It can be a frightening time to be in the publishing business. The economic mechanisms that support the reproduction and distribution of information in print have been disrupted by the economics of digital media. The newspaper industry provides just one example. As Eric Alterman pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, “In the Internet Age,… no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad.” Print circulation is at its lowest level since records have been kept and online revenue from advertising and subscriptions are nowhere close to making up for those declines. It is well known that journals and scholarly presses are also struggling to adapt their business models.
At the same time that established publishing organizations are struggling, more and more academics and academic organizations are attempting to enter digital publishing. They are digitizing new content daily, developing new software tools, and collecting new data. Naturally, the creators of these online academic resources (OARs) wish to make them broadly available and to ensure their continued availability and currency.
These new digital resources have generally been created from one-time grant funding or short-term commitments of resources. However, unlike a printed book, digital resources require continued investment. The software systems and platforms on which they depend must be upgraded and kept current. It is the nature of digital resources to be continually growing and changing, attracting new content, and rapidly cycling through revisions and additions.
Increasingly, therefore, foundations, government agencies and universities are asking where they will find the recurring funding to sustain these online resources over time. They are requiring the leaders of such projects to develop sustainability plans that include ongoing sources of revenue; in short, they are looking for academics to act as publishing entrepreneurs. Success in such endeavors requires entrepreneurial expertise and discipline, but in our experience at Ithaka, few OAR projects employ fundamental principles of project planning and management. Why don’t they?
What we have observed is that deep cultural differences separate the scholarly mindset from the mindset of the e-entrepreneur. Most people overseeing online academic resources are scholars, raised in the academy, accustomed to its collegial culture and deliberative pace, shielded from traditional market forces. However, the rapid changes and ruthless competitive landscape of the Internet require a different mindset. The challenge for a successful OAR project leader is to marry the scholarly values essential to the project’s intellectual integrity with the entrepreneurial values necessary for its survival in the Internet economy.
To assist project leaders in successfully managing digital enterprises, Ithaka embarked on a project to study the major challenges to the sustainability of these online academic resources. Working with support from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Strategic Content Alliance, we interviewed a range of people both in the academy and industry. During that effort, the fruits of which were published last week, we identified several aspects of the entrepreneurial approach that seem particularly important to creating sustainable digital projects:
1. Grants are for start-up, not sustainability. Most often, project leaders should regard initial funding as precisely that -- start-up funding to help the project develop other reliable, recurring and diverse sources of support. The prevailing assumption that there will be a new influx of grant funding when the existing round runs out is counter-productive to building a sustainable approach. There are exceptions to this assertion -- for example, if a grantee offers a service that is vital to a foundation’s mission or is exclusively serving an important programmatic focus of the funder -- but these cases are unusual.
2. Cost recovery is not sufficient: growth is necessary. Project leaders need to adopt a broader definition of “sustainability” that encompasses more than covering operating costs. The Web environment is evolving rapidly and relentlessly. It is incorrect to assume that, once the initial digitization effort is finished and content is up on the Web, the costs of maintaining a resource will drop to zero or nearly zero. Projects need to generate surplus revenue for ongoing reinvestment in their content and/or technology if they are to thrive.
3. Value is determined by impact. OAR project leaders tend to underestimate the importance of thinking about demand and impact and the connections between those elements and support from key stake holders. The scholarly reluctance to think in terms of “marketing” is a formula for invisibility on the Internet. Without a strategic understanding of the market place, it is only through serendipity that a resource will attract users and have an impact on a significant population or field of academic endeavor. And of course, attracting users is essential for garnering support from a variety of stake holders: host universities, philanthropies and government agencies, corporate sponsors and advertisers. The most promising and successful online resource projects are demand driven and strive for visibility, traffic and impact.
4. Projects should think in terms of building scale through partnerships, collaborations, mergers and even acquisitions. Project leaders need to consider a range of options for long-term governance. Start-ups in the private sector, for example, aim for independent profitability but they also consider it a success to merge with complementary businesses or to sell their companies to a larger enterprise with the means to carry those assets forward. Not-for-profit projects should think similarly about their options and pursue different forms of sustainability based on their particular strengths, their competition, and their spheres of activity. Given the high fixed costs of the online environment, collaborations and mergers are critical for helping single online academic resource projects keep their costs down and improve chances for sustainability.
5. In a competitive world, strategic planning is imperative. In the highly competitive environment of the Web, project leaders must embrace the best operating practices of their competitors -- a group that includes commercial enterprises -- for mindshare and resources. That means they will have to act strategically, develop marketing plans, seek out strategic partnerships, understand their competitive environment, and identify and measure themselves against clear goals and objectives for how they will accomplish their missions successfully and affordably. An academic disdain for “commercialism” can doom many a promising scholarly project to failure on the Internet.
Historically, academic projects have been shielded from commercial pressures, in part by funders, but mainly because their economic environment operated independently from other areas of commerce. This separation between the “academic” and “commercial” economies is no longer meaningful. The project leaders that are most likely to succeed in today’s digital environment are those who can operate successfully under the pressures of competition and accountability, and in the messiness of innovation and continual reinvention.
6. Flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness are key. OARs need to develop the capability for rapid cycles of experimentation (“fail early and often”), rather than spending years attempting to build the optimal resource in isolation from the market. Unfortunately, many OARs are structurally set up to do the latter – their grants commit them to promised courses of action for several years and tie them to specific deliverables. Leaders of online academic resources may not realize that many funders would prefer nimbleness if it means that the OARs will have a greater impact. Funders, for their part, must recognize that multi-year plans need to be highly flexible to allow for adaptation to new developments in technology and the marketplace.
7. Dedicated and fully accountable leadership is essential. Running a start-up – and developing an online academic resource is running a start-up – is a full-time job requiring full-time leadership. The “principal investigator” model, in which an individual divides her time among a variety of research grants, teaching assignments, and other responsibilities, is not conducive to entrepreneurial success. New initiatives aiming for sustainability require fully dedicated, fully invested, and intensely focused leadership. If a principal investigator cannot provide it, he or she will have to retain a very capable person who can.
If new digital academic resources are going to survive in the increasingly competitive online environment, the academy needs a better understanding of the challenges of managing what are essentially digital publishing enterprises. Leaders and supporters of these projects must orient themselves to an entrepreneurial mindset and embrace principles of effective management. If they are unable to do that, important resources serving smaller scholarly disciplines will disappear, leaving only those projects that are commercially viable.
Kevin M. Guthrie
Kevin M. Guthrie is president of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for higher education. From 1995 to 2003, he was the founding president of JSTOR.
Lynn Worsham, editor of JAC, a quarterly journal of rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics, recently wrote a helpful essay offering suggestions to professors to help them navigate the peer review process and have articles published in their field. It was so helpful, in fact, that I passed it out to our students who are thinking about one day entering into the disciplinary conversation. However, what I found missing from it was what we professors would like to see from editors and peer reviewers. As we are expected to follow some written and unwritten rules, editors and readers should be reminded of a few ideas, as well.
First, most professors I talk to about this issue complain a good deal about the amount of time it takes for them to hear back from editors and readers. Many of us know that the problem often lies in the hands of the peer reviewers, as we have been readers at one time or another ourselves. However, when we are the readers, we seem to forget about the professors at the other end of the submission process, so it only bothers us when we are the ones doing the submitting. There are times, though, where editors and readers are simply not holding up their end of the bargain by returning a decision in a timely fashion. If professors wait over a year for a response, their progress toward tenure is severely affected, especially if they actually honor some journals’ requests for not submitting the same article to various journals simultaneously.
What can make this matter even worse is when professors have to keep track of which journals have responded to the articles they’ve submitted so that they can remind the editor of the submissions. I have encountered and heard stories of editors simply ignoring e-mail queries about where one’s manuscript is in the process. Time that we have to take to investigate where we stand in the process is time away from the research we should be doing to keep up with our discipline.
Next, editors should also follow the rules that they set for us writers. For those journals that still require hard copies of submissions, a self-addressed stamped envelope is almost always requested (and should be sent anyway, as most professors know, though some choose to ignore that knowledge). However, I have had several journals send rejection notices via e-mail and keep the stamped envelope. This practice is a minor inconvenience, of course, especially for those of us who do not have to pay our own postage. However, for graduate students and part-time faculty, those mailing expenses can add up, and every stamp that is not used simply adds to the cost of submission. Just as professors’ not numbering pages correctly or not quite following the correct formatting is a reflection of their inattention to details, editors’ not following their own rules reflects poorly on the journal and its staff.
The last and most important issue when it comes to editors’ and readers’ responses to professors, though, is the tone of the response. Those of us who are engaged in academic discourse know that readers will disagree with our arguments, and we know that editors will decide, for whatever reason, that our submissions should not be published in their journals. However, that does not give them license to insult either our work or us. In speaking to friends and colleagues, we all have horror stories about responses from editors and readers that are nothing more than ad hominem attacks or a dismissal of ideas because of the readers’ particular view of a work.
This type of response can be especially problematic for graduate students and professors just beginning in a field. When I was in graduate school, I submitted an essay on Edith Wharton to a journal. The essay was the best one I had ever written, as far as I could tell, and I was eager to begin participating in what I hoped would be my future discipline. I attended a college, though, where professors never discussed publishing, so I had no knowledge of it before I entered graduate school. Not surprisingly, the journal turned down the essay and rightly so, as it was certainly not the caliber of writing that editors should expect. However, the response has stuck with me for years, as the reader simply wrote, “This is a good essay, for an undergraduate.” When I tell that to most people, they are surprised that I stayed in the profession and that I ever submitted anything again.
As professors we are not afraid of a healthy debate about ideas, and we seek honest feedback on our work. However, insults, whether directed at those ideas or at us personally, have no place in the critical debate. We would never allow our students to write essays using some of the responses I have seen from readers, nor would we write those comments on our students’ papers. Instead, we would tell them to focus on the ideas of the critics, as we focus on the ideas our students present in their essays. We put aside our personal feelings about the students and try to truly engage the ideas in and of themselves.
What professors truly want is constructive feedback that will make them better writers, thinkers and researchers. If, especially in our early days, we have somehow overlooked a seminal work (or a work that a reader at least believes is seminal), or have faulty logic, then, please, tell us so, but do so in an effort to make us and, therefore, the discipline, stronger.
I have had several wonderful editors help me take an article that was not fully formed and change it into one that they and I could be proud of, simply by asking a few questions or making one or two truly helpful suggestions. One editor simply suggested looking at two or three sources; only one of them turned out to be helpful, but that one led me to turn a few-page opinion piece into a full-length article that went beyond a scope I could have imagined. When I submitted a book manuscript to a university press, I received a rejection letter that was a page and a half long, and, to be honest, it stung. However, after reflecting on the comments, I revised the manuscript, adding enough material to lengthen it by a third, then had another press pick it up.
We do not expect to be coddled, but we do expect to be treated decently and to have our efforts dealt with respectfully. In the same way that editors and readers wish to be treated as professionals who have guidelines that writers should follow, so, too, do professors wish to be treated as ones who are trying to make a contribution to our disciplines.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University. His forthcoming book, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels (Kennesaw State University Press), will be published this year.
The internment of Japanese Americans in World War II remains a shameful episode in American history. In From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (University of Illinois Press), Allan W. Austin focuses on a positive event during the internments. More than 4,000 college students were allowed to leave the camps to enroll in colleges -- provided that the colleges would accept them and were not on the West Coast.
Can professors nationwide band together to battle the clout of Texas school boards? One professor, fed up with the influence of Texas educators on children's knowledge of sex and science, is trying to find out.
Sean G. Massey, the professor, got angry last fall, as he was reading about the latest skirmishes between textbook publishers and Texas school officials.