Principles of Online Publication
Part III: Authorship and Readership as a Developmental Process

Publications, whether a book or journal article, were once thought of as fixed objects. One imagined that one’s writings would be ensconced forever in a library, side by side with the souls of other authors who had devoted their lives to this eternal resting place.

Authors whom I’ve contacted or met—to discuss one of their books—sometimes say to me, “You understand what I’ve written better than I do.” Some of these authors I’ve spoken to have written books that already are widely acknowledged as classics.

But what happens after a scholar has written a great book? Often, they write another book, and then another. This is part of the job description of an academic: writing books.

However, what if one thinks of books in terms of what they do rather than as material objects or things? A book contains ideas which, hopefully, produce change in the reader. The change generated by a book occurs in the mind of the reader (where else could it occur?).

One may say that the purpose of writing a book (or writing that takes any form) is to stimulate thought and to generate experience in the mind of a reader. So the purpose of writing and reading is developmental.

Reading produces new forms of consciousness, but also a deepening or consolidation of ideas and forms of consciousness already present within us.

The reason I sometimes understand an author’s ideas better than the author is because I read certain books and papers (actually, certain passages within these books or articles) continually. Once I discover a profound idea within a piece of writing—one that contains truth—I study the piece of writing again and again, never abandoning it until I have thoroughly internalized its ideas.

Scholarship is a process of change. One idea grows out of another . One idea grows into another. This is what we mean by “progress:” research and writing and publication lead to deeper understanding.

One of the fundamental characteristics of the Internet is that it facilitates the process of change. In a way, the Internet is change. Writing on the Internet does not allow for the possibility of an ending. One thing leads to another. Scholarship flows easily and quickly.

Nicholas Carr observes (2010) that a printed book is “a finished object.” Once inked onto the page, its “words become indelible.” The finality of the act of publishing has instilled in the best writers a desire to perfect the works they produce—to write with an “eye and an ear toward eternity.”

In the digital marketplace, on the other hand, publication becomes an “ongoing process rather than a discrete event.” When one writes on the Internet, the idea of “eternity” melts into the background. One writes in order to have an impact. One does not aspire to create an immortal piece of literature. One writes in order to convey ideas—to be heard, and to generate psychic and cultural change.

I think of scholarly authorship and readership as part of a developmental process. This is why I say that the purpose of a Library of Social Science Review Essay is to “engage the author’s arguments and articulate their implications in order to generate new insights and knowledge.”

It is not a question of “judging” a book—and then being done with it forever. The issue is the knowledge and insight contained within the book—that can deepen our own knowledge and insight. Neither a book—nor a book review—is an end in itself.

A graduate student about to receive his PhD (in Political Philosophy) worked for me several years ago. He read my papers, found them insightful, and said he would do everything in his power to help me write that “big book” that would cap off my career. This is how things work, he explained (mentioning something about Hegel). Wasn’t he surprised to discover that I was just getting started—and preferred to publish 1000 word essays on the Web?

This brings us to one of the primary characteristics of writing on the Internet: development of the “short form.” This does have to be a “tweet” (140 characters). However, publication on the Internet works best when one produces information in the form of bites/bits/bytes. One doesn’t have to say everything all at once.

An idea—if it is a significant one—has to be “digested,” incorporated into one’s system. Scholars are human beings. It’s not just a question of knowledge: abstract ideas or theories. Authorship and readership revolve around changing consciousness.

Scholarly and psychic change occurs gradually. Significant ideas need to be assimilated by each individual. An author produces his or her version of truth—so that the reader may develop his or her own version of the truth.