There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Bill Readings. His monograph The University in Ruins is an essential text for anyone interested in critical university studies and the history of the marketised university. In the book, published in 1994, Readings argues that the university is no longer a space for the understanding of culture or knowledge for its own sake, but is instead a corporation driven by the pursuit of ‘excellence’ as defined by rankings and profits. Higher education’s emphasis on excellence has only grown more pernicious since the book was published, something my co-authors and I explored in a paper a few years ago.

Sadly, Bill Readings died in a plane crash before the publication of his monograph aged just 34. This year marks 25 years since his death.*

I am currently writing an article on the importance of early experiments in scholar-led publishing for the open access movement. Readings’ name keeps popping up in connection with Surfaces, the journal founded by Jean-Claude Guédon and Wlad Godzich in 1991. Publishing in both French and English, Surfaces featured critical, interdisciplinary work on the futures of knowledge production (with a particular focus on deconstruction). Surfaces, along with Postmodern Culture, The Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and other journals, is a good example highlighting that experimental, scholar-led, humanities publishing was a key event in the pre-history of the open access movement (as my article explores further). As the journal’s editor, Readings oversaw the publication of texts by notable authors such as Isabelle Stengers, Samuel Weber and Jacques Derrida, to name a few.

I had no idea that Readings was an important figure in early online scholar-led publishing. His work appears regularly in Surfaces and his editorial oversight can be felt in each volume until his death. In a 1994 article entitled ‘Caught in the Net: Notes from the Electronic Underground’ Readings reflects on scholarly communication as part of a special issue on electronic publishing. The article is characteristically witty but measured in tone, in stark contrast to the hyperbolic techno-optimism in much of the discourse on electronic publishing at the time. But what struck me most is how accurately Readings hones in on the main issues that were to unfold in scholarly communication over the next 25 years (bearing in mind this was eight years before the Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration was signed). I thought it would be worth revisiting this article here.

‘Value for money: Attention K-Mart shoppers!’

Readings begins by describing the financial implications of electronic publishing, set in the context of ‘the rising costs of traditional scholarly publishing and the increasing restrictions on library budgets’. Although he falls into the trap of assuming that costs are ‘massively reduced’ in a digital environment, Readings is more nuanced on the implications of electronic publishing for the economics of publishing itself. Because costs will no longer be ‘recouped from readers in the form of subscriptions’**, he argues, they must be ‘borne by producers, which requires advance funding from Universities and other agencies’. Readings accurately identifies the main issue that has shaped scholarly communication debates over the last few decades: who funds scholarly publishing in a post-subscription environment? He, rightly to my mind, arrives at the conclusion of university and national subsidies as a way of funding publications, rather than individual transactions in the market.

‘Modes of legitimation’

Readings really gets into his stride in his diagnosis of the relationship between publishing and academic career progression, but particularly ‘the crisis that electronic publication is going to produce in the academic community’s mode of legitimation’. Prefiguring issues with predatory publishing, Readings discusses the potential for desktop publishing software to easily replicate the feel of a high-quality typeset journal, encouraging the reader to ‘Just fake it’. In terms of traditional publishing, he argues, it will be harder to find reasons to reject an article for publication:

‘With no limits on space, one cannot recommend those sweeping cuts that will subsequently allow one to find the revised version insufficiently developed. The speed of publication means that a younger scholars [sic] can add the footnotes referring to that obscure but definitive essay by Professor Dryasdust and still get the essay published before they are refused tenure and driven out of the profession.’

But this inability to refuse publication would purportedly be a blessing for academics who tend to write only for a small audience. There would be no reason to reject something because it was not interesting enough to a journal’s broad readership. Here, Readings seems to be predicting the megajournal and its criteria for publication based on soundness rather than importance. He likens the future of publication to a kind of ‘narrowcasting’ where, in an age of information overload, one only receives the information one wants. But this also means that new academic standards for career progression have to be developed. One idea Readings has is that page views will start to become important for research assessment, this time foreshadowing altmetrics and the general metrification of scholarly research. He makes a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that ‘technically minded research assistants could be deputed to write software that would repeatedly access given articles in order to ensure that end of year bonus’.

This is only a flavour of what’s in this short article, which is well worth a read. It is both funny and cynical without being overly pessimistic. Readings simply wants us to ‘think very carefully’ about the future of scholarly communication in the digital age, concluding that:

‘We have to recognize that the university as an institution is becoming more and more corporate, that information is not primarily referential (information about something outside the university); instead, information is a unit of value within the system and serves to procure advancement within the university. In this context, the increased quantity, speed, and distribution that electronic publishing brings will not simply prosthetically improve existing practices; it promises to significantly alter the basis on which the system functions.’

It is amazing to me that many of these debates are still going on today and that the criteria for academic career progression remains largely unchanged, despite huge transformations in the publishing industry itself. Right from the birth of online publishing, Readings understood intimately that technological development is not a linear progression, but that any paradigm shift creates its own new set of problems. It’s a huge shame that he’s not still around today.

*Curiously, Readings doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, in case anyone wants to create one. Or maybe I will…

**He arrives at this conclusion because the internet was not at that time ‘a profit-making medium’.