Ideas to Shake Up Publishing

July 26, 2007

With some regularity, reports or op-eds note the economic struggles of most university presses and the difficulties they face publishing monographs that are vital to individual scholars' careers, but that typically aren't read by that many people -- and that libraries can't afford to buy. Concerns about the relationship between university presses and tenure, for example, led the Modern Language Association to propose moving beyond the "fetishization" of the monograph.

Today, a new report called "University Publishing in a Digital Age" is being released by a group of experts on scholarly publishing -- and they too are proposing radical changes in the way publishing works. The report -- from Ithaka, a nonprofit group that promotes research and strategy for colleges to reflect changing technology -- is based on a detailed study of university presses, which morphed into a larger examination of the relationship between presses, libraries and their universities.

The report and its authors are suggesting that university presses focus less on the book form and consider a major collaborative effort to assume many of the technological and marketing functions that most presses cannot afford, and that universities be more strategic about the relationship of presses to broader institutional goals.

"We're trying to look at the whole ecosystem," said Laura Brown, a lead author of the report and a consultant who was formerly president of Oxford University Press USA, "and it was instructive to see how much dysfunction is there."

The report -- based on interviews with university press directors, library deans, provosts and other academic leaders -- finds that university presses are suffering from "a drift" in which they have become "less integrated with the core activities and missions of their home campuses."

Digital scholarship, the report notes, is making publication much more diverse and less formal than it once was, as a scholar has many more options -- many of them not relying on the vetting process of a university press -- to distribute research findings or ideas. At the same time, university presses are not exactly flush with cash to make new investments to use technology. A survey conducted as part of the project found that most university presses have annual revenues of less than $3 million, that 70 percent run a deficit, and that most expect support from their parent universities to stay roughly level for the next five years.

What to do?

While the report offers many ideas, a major focus is to expand the online publication role of university presses and to create a mechanism for university presses to collaborate on many functions related to online publication of what now would generally appear in book form. The report notes that in the world of journals, efforts like JSTOR and Project Muse have in effect involved hundreds of journals sharing the cost of online distribution and marketing.

While many university presses have experimented with online publishing of books, there has not been the same switch in mindset about how scholarship is shared, nor about the possibility of shared infrastructure. (The report's authors and Ithaka have numerous ties to JSTOR and its board, and they note in the report that JSTOR could well want to play a role in the transformations they suggest. But they note that other entities or new groups could as well, and a number of those excited about the study's ideas have no ties to JSTOR.)

The report offers numerous reasons for pushing in the direction of online publishing. It notes that "this is where scholars are going," and that digital publishing -- with the right economic models -- could help universities' bottom lines.

Brown said that the idea is not to eliminate the book, but to recognize that not many people are reading monographs, period -- and that a new digital format could change that and add readers for the work and revenue for presses. She suggested that monographs might be formatted for use in parts -- searchable online. All of the people who would never buy the book, but might find a chapter or even a passage useful, now become potential readers, she said.

But this, the report notes, is easier said than done. When she was at Oxford, a mammoth publishing operation, Brown said she saw this sort of transformation -- one that took 10 years and considerable funds -- time and money that she suggested aren't available to most presses. "You have to develop systems for publishing electronically, the kinds of standards you are going to put materials into, you need document designs, you have to have access control systems to let people in [to search and read], and you have to have authoring tools that tag the stuff in certain ways so they can talk to each other," she said. So each chapter of a book might need a summary, subject tags and so forth -- all in ways that are accepted as an industry standard.

"No university press alone could do that," she said.

And then there's the question of how universities, if they did this, would sell access. Presses don't have the sales operations to sell site licenses, library by library, throughout the world, she said.

This is where the collaborative effort could come into play. "We heard a pervasive view that one of the key factors behind the difficulties of university presses is scale," the report says. "They lack the scale to compete effectively with commercial presses, to take risks with new business models, and even to have the bandwidth to think strategically and boldly about how to deal with the forces of change."

So the report proposes a new structure. "A shared electronic publishing infrastructure across universities could allow them to save costs, create scale, leverage expertise, innovate, unite the resources of the university (e.g. libraries, presses, faculty, student body, IT), extend the brand of American higher education (and each particular university within that brand), create a blended interlinked environment of fee-based to free information, and provide a robust alternative to commercial competitors," the report says.

Brown stressed that certain functions -- editorial decisions about the direction of presses and the selection of projects to publish -- would not be centralized under this vision.

Some involved in publishing who have seen the report or earlier drafts are enthusiastic about the approaches being put forth.

Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press and president of the American Association of University Presses, shared the comments he provided on a draft of the report, in which he said he agreed with "practically everything" in the study, which he praised for "taking university presses seriously as part of the solution, not part of the problem" facing scholarly communication today. Thatcher has been a leader in the press world in suggesting that books should not be off limits when thinking about digital formats. He led the drafting of the presses' common statement on open access, which specifically said that online open access principles might be considered for monographs.

He noted that several efforts that are starting now are consistent with the thrust of the Ithaka report. He is trying to bring journal publishers "back into the fold" with the press association, in part so they can "take an active role in teaching the book people about how to do digital publishing." And he said that the idea of creating a common platform for university presses to use was "well worth exploring," noting that he had suggested that Project Muse consider adding monographs.

Eric Zinner, editor in chief of the New York University Press, said he was intrigued by the idea of collaboration with other presses. But he characterized the idea as "unassailable" in theory, yet also not entirely clear to him. Zinner said he was more impressed with the call for university presses to be better integrated into the entire university. Progress is starting in this area and needs more momentum, he said. For instance at NYU, the press and the library division are for the first time hiring someone -- a program officer for digital scholarly publishing -- who will work for both parts of the university.

That kind of position, Zinner said, is an essential part of viewing multiple parts of the university as having the goal of "how we might better serve scholars."

Zinner also praised how the report pushes for an expanded digital role without suggesting the complete elimination of books. He said that technology enthusiasts too frequently go with a "print is bad, digital is good approach," which is "not terribly helpful." Not only is there still a role for books, he said, but there is still a role for hybrid projects to emerge -- if people aren't forced to pick.

Still other kinds of publishing, he said, cry out for new digital models. Publishing conference proceedings, for example, doesn't make a lot of sense in print any more. But new digital models could provide for distribution of such papers.

Paul Courant, university librarian and dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, also had praise for the report. Courant is somewhat unusual for a chief librarian in that he previously was provost at Michigan, and he is not a career librarian but an economist who has studied the financial issues facing libraries and publishing. From those varied perspectives, he said the study was "good in its diagnosis of the problem" as well as in offering "productive ideas" about how to move forward.

He said he worries about the issue highlighted in the report that many university presses are not seen as central on their campuses. "You can't imagine being a great university without a great library, and you actually can imagine being a great university without having a great press," he said. And while he said that "university presses and libraries are extremely connected" in that "libraries are university presses' best customers," the "local connections at any given university range from 'hardly know each other' to part of the same structure."

Courant also backed the idea that it's time to think about the book in different ways -- without fearing that this means the demise of the book. "If you actually want to read a book of, say, 370 pages, there is no good substitute for reading a book," he said. But that's not what most scholars are looking for. "If you can't search it and index it and access it with tools, except in a small number of areas, it's not nearly as valuable," he said. If you add those tools, different people will make use of different parts of what are now thought of primarily as books in their entirety.

The traditional university press model can remain strong, he said, "for the acquisition and vetting" of the monographs, but new forms are needed to meet users' needs. "The publishing forms will be whatever the market place adapts to," he said.

Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka, said he hopes the report prompts a lot of campus discussions. "I would really love to see this become a topic of importance and strategic conversation at the provost level -- both at places that have presses and that don't have presses." He said he would like to see provosts ask: "What does it mean that we are in the publishing business. Should we be pursuing new publishing paradigms?"

Before some national effort gets under way, he said he envisioned small groups of institutions that might try some of the collaboration suggested in the study. "We haven't tried to offer a totally defined solution," in part because there is a need for such experimentation first, he said.

One possible venue for such an experiment may be the Midwest. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation is a group of 12 universities -- those of the Big 10 Conference (which, despite the name, includes 11 institutions) plus the University of Chicago. The institutions include noted libraries and university presses and have a history of collaboration on technology and libraries -- most recently when they began a major book digitization project with Google.

Barbara Allen, director of the committee, said that the provosts who lead the group have twice before -- in the 1970s and the 1990s -- had informal discussions about ideas consistent with the Ithaka report's vision of sharing resources for the business and technology operations of university presses. While there were some similar motivations before -- namely economies of scale -- Allen said that the technology was not as developed at the time. Now, with digital publishing more important, she thinks the provosts will give the report serious consideration.

Allen called the report "terrific leadership" and said she hoped the time was right for universities to experiment with more collaboration in publishing. "If we don't take advantage of this, we're going to lose a terrific opportunity," she said.

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