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The Evolution of Digital Publishing


Questions by Diana Mazzella
Photographed by Brian Persinger

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Cheryl E. Ball just received the first Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant West Virginia University has ever received — for $1 million. She and her collaborators will use the grant to create Vega, the first open-access publishing platform for multimedia-based research. Open-access publishing allows readers to access peer-reviewed research online, for free. This access might otherwise cost hundreds of dollars per journal subscription. WVU Magazine Managing Editor Diana Mazzella sat down with Ball to talk about why open-access publishing matters to everyone, not just scholars.

How does your work affect people in their everyday lives?

When the average person goes to their doctor, their doctor is treating them based on published research. So how does the average person get access to the same research? Some venues like the Public Library of Science are making scientific research available for free, but much of that work is written in scientific jargon that is difficult for the typical reader to follow.

A few journals have started publishing video abstracts of scientific work, but they aren’t often open access, so I have a problem with it. I want my mother to be able to access these videos, so she can learn about psoriasis or whatever. But right now there are not really any systems that allow for that. So we’re going to build it at WVU with help from some really cool Norwegians. 

What are some of the more important changes in new media for the average person? 

That anybody with access can produce. They call it the “prosumer” environment where we’re not just consuming content that other people are producing but we are able to produce content on our own. When people have access to the Internet and other technology, more and more people are able to compose and put things online. I mean, look at how popular Instagram is. And Snapchat. They are versions of sharing information with each other that can be as simple as picking up our phones and snapping a picture and then it’s done – or as complicated as people creating full-length movies and submitting them to major film festivals just using the tools that we have at home. 

Why does digital publishing matter? 

I have to imagine that a lot of people think that digital media is nothing but fluff. They go to YouTube and they see stupid videos or they go on Twitter and they’re just horrified by what they read there, and yet people said the same thing about newspapers. People said the same thing when book publishing moved out of the monasteries and into the hands of commercial publishers over hundreds of years. People have always freaked out about whatever the newest delivery mechanism is, and one of the coolest things about doing this work within an English department is that we’re taking a humanistic perspective on this work and saying, “OK, there’s this technology and there’s this media. How do we put that to use? How do we study the good with the bad, and how do we make more good in the world?” 

Digital media allows us to do that in a way that suits our contemporary communication environment, and in ways that are incredibly powerful — incredibly powerful. We can watch a 30-second video clip and just be bawling because it moves us in just a very particular way that involves the composition of the multimedia, and I think getting to teach students how to do that alongside teaching them how to write in a traditional format is absolutely crucial. If we’re not doing that in a lot of our classes now, I think that we’re missing the boat in some ways. Say that. Tell them that.

Can you define new media?

I’d be happy to define new media. It’s something I’ve had to do my entire career. The way that I talk about new media is digital media delivered online through screen-based ways of viewing things: tablets or iPhones or however people look at it. My definition of what constitutes new media has changed over the years and doesn’t always have to be digital. But I study digital media artifacts, whatever that may be, whatever genre that might take that we’re able to create now because of digital technologies. 

What are some examples of new media that you use?

A lot of the work that I do with students and new media is having them look at digital texts that they find online every day, so when I’m teaching a multimedia authoring class we’re looking at how do Facebook posts make meaning and how do videos that get transferred on YouTube make meaning in the world? How does Twitter work and how can we compose messages within those environments in a way that is rhetorically appropriate. In other words, that it reaches the audience that it’s intended to reach at the moment that those audiences need that information?

What are you trying to create with your publishing platform, Vega?

This project deals with open access and preservation and peer review and the sustainability of publishing writ large. The academic platform that we’re building will be open access so anyone with an Internet connection can download and potentially use this publishing platform. We’re building it for academic books, media artifacts, data sets and whatever it is a scholar has to publish in order to do their work. But just because it’s set up for that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that it needs to publish. I look to websites today like Medium where everyday people are publishing these really interesting multimedia-rich pieces in an environment that helps it get read. And that’s really cool, right? A lot of us secretly want to be writers. This platform may be able to help facilitate that. The grant is meant to build a platform that is primarily intended for academic publishing, but in doing so it will make more publishing open and accessible for anybody who wants to read and publish. So we’ll see.

Do you think about how we preserve things online even if the outlet changes, like YouTube for example?

All the time I think about these things. All the time. And I have to because the journal that I edit, Kairos, it’s been around for 20 years. It is the longest-running journal that publishes digital media scholarship. And the reason why it’s been around so long and that it’s published consistently over these 20 years is that we are constantly thinking about access and preservation issues and how to accommodate those with all the different changing media that we get that authors want to publish in our journal. Every week we get something new and different we say, “How are we going to deal with this medium now, this technology?”

It sounds like access and preservation of new media are two major issues that you think about. What are some others?

One of the things that I think about a lot is what kind of artifacts can people produce that are readable today? So many people are reading on their phones now. Five years ago that didn’t happen. So many people are reading ebooks on Kindle or Nook or whatever and seven or eight years ago that didn’t happen. The technology is changing so quickly, and people are reading more and more and more. When I sit down to read Facebook, it’s not just “here’s what I had for breakfast,” or “here’s my cat pictures,” it’s “what kind of news are my friends sending me?” What kind of books are they reading that they’re posting on Facebook or just sort of giving me a different level of essentially peer review, and peer review is something that I as an editor and as a scholar of publishing think about all the time.