Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 It is of course quite possible that the university simply will not be able to provide universal access to the products of its scholarly publishing endeavors for free — or will not be able to do so for long, in any event. In one way or another, university press publishing must be made financially sustainable. The stakes of sustainability are greatly heightened in the digital age, of course; as Guthrie et al point out,

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the print world, if a publisher failed or its books went out of print, some number of those books would still be available on library shelves. And sometimes events would revitalise the academic value of those materials and they would come back into circulation. When an online resource fails, its content may become completely unavailable, resulting in a real loss to teaching, learning, and research, not to mention the loss of the initial investment required to create it. It is important therefore for the developers of these resources to think carefully and strategically about sustainability and long-term access to the materials they generate as they build these resources. (Guthrie et al 9)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 While the Guthrie report is more market-oriented than I argue that the products or functions of the university should be, the question of sustainability remains an important one: unless adequate means of support of whatever form are developed for the scholarly publishing ventures of the future, we’ll wind up right back in the boat we’re currently in, with the added danger that the projects we’ve created in the interim may simply disappear. As Guthrie et al go on to argue, however, ensuring financial sustainability for scholarly publishing ventures is not simply a matter of charging enough for their use to ensure the funds are available to maintain the projects but, first, properly assessing where the value lies in the project, and second, ensuring that funds are also available for the project’s future development.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The question of the location of value in future scholarly publishing ventures is more complicated than it may at first appear. The university press, like most “content provider” industries, has long been in the business of selling the content that it produces — the books, the journals, and so forth. As Lawrence Lessig argues in Remix, however, the most successful potential business model of the digital age is not necessarily the sale of closed, proprietary content, but a “hybrid” model, in which some content may well be made available for free. The creation of value in a hybrid economy may lie in services or tools rather than products; the value in a system such as Flickr, for instance, comes not providing a wealth of photographic content — users do that, and are able to do so through a basic level of service which is available for free — but in providing access to a suite of tools that allow users to share, tag, search, connect, and so forth. The value in the system, that which users are willing to pay for, is the means of interacting with the content, rather than the content itself. Scholarly publishing would appear to be in a similar circumstance; its content is primarily “user generated,” and it is created precisely to be shared, creating the most substantive benefits for its authors when its distribution is as broad and as open as possible. Given that, it seems that the greatest value added by the scholarly publishing process of the future will lie not in the content itself, but in the tools that enable authors to produce and interact with that content, and with one another via that content.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Thus, if there’s something to be monetized in scholarly publishing, it’s less likely to be the products than the process; the audience for the products of university presses is too small to be commercially viable, as Daniel Coit Gilman acknowledged more than a century ago. Even more, the audience is composed of exactly the same people as are producing the content in the first place, and as attempts to monetize other forms of user-created content on the Internet suggest, users are more likely to pay for services than for the stuff created through those services. How to create those services — which might include editorial advising and support, networks for peer review, marketing and promotion, and so forth — and how best to interlink the services of university publishing groups and disciplinary organizations, presents the greatest challenge as presses work toward the creation of a sustainable future for scholarly publishing. One potential future might include university presses coming together, whether through a professional organization such as the American Association of University Presses, or through a publishing-oriented non-profit organization such as Ithaka, to develop a common network and suite of tools to which each university’s publishing initiative would contribute, developing its imprint within the larger community. Such an interlinked network of networks would enable presses to create individual identities while sharing their strengths, to experiment with new cross-institutional collaborations, and to minimize certain of the costs of tool development and maintenance. An example of such a cross-institutional platform might be found in the work of Giant Chair, a U.S.-based company that has worked with all of the French university publishers to create a single portal for the promotion and distribution of their texts, and which is in the process of bringing together a suite of tools (including CommentPress) that will allow university presses both to maintain their own brand identities and to collaborate on new publishing projects.[5.24]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In the end, however, responsibility for the success of such a publishing initiative must rest within the university, whether that university is contributing to the development of an pan-academic network or producing its own publishing system. Scholarly publishing as an enterprise is going to be difficult to make self-sustaining, but that doesn’t mean that we can simply allow it to die; if scholars are to publish, their institutions must accept responsibility for — and fully support — the platforms that make such publishing possible. While corporate partners may be required for the development of the systems and tools that publishing will use into the future, we cannot simply wait for those companies to innovate on our behalf. Corporate priorities will never be the same as those of the university, and for the university to wait for corporate-produced tools and processes for publishing to be presented to us threatens scholarly publishing with strangulation; one might imagine how different the landscape of instructional technology might look today if universities had taken the lead on creating learning management systems, rather than allowing corporate providers to mire them in ever-increasing cruft and licensing fees.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 All of what I’m proposing requires a radical re-examination of the funding model under which scholarly publishing operates, moving the press away from being a revenue center within the university and toward being a service unit. None of this is meant to suggest that there isn’t a need for accountability in university press publishing, but rather that, as Readings argues, accountability must be about something that exceeds accounting; we must learn to evaluate — and thus to value — the function of scholarly publishing in ways other than simply examining the bottom line. Just as the library serves an indispensable role in the university’s mission, so will the scholarly publishing unit of the future; these endeavors must not fall prey to the administrative requirement, now hobbling university presses, that they focus on cost recovery. Instead, scholarly publishing units must be treated as part of the institution’s infrastructure, as necessary as the information technology center, as indispensable as the library, service-oriented organizations increasingly central to the mission of the twenty-first century university.

  • See GiantChair and Le Comptoir des presses d’universités.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/five-the-university/sustainability/