For Love of Longform

Digital journal aggregators move en masse to join Google in making full-length books available in searchable archives.
January 12, 2011

Students might still prefer bound books to the e-alternative, but researchers have long since discovered the benefits of electronic versions of scholarly texts. Now JSTOR, which offers packages of digital journal content, is teaming up with several university presses to expand its catalog to include digital books, the organization announced on Tuesday.

JSTOR is not alone. Elsewhere, university presses and academic nonprofits are teaming up to make longform content available, at last, in the same searchable online databases that researchers for years have used to browse through archived journal articles.

Oxford University Press on Friday announced plans to partner with other university presses to broaden the offerings in its existing repository for digital monographs, Oxford Scholarship Online. The expanded catalog, called University Press Scholarship Online, is scheduled to open in the fall. Project MUSE, which focuses on social sciences and humanities journals, several months ago announced that it will add e-books into its searchable archives. And a group led by the New York University Press, called the University Press eBook Consortium (or UPeC), now says it has more than 60 university presses signed on to create a new repository for longform scholarly works.

What to make of these simultaneous pushes? Joseph Esposito, an independent consultant who advises scholarly publishers, says they amount to an attempt by the academic groups to muster a challenge to Google — which, through its massive and somewhat controversial book-scanning project, has positioned itself as the market leader for digital longform texts among students and scholars doing research.

“These publications are now trying to take control of these markets, find revenue streams there, and trying to keep Google from being the vendor of choice,” Esposito says. As printed monographs disappear from libraries’ wish lists, university presses face challenges in getting what they publish into the hands — or onto the screens — of scholars, and risk fading into irrelevance along with card catalogs, he says. Meanwhile, as the digital search-and-discovery king Google becomes the go-to for scholars looking for backlogged e-book content, university presses will be left to wonder whether the company and its Silicon Valley ilk are “the best stewards of our cultural legacy,” says Esposito.

“Preservation is essential in the academic community and an important distinction between what we are doing and Google Books,” wrote Heidi McGregor, a JSTOR spokeswoman, in an e-mail. “Working with publishers and libraries, we will ensure the long-term archiving of these works for use by future students and scholars.”

While Google Books Search is not explicitly aimed at an academic audience, the company has sought to foster goodwill in academe by funding various digital humanities projects aimed at gleaning insights from its 12-million-book archive. Last month, a team of scholars published a paper in the journal Science endorsing “culturomics” — the “application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture” — as a new field of study made possible by Google’s vast collection of literary detritus. Google’s new nGram viewer, a simple tool that lets users track the frequency with which certain words have cropped up in books over time, has attracted attention from scholars and pseudo-scholars alike.

JSTOR, UPeC, and the other aggregators are more interested in attracting real scholars than pseudo-scholars. The groups are not making a business challenge to Google, since the idea is to sell access licenses to college libraries, not e-books to individual consumers, says Steve Maikowski, director of the New York University Press. (Many of the presses that are currently involved with the new projects have released much of their catalogs to Google, for whom scanning academic library collections has been a boon.)

Though pricing details may differ from shop to shop, the academic aggregators say they will apply more or less the same business model to licensing digital book content as currently governs journal content: libraries will pay the aggregators for access to the repository, and the aggregators will compensate the partner presses, possibly based on usage statistics. JSTOR, UPeC and Oxford all say they do not plan to require exclusive partnerships, meaning presses can make deals to have their e-books available in multiple repositories. (Project Muse did not respond to requests for comment.) (This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version.)

The addition of books to aggregators’ vaults will offer scholars a discovery tool that does away with the “fog” of non-scholarly content that accompanies a Google Books search, says Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, which is one of JSTOR’s first five partners on the books project (along with the presses of University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina, Princeton University, and Yale University).

“This is all going to be scholarly material — peer-reviewed, cited, hyperlinked,” Armato said of the JSTOR effort. “It really is a different animal.”

Several digital humanists contacted by Inside Higher Ed said they were excited that scholarly repositories were finally going to start indexing digital books.

“This is very good news,” wrote Robert B. Townsend, the head of research and publications at the American Historical Association. “As a discipline that depends heavily on monographs, history needs more experimentation and development to assure longform scholarship will have a future as libraries and scholars look past print. I doubt this will compete with Google Books, given the depth and breadth of that project. But we need more experimentation with scholars in mind.”

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