Scholarly Publication at the Digital Tipping Point
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Two years ago, the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office of Michigan’s University Library embarked on a joint publishing project, digitalculturebooks, whose aim was to publish books about new media in both a printed for-sale version and an open access (OA) online version. The intention was not only to publish innovative and accessible work about the social, cultural, and political impact of new media and to collect data about the ways reading habits and preferences vary across different scholarly reading communities, but also, implicitly, to explore the opportunities and the obstacles involved in a press working in a close, full partnership with a technologically savvy library unit with a business model, orientation to clients, and digital and archival competence very different from the press’s. I won’t discuss this project, still in a very early stage of development, in any detail here other than to mention what a pleasure it has been and how instructive it has been to observe, close up, the digital skills and the public commitment of our library colleagues. (The joint press/library Web site, http://www.digitalculture.org, offers a full description of the aims and the content of the project, a list of the series that have already been developed, and other ancillary materials.) I do, however, want to share some provisional observations concerning the future of scholarly communication, prompted, in large part, by early experiences with this hybrid publishing model.
First, interesting recently announced digital collaborations between various university presses and university libraries (at, for example, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Purdue, California) seem premised on uniting the long experience and hard-won competences of the presses in locating, recruiting, assessing, and editing the most original and significant scholarly authors and projects (with less emphasis on the presses’ skills in producing, marketing, promoting, distributing, and selling printed books) with the libraries’ deeply ingrained orientation to organizing, archiving, tagging, storing, preserving, and freely disseminating scholarly—in these cases, primarily digital—materials. This inherited division of publishing labor between presses and libraries on shared projects will likely persist on these terms for a while. But these rigid boundaries will undoubtedly be breached and traditional roles reconfigured since, in matters digital, it is undeniable that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” whether the limits challenged are traditional publishing functions or roles (“editor,” “designer”), nodes in the wider societal book production and consumption cycle (“author,” “reader,” “publisher”), or the book itself.
Second, although the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) as an organization continues to defend the most stringent interpretation of the traditional print copyright regime, and AAUP representatives frequently react with gloom to the growing number of open access mandates and initiatives, individual university presses are demonstrating adventurousness and creativity by developing their own digital OA projects, often in collaboration with other university units (both within and outside of their own university confines), that bypass conservative precepts. And I believe these will be the very projects—or perhaps the precursors of the precursors of the projects—that will salvage the presses’ declining stature within their parent institutions and secure them a valued position in the transformed and transforming world of digital scholarly communication.
Third, the stick of the failing scholarly print model coupled with the many attractions of the digital carrot is leading inexorably to a fundamental reconfiguration of scholarly book publishing. However, the apocalyptic ideologues holding forth loudly on both sides of the digital divide notwithstanding, even the broadest outlines of a new publishing system—never mind the specifics of the new digital pathways and functional linkages that it will generate both within and beyond the university boundaries—are still quite dim. (This is, I suspect, inevitable at the moment of a fundamental paradigm shift.) Not least because any movement at all is contested, as many groups with strong investments in current arrangements resist, to some degree, new digital opportunities that threaten traditional procedures and prerogatives. And, at least in the short term, some of this resistance is rational: for example, presses that are now struggling with almost impossible financial burdens in the terminal stages of the print era, but remain largely tethered to the traditional pay-as-you-go university mandate, are at a loss to see how or when digital revenues will be sufficient to cover the high costs of publishing in either print or digital formats, much less both. What is clear is that the imminent digital tipping point will not just transform what is published and how, but will also topple many of the professional arrangements that battened on to the old system.
Fourth, whatever the specifics, digitally based scholarly publishing will entail redistribution and redesign of publishing activities, with involvement of new campus players possessing additional skills, resources, and orientations. For example, digitalculturebooks would benefit by expanded connections to distributed university-wide digital resources and by access to more of the equally distributed scholarly strengths in the broad area of new media. Not only will libraries become an integral part of the future digital publishing ensemble (as is already well underway), but, in principle, so will IT departments, “schools of information,” and, in selected ways, the whole campus scholarly community. Recognizing this potential expansion of relevant publishing nodes on campus, the recent Ithaka Report, “University Publishing in a Digital Age,” calls repeatedly for “the university” to take an active role in coordinating and directing scholarly publishing. As a general perspective this seems reasonable but only if “the university” is shorthand for a much expanded, distributed, and diverse array of campus units that might collaborate in scholarly book-length publication.
The university administration can, of course, play a vital role, not just in helping open up the wider campus to the scholarly publication process, but also in determining the appropriate way to fund it and in helping to generate the necessary capital infusions for what will be a fundamental new architecture of scholarly publishing. New publishing infrastructure, composed of several distinct and intersecting levels, will have to be laid down (likely created piecemeal and somewhat idiosyncratically, university-by-university, in many cases by building on what is already being developed between presses and libraries). One component of that new publishing infrastructure will be a much elaborated cyberinfrastructure, establishing an extensive series of digital pathways both internal (among the growing array of units associated with each university’s scholarly publishing activity) and external. The latter will be designed to enhance flows of information and meta-information and to establish and manage intersecting, fluid, and interactive communities among the university publishing center and “external” agencies (1. vendors and distributors; 2. authors; 3. readers/consumers). Equally importantly, each university (in its own way and consistent with its own objectives) will have to renegotiate the normative infrastructure underlying basic publishing choices and orientation in order to redefine the basic mandates and values of its scholarly publishing program—beginning with an explicit consensus on “why” publish at all, “what” to publish, “whom” to publish and “whom” to publish for, “how” to publish (print or digital in general, and which digital and print alternatives in particular), and “how” to fund the new infrastructure and future publishing costs.
The answers each university provides to these questions (and how it goes about asking and answering them), combined with its particular publishing history and available resources, will produce a unique scholarly publishing footprint. That is why publishing infrastructure should be and will be built locally and will differ, often widely, one university from another. Diversity and competition are generally good things in the publishing sector. However, controlled gateways can be created that would permit the linking of these distributed publishing systems into inter-university publishing networks and make possible selective, voluntary collaboration among two or more presses on particular publishing projects, or on whole disciplinary publishing areas. This would afford the benefits of scale without threatening individual identity and integrity.
Only by reconceiving and rebuilding a transformed system of scholarly communication—one founded on a flexible, robust, multi-layered infrastructure—will universities be able to respond effectively to the powerful competition that they will inevitably face in these areas from non-university publishers, from both the traditional dinosaurs (essentially the same publishing conglomerates that wrested STM publishing away from the universities in the 1980s and 1990s) and the myriad of shrews (smaller, adventurous, nimble, digital publishers) who will thrive during this period of evolutionary disjunction in the scholarly arena to the extent that university responses are inhibited by inertia, disinterest, or discord.
Fifth, I believe strongly that even as these digitally driven, tectonic publishing shifts proceed, university presses must continue to play their traditional roles in locating significant authors and texts; shaping learned texts into more coherent, graceful, and persuasive public presentations; organizing prestigious disciplinary-based publishing lists; and preparing extended scholarly arguments and analyses for a growing array of digital and print options and audiences. No other agency on campus has the experience and competence, much less the time and commitment, to execute these functions. However, to sustain these roles in the rapidly mutating digital future, presses will require extraordinary dexterity and imagination on the part of the presses and will depend on the appreciation of university administrators and many others on campuses for the ongoing contributions of university presses. University presses must continue to publish books that carry the name and reputation of a university and its academic disciplines to areas and audiences that the university itself cannot reach directly; publish the vast majority of the extended scholarly work in the humanities and many of the social sciences; play an important role in many cases of faculty promotion and tenure; facilitate the exchange of ideas and information between the academy and a wide range of general and regional publics; and help fill the void in intelligent and informed public discourse caused by the serious decline in the critical quality of almost all current media, trade-book publishing in particular, at the national level.
Sixth, and last, I have no doubt that the “processed book” (as named and explicated by Joe Esposito), or what the Institute for the Future of the Book (IFB) and others call the “networked book,” will become the gold standard of scholarly publishing in the future. These next-generation books, as presented by Esposito and IFB’s Ben Vershbow and under development by IFB and others, will embed the digital text in an intricate web of dynamic linkages that permit references within the text and sources for the text to be instantly accessed; allow others to comment publicly and interactively on all or part of the text; facilitate querying, searching, and mining the text for data in many ways; and establish the text as a node within social networks of users and networks of other texts. But, for what it’s worth—and speaking as a person of a certain age—my bet (and hope) is that the printed book will actually hold serve for a long time, even in the emerging pluralistic digital publishing regime, not just because of its long history or the graceful aesthetics of its physical presence, but also because of its crucial catalytic role in the very construction of extended argument and conceptualization in humanities projects. And because there is much to be said for solitary, unmediated, intensive engagement with a physical book that is identifiably authored, bounded, and stable. This may represent my own whistling in the analog dark, but even if I overestimate the persistence of the printed codex, fortunately I possess a large library with many still-unread books to fall back on.
Phil Pochoda is Director of the University of Michigan Press. Previously he has been Associate Director and editorial director of the University Press of New England; editorial director of Anchor Books and Dial Press at Doubleday; and Vice-President at Simon & Schuster while publisher and editor-in-chief of Prentice-Hall Press. He may be reached at email@example.com.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Choice Magazine, May 2008.
Laura Brown, Rebecca Griffiths, and Matthew Rascoff, “University Publishing in a Digital Age,” Ithaka Report, July 27, 2007, http://www.ithaka.org/strategic-services/university-publishing/.
Joseph J. Esposito, “The Processed Book,” First Monday 8, no. 3 (March 2003), http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue8_3/esposito/.
Institute for the Future of the Book blog: http://www.futureofthebook.org; entries on the “networked book”: http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/the_networked_book/.