/ Reimagining the University Press


In order to run their organizations, meet their budgets, and fulfill their operational responsibilities, managers and staff at university presses have focused most of their energies on the traditional elements of their businesses: the production of print books and journals. It is no longer possible for university presses to rely on their traditional operations and missions to carry them forward. The current environment demands risk-taking, new approaches, innovative models, and a workforce willing and able to engage in these activities. To respond to this challenge, a university publisher needs to establish a research and development (R&D) group within the press that will focus exclusively on helping scholars develop innovative models of scholarly communication, emphasizing new thinking about content, technical functionality and tools, and strategic partnerships.

During the last several years, we have witnessed a revolution in the discovery and use of information. Many scholars and students now assume that a Google search is a first stop for doing research, that multimedia is an integral part of narrative text, and that content will be available in a variety of formats and devices, with the accompanying tools and functionality to enhance its use. The implications of these changes are causing a transformation of strategies for disseminating scholarly content. The question is, What role will university publishers carve out for themselves in this new world? In order to respond effectively to these changes, university presses must think innovatively about new models for shaping and disseminating scholarship. Moreover, they are going to have to adapt quickly and creatively if they wish to remain true to their missions and yet be relevant to current and future authors and readers.

University presses face a challenge shared by other businesses operating in the midst of rapid change: Organizations that are deeply invested in a traditional product or service have a tough time planning for and implementing innovation. Staff time and creative energy are, understandably, occupied keeping the existing business functioning, leaving few resources for developing models for the future. Thus, many university presses believe they face an impossible choice: Either focus on maintaining and defending their traditional businesses, or abandon them (along with their existing revenue streams) and create a new organization focusing solely on born-digital products and services. The fact that neither of these choices is a viable option presents a problem for university publishers that puts the entire enterprise at risk. Something needs to change in order for university presses to address the need to move creatively and effectively into the digital environment.

In order to run their organizations, meet their budgets, and fulfill their operational responsibilities, managers and staff at university presses have focused most of their energies on the traditional elements of their businesses: the production of books and journals. This has always been the bread and butter of these organizations, and has therefore been the focus of day to day activities. These are not typical times, however, and it is no longer possible for university presses to rely on their traditional operations and missions to carry them forward. The current environment demands risk-taking, new approaches, innovative models, and a workforce willing and able to engage in these activities. Many university publishers have tried to meet this challenge by asking existing staff members to extend their responsibilities incrementally in order to plan and implement new initiatives as part of their existing work. This strategy has not been effective, for the most part, and a new approach is needed if university presses wish to avoid becoming marginalized in the future scholarly communications landscape.

The solution to this problem lies in a rethinking of the staffing structure of university presses, and a staged plan for implementing change. This rethinking should be built on the vision of a university press as an organization that takes full advantage of the digital medium, and that is able to work with authors in creating and disseminating new forms of scholarship. To achieve this vision, a university publisher needs to establish a small group within the press that will focus exclusively on helping scholars develop innovative models of scholarly communication, emphasizing new thinking about content, technical functionality and tools, and strategic partnerships.

There is a model for this solution in other industries. University presses need to begin thinking more like technology companies and other businesses that must constantly adapt to rapid change. These organizations typically invest heavily in R&D divisions, with staff who have skills, experience, and mindsets that are often very different from those of other employees. These R&D staff have different goals and agendas, and often work in multi-departmental teams that develop innovative research projects, and then connect successful ones back into the company’s production environment. In university publishing, members of this group should be coming up with a steady stream of new ideas and testable models that offer innovative solutions for scholarly communication.

This R&D group will look and behave more like a research lab than a production operation. They will be directed to work with authors to develop new kinds of publications in a select number of fields that complement the areas of strength within a press’s host university. This group will play a critical role in helping the university press devise new models of scholarly publishing that will strengthen the press’s identity as a center of innovation. This group will be composed of “Research Associates” who have editorial expertise in content development in the publisher’s selected fields, who have an understanding of the potential of the online environment to enhance and disseminate that scholarship, and who are able to work with and support authors as they explore new ways of presenting their scholarship. They will be skilled in the art of articulating these ideas and models to an audience of scholars, technologists, and other publishing colleagues, and they will be innovative yet practical in their thinking about implementation and sustainability. These research associates will understand issues involved in information organization, annotation, management, and discovery, and the ability of tools and functionality to add value to scholarly content. They will work closely with authors at a very early stage of their thinking, helping them envision and then shape their projects into publishable work, and they will work equally closely with technology and design professionals either within the press or at partner organizations, who can help realize the scholars’ vision in practical form.

The goal of this R&D team should be to support and enable authors who are engaged in new forms of scholarly research and writing. It is still early days in this field, but there are some projects in which it is possible to see the benefits of this kind of collaboration between authors and press research staff. When the author of a digital work in the Gutenberg-e history series talked about her publication process at an academic conference, she described the “collaborative team” who contributed in significant ways to both the form and content of her work by finding a way to present her argument and utilize her sources. During the course of her book’s publication, this author had worked closely with a team that included an editor, a web developer, and a programmer, whose jobs were specifically focused on helping these authors translate their ideas for new forms of historical scholarship into digital publications. In this case, the author, who had been frustrated by the constraints of the print format in making her argument, envisioned a work that allowed the reader to “enter” the text from multiple points, thus dispensing with the linear narrative, and instead allowing the reader to encounter her argument through images, audio, or text. Though she had the idea and the research findings to support it, this author needed colleagues who understood her vision and who could help her express it in a digital environment.

In this new publishing model, the research associates and their authors will share equally in considering new kinds of questions: Must narrative necessarily be presented in linear form? Are there ways to present an “authorial voice” while allowing readers to explore an interactive digital work? Can annotated archival sources become central organizing structures of a publication? Are there new kinds of scholarly arguments that are made possible through the presentation of data alongside textual narrative? These and many other questions will arise with increasing frequency as scholars continue to explore the digital landscape, and the answers will depend, to a great extent, on the presence of publishing professionals with the necessary skills and vision to help authors address them. The answers to these questions may pave the way for publication of very different scholarly products that will require a new set of digitally based tools and platforms. The transition that will be enabled by this R&D component will thus go beyond a migration from print to electronic, and will require staff who can help scholars move beyond the article and monograph in their thinking. These staff members will require a perspective and skill set that allows them to:

  • See themselves as researchers who help to create new models of scholarship, and new forms of publication, in close collaboration with authors
  • Think creatively about the presentation of narrative, primary sources, data, and multimedia elements
  • Develop a nuanced understanding of how readers wish to access, use, and contribute to digital scholarly products and communities
  • Work effectively in an environment in which scholars, publishers, information technologists, and readers are part of a collaborative team

Going forward, university publishers will need to focus on tough issues such as changing organizational culture, creating new kinds of jobs, and incorporating innovation into a production environment. It is extremely difficult to make these changes while maintaining the core publishing business and this is why it will be necessary to create a small, focused research group that can push ahead with these kinds of activities while the core operations undertake a slower, staged transition, incorporating the new models as appropriate.

This introduction of an R&D component to university publishing implies a larger change in the definition of a university press. In this model, the press becomes more of a research center that plays a role in leading innovation in a scholarly discipline, in addition to serving a production and dissemination organization. This change will require close collaboration with a broader set of staff, either on or off site, who will help chart the course of publishing in a field because they understand the potential of information technology to affect the ways in which scholars conduct and disseminate their research. Scholarly presses will need to collaborate with colleagues in the libraries, computer science, engineering, and design schools and departments in order to find the expertise and skills needed to create new models of scholarship and new forms of publication. Once these models are developed, they should be shared widely among presses, so that policies, protocols, and best practices can be leveraged for the benefit of the entire scholarly publishing community. There exists an urgent need for collaborative innovation and shared expertise. Whether this happens in a distributed fashion or in a central location is open for discussion, but the need for scalable models and sharing of findings is clear.

Certainly, some of the traditional skills that scholarly publishers have brought to their work remain as valuable as ever, and will need to be part of the work of the R&D staff as well, such as identifying, assessing, and editing the best scholarly work. However, because the forms of scholarship and its publishing output will change, presses need to bring in staff with new skills and perspectives to work alongside its existing staff, and to help them understand the new ways in which scholars do their research and read content and use archives, images, and data. Publishers traditionally have separate departments devoted to editorial acquisitions and development, design and production, technology services, marketing, and customer service. Increasingly, these groups will need to work much more closely, and the research associates will provide a first step in creating jobs that merge those functions across departmental lines.

How will university presses, as an industry, provide the opportunities that will encourage this new kind of publishing staff to develop? While the introduction of an R&D group can provide a model, presses will need to be proactive in creating permanent positions for these kinds of publishing professionals, and then allow them to act as effective change agents within the organization. Some libraries have created positions they call blended librarians—staff members who possess both traditional reference skills as well as technology expertise—and who are able to help library users navigate the new information landscape. University publishers need to begin moving toward a similar model: staff members who have the vision and skills across the content and technical fields to help their authors—and their presses—navigate the changing landscape of scholarly communication. And once these professionals are on staff, university press leaders need to allow them to undertake experiments that might not initially appear to be directly relevant to publishing operations but that have the potential to yield valuable experience and models—for example, studying how scholars use datasets and primary sources in their work, or developing new systems for annotating and presenting digital archives.

It is clear that there is important and creative research being undertaken by scholars who will benefit from new models of publishing. What is also clear is that these scholars still have some unmet needs. Many have noted the need for a stable, robust, flexible, shared infrastructure upon which they can develop their work in digital form. But there are also other needs in the scholarly research community that remain as important in the digital environment as they were in the print world: the need for editorial development, assistance with the organization and design of digital projects, and innovative yet practical business models that will allow this work to remain accessible and secure, as well as be updated and enhanced over time. The scholarly publishing community has an opportunity to help fill these needs and thus become central partners in this endeavor, but in order to do so, university publishers must understand that they may require new or retrained staff with the necessary backgrounds, skills, and vision. Above all, the new university press will need to be flexible, willing to shift priorities and allow staff with these skill sets to help move certain parts of the organization forward rapidly while a slower transition takes place elsewhere.

University presses face real challenges but also significant opportunities. Over many years, they have played an enormously important role in advancing the process of scholarly communication, and the values and skills they bring to the table will remain important going forward. In order to preserve and enhance this value in a rapidly changing environment, they must be willing to undertake thoughtful but bold experimentation, with a clear focus on the next generation of authors and readers and their changing expectations and needs. And they must be willing to embrace change by re-envisioning their role and empowering staff members who can provide them with new models for the future.

Kate Wittenberg is Project Director, Client and Partnership Development in Ithaka S+R, where she focuses on consulting for scholarly societies, publishers, libraries, and foundations with an interest in planning, implementing, and sustaining digital resources in a variety of fields. Before joining Ithaka S+R, Kate directed the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC), a collaboration of the libraries, academic computing division, and university press, where she developed digital publications in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, including Columbia International Affairs Online, The Amistad Resource for Teaching African American History Jazz Studies Online, The Gutenberg-e Online History Project, and Core Integration for the National Science Digital Library.