On Collaborative Blogging as Open Access Scholarly Activity. The Case of The Comics Grid.

A longer version of this post was originally published in two parts by PhD2Published on 12 July 2011 and 14 July 2011

“If collaboration and team working are going to be expected more of humanities researchers in future, then we need to think about how to make it seem more normal.”


Claire Warwick, 15 June 2011

One of the most satisfying and challenging projects I’ve been involved with recently is The Comics Grid. When people ask me what it is all about, I say “collaboration.” After I submitted the final draft of my PhD dissertation (ambitiously titled “The Comic Book in the Age of Digital Reproduction”), I couldn’t wait any longer to to create an actual platform, a research and teaching tool, something concrete (online resources are very much concrete and not “virtual” in the sense of “unreal) with which to address a lack I perceived in the field.
This field is actually a multiplicity of fields. Since what has been called “comics scholarship” studies multimodal texts the methodologies employed to study them should equally be multmodal, i.e., combining different disciplines until not too long ago perceived (and in some cases still perceived) as essentially different. Media studies, communication studies, information studies, cultural studies, film studies, archeology, library science, history, geography, you name it: people studying comics within and outside academia have always employed a combination of approaches and terminologies produced and transmitted from these disciplinary areas.

What I wanted was to develop an open online platform to foster collaboration between scholars based in different parts of the world, to empower them to self-edit and self-publish original research online in tight collaboration with their peers, and to help make a contribution towards the acceptance of

a) comics scholarship as a valid academic activity and

b) online scholarship/academic blogging and social media as a valid expression of scholarly publishing and scholarly communications.

In spite of efforts like the Modern Language Association’s “Short Guide to Evaluation of Digital Work (2010)“, evaluation, appreciation and referencing of online scholarship still has a long way to go. Teachers all over the world still request their students not to “cite from the Internet”, but often fail at developing digital research literacy strategies to address this problem (and often, when they do, they replicate old paradigms which digital publishing debunks in practice).

In comics scholarship, proper attribution of sources (as Martin Barker noticed back in 1989) is equally troubled by a lack of standards, notwithstanding the existence of resources like Allen Ellis’ “Comic Art in Scholarly Writing. A Citation Guide” (1998). Moreover, the humanities have a long tradition of employing visual material to illustrate research and teaching, but have traditionally failed to see these sources as worthy of citation (as it keeps happening today).

So I knew that the obstacles were multiple: if non-funded, open online research faces plenty of resistance (accused of complacency and lack of academic rigour, persistence, “impact”, authenticity and authority), comics scholarship faced similar deeply-rooted prejudices, based on unfounded notions of what is worthy of academic study and what is not. In brief, the obstacles seemed insurmountable, but this was what, precisely, made them irresistible to challenge consistently and systematically. In order to do it, the only logical option was to do it as a coordinated front.

“Every moment has its discontents, its challenges and failures. Yet no moment is every truly last, at least not so long as we persist in human conversation.”

Stuart Moulthrop, 2005 [PDF]

From the start I knew that if The Comics Grid project was attractive to others it was going to grow fast. I therefore considered essential to design specific guidance documentation, that was later reviewed by the core editorial team. What started with one person, then five, has become now thirteen active contributors, including reviewers and editors. We have published 52 posts since January 2011, and have since maintained our publication schedule of two original posts per week. The blog has been viewed almost 28,000 times, and our analytics reveal that most readers find us by making comics research-related queries on Google.

A sense of mission is what has kept editors and contributors working together in spite of the logical challenges imposed by lack of face-to-face interaction (all work is done online, by email, on shared Google docs and on the blog’s dashboard). In what follows I’d like to share with you one the points that summarise our mission:

General Mission

The Comics Grid wants to consolidate an international network of comics scholars and to offer a forum to promote their academic work online. It functions as an online open access laboratory where different critical approaches to comics are publicly and collectively put to test. Though our scope wants to be as diverse as possible, our initial aim is to focus on the analysis of specific comics page layouts and panels. Our content is media-specific. We foster public engagement through social media tools and other dissemination activities.

Our detailed mission statement,  draft schedule, and editorial and contribution guidelines exist as online documents which are shared amongst all contributors and editors.

Our editorial guidelines and other internal documents are available to serious interested parties upon written request.

We aim to follow good practice in electronic publishing and seek to make our content as widely available as possible through reliable metadata, standardised image file description/referencing, search engine optimisation, human-readable permalinks, RSS and Mobile platform capabilities, etc.

We have clear open policies regarding content sharing and community management

All the original content published on the blog  is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, but individual authors retain their respective intellectual property rights.

We believe that online open access scholarship needs to be taken into account as valid academic work.

We believe that online open access scholarship has a real impact within scholarly communities and is naturally well-suited for public engagement.

All contributors are requested to actively engage in the promotion of our content through social media tools, conferences and other dissemination activities.

I hope that sharing these notes with you will have helped you understand what is that guides us and keeps us working together, and perhaps even see the similarities with your own projects or even (who knows!) inspire to start your own online collaborative project. For me these first six months have been incredibly exciting but also exhausting. In comparison, working individually, thinking only of your own benefit, seems incredibly easier. Also, having someone else to do all your PR and promotional needs is way easier than having to do it yourself. But we built something, and now we want others to use it, and to achieve this we need to work hard in spreading the word.

Until now we don’t have the institutional back up that other similar resources have. This also means that some of our colleagues may look down on us as “just a blog”. It would be a lie not to say this is also on my mind every day I spend hours working on the Grid, talking to people about it, commissioning contributions, working hard to convince established scholars that contributing a piece of research to us is worth it.

Working in a team, remotely, with mostly words as your main channel of communication, without any immediate, direct financial gain in sight is not an easy thing to do. I keep the faith it will be worth it. I am convinced this system of academic work is a logical reaction to the way culture is taking shape in the 21st century. This conviction, the idea of work as a constant conversation with others, is what keeps me going.