We're celebrating University Press Week with a 37-press blog tour. Weclome to Day 2 of the tour and to the SUP blog. Today's topic is the Future of Scholarly Communication and we're kicking the mic over to Alan Harvey, our Director. Enjoy!
In the past, publishing occupied a central role in scholarly communication. It was the primary means, outside of conferences and workshops, for the broad circulation of ideas. But more than that: it lent authority to those communications through peer review and the filtering process of the publishing ecosystem. Its reach was such that book and journal publication became the measure of performance for the academic community. I don’t feel I am breaking new ground by stating that this shouldn’t be the case today. This is widely known, and widely discussed, and yet we are still some way from it being a reality.
Technology has dramatically altered the communications landscape in all areas of our daily lives, both personal and professional. Speed often trumps validation in almost all sectors, from text messages to Twitter feeds. You see plenty of experimentation at university presses, with much of it being on display this University Press Week. There are even efforts to extend the traditional format, such as MIT’s collaboration with the Vectors journal, Rotunda at the University of Virginia Press, and even our own Stanford Briefs. But, at the risk of touching scholarly publishing’s third rail, only a few of these efforts are likely to feed back into the tenure and promotion cases of their authors or creators.
University presses (with notable exceptions) occupy a financial no-man’s land within their host institutions, required to break even or supported by carefully controlled subsidies. And yet our core mission, the dissemination of scholarship in its broadest sense, remains. A quick Google search for “university press mission” will bring up countless examples of our worthy mission statements, and most of us follow them, regardless of the financial consequences. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the credentialing process of tenure monographs. We continue to pursue other funding methods, such as Stanford University Press’ Authors Fund, but these may be short-term fixes for a broken system.
So with these issues nipping at our heels, what do I see as the future of scholarly communication?
Let me start with Joe Esposito’s post on Scholarly Kitchen last week about a Web-Scale University Press. Much of what Joe suggests is already being offered, with social media links on almost all press web sites, and free content either directly from the press itself, Google, Amazon, or other vendors. Stanford and others have been experimenting with retail options such as rental, bundling, and free giveaways. But, as Joe admits, there isn’t a business model for giving it all away for free, and that seems to be what is expected in the current climate. The simplest logic leads inexorably to the conclusion that we shouldn’t have a business model. Wouldn’t that be the best implementation of our mission? As Peter Berkery, AAUP’s Executive Director, was quoted in the Economist: “No one asks the chemistry department to be profitable.”
The academic conversation no longer plays out entirely through the pages of books and journals. It now lives in Twitter feeds and blogs, in collaborative documents, global workgroups, and open access repositories. These unmediated communications have allowed an entirely new research methodology to evolve, one unconnected to traditional print-based publishing (and let me be clear that the vast majority of current digital publishing is merely a mirror of print). This does not represent the majority of scholarship, but its impact is being felt everywhere, and new publication and communication processes must evolve to satisfy it – the alternative is a highly fragmented ecosystem in which adjacent parts do not correspond.
I believe this future of peer to peer scholarly communication will only come about through a great deal of collaboration. Primary amongst these will be collaborations between libraries and presses. Many presses, Stanford included, are already departments of the library, allowing us to share ideas, projects, and resources. The traditional publishing model with the library as the de facto funder of the press through content sales, pits the interests of the library against those of the press. While sustainable in the past, we need a new sense of joint ownership of the communication enterprise. We have already seen much discussion of library-press partnerships, and I feel certain we will see more in the near future.
But this is a very inward-looking picture of scholarly communication. What about broadening the audience? University presses have become highly skilled in aiding our authors to refine and shape their message for a general audience, and many believe we can take this effort further. I take great pride in the ability of Stanford University Press’s acquisitions and production editors to work with our authors to tighten their argument, broaden their focus, and otherwise develop their manuscript. The democratizing effect of technology has aided presses in recent years, allowing us to bring the academic conversation into the public sphere through a wide range of delivery platforms. This is a core part of every university’s mission, but this service cannot be for free.
This is an exciting time to be working in scholarly publishing. There are many challenges, but so many more opportunities. It may take a while for us to find the best model for the future press, but the spirit of experimentation I see around me tells me we’ll have an interesting and productive time looking for it.