Scope & Concerns

Information, Medium & Society – The Publishing Studies Research Network is brought together by a shared interest in investigating publishing practices as distinctive modes of social knowledge production. We seek to build an epistemic community where we can make linkages across disciplinary, geographic, and cultural boundaries. As a Research Network, we are defined by our scope and concerns and motivated to build strategies for action framed by our shared themes and tensions.

Why consider Publishing Studies in and of itself? Does the social practice of publishing need its own disciplinary frame? Or do conceptual models adequately live in other disciplines, from Information and Library Sciences, to the Sociology of Culture or Literary Sociology, or Communication and Media Studies? Or is Publishing Studies more suited as vocational training, rather than an academic, disciplinary practice, where training of professional practice is subsequently siloed and normalized into sub-categories, genres and dynamics of practice?

With this Research Network, we seek to offer a framework to approach the question of what makes this domain of social practice unique. We have a twofold aim. On the one hand, we set out to consider the conceptual frames – a social theory of publishing. On other hand, we are equally concerned with considerations of practice – how Publishing Studies shapes the development of a professional community that ‘lives’ in cultures, and societies and shapes persons.

Informational Foundations

A distinctive quality of our species being is that we are curious, investigative, and creative. We seek to explain the world around us. We produce knowledge and cultural artifacts. These desires, processes, and artifacts come to define the transmission of human culture through history. These artifacts embody a universal force of history that is always context-laden. The knowledge we as a species creates builds a catalog of who we are. And in this social practice of meaning-making we discover genealogies of human agency (Cope & Kalantzis, 2020).

At the same time, there is a meaningful association of the artifact to individual personhood. We call this authorship. The word “author” serves as an ontological cornerstone – “originator, creator, instigator”. In this informational foundation, we see our collective and individual purpose.

Information has modalities that are shaped too by historical forces. Our understanding of information was once dominated by language, or more specifically, written text. But we moved beyond to understand the informational qualities of still and moving image, sound. And now, in the era of artificial intelligence, derivative data, and meta-data. And adding multifactored complexity, layered into each information modality are styles and genres.

Here we have our first framing of what makes this domain of social practice a powerful site of considered investigation. At its foundation Publishing Studies is connected to the most essential human acts – structuring and supporting the formulation of social knowledge, navigating the construction of common knowledge and cultural heritage, and the interweaving of these with individual and community subjectivities. At the existential center of this social practice is a conception of the public good in the pursuit of knowledge.

Mediums of Disruption

Mediums structure ways of presenting and receiving information. They shape what and how we know. “Mediums, more than direct personal experience, define people’s world picture” (Van der Weel, 2011, 1). As part of an industrial machine age, the printing press disrupted social and cultural realities. This machine came to define a long history in the production of social knowledge A technology gave birth to a medium that allowed for mass communication of cultural artifacts on an unprecedented scale. It gave voice to many and provided cultural and intellectual sustenance to many more. It fundamentally transformed the information landscape from which individuals, cultures, and societies informed their decisions (Man, 2002).

In these print beginnings publishers established themselves as partners of content producers in the production of social knowledge. Content creators and publishing houses need each other, building collaborative relationships, particularly as review and editorial ethics add a defining dimension to this social practice. In this relationship the publisher becomes a “merchant of culture” (Thompson, 2011). In the age of print, publishing houses often became – or were left the responsibility – to fund the infrastructure of the medium. And the very materiality of the printed artifact demanded that the publisher to thread the needle of commercial viability and cultural value of the information resource.

Then comes another media disruption – a digital disruption. In a general mainstream social zeitgeist, a case is often made that this medium is “exceptional” (Kalantzis-Cope, 2018). For the social practice of publishing, digital communication tools and platforms allow for low-cost self-publishing – disrupting the relationship to the publisher to the content creator. They also give traditional publishers new tools for the production, distribution, and access of information – disrupting legacy processes and workflows. What makes this medium supposedly exceptional is ability to transcend the traditional gatekeepers and hierarchy-defining mediators of the print medium. But at the same time there is downward pressure on the creator, framed in a normative grammar of ‘autonomy,’ to negotiate commercial viability and personal value of the information resource in the context of the need to sustain a livelihood.

In these transitions and the coexistence of mediums – print and digital – there are deeper implications for consideration. These considerations include the changing nature of the artifact – “traditional” print vs digital (Thompson, 2005). Digital disruption affects various domains of publishing in different ways. For example, in academic publishing, we confront a new pollical economy with the Open Access movement, connecting the medium within a broader context of the “public good’ (Willinsky, 2009). And, with the rise of social media platforms, the question arises of who and what a publisher is, and the responsibilities entailed with this title. At an epistemological level there is a medium-driven disruption of our species bringing to it a “digital order of knowledge” (Van der Weel, 2011).

In the unfolding history of disruptive media moments, I suggest a second framing of what makes this domain of social practice a powerful site of considered investigation. For this reason, Publishing Studies offers a pathway into a particular a media archeology (Huhtamo & Parikka, 2011). This can be approached in a comparative sense, outside-in – addressing the ways the social practices use existing mediums and mirror historical frames of development. Or it can be tackled inside-out – analyzing the ways the social practice produces its own mediums.

Social History and Impacts

Publishing is a socio-cultural phenomenon. It has its own social history – both of specific principles and practices and the societies that are shaped by its activity (Briggs et al, 2010). Both the internal professional and social-facing dimensions are steeped in cultural pre-suppositions that, if not critically approached, can calcify social practices into dangerously unchecked power.

The professional publishing industry forms kinds of communities. One layer in, Publishing “houses” produce and resource their own organizational cultures. These cultures, with their resonances and reflections across an industry, have direct effects on ‘what’ and ‘whose’ culture is produced – who is given a voice in the cultural landscape. From editorial acquisitions in trade publishing, to funding opportunities in academic publishing, gatekeeper effects can perpetuate and reinforce structural imbalances. These mirror mainstream social disparities and injustices. Such imbalances are manifest not only in content but also the workforce – who fills roles for production and design, marketing and distribution, or management and leadership.

An overarching force shaping cultures in and through publishing is the “market.” This demands critical reflection too. On the one hand, there are specific institutional logics and inertias that shape editorial decisions within “market logics” (Thornton, 2004). And, on the other, with the rise of digital platforms motivated by a data economy, the question of content accountability and the production of filter bubbles (Pariser, 2012).

The forces of the market also define boundaries of access – the cost of the published artifact in print and digital artifacts. We need to recognize and reflect on how institutions like libraries, who support and facilitate access, bear the brunt of these market forces. Then in a digital marketplace, we see new market logics shifting the role of authors as self-publishers, publishers and booksellers as they respond to online marketplaces, and even a “bookstore” – Amazon – that has becoming the defining force of digital commerce and web services. We also must consider the effects of consolidation in the industry that is now dominated by a few.

This leads us toward into some vexing social questions and a perhaps also an ambitious, proactive social agenda. Several examples: we need to reflect on the global structuring effects of copyright as an extension of western-European legal traditions. We need to ask, what is the role of publishing houses in the sustenance of alternative and autonomous communities? Consider, for instance: the history of feminist publishing houses and practices (Murray, 2004 (a) (b)); post-colonial publishing (Davis, 2005; Low 2011); or making a place of LGBTQ voices in publishing as a mode of praxis (Goltz & Zingsheim, 2015). These are only a few of a multitude of questions that reflect individual, communal and societal diversity.

Publishing Studies becomes a powerful site of considered investigation when we trace its connections to a broader social-institutional landscape. And when we do this, it becomes a metaphorical canary in the coal mine. From its informational basis to mediums of disruption we can critically consider the practice of social knowledge within publishing as a generative force within societies. Because publishing supports the production of formal artifacts out of shared experience and history, it’s not just any domain of practice. In very grounded ways, publishing is a professional practice that is socially embedded, and for this reason itself is always in need of critical reflection and transformation. As much as it is of society, publishing is a pathway to transform societies themselves. In fact, we could argue, this is its modus operandi as a social practice since its beginnings.

Publishing as a Social Practice

As a social activity, ‘publishing’ has defined principles and practices. Nonetheless, we must counter the claim that Publishing Studies has a “lack of theoretical and methodological rigor” as a consequence of its emphasis on the “vocational wing of publishing studies” (Murray, 2007 pg. 3). We need to turn this perceived weakness into a strength – the “general examination of the role of profession-orientated disciplines within universities; the effectiveness of the opportunities they are afforded for disciplinary development; and the extent to which they can invigorate professional practice through an enhanced awareness of a variety of methodologies for analyzing processes, enriching the interpretation of data gathered during practical work.” (Baverstock, Alison, Jackie, Steinitz, 2014 pg. 221). The case we want to make, and we walk with others in this journey, is that Publishing Studies is an ideal place to frame interdisciplinary and practice-focused domain of research, and that this powerfully connects to social impact.

This journal aims to be a forum for sustained investigation of the theory and practice of scholarly communication, information science, and trade, technical and scholarly publishing. It seeks perspectives that are both retrospective, documenting recent and historical experience, and prospective, examining trends in technologies and business processes that are destined to shape the social practices of publishing in the imminent future.