Saturday, April 18, 2009

How Can We Articulate the Publisher "Value Add"?

I was flattered to be invited last Thursday to be a panelist at the sixth Scholarly Information Symposium organized by Drexel University Libraries. Under the title of "For What It's Worth," the seminar started with the assumption that since scholarly information is not free to produce, it is incumbent on all of those involved in the information supply chain to understand the costs involved . . . especially if they are looking for ways to reduce them.

It was an interesting morning, filled with sensible discussion. However, it struck me again how very bad publishers are at articulating what they actually do to add value to unfiltered information. Librarians are at least trying to understand this, perhaps because they themselves are stuck in the same situation of having to justify their existence in a Google-ized world. However, the younger faculty on the panel, a computer scientist and a physicist, were noticeably puzzled.

In such situations, I find it useful to fall back on the clear articulation of the role of the scholarly journal publicized in Michael Mabe's writings (in refereed form in ASLIB Proceedings, and in various open access locations via Google search). He suggests that the scholarly journal performs four functions for academic authors: registration, certification, dissemination, and archiving.

After "time-stamping" their research, and thus registering an author's claim to having had an idea or achieved an insight first, the journal proceeds to certify the discovery as a valid one.

Certification has been too long equated with "peer review." While there are real administrative costs involved in peer review, especially for journals with high rejection rates, the fact that journal peer reviewers are generally not paid by the publishers makes too much harping on the costs of the review process ring slightly hollow. It has taken publishers a while to shift the focus, when discussing certification, from "peer review" to "copyediting" and the range of different steps encapsulated in post-acceptance quality control. A recent article by Bob Campbell and Edward Wates of Blackwell Wiley (PDF of an article originally published in Learned Publishing) presented a fairly persuasive case for the importance of copyediting, yet suffered from the homogeneity of its approach. In disciplines with well-standardized terminologies, plenty of institutional funding, and graduate students intensively trained in the norms of scholarly communication (e.g., physics, computer science), the work of the copyeditor is a great deal more mechanical than in many areas of the social sciences and more quantitative humanities (e.g., archaeology). Having to establish the norms of the discipline as one edits is like building the airplane as one flies it, and yet this is the role that the editors in many learned societies are playing. And that degree of time and care has costs attached.

Dissemination involves far more than waiting for readers to discover an online resource. "Build it and they will come" is the mantra of too many of the new Open Access journals being published by university libraries, a belief referred to as the "broadcast fallacy" by Rod Cookson of Taylor & Francis. In his 2009 article in Learned Publishing, Cookson eloquently explains the various aspects of investment that are necessary to properly convey new scholarship to the audience who matters . . . not, in most cases, the "wider public" but that relatively narrow community of fellow specialists to whom your research really matters, and whose approbation matters to you. Such investments range from the simple printed direct mail flyer to the social, Web 2.0, tools that (when they work) create communities of practice.

While archiving journal content in a print world was primarily the responsibility of the library system, the cost of electronic archiving is increasingly resting on a publisher's shoulders. This is not just because of a feeling of responsibility to the community, although of course some altruistic tendencies can be credited, but also because it is increasingly clear that digital content can be repurposed in a number of ways, some not yet invented. It makes sense to look after and control what is now so clearly a "digital asset."

R, C, D, A is not comprehensive. There are plenty of other activities that publishers engage in that cost money, but it is an easy-to-remember mnemonic for the next time that you are asked "and what exactly do publishers do?"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mellon issues a challenge to archaeologists. But is it too implicit?

Who would have thought, entering the elegant Upper East Side townhouse, that a gang of revolutionary conspirators lived here? And yet, in a series of recent announcements, the Mellon Foundation's program for scholarly communication has again proved that it has (in the words of a senior academic) got "sans culottes" tendencies.

Two of the funding announcements are archaeological projects. The challenge that Mellon has issued is to see if either are truly aware of the other.

The Archaeology of the Americas Digital Monograph Initiative is a joint project between The University Press of Colorado, Texas A&M University Press, University of Alabama Press, University of Arizona Press, University Press of Florida, and University of Utah Press. As the press release says, "funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the project will explore ways to deliver data- and illustration-rich digital editions of cutting-edge archaeological research, and will give scholars and professional archaeologists the ability to review supplemental data not often contained in conventionally published volumes." The $282,000 one-year planning grant aims to collaboratively develop a digital collection of New World archaeology scholarship based around the impressive publishing lists of the six presses, who together produce about 70 new titles a year in the relevant field and are core exhibitors at the Society for American Archaeology conferences. Linked to the publications will be, the presses plan, large data sets, color illustrations, video components, three-dimensional, rotatable images and, in some cases, interactive components such as reader commenting.

Digital Antiquity, meanwhile will "establish a financially and socially sustainable, national/international, on-line digital repository that is able to provide preservation, discovery, and access for data and documents produced by archaeological projects." This repository, will encompass documents and data derived from ongoing research (more than 50,000 field projects are conducted in the US each year) as well as legacy data collected through more than a century of archaeological research in the Americas. A two-year, $1.3 million Mellon Foundation implementation grant will support a full-time Executive Director, two software engineers, a data curator, and clerical staff. Digital Antiquity is currently housed at Arizona State University, as a collaborative effort with the University of Arkansas, the Pennsylvania State University, the SRI Foundation, Washington State University, and the University of York.

Collaboration, anyone?

One hopes that the two projects, surely exceptionally complementary, are not only aware of each other but are already talking. But there is no indication of this in the press releases or in any publicly-available information. If the Monograph Initiative wants to link to data sets, they will need to be securely archived and have a level of granularity in resource identification that will allow hooks to be included in the published materials. If Digital Antiquity is to become sustainable and accepted, it will need to be well-used and "marketed" to the academic community, and what better partner to do this than an experienced collective of publishers.

There are notable obstacles to collaboration here, and one again hopes that both parties are reading Raym Crow's admirable 2009 guide to Campus-Based Publishing Partnerships where tools for analyzing and overcoming the cultural and organizational barriers that exist in library-publisher collaborations are presented.

Some of the issues are:
  • The fact that both initiatives are searching for similarly-skilled employees and are aiming to become financially self-sustaining. This immediately puts them in competition.
  • The lack of overlap within the sponsoring institutions. Although Arizona State and the University of Arizona share a state, that is no guarantee of willingness to collaborate. Some of the fiercest institutional rivalries exist when the partners are physically close, and dependent on the same constituencies.
  • The lack of expertise most archaeologists seem to have with publishing materials in a structured and consistent way. As production managers at the constituent presses know, primary data presentations in archaeology are too often spectacularly sloppy.
  • The deep gulf between CRM practictioners (most field archaeologists) and archaeologists working in a university setting, reflected in the grayness of the gray literature emerging from the CRM community.
All such barriers are possible to overcome but the conversation between the two projects needs to start soon. As Raym Crow writes, "balancing the differences--operational, financial, and mission-related--between a press, a library, and other university units can make establishing an effective publishing partnership complex. However, constructively addressing these differences as part of a collaborative process will contribute significantly to the strength, creativity, and value of such partnerships" (Crow 2009, p. 2).

Let the collaboration cooperation data-linking creative-thinking revolution begin!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Baby, Bathwater . . . What?

Transformational Times, a recent report from the Association of Research Libraries, provides an "environmental scan" of (among other things) trends in scholarly communication, as seen from the perspective of North America's research libraries. Noting that "scholarly communication practices have now fully entered a phase of near-constant change," the authors predict that the "movement away from print publishing will accelerate" and that "monograph publishing is likely to be curtailed in response to reductions in monograph purchases."

The decline of the print monograph is hardly news (as numerous reports on the crisis in university presses show, this information vehicle has been driving on a downward slope for decades, with sales falling to a quarter or less of what they were in the 1970s [Thompson, 2005, p. 94] ), but the report's prediction of "curtailment" of monograph publishing suggests a finality and futility which does not match up with how I know our monographic print volumes are used.

In other words, there really are situations in which archaeologists, the scholars with whom I am most familiar, still prefer, need, and use print monographs. And not because they are dinosaurs (that's palaeontologists, kids) but for real and reasonable reasons connected with the particular ways in which this particular academic tribe works.

Here are three scenarios.

Printed monographs in the field. OK, I first should admit that although it is true that archaeologists still travel to destinations away from a broadband connection, the places where JSTOR cannot be accessed from an internet cafe are now few and far between. The argument that electronic resources are simply not portable enough to carry into the field is tempting (and perhaps a little bit true still) but it is harder and harder to sustain. Many archaeologists also carry scans of their most vital reference aids on their computers, and there is a trade in these bootleg copies that I have no desire to criticize.

However, artifact specialists in particular still seem to work in ways where a physical copy of key reference works are required. Enter any pot room on any Mediterranean dig, and I think you will still see well-thumbed copies of Rotroff, Hayes, or other reference bibles. When faced with an unfamiliar artifact, the expert will pick one of these tomes up and start to flick through the plate section, working from visual representation to catalogue description to type synopsis. It doesn't seem to be a generational thing. It is simply how artifact specialists do things, and the printed volume still works best for them in this context.

Printed monographs as wampum. Perhaps it is a consequence of all that anthropological training, but "gift exchange" is still a powerful force in a relatively small discipline where personal networks matter, the Kevin Bacon factor is low, and relationships must be formed between scholars of different nationalities, working in very different contexts. Library and personal exchanges are still an important means not only of obtaining resources from countries without easily convertible currencies, but also create institutional and individual links that are vital to obtaining permission to excavate, to forming multinational collaborations, and to confronting shared challenges. Hey, it's always nice to get a present! Especially if the giver is subtly also creating a good old "unbalanced reciprocity" in the process.

Printed monographs for tenure. This is an old chestnut, and a source of never-ending perplexity to good scholars whose scholarship is mostly digital but are then forced to paste their bits and bytes onto a bundle of thinly sliced pieces of wood. Why do tenure committees and review journals still insist on "the artifact"? That's a whole separate discussion and puzzlement to even the wisest. When the Mellon-funded, influential, Gutenberg-e project attempted to catalyze new forms of historical scholarship by funding younger academics to create electronic-only publications, the project managers were forced unwillingly to create flat, print-on-demand, versions of their multimedia creations to gain peer recognition and dissemination. Continued efforts to reward electronic scholarship seem to run into similar problems. Perhaps, for time-stretched academics engaged in administering the tenure system, the existence of a printed product is tangible proof that someone felt the scholarship contained was worthy enough to be invest substantial effort and money in. Perhaps, perhaps . . . . The point is that here also is another area of disciplinary strangeness where the printed monograph remains a gold standard.

None of these examples are intended to suggest that there is no place for electronic resources in archaeology, or that printed monographs are a satisfactory vehicle for most archaeological information. That, as I have suggested elsewhere, is clearly untrue. However, what is clear to me is that, in the words of the wise rhyme, "different people have different 'pinions, some like apples and some like 'nions." Print still has its uses in archaeology, and a nuanced view that recognizes the particular ways that scholars work and the disciplinary (and subdisciplinary) variation in their use of resources, is essential. Rather than throwing out print monographs altogether, or hastening their decline by neglecting to support them (as ARL seems to be doing when they talk of "curtailment"), perhaps the emphasis should be on hybrid publications where the print monograph forms a synthetic overlay, hooking into an array of additional and value-added electronic resources held at stable addresses in a digital repository.

The printed monograph may continue its decline, but policy makers should recognize that its continued refusal to be "curtailed"--at least in some disciplines such as archaeology--is not just another case of those darned scholars being stubborn, but a true reflection of research practice.