Beginning with this issue, the reborn Journal of Electronic Publishing (JEP) is published by the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan University Library (SPO). The Scholarly Publishing Office exists to provide tools and methods for the electronic publication and distribution of scholarly content. Assuming publication responsibility for JEP gives SPO a new opportunity engage in both the theory and practice of electronic publishing. This SPO-JEP relationship benefits both partners: SPO provides JEP with a stable electronic publishing environment and a commitment to long-term preservation, while JEP adds to SPO's catalog of journals that fulfill its mission of distributing content of value to the academic community.

Many readers will remember the former incarnation of JEP, published by the University of Michigan Press, and will also recognize that JEP has been on hiatus for nearly four years while it lacked a means of distribution. In 2002, the UM Press made a decision that it could no longer afford to support JEP, which was free. Although Columbia University Press initially hoped to assume publication of the journal, it too found that economic necessity dictated that they not invest in the development and distribution of a free journal. Our readers may wonder then, given these rational economic decisions by two different university presses, why and how SPO can afford to take on the publication JEP? Has SPO made an irrational decision that makes the fate of JEP precarious? Or does it publish with a different set of imperatives and conditions that in fact ensure the viability of its publications?

Understanding the answers to these questions requires some understanding of the state of academic publishing and the context in which SPO operates. In any recent informed discussion of scholarly communication, the word "crisis" almost inevitably arises. The economic elements of this crisis worth summarizing in this context:

  • Library budgets are flat or declining while the cost of academic publishing is increasing and being passed on to the consumers.
  • The market for University Press books does not generate enough revenue to support the print publication of scholarly works and the Presses have not developed a business model for electronic publication that creates significant returns. In order to continue to publish, the Presses then require significant institutional subsidies. Most academic institutions do not provide such subsidies, forcing the Presses to close, to publish non-academic books to bring in enough money to continue to operate, or to increases prices further, thus narrowing their market even more.
  • Small publication units within the academy of scholarly societies are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the costs of editorial development and print production. These units increasingly either fold entirely or sign on with large commercial publishers (in either case relieving competitive pressure on commercial academic publishing). Since these smaller publishing ventures have traditionally been the venue for scholarship that is perceived as having less economic value (notably the humanities and the "soft" social sciences), their disappearance or loss of independence threatens important platforms for part of our intellectual dialogue and cultural heritage.

These economic pressures on academic publishing are not the only issues of concern in scholarly communication. The increasing predominance of electronic publication has given rise in many quarters to anxiety about the longevity and durability of digital formats. While both libraries and users enjoy the convenience and functionality of electronic resources, both are worried that there is no plan for or certainty of responsible long-term stewardship of electronic materials.

In addition, scholarly communication has been bedeviled by increasingly restrictive and complex rights agreements that often remove the control of intellectual assets from both the scholars who create them and the academic institutions that subsidize them. In the current intellectual property climate, authors and researchers often sign away their rights, forcing sponsoring institutions to purchase access to the very scholarship they have made possible. Even when an institution has bought such access, usually through its library, the scholarship is still not always available for the full range of teaching, research, and creative activities desired by faculty and students,

While these issues have been part of the academic and publishing landscape for some time, in the past decade the prevalence and possibilities of electronic publishing has brought them to a crisis point.

In response, the academic world is moving from wringing its hands and deploring the sad state of publishing to formulating and implementing strategies for change. Some of these strategies are deployed in the context of library-publisher negotiations, wherein libraries leverage their buying power to influence the conditions of publication. Additionally, academic institutions are increasingly supporting the development of alternative publishing venues using the ubiquity and accessibility of the Web. Among the most visible of such strategies have been the creation of institutional repositories, faculty development of open access journals, and support for activist membership organizations such as SPARC. Less prominent, but of increasing interest, has been investment in library-based publishing: the university library's assumption of responsibility for publications from development through long-term preservation.

SPO is one such experiment in library-based publishing. SPO is committed to developing cost-effective methods of publication, to extending library preservation strategies to its publications, and to supporting the intellectual property rights of authors through scholar-friendly rights agreements. SPO, like the Michigan library itself, exists to support the research and teaching needs of the University of Michigan community. It does so most directly by providing a publishing service for the university faculty, assisting those faculty in the development and distribution of electronic scholarship and creative work. In addition, it fulfills its mission publishing materials that the Library deems to be of value to its users, particularly content that might otherwise be at risk due to economic or technical limitations.

SPO's resources—institutional support and income from revenue—are healthy, but SPO is not designed to be a large-scale publisher. However, by creating economical, efficient, and effective publishing methods SPO hopes to become a model for other library-based publishing efforts. This model helps to shape the future of academic publishing by changing the way the academy thinks about disseminating its scholarly and creative work.

SPO supports several different forms of formal publishing, ranging from electronic versions of fairly traditional monographs to new forms of individual and collaborative authoring. Most of its effort, however, is focused on electronic journals and conference proceedings. These products range from fairly straightforward text to publications that capitalize on the possibilities of the electronic environment by incorporating elements such as multimedia, hyperlinks, and associated electronic files. These serial publications are largely open access (with some exception to be discussed momentarily) and are free to the public.

The growing prominence of open access publishing has led to growing curiosity about how such publishing can be sustained. While the costs of publishing can be redistributed, they still remain as costs. The most widely know open access business model has become known as the "author pays" model in which the author, or more customarily the author's home institution, pays a publication fee. In some disciplines (at least in the United States) research grant funding includes the cost of publication. Other funding models that pay for the journal publishing costs and thus allow for open access include institutional or foundation support, disciplinary society support (often from money made from meetings and conferences), and generating revenue from related sales (such as slides, specimens or hard copy of primarily electronic journals).

SPO operates using a business model that combines an institutional investment with revenue generated by the Office. SPO's base funding comes from one of the Michigan Library's strategic initiatives funds. This money supports a permanent staff of four librarians and programmers, and represents an investment on the part of the library and the university in developing new means of dissemination for scholarship.

While the library does not expect any monetary return on that investment, it does expect a return in content. In order to be relevant and to justify its existence, SPO must create capacity for publishing and use that capacity to recruit and develop publications of value to the university.

This funding, plus the physical, technical and administrative infrastructure of the Library that is available to SPO, represents strong institutional commitment to alternative publishing, but it does not adequately cover all of SPO's costs. SPO still needs an operating budget for supplies, services, marketing, travel, and additional staff. SPO raises this money through publishing partnerships with academic and non-profit organizations that do not have their own capacity for electronic publishing.

Today SPO's partners include several departments and centers within the University of Michigan community and two non-profit academic publishers; discussions are under way with several scholarly societies and potential partner libraries and universities in the state of Michigan. SPO works with these partners to create subscription-based journals and databases and charges a hosting fee for making the resources available to subscribers. This fee is intended to cover the costs of SPO's role in the partnership and generate a modest surplus — either in cash or capacity — that supports other SPO work. SPO also offers conversion services to transform both print and electronic texts from their native formats to XML files.

SPO's goal is to distribute quality content at a reasonable cost. In some cases, that means the cost to the user is zero because the cost is borne by the University of Michigan through its funding of SPO.

But open access is not a desirable or viable model for all content. Some organizations depend on the money generated by publications to subsidize other activities, or university based journals may need subscription revenue to support graduate students. In the cases where an organization requires a subscription model, SPO provides a access controls through both IP access and passwords. By leveraging Michigan's institutional infrastructure and SPO's base funding to keep the costs of production low, SPO has so far managed to keep that cost of access low. In other cases, as with JEP, all costs are borne by the organization (in this case, SPO itself).

In addition to launching JEP, in 2005 SPO launched the Publisher Assistant Program in partnership with SPARC, to give peer-reviewed journals in the humanities and social sciences a secure electronic publishing environment. The program is designed for existing and new journals that wish to provide open access. SPARC provides free business-planning services that help the journal editors to envision how they might exist without subscription revenue and if, as a result of the business-planning process, the journal opts for open access publication, SPO provides free electronic hosting services. This hosting does not relieve a journal of all of its production costs, but it does alleviate cost in one significant area. SPO's cost in providing these services is covered by the library's investment, which it believes balances the cost of otherwise purchasing a subscription journal. In so doing, the library creates a public good that is shared by both the larger academic community and the general public

JEP is not a participant in the Publisher Assistance Program. SPO is publishing JEP because it can: SPO's infrastructure makes it possible to publish and host inexpensively, and JEP's own costs are low. JEP is benefiting from SPO's economic and philosophical principles.

SPO's business model puts it in a different position from the university presses that could not publish JEP.

Most university presses are charged with recovering their operating costs and, if the press is to grow, with generating profit that can support the cost of that growth. Those presses cannot support publications that cannot stand on their own, that cannot support themselves though subscriptions, advertising, or some more innovative model. While a press might be willing to take a chance on the initial investment in developing that model for a journal that has a high likelihood of success, none of the university presses contacted (and there were many) had the flexibility to invest in making JEP self-sustaining. SPO's imperative, on the other hand, is to make an intellectual return on economic investment by the university library; it can place its bets on content that it sees as important to its community, and we believe that JEP is important to the academic and publishing communities.

As both a publisher and reader of JEP, I look forward to the response to this issue and to those that follow in the next few years. I anticipate that it will engender lively discussion and debate that will be the strongest indication of the value of that intellectual return.

Maria Bonn has a 1990 PhD in American Literature from SUNY Buffalo where her work was focused on twentieth century American literature. After several years teaching and writing as an itinerant academic, she acquired a Masters of Information Science from the University of Michigan School of Information. Since 1997, she has worked for the University of Michigan, first as an Interface Specialist for Digital Library Collections, then in Digital Library Program Development and, most intensively as the head of the Library's scholarly publishing effort. In this latter role, she is responsible both for the production of electronic books and journals and for broadly developing the role of the Library in scholarly communication.