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But honestly, even if the Rice University Press were to achieve sustainability, its success gains us—collectively, higher education—very little. A digital press eking its way through the labyrinth of the next decade with its ever-increasing distributive computing power, grids, clouds, and gargantuan pipes approaches the nonsensical. The most compelling business model is one of far-reaching collaboration: dozens, eventually hundreds, of now stand-alone presses need to adopt a digital platform, or a set of interoperable platforms, and work together. The names and the intellectual focus of the presses can remain intact, their institutional status retained. Many of their current procedures will become automated; their costs significantly reduced; time to publication accelerated; and most importantly, the number of titles of new scholarship accordingly increased. A rule of thumb, at some of the more prominent presses, is that about 65 to 70 percent of manuscripts are rejected each year in the humanities. Of those rejected, about 60 percent meet the criteria for publication of these presses, but the costs of publishing them are prohibitive. Combined with the over-reliance on established authors and the increase in requests for younger faculty to subsidize their book publication, it is reasonable to state that one of the major constraints to new knowledge is the chief method of its expression.


Adopting a digital platform for academic publishing will automate many of the current processes within a university press, thus eliminating jobs, in some instances 50 percent or more. If a press moves onto Connexions or a similarly designed environment, most of the editorial staff, most of the design staff, and staff involved with production, accounting, shipping, receiving, marketing, and sales could be let go. The staff remaining would include core editorial work, the publisher, a designer and a content specialist (the last two could be part time or outsourced efficiently). If such a migration were done concertedly, however, shared resources could be even more efficiently deployed. This represents a major shift in human resources, and I would encourage universities and funding agencies to think about ways this staff redirection could be managed, funded, and instantiated with minimum disruption.

The failure of higher education

Among the recommendations in the 2008 report No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21 st Century , libraries were exhorted to take greater risks; to move away from the longstanding sense of ownership of their content; to become more engaged in new scholarly methods and interdisciplinary interests; and to reconceptualize the library as a multi-institutional entity, stating that the library as a stand-alone service provider to the university was obsolescent. These recommendations hold true for the silos of presses, whether analog or digital; as noted above, broad-scale adoption of digital publishing models should not erode the identity and cultured idiosyncrasy of a press, but it would allow for a flourishing of new knowledge. One of the more disheartening failures of higher education in the last twenty years is an avoidance to programmatically wrestle with the implications of digital technology and its effects: on services, disciplinary organization, and the structure itself of the university. Like a standalone library, or a standalone press, a standalone university may have less and less credence over time.

In this respect, provosts should not give additional funding to a press, but insist on a more collaborative working model that is trans-institutional and polycentric. There is little precedent for this approach, and exceptional leadership will be required to make this work. Consider the economics of higher education via the flow and costs of research: universities support research across the disciplines at great expense, paying for salaries, facilities (whether a laboratory or library), and infrastructure, then buy back this very research from publishers—including the university presses—at an increasingly higher price. A collective strategic turn could begin to essentially take back and control the multi-faceted knowledge that the community generates, and not reflexively outsource for repurchase.

A coordinated and coherent response to academic publishing will move us more into the realm of the digital commons, an environment in which research can be ever more reconstituted, reshaped, and repurposed. As Nancy Kranich notes, “…self governance of these newly emerging commons will require definition of boundaries (which tend to be ‘fuzzy’), design and enforcement of rules, extension of reciprocity, building of trust and social capital, and delineation of communication channels. With research resources diffused throughout the campus and beyond, their broad scope requires stewardship well beyond the boundaries of the edifices or structures that defined them in the past” (Hess, 106). Perhaps the pursuit of trust can itself anneal the inherited cultural issues, technologies, traditions, and vocabularies toward a new, more productive and adaptive intellectual place—not so much a solution that is cast in the prevailing terms and conditions of scholarly communication, but a letting go.


Hess, Charlotte and Elinor Ostrom. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. From Theory to Practice . Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2007.

Rewald, John. The History of Impressionism . New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973.

Smith, Abby, Stephen Nichols, et al. No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21 st Century . CLIR Publication, August 2008.

Thomson, Belinda. Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception . New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Toulmin, Stephen. Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Waters, Lindsay. “Rescue Tenure from the Tyranny of the Monograph.” The Chronicle of Higher Education . 20 April 2001, B7.

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Source:  OpenStax, Online humanities scholarship: the shape of things to come. OpenStax CNX. May 08, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11199/1.1
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