Humanities, Texts, Books, Digital Age — The controversy in Switzerland

The Swiss National Science Foundation wants research results freely available on the internet and links the promotion of scientific research closely to this requirement. Does this Open Access Strategy mean that the culture of the book is threatened in Switzerland? A petition in the internet calls for more money for publishers in the  humanities and more freedom for the  authors. Meanwhile, more than four thousand people have signed it.

Caspar Hirschi, Professor for History of Science at the University St. Gallen, thinks that scholars in the humanities protest rightly, but chose the wrong occasion, the wrong opponent and the wrong allies. In his article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 19 May 2014, he describes and critizes the large subsidy publishers that pre-finance books by their authors or foundations. Their business model is not a Swiss specialty, but corresponds to that of many European publishers with whom they share the library market. The majority of subsidy publishers deliver files to libraries using felled trees, he says rather sarcastically.

But, the crisis of the book is a deeper one – please see my post to The Book in the Digital Information Age, a review of Michael Giesecke’s book and A New Practice in Digital History, a intervention to the position of the Austrian Historian Wolfgang Schmale to this.

A repositioning can contribute to solving one of the biggest problems of the digital age: the filtering and hierarchization of publications, Hirschi argues. It would allow a qualitative distinction between edited and self-published information and a functional distinction between files and books. Therefore, Hirschi pleads for new digital publication formats that could relieve obsolet reference systems from the corset of the book format.

Hirschi’s argumentation is certainly right, but ideas and concepts in the Digital Humanities go much further and deeper – please see, for instance, following posts to this: Digital_Humanities: THE Book!We need Digital Texts — Data that can be processed and, more philosophically, The Economics of Writing (and Publishing).

On OpenEdition, a French Publication Platform, we can see, how this could work.

With his article, Caspar Hirschi initiated a lively debate: Good books need time and paper, Michael Hagner responded on 23 May 2014: And Uwe Justus Wenzel from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung said on 27 May 2014 that Open Access is a dummy package: I print, therefore I am – in the humanities, it is all about the printed book, Robin Schwarzenbach explained on 2 June 2014 in the same newspaper. And: Professor Monika Dommann writes on  17 June 2014 that scholars should be willing to experiment for communicating their research results. Finally, Paul Schubert, Professor of Greek at the University of Geneva and President of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Swiss National Science Foundation, commented on the 25 July 2014 that more people should be informed about current research:

A compilation of articles of the NZZ to Open Access is available on:

Naturally, the debate takes place outside of Switzerland, too. Here the link to a post of Mareike König, Deutsches Historisches Institut, Paris: Do the Humanities require a new publication philosophy in the digital age? – she is asking. And Mercedes Bunz explains Meson Press that publishes research on digital cultures and networked media, in a short interview: Meson Press combines peer review with hybrid formats and novel collaborative methods such as book sprints. It is run by the Hybrid Publishing Lab at Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

On 15 August 2014, I published a comment in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung to this: Please find the English version here:

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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