From the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2003
What, exactly, is going on here? What has happened to traditional roles and divisions in a publishing organization? And what does it mean for scholarly communication?
The author was one of a small but growing group of scholars who are publishing electronic works of history in the Gutenberg-e project through Columbia University's Electronic Publishing Initiative. The project is an experiment in tapping the potential of the digital environment to expand an author's ability to create and disseminate innovative scholarship, as well as an attempt to alter the landscape of the discipline of history's ability to accept that kind of work by its young scholars. Begun in 1999, with financing from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and under the auspices of the American Historical Association, the project provides prizes to young scholars whose dissertations have been selected for publication in digital form.
The first eight dissertations are now online (at http://www.gutenberg-e.org), and what they've taught us suggests that we publishers should start thinking about our staffing needs and our role in a new light.
Book editors tend to see themselves working within a structure where authors write as individuals, and where there are clear lines demarcating the editorial and production/design processes. Editors identify the best authors, provide various levels of editorial guidance, and work with authors to produce manuscripts that are, at some point, handed off to the production department. The emphasis is on what takes place between editor and author, not usually involving others.
But consider the Gutenberg-e projects. First, the prize-winning authors gather for a daylong workshop with the project editor, designer, information technologist, and guests from scholarly publishing and digital libraries. The authors present their work; then they hear presentations from the project staff members. Afterward, they remain in contact with staff members as they proceed.
Much has been written about the endangered status of the scholarly monograph in print, but little, to my knowledge, about the evolving status of the editors of those works. In their efforts to find answers to the problems of publishing specialized books, academic publishers have considered many possible solutions. Some have tried to become trade publishers, avoiding the monograph dilemma altogether; others have focused on whether they can afford elaborate new technologies to streamline their entry into the digital world. Few, however, have thought much about the potential for their editorial staff members to play a major role in addressing issues in the digital world.
In the future, authors and their editors will share equally in considering numerous questions. Must narrative necessarily be presented in a linear form? Can its meaning be changed by the form in which it is read? Are there new ways to present an "authorial voice" while allowing readers to alter the way they encounter a work? Are photographs and artworks supplementary illustrations, or can they become central organizing structures of a work? Do archival materials take on new significance on their own when they can be presented in their entirety in digital form? Is there value in being able to search thematically across individual works of scholarship in order to connect information in new ways? What new kinds of educational resources can be created by integrating research materials with digital teaching tools?
All of those questions, still theoretical in most scholarly-publishing discussions, become tangible and urgent once the answers actually determine the content and form of a digital publication. And the answers will depend on the skills and attitudes of publishing professionals. Editors are the ones who are on the front lines, dealing with authors during the planning-and-writing process. They must begin to:
In a recent e-mail message, one of the Gutenberg-e authors wrote: "It seems to me the pioneering part of Gutenberg-e is not so much technological as socio-professional: the idea that authors and editors are self-consciously working collaboratively on every stage of the book, from authorship to production and distribution. I think that this represents not only a historical innovation but also an important statement of academic values and ethos." His thought suggests that change must occur at the level of social and organizational structures rather than new software and machines.
For the most part, discussions of transformations in scholarly communication have focused on the use of new technologies to add value to the work and reduce the costs of dissemination. Going forward, the conversation should add a focus on the less technical, but perhaps more intractable, issues of changing organizational cultures, creating new kinds of jobs, and incorporating innovation into a production environment. Taking that one step further, we might consider anew how we define our role as a publishing organization as a whole.
We must begin to see ourselves as research centers that play a role in leading innovation in a scholarly discipline, rather than as just production-and-dissemination organizations. We must encourage editors who can lead the way in a cooperative enterprise. We must learn to see our technology staff members as close colleagues who help chart the course of publishing in a field because they understand the potential of information technology to affect the ways in which our audience conducts research, teaches, and learns. Finally, we must view our colleagues in the libraries the core market for scholarly publications as close collaborators who provide expertise on information organization, indexing, content management, and the changing needs of users.
To be sure, some of the traditional skills that scholarly-book editors have brought to their work remain as valuable as ever. Identifying, reviewing, and editing the best scholarly work are still very much needed. However, because the traditional forms in which we have published that material may no longer be as relevant as they were in the past, editors must learn as much as possible about our users how scholars now do their research; read content; use archives, images, data, and technology; and exercise their preferences for gaining access to their materials.
Publishers traditionally have separate departments devoted to editorial acquisitions and development, design and production, technology services, marketing, and customer service. Increasingly, we're going to have to find ways to change how those groups work together, and to create jobs that merge some of those functions across departmental lines.
In the new organizational model, editors will develop content for publication in both print and digital form and will play a role in its organization and design; technologists will participate in planning the navigation of content and in designing products that fit users' needs; production and design staff members will collaborate with authors and provide expertise on content organization and narrative structure. And marketing and sales departments will be involved in all decisions regarding content organization, functionality, product design, and access-and-dissemination mechanisms, so that they can work closely in developing effective relationships with customers.
How will we, as an industry, provide the opportunities for professional development that will encourage new publishing leaders to emerge? To ensure that scholarly publishers can play a central role in the future of scholarly communication, we need strong leadership from professional organizations as well as from individual publishers. We need formal structures for workshops, institutes, and professional fellowships where we bring in colleagues and collaborators from the library, technology, scholarly, and educational fields to share perspectives, research findings, and practical techniques that they have found to be valuable and effective.
We need also to encourage experiments that might not initially appear to be directly relevant to publishing operations, but which have the potential to yield valuable experience for example, studying how scholars use research materials in their work, or developing new systems for searching images in digital archives.
Above all, we must be open-minded, flexible, and innovative professionals, willing to take on new roles and learn new skills, while still relying on our traditional strengths as publishers.
Kate Wittenberg is director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia, a division of Columbia University Press.