Why didn’t the dinosaurs die out?

There are still some who believe that print-based research publication is inherently better than online publication.
There are still some who believe that print-based research publication is inherently better than online publication.

Got one!

In a previous post I was discussing the issues of copyright and peer review relating to the publishing of academic work online. Well, I’m delighted to report a lovely example of some progress in my own subject area, Music.

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has been undertaking an AHRC-funded research project for CHARM (the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music), the outcome of which is a book entitled The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performances.

It’s a serious and in-depth study of its subject, and contributes new knowledge and debate to our discipline, as all good research must. And it has been published in online-only form – there is no physical book version. I emailed Daniel to congratulate him on successful publication, and he mentioned in his reply that some of his academic contacts were rather alarmed that he hadn’t ‘published’ his book in the print media sense.

Daniel shares my view that the economic arguments for an academic being supported by a print publisher are negligible – sales of such specialist texts being inherently small in number. And he believes that the best way to share his research  with the academic/musical community is to publish it in unprotected form online. The peer review/quality issue is taken care of (presumably by the AHRC funding application process, and the support of the three august institutions that make up CHARM – Royal Holloway, King’s College London and the University of Sheffield.

Medieval music notation - interestingly, this image comes from a Victoria University Medieval studies course - freely available on Blogger.
Medieval music notation – interestingly, this image comes from a Victoria University Medieval studies course – freely available on Blogger. Click image to go to this blog.

And most pleasingly of all, his work is not based around music technology or musical e-learning – he’s a self-proclaimed ‘traditional’ academic researcher working in ‘classical’ music – a specialist in, among other things, Medieval European music. So if colleagues like this are becoming early adopters of online research dissemination, the future for e-research looks very bright indeed.

Contrast this with the print equivalent – Daniel’s list of publications is formidable, but if you want to read his work now, you will run into another locked gate in print-only cases. He’s done his best to circumvent the copyright issues too, by putting as much of his work online as he can, and deleting audio/score examples that are still in copyright.

So Daniel, and all e-researchers like him, still needs to tiptoe carefully around the niceties of copyright. In his multimedia (presumably HTML/CD-R?) publication Multimedia Music of Fourteenth-Century France (1997) he describes “editions of music, recordings, maps, charts, facsmiles of manuscripts, tables and translations” that are unavailable in the online version for copyright reasons. What if he did publish these omitted excerpts online? Who really would be harmed economically?

This work, which is about as specialised/specific as music research gets, has a great academic significance but not an economic one. And the latter has hamstrung the former, as he acknowledges;

UK institutions of higher education are entitled to receive a copy for the cost of the copying. At the moment, again for copyright reasons, it’s not available elsewhere. But if there’s enough interest a commercial release may be developed later.

We need a change in copyright law – some extension of ‘fair use’, where the knowledge benefit to society outweighs the negligible economic loss to the copyright owner – in cases when the book version of the research is uneconomic to publish. Or better still, some form of digital watermarking/tracking (like YouTube’s previously-used mechanism for paying PRS royalties for music) so that academics, students and copyright owners can benefit from the ‘Long Tail‘ principles of remuneration that only the Internet can provide.

The status quo doesn’t help anyone – new knowledge is effectively suppressed if its dissemination (in print form) is uneconomic or unfunded. We have an opportunity to change this from the inside by simply publishing our research online as a matter of habit. And Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis etc) make this as easy as saving a Word document.


  1. I’d be all for getting my book published this way (see what a great marketing job is being done on it!). The £60 price tag both excludes almost anyone without a book budget and sends the wrong messages about who the book is written for. The problem is that without gaining the imprimatur (and funding) of a recognised academic body in advance, authors have to rely on conventional publishers to facilitate the peer-review process which remains the one thing that distinguishes conventional academic publishing from simply publishing all your work as a blog, and subjecting it to peer review that way. The RAE isn’t about to recognise that as a valid measure of quality any time soon (I imagine), and academic publishers need to cover their costs. Maybe the way forward is to prepare funding bids for research with online outcomes rather than write book proposals to academic publishers. At least funding bodies are guaranteed to reply! I’d be happy to forgo the dubious pleasure of working with an academic press again, and I’d also be happy to swap a couple of hundred quid for the knowledge that students and the general public can actually get hold of my work.

    But then again, to misquote Anthony Powell, pixels don’t furnish a room…..

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