Piecing Together Publishing

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is aggressively funding efforts to support new digital models -- in writing, editing, financing and more.

February 25, 2015
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The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is aggressively funding efforts to support new forms of academic publishing, which researchers say could further legitimize digital scholarship.

The foundation in May sent university press directors a request for proposals to a new grant-making initiative for long-form digital publishing for the humanities. In the e-mail, the foundation noted the growing popularity of digital scholarship, which presented an “urgent and compelling” need for university presses to publish and make digital work available to readers.

But the foundation quickly contrasted those opportunities with the economic realities facing many university presses. “These declines have made it challenging to find the resources that are needed to experiment with new digital work flows and publication models, and to create the business models and the marketing and discoverability strategies that are essential if electronic publication is to become sustainable and support scholarship in the 21st century,” the e-mail reads.

The foundation’s proposed solution is for groups of university presses to work together on testing new business models for publishing digital works, or tackle any of the moving parts that task is comprised of, including “(a) editing; (b) clearing rights to images and multimedia content; (c) the interaction of the publication on the Web with primary sources and other related materials; (d) production; (e) pre- and post-publication peer review; (f) marketing; (g) distribution; and (h) maintenance and preservation of digital content.”

“All of these represent the gaps in scholarly communication right now,” said Harriette Hemmasi, university librarian at Brown University. “I think Mellon has made a very focused approach. I don’t know if they think of it in this way, but when you stand back, these are the pieces that are missing.”

Should the foundation’s trustees approve them, the first grant recipients will be announced next month, senior program officer Donald J. Waters said in an e-mail. Yet a handful of universities were already awarded grants last year and are launching their initiatives this spring. Though technically not related to the May requests for proposal, Waters said, the grants are “part of Mellon’s overall initiative in academic publishing.”

Apart from sharing an overall theme, size (roughly $1 million) and time frame (three to five years), the grants reflect the range of objectives the foundation has identified. Among other initiatives, Brown will hire editorial and technical staff to support digital publications, but will also develop guidelines that departments can use to evaluate digital scholarship in tenure and promotion cases; the University of North Carolina Press will collaborate with other university presses on the back-end activities of publishing; and researchers at West Virginia University will build a content management system to help authors and editors work with multimedia.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, the principal investigators for the grants expressed their excitement about the funds the foundation are putting behind its efforts to promote digital academic publishing.

“There’s all of this money that Mellon is investing in these projects, and probably money being invested in other projects that we don’t even know about,” said Cheryl E. Ball, associate professor of digital publishing at West Virginia. “What this does is finally move us toward the legitimization of digital scholarship, whether it’s multimedia or not, in ways that help authors and editors learn how to publish and evaluate this work.”

Kevin McLaughlin, dean of the faculty at Brown, will focus on the legitimization part. This year, he is working with humanities and social sciences departments to update their standards and criteria documents with language on how digital scholarship should be reviewed -- in other words, formalizing the idea that high-quality digital and traditional scholarship should give equal credit in tenure and promotion cases. The updates could make more faculty members comfortable with digital scholarship and, in the long run, even benefit the general public, he said.

“What struck me at the beginning of this conversation with Mellon was the high-mindedness of their approach,” McLaughlin said. “It really had to do with the idea that there’s a lot of skepticism in the public about universities and what goes on in them, and I think there’s a caricature of what scholarly research is that’s widespread. If making scholarly research publicly accessible on the Web could go some way toward enlightening the general public about the importance and the skill of scholarly work... that would be fantastic.”

Hemmasi, the co-principal investigator at Brown, will be able to hire two new staffers at the Center for Digital Scholarship. One will help faculty members determine how to present their research visually, while the other will serve as a digital scholarly editor, working with faculty to discover digital resources as they work on their projects.

“This is a new era for all of us, right?” Hemmasi said. “Even though faculty members have for a long time dabbled in digital work, it’s never been under a microscope in the same way. All of us are trying to be openhanded at the same time, to try to corral and to better understand what better constitutes legitimate scholarship in a digital environment.”

UNC Press, meanwhile, is more interested in how to simplify the tasks not related to producing content. John Sherer, director of the university press, said the inspiration for the grant application came to him after seeing a colleague asking for recommendations on royalty accounting software.

“This is not what university press directors should worry about,” Sherer said.

The university press already owns Longleaf Services, a company that provides customer fulfillment services to other publishers. Sherer said the university press plans to use the grant to create a collaborative platform that can handle production, operational and marketing tasks -- “the back-end plumbing of the book business,” in his words. The initiative could save university presses time and money on those tasks, he said, freeing up resources to publish more books.

Sherer, who came to UNC Press from the trade press, said it is “radical” that university presses -- especially smaller ones -- continue to try to do everything on their own.

“I think what’s wrong is that we’re using an economic model of publishing monographs that maybe worked 30 years ago,” Sherer said. “The solution is finding a new model for publishing these monographs, and one that actually does a better job of more efficiently getting it to the end user.”

The importance of collaboration is incorporated into Mellon’s initiative. In an added twist, the foundation required the university presses interested in the program to find a partner -- such as a research library, a museum or an organization already involved in providing digital publishing services -- before applying.

“The most clever thing that they did was insist that all these grants be collaborative,” Sherer said. “The key here is really forcing presses to come together and solve these problems in collaboration. We’re a $5 million press here. We’re not going to solve anything on our own.”


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