The New Digital Divide

When we launched Anvil Academic in 2012, two core convictions underlay our strategic vision. One was a belief that building our own publishing platform was folly. We believed that platform development is a multimillion-dollar endeavor that is unduly limiting, time-consuming,  and costly to authors who would have to rework projects composed on other platforms. We also believed that there exists enough digitally produced and consumed academic argument to merit the presence of a publisher who can vet, edit, and credential this work just as traditional publishers have done for scholars in the print world.

Alfredo Castaneda, "Aquí es el centro," 1984

Alfredo Castaneda, “Aquí es el centro,” 1984

More than a year after our launch, both of these propositions remain true; but the truth has turned out to be more complication-rich than we expected, with these two elements of our vision being to some degree in conflict.

In our view, digital publishing is destined to be a set of editorial, peer review, and marketing services rather than outright production of a commodity. Where a traditional publisher reproduces a manuscript on a designed and printed “platform,” a digital publisher takes an author’s work on the author’s platform and edits, reviews, improves, and credentials the work through an act of publication that is largely an endorsement. In both cases, the benefit to the author is the same: his/her work is improved through editing and peer review, and his/her career is advanced through the imprimatur conferred by the publisher.

The difference in publishing digital work in this manner lies in the vastly more expensive resources required of the author. And in this respect, as we continue to review proposals and submissions to Anvil, we see a disquieting trend taking form. Proposals from authors at digital-resource-poor institutions lag far behind those from comparatively resource-rich institutions when it comes to production values: sophistication of interface design, complexity and power of the underlying software engine, and other features that (intuitively, at least) fall under the heading of technology rather than scholarship or intellectual content. The lone author, in other words, working without the support of a digital scholarship lab, finds it hard to compete when work is evaluated both for its technical sophistication and its intellectual content.

This would seem more or less an abstract problem were it not for the number of intellectually promising projects presented to us that we’ve had to turn away. In every case, they have been the work of authors working alone at small institutions; their concepts and their academic arguments have been compelling, even stellar; but the look and feel and performance of their proposed publications have lagged behind those from institutions and DH centers that enjoy reliable funding. And it is the latter who (abetted by the magazinification of the Internet) have by default set the high technical bar for digital academic work.

This would seem to put the burden on the publisher to provide those lab services, but one of the impetuses behind the launch of Anvil is the need in academic publishing for a new (read: low) cost model. And provision of a one-size-fits-all digital publishing platform opens up a cost can-of-worms on a scale requiring greater resources than an academic enterprise can provide.

This is not to say that we aren’t determined to find a way forward for every academic author building digital work; the alternative is to surrender the digital academic argument arena to the privileged. But the way forward promises to be remarkably more difficult than we initially thought.