Staring Into the Generational Gap: Munich’s Panel Discussion “Junior Researchers, Publishers, Libraries, and Open Access. Contemporary Publishing in the Humanities,” 11 February 2014.

Last week, the panel discussion “Junior researchers, publishers, libraries, and open access”, which was organized by the Bavarian State Library (BSB) and LMU’s Graduate Center, took place in the lecture hall of the Catholic Academy’s Kardinal Wendel Haus in Munich. The event was attended by more than three hundred people. The BSB’s Lilian Landes delivered a concise opening statement about the current challenges facing young humanities and social science researchers when it comes to the decision where to publish their dissertation. She posed a few juicy questions to the panel, about quality management and who picks up the tab; about how trade publishers will face the oncoming sea-change of information and publications; what services will become publishers’ unique contribution to the communication process and for how much money; how the growing scepticism among young researchers towards the publishing system can be met; how the notion of “if it is not online, it does not exist” can be dealt with in the humanities, where we are not yet facing as much pressure as in the STEM fields; what role will the prestige factor play in the open access development; how or whether universities are changing their rules and regulations about PhD bestowal to allow for open access. In short: Landes offered the panel plenty of threads to discuss an issue that concerns an entire generation of young researchers and that is in desperate need of a serious approach.

Munich Panel

Panel discussion on publishing options for junior researchers in the humanities. Munich, February 2014

What followed was a lacklustre exchange of polite opinions, most of which were based on relatively modest familiarity with the issue of open access. The notable exceptions were Hubertus Kohle (@hkohle), an art-historian and active supporter of open access, and Klaus Ceynowa, the deputy general director of the Bavarian State Library. The rest of the decision makers, who sat at a long desk flanked by Jesus on the cross and a modern art impression of divine light, exchanged half-baked truisms, seasoned only with a couple of references. One was the irksomly ill-informed article by Juergen Kaube in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of February 5th with the slightly sensationalist title “Academics face threat of being coerced into self-publishing“.  Also, last year’s OAPEN’s report was reassuringly waved about by the representative of the publishing industry, Stefan von der Lahr, happily pointing to the report’s finding that the publication of open access books does not lessen revenue of print versions. This proved that von der Lahr was neither controversial nor concerned enough to throw down the gauntlet to Kohle or anyone else harboring pro-open access opinions. To the contrary: he works for C.H. Beck, a traditional, German-language, family owned publishing house in Munich, which just began collaborating with Open Edition Books – a sure sign that this publisher is willing to explore the changes afoot in the industry. Still, von der Lahr did not really know how to respond to the chair’s question about the pressure on young scholars to publish in English, or their need for visibility. It is not part of his daily business and so he could not address it with conviction.

This was true for most of the panel. Bernd Huber, the president of the LMU (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich), admitted that he knew very little about the issue at hand. He did opine, however, that open access gold would probably raise the costs for authors and be ultimately unaffordable; Ceynowa offered some helpful numbers about the library’s journal subscription (62500 journals in total including OA, cost about 7 million Euros per year), but also thought that hybrid publishing will be too expensive. Martin Schulze Wessel, historian and president of the Association of German Historians, spoke of how historians weave great narratives and insisted that such narratives will always require a bound book to hold them. The chair, Thierry Chervel (@chervel), co-founder of the internet culture-magazine Perlentaucher, not only refused to push these gentlemen out of their comfort zone, he came across as surprisingly fuzzy, if not to say ill-prepared, about open access issues.

The general impression was that this conversation could easily have played out in a cigar-smoke filled club somewhere. A benevolent, collegial, non-committal chat amongst peers.

Then Chervel invited questions from the floor and things changed. One question about whether it was possible to install a GitHub repository for the humanities at the state library, made it obvious that most of the gentlemen on the podium were incapable of grasping such questions and that they had extremely little in common with the young scholars whose professional publishing career they were supposed to discuss. Just the odd silence following this question made the trip to Munich worthwhile!

At the reception afterwards, one young art-historian mused: “What will they do, when they get hit by the wave of data and publication that is currently building momentum? They have no idea that it is coming their way!” She also told me that she and her colleagues (from a variety of disciplines) do not really want books anymore. Instead they are looking for communicative possibilities that allow for a completely new way of building knowledge with open review, possibilities of remixing, reusing, and expanding information in a variety of directions.

Despite the relatively superficial discussion, this event impressed me. Not for the things that were said – there was nothing new for me to learn – but because it was the first time that I witnessed with such clarity the considerable generational gap between most decision-makers who still think of e-mail and pdfs as newfangled communicative formats and those young scholars who are ready to altogether abandon linear narrative with its distinct authors and individual contribution to the field. In other words, the latter no longer wish to formulate their contribution to universal knowledge in that 600 year old genre that the former see as an indispensable hallmark of serious intellectual endeavor, which, should it bear the prestigious stamp of a recognizable publisher, must be “good”. This is is hard to swallow for a younger generation, whose research is often interdisciplinary and contributes to complex, digital information and research architecture not only with writing and data but also with coding. Try and explain such accomplishments to hiring panels that include decision makers who openly admit that they judge the quality of a young academic’s work at least partially by the name of the publisher who printed it.

Munich illustrated some strong positions on both sides of this generational divide. On the side of the establishment there is a significant fear-factor. Van der Lahr rightly pointed to some of the highly allergic reactions of (particularly smaller) publishers to the open access development because it may well become an existential threat to them. I also think that Schulze Wessel has a point with his great narrative needing an appropriate genre, although it certainly does not have to be a bound book. I do believe that building a linear argument, to support, sustain and prove it over the course of a long-form genre is a skill that is important for any academic. At the same time, there is no doubt whatever that the plethora of current digital humanities undertakings and explorations in new digital genres can be of indisputable scholarly merit and open up an entirely new way of creating and communicating knowledge. The only person at the table who was savvy enough to recognize this was Hubertus Kohle.

It will take academics like him to keep the conversation going. With a little less revolutionary fervor on the side of youth and a bit more openness, interest, and consideration on the side of an unknowing establishment, scholarly investigation in the humanities too will be able to create and appreciate a richer landscape of academic communication, a hybrid, if you will, that is truly worth building.  Munich’s discussion was an excellent start to the many discussions that are needed to get Germany’s humanities moving in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “Staring Into the Generational Gap: Munich’s Panel Discussion “Junior Researchers, Publishers, Libraries, and Open Access. Contemporary Publishing in the Humanities,” 11 February 2014.

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