on a promotions or appointments committee will know that the balance is in most cases still heavily tipped in favour of publication, even where the explicit agenda allows for promotion on the basis, say, of teaching excellence. The ability to attract research funding is gaining in status in the Humanities - for obvious reasons - but it too is linked very substantially to publication. Publication gives prestige, so much so that much of what is written in academic circles nowadays implicitly targets the promotions or tenure committee itself, rather than either the public or the peer community of scholars. Sadly, this renders some academic publications almost unreadable, and one might wonder what long-term effect this and other pressures (such as research evaluations for entire departments and universities, now a common world-wide phenomenon) are having on intellectual enquiry and research. The watchword seems to be: publish at all costs! The genuine scholar survives, of course, but contrary to popular belief, academe is also full of excellent teachers and administrators, even if it is a well known fact that such people will almost always eventually come up against a promotions brick wall if they cannot put together a publications list consonant with each level of promotion they seek. Similarly, far less able people who happen to be productive writers (not necessarily researchers) will often find themselves easily promoted to positions of responsibility for which they are ill-equipped. Of such injustices the world is made, though it has to be said that none of these activities is exclusive of the others, that many successful academics combine two or three of them quite comfortably, and that the outside perception of the "academic" as a bumbling fool closeted in an ivory tower is now in most cases pathetically wide of the mark.
So too the days of the maverick - the brilliant scholar who never publishes a line - are now clearly numbered. Yet, although this is probably a good thing for the profession as a whole, since for every non-publishing genius there might be a hundred also-rans, it does mean that the emphasis remains on productivity. It is interesting to think, in fact, of examples of great shapers of civilisation who would have had trouble surviving in a modern academic environment. One of these was Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Cours de linguistique générale only reached publication after his death and after being reconstituted from his students' notes (how many of us dream of such a miraculous posterity, and perhaps hold out the fantasy that our students will even add a little touch of improvement to our original offering!) Another was no less a figure than Socrates, who of course had the good fortune to have an excellent scribe in his fellow-philosopher Plato. By any normal criterion of research assessment, Socrates would not have stood a chance - though one assumes that he would have been unlikely to be put to death by a modern academic tribunal. In fact, in the Phædrus we find Socrates reflecting on the invention of letters itself as something potentially pernicious and destructive, detrimental to the power of human memory and inhibiting to the intellect. Written materials, he suggests, may provide a show of wisdom without the reality, the appearance of erudition without real knowledge, and more especially a tendency to rely too heavily on one source (Plato, Phædrus, with translation and commentary by C.J. Rowe, Warminster, Aris and Phillips, 1986, pp. 123-24). One does not imagine that such words would be music to the ears of an academic promotions board!
But Socrates was a virtuoso, and it is doubtful whether even Plato's "recordings" of him could do justice to the brilliant one-off nature of his performances. Like the singing of the Diva in Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 film of that title, his utterances were wilfully irretrievable in their particularity and their ephemerality, supremely unrecordable and unpublishable because not tailored to a format, not standardised, not recuperable in any known "house-style", and perhaps too because they were forever unexpected and shimmeringly mercurial. We have become so used to the written word as the medium within which we work and think that it is difficult to imagine a context in which either printed material or written text of any kind might be considered something of an artificial aid. The act of writing itself, like the act of publishing and printing which follows it, is quintessentially an act of Proustian remembrance, of clutching at things past in order to crystallise them whilst maintaining their vitality and energy. As Vita Sackville-West wrote, in Proustian mould, in the opening chapter of her 1928 novel Twelve Days: "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? for the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone". Publication for most of us - whether we are scholars or producers of what used to be called "primary texts" - is also about completing that process, about fixing our thoughts in the printed word, making our own offering to the storehouse of knowledge, entertainment or art. Many, indeed, perceive publication as a moment of almost magical transformation, as the words which swirled in the recesses of our mind now come to rest in hard copy, in a satisfyingly more solid appearance than the one we had first given them in our jottings or on our word-processor, assuming a form which we imagine to be as definitive as the epitaph on the marble tombstone. Sic transit gloria mundi. We know, also, that the texts we write are in the eternal scheme of things quite likely to be as ephemeral as the butterfly, but that does nothing to decrease the thrill of publication.
It is interesting to reflect that the French use the same word (éditeur) to designate either a publisher or an editor. The equation can sometimes exist in English too, where a publisher/editor (e.g. a Humanities Editor at a University Press) is seen as someone who not only issues printed copies of a work in order to bring it to public attention, but also who prepares such work for publication. Thus the emphasis shifts a little away from the notion of publication simply as putting into print, and back towards the act of writing with which it started. Be that as it may, the increasing commercialisation of the publishing industry, which in France and elsewhere has shifted from the traditional family-owned firm to large and powerful enterprises, means that the individual author must almost always enter into an intellectual contract with the economic mechanisms that support the industry. For publishing is big business - as the French with their highly refined machine of literary prizes know only too well - and the writer too must play the game even perhaps while pretending not to. (Pierre Bourdieu's Les Règles de l'art: genèse et structure du champ littéraire [Paris, Seuil, 1992] gives a brilliant account of this process in nineteenth-century France where, in a fascinating inversion of economic dependence, the "art for art's sake" school assumes commercial respectability precisely because of its apparent refusal of the profit motive.) For the academic, at least, the economic imperative has often meant that the relationship to a publisher is one both of gratitude and of inevitable compromise. At the same time as publication with a large and reputable press (most notably the major University Presses) confers undoubted distinction, so too there arrive all kinds of commercial constraints - on length, type of material, illustrations, copyright, presentation and organisation. With the standard press strategy of targeting particular categories of reader, it may be that the market controls us more than we care to believe, though the agenda does not need to shift in negative ways and the constraints can also produce positive results by focusing and sharpening the outreach of a text.
Despite the apparent division of labour between author and publisher in the post-Gutenberg era, and the resultant perception of the publisher as the business manager who produces and distributes the text, opportunities for swift publication and world-wide distribution of texts have never been better than they are at present. Although the prestige of having a book with a major publishing house is undoubtedly great, many excellent books shun such rites of passage and appear under smaller, often unknown imprints. Desktop publishing has put the average academic in a position of being able to start up their own publishing enterprise at minimal cost and on precisely their own terms, and World Wide Web publication, to which I shall return shortly, offers possibilities of dissemination which until recently could not have been dreamed of. We no longer live in an environment where the chosen few go through to publication stage. Journals, bulletins, periodicals, series, editions, collections, all are on the increase in the academic world as elsewhere. Most academics can indeed expect, at some stage in their career, to be involved in some kind of a publishing or editing venture - launching a new journal or a series, editing a newsletter, being co-opted onto the editorial board of a new publication, or publishing a collection of papers on a given topic. And since there is so much material being produced, the "industry" seems in some respects to be no longer self-regulating. It has gone wild. We are all publishing madly, producing ever more text to add to the infinite storehouse. But is this such a pessimistic scenario? There is still a "gold standard" which can be applied to any scholarly publication to give it respectability and credibility: that is, its sanction by a committee of referees selected from the international scholarly community. If the refereeing process is genuine, then that is as strong a signal of quality control as even the most respected publisher's imprint.
We all know what the ultimate dangers of mass publication might be, if quantity were to replace quality to the point where our intellectual mission were deformed, subverted, downgraded. The competitive frenzy could easily leave us not knowing which way to look. The Doomsday scenario is clearly one of a postmodernist Babel, an exponentially increasing labyrinth of texts with no coherent order, no hierarchy, no obvious scale of values - and indeed, with World Wide Web publication, no longer even a coherent linearity. It is, indeed, frightening, yet I confess to finding something profoundly reassuring in the energy and the vitality which this process opens up. The line between the "publishable" and the "unpublishable" is disappearing. Perhaps, after all, it had been falsely drawn? - too authoritarian, too hierarchical, too lacking in permissiveness? Its effacement means that transgression now becomes possible. The unpublishable utterance can be "tried out", sent out into the arena to produce a reaction. Isn't this energetic sharing what publication should be about? Excessive productivity, we know, doesn't lead to an increase of quality. But does it necessarily lead to an overall decrease of quality? Perhaps much needs to be produced in order for something to survive. The collective effort, and the globalisation of scholarship, may be a sign that the world of academic research is after all in a healthy state.
The term "publication", when used to describe texts which appear on the World Wide Web, can be extremely confusing. The confusion is, in fact, aided and abetted by some of the major producers of HTML conversion software which uses the word "publish" to mean "upload" or "put on-line". Academics eager to impress a promotions or appointments board have been quick to seize upon and exploit this confusion, sometimes claiming to have published massive amounts of material on the World Wide Web (all of which can be referred to with precise URLs) when it may really be no more than a matter of putting teaching handouts or other such material on-line. Clearly, one of the advantages of the Web is that it allows "publication" in the original, simplest sense of the term: that is, we can make our documents or texts public, and we can ensure that they reach an audience of millions (this might seem a somewhat better deal than the 2.4 readers which the average printed academic article can expect!) At the same time, however, even if the Internet does provide a service of making much more information available, there could be severe drawbacks: information overload, absence of structure or of control, huge variation in quality - to say nothing of the technical problems (slow download speeds, difference of appearance of Web pages on different browsers and screens, etc.) which many pessimistically see as a definitive obstacle to efforts to make the electronic medium a respectable locus of scholarship. Yet, just as with desktop publication, the gold standard of international refereeing can and most certainly should be applied, and after all, we should not forget that variety of standard and slowness of retrieval are very familiar problems with paper copy as well. Nor does it follow, simply because publication on the Internet is easy, quick and in most cases inexpensive for the individual academic, that everything has to be published as though it has the definitive quality of a book. Of course, in the great Web-rush, perceived credentials and respectability are everything, so large numbers of individuals putting out pages seek their official validation in some way. A popular high-street magazine recently advised readers who were making their own Web sites either to seek an official award for them, or else simply to cheat and make up their own award for the pages (Internet Magazine, September 1997, p. 40)! Clearly, appearance is overtaking reality here, and the risk of forsaking the substance for the shadow grows more real.
Faced with a confusing proliferation of resources on the Internet, the academic community is responding excellently to the challenge. By and large it perceives the huge advantages of Web publication, and sees no necessary conflict between quantity and quality. The quality publication can always stand out from the rest by setting itself up correctly, exercising tight control on what it puts out and how it presents it, and enlisting the help of a supportive international committee of editors and readers. The fact that the author of a rejected article can publish the piece easily elsewhere on the Web is irrelevant: that has always been the case with paper publication as well. The well-edited Web-journal relies on the same techniques as the well-edited paper journal. But in addition, the Web-journal has huge advantages over its paper sibling. Articles are made available world-wide at once, usually for no fee. They can be accessed at all times, stored on personal computers, printed out, excerpted or e-mailed. A vast number of issues of the journal is possible, and reference to articles is guaranteed by the simplest of operations, bookmarking. This ensures that we never get the reference wrong, and that we can constitute an on-line "Webliography" with consummate ease. (A convincing list of the advantages of Web publication will be found by following this link through to the introductory pages of the electronic journal Applied Semiotics.) The best electronic journals will of course retain all the advantages of the printed journal, and indeed in many cases are published simultaneously as hard copy since there is no fundamental conflict of aim between the two. (But there are many possibilities in the area of scholarly Web publication, and an excellent overview of the subject is offered by Rob Kling and Lisa Covi in their on-line article "Electronic Journals and Legitimate Media in the Systems of Scholarly Communication" at the Computing for the Humanities Working Papers site.) What is certain is that Web publication is now with us to stay, and that it is henceforth up to the academic community to decide how best to negotiate it.
So, far from the free-for-all which many had feared with the advent of Web publication, there is much to be said for the extraordinary new impetus and vitality which it has given to scholarship. Those of us who use computers can all be beneficiaries of Web publication in our specialist areas. This is access to a world-wide library from the comfort of our own desktop. In the space of a few minutes, we can download several articles, then have one of them read in the time we would otherwise have spent locating paper copy in the library journals. It is, of course, a resource to be used alongside traditional publication, for none of us can afford to ignore any source of valuable specialist information, and we must always remember that there is nothing in the world to equal the smell of a dark and dusty library stack. Enemies of Web publication are, in most cases, the computer-illiterate who perhaps fear the new medium. Its champions are those who have learned how to put it to work for them, and most academics working in European languages in Australia, for example, have been hugely empowered by the advent of Web publication, since it guarantees availability of items which might in times past have taken weeks or even months to get hold of. (An excellent example of this is the Bibliothèque nationale de France's experimental server Gallica, which now makes a substantial part of the library's nineteenth-century holdings available.) If good scholarship is about ease of information, then Web publication must have benefits for everybody. Now it may be that the Web eventually returns us to the old hegemonies, as commercial interests take over once more and the individual author finds herself or himself relying on an intermediary who guarantees that the information will be professionally presented and efficiently stored for the longer term. That remains to be seen. What is certain is that if the Internet is a changing arena, it is also a global publication enterprise which calls out for our participation. It is like a huge, self-generating and authorless Text, something to which we can all contribute and yet which escapes our control. We live in exciting postmodern times. The author is dead, certainly. But what about the publisher?