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November 13, 2012

Thoughts for the Day after University Press Week

Posted by: Katie Heasley

November 11-17 is University Press Week! Gita Manaktala, editorial director, discusses current shifts in scholarship and reading and how university presses can continue to deliver value to authors and readers.

I come from a family whose reverence for books sometimes surpassed the reading of them. My grandmother was the type to insist that a book knocked onto the floor had to be immediately picked up and kissed out of respect for the dense knowledge it contained.

Today the advocates of scholarly books and journals cannot take such atavistic respect for granted. If university presses are to continue to matter, it will be because we have continued to meet the changing needs of our authors and readers. This finds us navigating some pretty major shifts in the landscape of scholarship and in the nature of reading itself. Just a partial list:

Scholarship is becoming more collaborative. What has been the norm in the sciences is becoming common in the social sciences and humanities as well. The opportunities for scholars to work together are just too good to pass up. This has challenged some of our conventional understandings of what a monograph (or a monographic trade book) is. The MIT Press recently published a book with ten authors. This is not a contributed volume, mind you, but a collaboratively authored book written in a single voice.

Time to publication is more important than ever. News, ideas, methods, results, and discoveries move fast in a highly connected world. Publication in peer reviewed books and journals is simply too slow to keep pace with research in some fields.

Final form knowledge is just one form of knowledge that we value. Open ended, dynamic forms are a crucial part of the way research and scholarship are done today. The polished jewels of scholarship — meticulously reviewed, revised, and edited books and articles — are being jostled by these more open forms of knowledge: the scholarly archive of working papers, the blog with extensive commentary and responses, and the wiki with its updates and overwrites. The emergence of such forms is indeed disruptive, but it helps to clarify the business university presses are in. Our job is to identify, develop, and encircle those ideas and arguments that deserve to persist over time.

Peer review is changing, from traditional blind review facilitated by editors to broader networks of review conducted by scholars and their broader communities. This review can take many forms: it can be blind or open, pre-publication or post-publication, solitary or social. It can complement traditional review or, some argue, replace it.

Reading has changed, from the sort of focused attention associated with reading print and digital books to a broader bandwidth type of attention associated with reading online. Split screen readers divide their attention across multiple information and entertainment sources and social media sites. Authors are challenged to capture and hold that attention. In this environment, the traditional competences of publishers — editorial selection and development, copyediting, design, publicity — seem more important than ever. Good marketing, markup, and metadata are essential to reach these readers. We need to find ways of distributing our content into the streams of information and entertainment readers are following. Our designers and production staff are challenged to find formats and solutions that will deliver a good reading experience across these diverse platforms.

Copyright regimes are under pressure. Open access is a growing expectation of scholars in many of our fields. Readers accustomed to accessing and sharing magazine and newspaper articles online expect but lack the same freedom with books. While paywalls and DRM exist to protect our business model, they might also isolate our books from vital streams of discussion in which they would otherwise participate.

Adapting to such changes is far from easy, but it’s imperative. If we can do this, I believe we can continue to deliver real value to our remarkable authors and their readers well beyond the warm and welcome celebration of university press week.

Responses to the blog post