Think Piece

DIY Epistemologies: Histories and Futures of Publishing in the Humanities

by guest contributors Nils Güttler and Niki Rhyner

By Nils Güttler and Niki Rhyner

Two young scientists dressed in wool sweaters bend over a layout table. Scissors, glue, and ruler at hand, they are composing the latest issue of the self-made journal Wechselwirkung (“reciprocity”). The scene is set in Berlin-Kreuzberg in the early 1980s. During these years, the alternative milieu saw the formation of dozens of DIY publishing projects, but in the German-speaking parts of Europe Wechselwirkung was one of the few that focused specifically on science and technology. It was founded in 1979 by a group of politically engaged scientists and engineers who had just graduated from university. Inspired by Science for the People (USA) and Undercurrents (GB), the editors saw the journal as a forum for a “political and radical engagement” with their own work as scientists. A group of roughly 15 people, they aimed to deconstruct the myth of a pure science, the “glossy image of science” as they put it, by connecting their political activism with scientific practice and intellectual reflection. Wechselwirkung was supposed to cover topics that mattered to ordinary citizens: “The Social Implications of New Technologies,” “Ecological Perspectives and Green Lifestyles,” “Technology in the Household,” “EDP: Vandalism and Sabotage,” “High-Tech and the ‘Third World’,” “Calculation vs. Understanding? Feminist Critical Science Studies”—these are the titles of some of the issues that the group published in the following years.

From the very start, DYI projects like the Wechselwirkung collective served as reference points for our own grassroot publishing initiative, intercom Verlag. We—a group of historians and sociologists of science and technology based in Zurich, Berlin, and Vienna—stumbled upon the journal while researching the history of scientific activism. In the disciplinary memory of German-speaking Science and Technology Studies (STS), its history had largely been pushed to the margins, and we were both surprised and fascinated by the “DIY media epistemology” of the Wechselwirkung project (which it shared with other, allied collectives): their comprehensive understanding of publishing, including the physical cutting, pasting, gluing, and (re)arranging of texts, as a crucial if not indispensable part of scientific, intellectual practice. Under today’s digital premises, we thought, such an autonomous, hands-on engagement with publishing is more urgent than ever, in particular for academic publishing.

Although digital technologies arrived with the promise of democratizing “communication,” academic publishing has moved into the opposite direction since the 1990s. Big publishing houses, namely Springer, Wiley and Elsevier, have monopolized the market and turned crucial aspects of scholarly publishing, such as editorship, peer-review, and most recently “open access,” into profit-oriented, quasi-monopolistic enterprises of an ever-more uniform publishing industry. Notably, these developments are even more advanced in Europe than in North America. As a result, many scholars feel increasingly alienated from what has become a thoroughly commercialized publishing infrastructure, which they primarily encounter in automated email messages, article processing charges, outsourced editorial labor, and the like. The Wechselwirkung layout table above, however, points to the possibility of a different discursive role for scholars and authors: as active participants in the creation of the forms and formats we think with.

We founded intercom as a non-profit association in 2018. It started with a simple observation: in the German-speaking world, the number of interesting and innovative publishing houses and journals had significantly gone down, a development discernible in the humanities in general and in our own fields, the history of science and STS, in particular. Our experiences as young scholars with publishing projects were epistemically frustrating. Why, for example, was the average journal article so devoid of its very objects—the images, texts, audio and video files that we all use in our research? And why were there so few alternatives to the bland open access repositories, alternatives that do more than just store documents and actually tap into the full potential of digital design to enhance accessibility and media diversity? It turned out that these problems were (and are) endemic to the current publishing industry. Despite the often-proclaimed “digital media revolution” and regardless of huge public investments, academic journals and books seemed to become ever more monotonous (and dull). Their formats did not only stagnate, they often atrophied to a set of homogeneous templates that bear little connection to the contents they are supposed to convey. But given that digital technology is theoretically available to everyone, wouldn’t it be possible to build our own layout table?

A key lesson from Wechselwirkung is that the answer to this question only partially depends on the availability of technology. To be sure, in the 1970s and 1980s alternative “bricolage” publishing initiatives profited from both a drop in publishing and reproduction costs and the popularization of printing and copying with technologies such as offset printing and photocopying. The 1990s advancements in desktop publishing and printing should have made grassroots publishing even easier. Yet, technology alone is not enough. Journals like Wechselwirkung managed to survive for at least some time because of their strong social and intellectual ties. Their print issues were the results of long, controversial, and often nerve-racking discussions within the editorial collective. Following the journal’s history throughout the 1980s (the collective dissolved in 1990), one can see how the network of collaborators and external commentators grew steadily. The individual issues were genuine products of passion that arose from shared interests in topics, discourses, and experiments. Publishing has always been more than a mere printing of books, as Alex Csiszar and James A. Secord, amongst others, convincingly demonstrated in their histories of academic publishing. The social dimension, integral to groups, collectives, networks, and associations, has proven central to the emergence of scientific publishing cultures. Both the social organization and the formats of scientific thought—articles, chapters, monographs, edited volumes, and blog posts—shape knowledge processes. Format and content usually emerge together. Publishing, in other words, creates thought collectives.

We think of publishing infrastructures as socio-technical systems. Consequently, we decided to concentrate on setting up publishing infrastructures that would foster the formation of new collectives—layout tables for the digital world. This infrastructural work strongly relies on the interactions between humanities scholars and graphic designers. Each infrastructure consists of a content management system that includes a set of technical and design elements and is calibrated according to the needs of a specific group. The first project we realized—in collaboration with Zurich University of Arts—was a publishing infrastructure for teaching: Æther. Teaching in an interdisciplinary MA program at ETH Zurich, we found that while skills in science communication is advertised as a key feature of their future work as scientists, students were rarely taught how to actually write, let alone gain insights into the publishing process, which includes editing, proofreading, stylesheets, peer-reviewing, and image research. Æther was thus conceived as a research-and-writing “workshop,” extending over the course of (typically) two semesters. Here, students develop their own papers and act as editors and peer-reviewers of their colleagues, with the goal of publishing an issue dedicated to a particular topic. Working collectively on the volume is the core experience of the workshop, which is structured by both the teaching practice and the publishing infrastructure. The “layout table” in this case consists of writing and feedback exercises and teaching manuals, as well as the newly built digital content management system. Students and teachers assemble the texts, images, etc. themselves. Æther relies on innovations in browser-based publishing and automated design, which allows us to generate the three main outputs (desktop, mobile, and print views) in just one step. Once this infrastructure was in place, it started to travel. After launching the first issue in 2018, the format has been used at other universities and by other project seminars.

In a second project, we wanted to go further and create a format that actually allowed collectives of researchers to share and experiment with their materials. In other words, the cutting and gluing, the collective arranging of thoughts, images, and quotes should serve as the basis for exploring the epistemic potentials of working and thinking together. The result of this endeavor was cache, a publishing infrastructure for research groups. This material-based and montage-like format took inspiration from the publishing-from-below movements of the 1980s, and it was not by chance that the first issue of cache dealt with the role of science in the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. The first volume Gegenwissen (“counter knowledge”) was the result of a stimulating process of sharing, discussing, connecting, and mapping out source materials, bringing together 12 historians in various constellations of co-authorship. We developed cache as a modular format that would allow us to write collaboratively by adding, reading, commenting, and contributing to the evolving structure/backbone of the publication. cache, too, relies on browser-based publishing and automated design-tools that connect print and html layouts on a technical level.

Like most DIY projects, intercom has been, and still is, driven by ideals and ethics of creativity, appropriation of production resources, self-empowerment, and experimentation. Less positive vibes come from, of course, the economic side of things: in practice, our ideals often clash with economic realities and the constraints of academic career paths, where hands-on engagement with publishing is not part of the typical job profile. intercom is—again, like most DIY projects—notoriously underfinanced and relies on our unpaid work, usually performed in our free time, and on short-time grants that allow us to “innovate” (few institutions are interested in financing the maintenance of publishing infrastructure). Currently, we are a team of six doctoral students and post-docs who have fixed-term research or teaching positions, and we are supported by a student assistant at the chair for Science Studies at ETH Zurich, where intercom is based. With external short-term funding by the Swiss National Science Foundation and smaller university grants and project-specific printing subsidies, we manage to pay our graphic designers and programmers, cover printing and distribution costs as well as layouts for proof-reading. We sell our books through our own web shop and in assorted bookstores in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, thus managing to eke out a niche in a highly monopolized academic publishing landscape. In short, we are largely disconnected from the considerable flows of money actually circulating in this landscape, which is spent by university libraries and national institutions—i.e. by the public—on open access fees raised by major publishing houses.  

Where we meet “big players” and big money, however, is in the world of copyrights. For us, like for many small publishing houses, obtaining the copyright for images has become a major (and time-consuming) headache. For the first cache issue, for instance, we worked with a fair amount of visual material sourced from alternative publishing initiatives like Wechselwirkung. We learned that quite often the copyrights belonged to the publishing houses that dominate the publishing industry today, because they had systematically bought up the backlists of small publishers over the past few years. This put us in an awkward position and produced quite absurd situations: we were faced with extravagant offers to buy printing rights for material that had been montaged illegally, with scissors and glue, by activists in the 1980s. This hardly comes as a surprise to historians of academic publishing. As we know from the works of Robert Darnton, publishing has a long history of adventurous copying ventures and illegal reproductions. In the midst of our own Sisyphus-like copyright research, we caught a glimpse of Joseph Duplain and Charles Joseph Pancoucke waving back at us from their “Encyclopédie Wars in Prerevolutionary France.” (In this respect, it is quite helpful not to produce bestsellers like the Encyclopédie but rather niche science books.)

To be sure, intercom is by far not the only current grassroots initiative in the humanities. In Europe as well in the US, there are now plenty of so-called scholar-led presses that have evolved over the past decade or so, such as Mattering Press in Manchester and punctum books in California. At a recent workshop, a colleague asked if getting “bigger” was a goal for any of us at all. Do we want to stay small or get big? Personally, we would rather stay small and join forces with other scholar-led initiatives. Even as we like to think of intercom as an intervention into the current state of academic publishing, our venture cannot replace key services of the publishing industry, much like we cannot, for instance, provide the necessary logistics on our own. Staying small also allows to stay close to the needs of authors. Of course, we do need more funding for maintenance and support with editorial work piling up on our desks, but we are keen to stay “scholar-led.” This is simply because we first and foremost identify as scholars.

We believe, however, that the tremendous amount of money that goes into academic publishing every year can—and should—be spent differently. In the humanities, a good start would be to support small and medium-sized publishing houses (be it scholar-led or not) who actually take a professional interest in the works they publish. Publishing in the humanities is—or should be—about facilitating new and surprising ways of seeing the world. And about the fun and inspiration that usually set in when ideas, topics, discourses, and experiments converge. This often happens in solitude and lonesome meditation, but your chances might be even better in good company: sitting together and thinking things through while working at the layout table.

Nils Güttler is a Postdoc at the chair for Science Studies at ETH Zurich. His research interests range from the history of the life sciences, especially biogeography and ecology, trough the history of popular science and visual culture to environmental history. He is currently turning a manuscript on the environmental history of the Frankfurt Airport into a book.

Niki Rhyner is a PhD candidate at the chair for Science Studies at ETH Zurich. She is writing her dissertation on the history of ethnographic field research in Europe after WWII with a focus on anthropology, economic policies and theories, and regional history.

Nils and Niki are both co-founders of intercom Verlag and are (more or less) active on Twitter (@NilsRobert3, @nlrhyner). The intercom collective consists of Tina Asmussen, Ines Barner, Bernhard Böhm, Zohra Briki, Nils Güttler, Niki Rhyner, Max Stadler. They can be found on Twitter via @intercomverlag

Featured Image: Herbert Mehrtens, Bernt Patze: »Grabrede auf das bisherige WECHSELWIRKUNGs-Kollektiv vor der sich allmählich auflösenden Trauergemeinde«, in: Wechselwirkung 45/46 (December 1990), 11.

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