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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Ithaka Report: "University Publishing in the Digital Age"

Inside Higher Ed has published a couple of articles in the past week on a recent report prepared by Ithaka, which is described as "a nonprofit group that promotes research and strategy for colleges to reflect changing technology." The report is titled "University Publishing in the Digital Age," and the always smart Scott McLemee says everyone should read it.

Its basic conclusion: publication in the future will almost certainly be different than it is today (more digital, less ink).

Among the report's many suggestions is the recommendation that, rather than rely on commercial sites like JSTOR or on informal list-serves to distribute scholarly research, university presses and librarians ought to create their own platforms to distribute digital content, both old and new. This would mean “a powerful technology, service and marketing platform that would serve as a catalyst for collaboration and shared capital investment in university-based publishing.” That sounds smart, not least because there's no reason for universities to pay JSTOR to access journals that the universities themselves originally published.

But what about the monograph book (he selfishly inquires)? The report notes, "Print may well remain the preferred format for certain types of usage, such as cover-to-cover reading and display." But because professors, especially younger professors, often like to search scholarly literature (rather than read it in a linear manner), prefer 24/7 access, and like remote accessibility (i.e., at home, in the office, and on vacation), the report says that "scholarly publishers must get their previously published, as well as current content, online and that in the future they will need to operate print and electronic programs simultaneously." One press, Ohio State University's, has already begun to do so.

Then there is this paragraph, which more or less suggests that university presses need to start publishing books in a digital format so that the commercial presses don't beat them to it (and enjoy any resulting first-mover advantages):
One could make an argument for small presses to let commercial publishers risk their capital in experimenting with new technologies and business models until the market matures, especially since most of the content at stake (humanities monographs) has limited commercial appeal. We are concerned, however, that the commercial publishers are pursuing different objectives that may not lead to desirable outcomes for universities; for example, universities have an interest in exploring ways to use new technologies to reduce costs of publishing so that the monograph continues to be a viable format for new authors and those in less mainstream fields. Commercial publishers are focused instead on maximizing scale. Moreover, the “wait-and-see” approach allows large commercial firms a critical head start in building large scale platforms with the ability to attract and control scholarly content. It would not be in the community’s interests to see electronic monographs and new electronic formats follow the same path as journals.
This is all quite interesting, if not nerve wracking, because of what it means for the future of the scholarly book. Based on its interviews with press directors, the report claims "There is once again widespread hope that electronic dissemination, done effectively, could revitalize the monograph." And doom my career.

Actually, the report goes on to note the many problems with this idea, and it actually does a surprisingly good job of addressing the complicated, often vexed issues that digital publication raises. There is a lot in this report worth pondering and discussing, but I'm not going to do so right now (I have work to do). If people are interested, though, feel free to comment away (or write your own post).

(And here are some old posts of ours with random thoughts about academic publishing: Amazon, Values, Bookselling, Monographs.)

  • At 8/04/2007 04:05:00 AM, Anonymous Toronto lurker wrote…

    I'm all for going electronic, especially for journals (I'm developing an undergrad-like dislike of journals that don't have an online version -- _Ren Drama_, I'm looking at you...), but I'm rather pessimistic about the potential economic benefits of such a move. Journal subscriptions (i.e., online subscriptions) have become vastly more expensive over the last decade (I don't have figures to hand, but that's the message one hears everywhere), and their cost is one of the key factors in libraries cutting down on the acquisition of new books.

    This strikes me as more than a little ironic: so OUP or CUP or Blackwells sell their online journals to libraries at such a horrendous price that the same libraries then can't afford to buy as many books from the same publishers as they did before, thus driving up the price of books in turn while at the same time limiting the number of copies sold (and further limiting affordability in the interest of breaking even). All of this in the face of minimalized production costs (well, minimal costs on top of print production).

    I realize marketing and business-end people at the various UPs must have done the math on these issues, but it just seems completely incredible to me that presses couldn't sell more monographs if they cost less -- I know that I will buy pretty much anything within my various fields of interest if the book's less than $50, and only under duress if it's more. Which is why I very rarely buy new Cambridge or Oxford studies anymore (except on the final day at SAA, RSA, or MLA). I'd love to see figures on, say, Cornell or Penn, who generally price their hardbacks quite reasonably -- surely they must sell more copies per book, on average, than CUP or OUP? [/rant]


  • At 8/04/2007 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hey Toronto de-lurker,

    Thanks for de-lurking!

    I think the exorbitant e-journal costs are more for scientific journals, aren't they? MUSE prices vary--you can see them here--but for the Premium Collection at a North American R1 university, it'd probably be $27,500 per year. But that's for over 350 journals, or about $80 per year per journal, unless my calculations are wrong (entirely possible!). For junior and community colleges, the price for the same subscription is only $5800, and for liberal arts colleges (I think), it's $8700.

    That seems pretty decent to me. Certainly cheaper than the print versions. Shakespeare Quarterly costs $116 per year in print for an institution. If that's around average, buying all the print editions would be $40,600, or about $13K extra. And the print versions don't seem to price along a sliding scale for less well-endowed institutions (at least, SQ doesn't, so I imagine none of the JHUP journals does).

    Also, I completely agree with you about becoming like my undergrads in hating non-online journals.

    And most importantly, journals aren't books: they're basically databases of small chunks of information (articles), and so online is the perfect medium for them, since what the web is best at is managing large archives and enabling you to search in them.

    Lately I've been feeling like I'd pay extra to RSA if they wouldn't send me the paper Renaissance Quarterly.


  • At 8/07/2007 04:04:00 PM, Anonymous Rebecca Griffiths wrote…

    Thank you for this thoughtful discussion of our report. It is very encouraging to see that it has drawn attention to the state of university-based publishing and is getting people to think about what should be done differently. For the record, I would like to clarify a couple points that may have been misconstrued. First, JSTOR is actually a not-for-profit organization with a mission similar to that of Ithaka – helping the scholarly community take advantage of information technology. JSTOR contributed funding for this study, which addressed issues closely related to their mission.

    Second, our report states that there are cases in which third party entities whose missions reflect the values of the academic community – such as JSTOR, Highwire Press, and Project Muse – can provide powerful vehicles for addressing system-wide needs of universities. In a sense they provide an efficient mechanism for cross-institutional collaboration by spreading the costs of a resource across many institutions. They are also sometimes in a better position to achieve economies of scale (in areas such as technology development) than individual institutions. What is critical is that the academic community has the ability to influence the way its scholarship is disseminated, but this does not mean that this set of activities should always carried out internally within universities and colleges.


  • At 8/07/2007 04:44:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Very interesting, and thank you for the clarification.

    I assumed that JSTOR etc. were actually for-profit firms, in part because of descriptions like this one in the report: "In the journals world, this problem of scale and the spread of investment over a large infrastructure has been overcome for not-for-profit publishers through the emergence of third party aggregators and service
    providers such as Project Muse, HighWire Press, and JSTOR" (p.30). I read that "third party aggregators and service providers" as being in contrast to "not-for-profit publishers."

    And, I agree, there is a logic to "third party entities" helping to foster collaboration and share costs among diverse academic institutions (and their presses, libraries, and scholars). But given the increasing proliferation of such services, and what I would assume to be the resulting increase in competition among them (I count eight ways to access "Shakespeare Studies" online, for example), I do wonder about the long-term future of these services and whether universities want to continue to pay multiple services for overlapping content or whether they'd be better off developing their own platforms.

    Plus, this raises tricky copyright issues, which I'm in no position to offer a learned opinion on: but will libraries want to pay (and keep paying) to access pdf's of books and journals they already own? Maybe, especially if doing so will save them the hassle of creating and maintaining digital copies. But at a certain point might they decide that they've shelled out enough money for texts that they already own in paper and ink formats? Perhaps, especially if doing so doesn't entail any significant legal hurdles.

    I guess what's bugging me in part is that I can't help but suspect that some "third party entities" view providing online digital content to libraries as a cash cow, and that at some point universities might decide that they can do it on their own more cheaply. But now I'm in the realm of airy speculation, so I could be completely wrong.


  • At 8/08/2007 02:14:00 AM, Anonymous Toronto Lurker wrote…

    Hieronimo --

    you're quite right, of course, about the cost of journals. Some astonishing figures about the cost of scientific periodicals here:


    and here:


    and, less sensationalist, here:


    It's really pretty breathtaking stuff. I had some notion that science publications were significantly more expensive than ours, but was frankly unaware just how wide the gap is. (All of which makes me even more annoyed that my library refused to spend the $125 it would have cost to subscribe to the marginally important linguistics journal which published an article I needed last year...)


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