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Why CC-BY is not for us, not for now

We are not members of the OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association) yet, but as a self-proclaimed Open Access publishing platform we certainly hope to become one. As such, we will have to meet one of their key requirements, which is to have published at least one Open Access book with a license that allows the “broadest re-use of published material possible”. In essence, this means using the “CC-BY”-license, now also required by the United Kingdom funding bodies if they fund research, the European Union, and increasingly other funding bodies around the world.

Philosophically, I have nothing against CC-BY, quite to the contrary. I think it is a wonderful thing that published material be made as widely available as possible, and that the only condition for that is that my name or the name of my publisher be cited. I don’t particularly share the concerns as to some of the misuses CC-BY might lead to, in particular the bundling of free, original research into expensive unoriginal derivatives, such as collections of articles (such bundling can already be done with out-of-copyright materials – and it is a customer’s prerogative to find out what is the best offer for an identical product). I do not really buy the view put forward here by John Emerson that the Humanities’ integrity might be put more at risk by CC-BY than the raw data of the technical and natural sciences. People are freely rewriting, rewording and misinterpreting ideas all the time and I don’t really see what CC-BY changes to that. Finally, I also have if not blind, then definitely some faith that the main advocates of Open Access have thought this through and sized up the pros and cons before deciding in favour of CC-BY.

Having said all that, I am bothered by OASPA’s requirement and we will definitely not be applying CC-BY licences to our books to start with, and we might possibly not stick any CC licence on them at all, at least not on all of them and not by default. Why this retrograde attitude? Because we are still transitioning.

My first argument is maybe a bit obvious: with sdvig press we are trying out a whole new experiment, with no clear models or indeed role-models to follow. As it is, we are being bold enough, and if we can control any parameters, or put the experimentation with any part of the project to a later, more mature stage of our development, I think we should, and we will. CC-BY, seen strictly from our point of view, is an experiment and is not necessary at this point. A simple statement on our website of our relaxed approach both to fair-use and the downloading of our texts should amply suffice to guarantee open access and the convenient use of our platform to our users. All we need then is a further statement propounding our openness to the various reuses of our texts and calling upon interested scholars to just contact us. We certainly won’t be submerged by demands and we’d anyway be keen on knowing who are the strange creatures interested in our outrageously niche texts on Czech structuralism. It might turn out there isn’t a need to CC-BY our books at all.

Secondly and much more importantly, the business model of sdvig press, not unlike the one developed by OpenEdition Books (do they CC-BY?), relies or will rely on traffic to the platform. We will not be making money from the books themselves, neither from the digital open access version, nor the POD print version, but from “freemium” subscriptions (paid by libraries, not individuals) to the user-friendly and function-heavy interface we provide for these texts. Although we’d like to think of ourselves as a publishing house, in essence we’ll probably just be a drearily academic aggregation, curation and social tool with a bit of obscure, often painfully badly written content (yes we’ll have a lot of 19th Century German philosophy). As such, although our content will be available for free, it is vitally important that it remains located and accessible exclusively on the (otherwise completely open) sdvig platform. That is not to say we will not be open to sharing metadata (of course we’ll share metadata), or indeed to pool part or most of our contents with selected partners or networks. We want to be able to cherry-pick these partners however, and make sure they play the same game as we do.

Indeed, imagine a legacy publisher who either has figured out there is money to be made by developing an advanced interface with bibliometric tools, community features, etc (which of course, remains to be proven), or who is intent on making sure OA platforms such as ours do not get off the ground. If our contents are CC-BY, all they have to do is make our content available on their own, much larger platform (since they will have their own fully copyrighted material) and, thanks moreover to their more recognizable brand name, will divert all the traffic. If we go to sleep, they might even paywall it again. Not a nice prospect.

Imagine also that we want to publish or, more likely, republish some crucial material, whose copyright is owned by a somewhat cooperative legacy publisher. Our strategy (yet to be tested) would be to cut a deal with said legacy publisher, where it retains all the rights and profits from the print edition (and can even set an extortionate price if it so wishes), but we are allowed to put up an OA digital version on our website (this makes sense for sdvig press as we are not expecting to make any money from print sales). If CC-BY is a must, the project would be immediately wrecked because the legacy publisher loses its incentive.

If these arguments have already been made and (convincingly) refuted somewhere, please link me to them. If not, have a go here!











Short-term Internet vs. long-term Humanities? (No)

In an interview to the Tagespiegel, the president of the Freie Universität in Berlin Peter-André Alt warned last week that “the Internet leads to more forgetting”. In fairness, Alt’s critique of the pitfalls of the Internet is much more subtle than this, as you can discover if you read the article (available only in German). He does emphasise however that the Humanities require time, concentration and breadth of view if they are to fulfil their mission and he raises a few key issues where he sees the Internet as a menace. He regrets for example the obsolescence of the record card (Karteikarten), which required a mnemonically-stimulating, almost haptic process of reading, copying and sorting. Similarly, he underlines the “patience” that used to be involved in the “very slow” process of writing articles. All in all, Alt seems to fall on the side of those who see the Internet as a short-term, fast-paced phenomenon, which he explicitly contrasts with the longue durée of the Humanities.

My beef with this argument is that it is far too one sided. For one, and with a slight touch of provocation, one may want to argue that the Humanities are in fact not always about the reflexive, concentrated and broad long-term view. I remember reading in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s “The Production of Presence” that the Humanities would in fact have much to gain by paying more attention to the present moment and by “going with the flow”. In the same vein, I am under the impression that much is to be gained from casual, almost benign and therefore transient conversations. Isn’t it true for example that the most useful, interesting and memorable part of a conference (even from a strictly cognitive, intellectual point of view) is at dinner or beer time, when lofty discussions about Hegel or Dostoevskij are mixed in with amusing anecdotes and the latest news from the grapevine?

If anything, my bane as a PhD student was that I could concentrate, reflect and take all the time I needed on whichever minute bloody problem I pleased, without being swept into a whirlwind of constant solicitations, debates or other intellectual distractions. As a Post-Doc, I have discovered to my entire surprise, that the hurly-burly of the academic schedule and the treasure hives of texts and stimulating blog posts available on the Internet actually helps one to move forward more consistently or indeed to broaden one’s horizon in a less monomaniac, mind-numbing way than copying quotations from a canon of texts one has more or less arbitrarily imposed onto oneself. The danger of losing one’s way in a mountain of potentially irrelevant or secondary facts, to my mind, is not greater on the Internet than when one concentrates exclusively on the original manuscripts of Schiller and Kafka (sorry for the cheap dig, Prof. Alt).

Up to a point, a short attention span and a more scattered, sometimes conversational approach to research can thus also be a virtue in the Humanities. There are enough texts and ideas which one would rather forget immediately after reading them, and there is plenty of stuff of whose existence it is clearly better to be vaguely aware of than not at all. Quickly finding and then casually skimming through texts is what bookshop-goers have done for centuries without obvious detriment to their cognitive abilities. Crucially, long-term memory and high-order synthetic thinking are resources that get rapidly depleted during the day and, in my case, are simply not functional for at least an hour after lunch. So one might just as well put other cognitive functions to use and do a bit of unstructured browsing on the Internet. That, of course, is not to justify endless procrastination on the Guardian’s Sports pages.

More seriously perhaps, it also seems to me that it is wrong-headed to see the Internet only as a facilitator for an ever quicker, scattered and superficial type of “knowledge”. In a way, the Internet does not lead to more forgetting, but to a longer-term memory. This is not a flippant remark: how many times have I been warned already that “the Internet remembers everything” and that therefore I should be careful what I do there. By connecting again with old school-friends on facebook, I don’t accomplish an act of forgetting, quite on the contrary, my forgotten past is summoned up again – and made to be endlessly repeated in a bizzarely Nietzschean way every singly day, until I think through the specific use I want to put my facebook account to. The same applies to serious academic resources: the abundance of journal articles, open access books, etc. quite obviously increases our cultural memory. In one word, the problem of the Internet is not so much a forgetting than an overload of memory.

This overload might of course be felt as a loss since the Internet provides its memory in a mediated, externalised form:  if one can’t master the huge flow of information, one is left with nothing. I also freely agree with Alt that the overload of digital memory can definitely lead to an irrational, scattered and brain-haired approach to research and knowledge. The question however here is not so much one of medium than of structure, hierarchy or “curation”, which is admittedly still deficient on the Internet (or in our use of the Internet). As such, it should be obvious that we are not dealing here with a fundamental incompatibility between the Humanities and the Internet but indeed with a fantastic potential for synergy.

The mission of the Humanities, in effect, is none other than to structure, interpret and hierarchise our knowledge, to make sense of our collective cultural memory, to sort the wheat from the chaff and to explain and justify how and why that sorting out is made. As such, the Internet and its dynamic, ever-changing nature appear not so much as a menace than as a challenge, a cultural object in dire need of the Humanities’ attentions (poor Internet…). The whole idea behind sdvig press, for example, is none other than to harness the Internet in this way and provide a clearly structured access to a rather imposing set of texts or textual data.

To sum up, I would say that I see no fundamental incompatibility between the alleged short-termism of the Internet and the alleged long-termist ethos of the Humanities: the first is the reflection of the hectic, creative and chaotic flow of modern life, which the second is urgently called to shape, reflect and structure into a useful, profound and broad-sighted source of understanding of that same life.

Chinese formalism

Last week, I attended the Russian formalism centenary conference in Moscow (, a fantastic event that highlighted the enthusiasm still generated by the formalists. Of the many interesting papers I got to hear, one in particular caught my attention: Zhou Qi-Chao’s presentation of the reception of Russian formalism in China.

My dear colleague Tomáš Glanc had already told me of a growing Chinese interest in Russian formalism or, indeed, in the whole tradition of 20th century European literary theory. Tomáš was invited to Beijing a few months ago to discuss the translation of some of Roman Jakobson’s work into Chinese and what he discovered there was a very active, even vibrant group of researchers enthusiastically investigating the above-mentionned intellectual legacies. As such, Zhou Qi-Chao’s presentation was thus not entirely a revelation for me, but I did take from it a much keener sense of the massive dimension of the Chinese interest in Russian formalism. Having rediscovered the now canonical texts of the French structuralists (Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, et alia), the Chinese have in recent years turned their attention back to the traditions from which the French post-war thinkers emerged, i.e. Vladimir Propp and the Russian formalists. Instead of limiting their interest to the rather small amount of texts available in English, French or German, however, the Chinese have focussed on the original Russian, Czech and Polish texts and begun a large-scale plan of translation. From what I understood when talking to Zhou Qi-Chao, it also seems that an effort towards a historical reconstitution of the development of literary theory and a correction of the usually neglected role of the Slavic sources in that context is under way in China. In other words, a process very similar to the one sdvig press is hoping to encourage in Europe is already happening apace in China. Exciting stuff!


Introducing myself

As I will be the one editing this blog, I guess it is not unappropriate that I begin by introducing myself.

The most relevant piece of information here I suppose, is that I am the director of sdvig press. Which considering we are a team of just three (my esteemed colleague Emanuel Landolt, a trusted IT-support and myself) is maybe not saying much. This does mean however that I will be able to faithfully report of all the minutiae and developments of the project. Plus, considering we are a collaboratively oriented entreprise, the team should grow soon enough. Until that happens,  I’ll probably still feel slightly embarassed when handing out my flashy business card.

Institutionally, I am a young researcher currently enjoying a generous post-doc stipend from the Swiss National Foundations to work on the intellectual context of Prague in the 1920s and 1930s. I was formed as a Slavist (Russian at MA level, then Czech for my PhD), but since neither my Russian nor my Czech are really any good (I never could be bothered with plural genitives and the accentuation of past participles) and that my interests have always lain more with technical stuff such as philosophy and the history of linguistics, I prefer to consider myself as a historian of ideas with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe. You can take a peak at my work and my formal CV on my academia profile:

I am still very much a newcomer to the digital humanities and discovering with a growing sense of awe the possibilities that are opening up right under my nose. The perspective that with sdvig press we could have reasonable shot at creating a tool that all at once enables us to publish and translate large corpora without excessive financial burden, to create a powerful online database that would enable a much more efficient, exhaustive and rigorous approach to the texts, to setup an entry point for communities of researchers on our favorite themes, give much greater visibility to the field of Eastern and Central European Studies and, miracles of miracles, funnel some money back directly into research, well… I find that rather exciting.

In case you were wondering, I am originally from Geneva, Switzerland. I have been living alternatively in Berlin and Prague for the last ten years, Prague and particularly the borough of Žižkov being home right now. On most days you will find me sitting at the top of the Klementinum (the Czech National Library) right next to Charles Bridge and (mentally) swearing at Russian tourist guides who insist on using Soviet-style megaphones whilst shepherding their customers through the library’s courtyard.

sdvig press

Le carnet est consacré au projet de plateforme éditoriale sdvig press ( sdvig press est une association suisse à but non-lucratif fondée en 2012 à Genève. Sa mission est de soutenir la dissémination et les échanges du savoir dans les sciences humaines entre l’Europe orientale, centrale et occidentale. Elle entend réaliser ses buts via la réédition et la traduction de textes scientifiques fondamentaux du XIXème et XXème siècles, la publication et la traduction de travaux de recherche actuels ainsi que via la création et le maintien d‘une base de donnée en ligne, open access et multilingue d’ouvrages pertinents. Un de ces projets phares sera consacré à l’histoire du structuralisme européen. A terme, sdvig press espère fournir une véritable plateforme interactive (fonctions communautaires, éditions communes, recensions, etc.) centrée sur un nombre limité et relativement cohérent de thèmes pertinents à sa mission(phénoménologie du langage, histoire des théories linguistiques, histoire de la psychologie) et au service même des chercheurs.