Sailing from Ithaka

August 1, 2007

It’s not always clear where the Zeitgeist ends and synchronicity kicks in, but Intellectual Affairs just got hit going and coming.

In last week’s column, we checked in on a professor who was struggling to clear his office of books. They had been piling up and possibly breeding at night. In particular, he said, he found that he seldom needed to read a monograph more than once. In a pinch, it would often be possible to relocate a given reference through a digital search – so why not pass the books along to graduate students? And so he did.

While getting ready to shoot that article into the Internet’s “series of tubes,” my editor also passed along a copy of “University Publishing in a Digital Age” – a report sponsored by Ithaka and JSTOR.

It was released late last week. On Thursday, IHE ran a detailed and informative article about the Ithaka Report, as I suppose it is bound to be known in due time. The groups that prepared the document propose the creation of “a powerful technology, service, and marketing platform that would serve as a catalyst for collaboration and shared capital investment in university-based publishing.”

Clearly this would be a vaster undertaking than JSTOR, even. The Ithaka Report may very well turn out to be a turning point in the recent history, not only of scholarly publishing, but of scholarship itself. And yet only a few people have commented on the proposal so far – a situation that appears, all things considered, very strange.

So, at the risk of being kind of pushy about it, let me put it this way: More or less everyone reading this column who has not already done so ought (as soon as humanly possible) to get up to speed on the Ithaka Report. I say that in spite of the fact that the authors of the report themselves don’t necessarily expect you to read it.

It’s natural to think of scholarship and publishing as separate enterprises. Each follows its own course – overlapping at some points but fundamentally distinct with respect to personnel and protocols. The preparation and intended audience for the Ithaka Report reflects that familiar division of things. It is based on surveys and interviews with (as it says) “press directors, librarians, provosts, and other university administrators.” But not – nota bene! -- with scholars. Which is no accident, because “this report,” says the report, “is not directed at them.”

The point bears stressing. But it’s not a failing, as such. Press directors and university librarians tend to have a macroscopic view of the scholarly public that academic specialists, for the most part do not. And it’s clear those preparing the report are informed about current discussions and developments within professional associations – e.g., those leading to the recent MLA statement on tenure and promotion.

But scholars can’t afford to ignore the Ithaka Report just because they were not consulted directly and are not directly addressed as part of its primary audience. On the contrary. It merits the widest possible attention among people doing academic research and writing.

The report calls for development of “shared electronic publishing infrastructure across universities to save costs, create scale, leverage expertise, innovate, extend the brand of US higher education, create an interlinked environment of information, and provide a robust alternative to commercial competitors.” (It sounds, in fact, something like AggAcad, except on steroids and with a billion dollars.)

The existence of such an infrastructure would condition not only the ability of scholars to publish their work, but how they do research. And in a way, it has already started to do so.

The professor interviewed for last week’s column decided to clear his shelves in part because he expected to be able to do digital searches to track down things he remembered reading. Without giving away too much of this professor’s identity away, I can state that he is not someone prone to fits of enthusiasm for every new gizmo that comes along. Nor does he work in a field of study where most of the secondary (let alone primary) literature is fully digitalized.

But he’s taking it as a given that for some aspects of his work, the existing digital infrastructure allows him to offload one of the costs of research. Office space being a limited resource, after all.

It’s not that online access creates a substitute for reading print-based publications. On my desk at the moment, for example, is a stack of pages printed out after a session of using Amazon’s Inside the Book feature. I’ll take them to the library and look some things up. The bookseller would of course prefer that we just hit the one-click, impulse-purchase button they have so thoughtfully provided; but so it goes. This kind of thing is normal now. It factors into how you do research, and so do a hundred other aspects of digital communication, large and small.

The implicit question now is whether such tools and trends will continue to develop in an environment overwhelmingly shaped by the needs and the initiatives of private companies. The report raises the possibility of an alternative: the creation of a publishing infrastructure designed specifically to meet the needs of the community of scholars.

Is this even possible? How public would it be? How accessible, for example, to professors and students at less richly endowed institutions? One of the striking things about the Ithaka Report is its explicit recognition that scholars increasingly have the ability to create their own networks of publication and distribution at appropriate scale. It notes the important "gray" zone of scholarly communication online -- the role now played by blogs, ad hoc document collections, and the pre-publication distribution of draft papers. What sorts of intellectual-property issues would be raised if such informal networks were assimilated to the proposed platform?

These seem like questions everyone should be discussing -- and will be, in due course. By all means have a look at IHE’s coverage of the Ithaka Report. But it’s also worth reading the text itself. Remember: you will be tested on this.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

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