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Week of July 22, 2013

Faculty Perspectives: Scholarly communication ­— archives and presses

From my perspective as a faculty member in the humanities, one of the most disturbing aspects of current discussions of the dissemination of knowledge is the tendency to blur the distinction between archives and publishers. The distinction used to be clear: presses produced new scholarship, libraries preserved it. Digital repositories such as Deep Blue performed useful functions by collecting and preserving a University’s intellectual product. Such preservation has historical value.

In 2004 Google announced a project, in conjunction with Michigan and other universities, to digitize collections in major libraries around the world. As President Mary Sue Coleman said in 2006, “It is an educator’s dream, knowing that the vast body of information held in the libraries of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and the New York Public Library will be universally searchable and, in the case of public domain works, accessible.” As she said in the same speech, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina reinforced perception of the need to protect the record of the past from hazards of all sorts. This is an archiving function, and, as President Coleman pointed out, that can be provided while maintaining the distinction between works in the public domain and those protected by copyright. The dissemination of knowledge in such cases is best done collaboratively and, with the publisher’s and copyright holder’s permission books in copyright are made available as snippets. This both helps publicize new work and protects scholars working with images from the extremely high fees rights holders demand for digital as opposed to print reproduction.

The additional benefit deriving from the HathiTrust, founded in 2008, is less clear. The HathiTrust allows for a word-search of copyrighted volumes (most of us don’t need a computer search to tell us if the word “Senate” appears in a book on the federal government), but that is just an extension of the service available to users of Google Books for copyrighted works. Where Hathi differs from the Google project is in its “orphan works” program, whereby it asserts the right to provide “open access” to in-copyright books whose authors could not be discovered. The judge who ruled on the legality of Hathi’s archival activities refused to rule on the legality of the orphan works program. The program is problematic as errors are easy to make but not to fix.

Hathi’s programs should not be confused with issues of open access to scholarly research as described in the recent policy statement issued by the federal government’s Office of Science and Technology (OST). In issuing its recommendation that work funded by federal grants be made open to the public after a one year embargo, OST stated that:

“The administration also recognizes that publishers provide valuable services, including the coordination of peer review, that are essential for ensuring the high quality and integrity of many scholarly publications. It is critical that these services continue to be made available. It is also important that federal policy not adversely affect opportunities for researchers who are not funded by the federal government to disseminate any analysis or results of their research.”

Most humanists, who do not work with federally funded grants, are dependent upon the health of university presses for the dissemination of our work. University presses traditionally made money from three sources — providing services to their home institution, journals programs, and selling books to individuals and institutions. One feature of the current publishing world is that large publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, and the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses — large international conglomerates that do not function like other university presses — have swept up much of the journal business, meaning that university presses mostly make money by selling books. This is not catastrophic for people who understand what they are doing. Academic books do not sell lots of copies, but when they are marketed correctly in niche markets their publishers make a profit (even when they do not charge the extremely high prices charged by Oxford or Cambridge). Ideally scholarly books are combined with niche textbooks (university presses cannot compete with the reach of commercial presses in large textbook markets) to make a bit more money. Profitable university presses exist — they range in size and shape from the University Press of Kansas to the University of Pennsylvania Press or the Princeton University Press — because they are careful about how they publish. The success of these enterprises, crucial to the development of our disciplines, depend simply on good, informed management. When a university press loses money it is not because the business model is inherently flawed, but rather because that model is poorly executed.

Looking ahead, where do university presses fit in? We need them to continue their traditional function of enabling the dissemination of non-grant-funded research, but we also need their traditional service function as we look ahead to a world where large on-line courses are coming onto the scene. Faculty members are suspicious of these courses when they are presented as alternatives to traditional on-campus instruction (there is no obvious reason why this should be an either/or situation, especially as Massive Online Open Courses reach non-traditional learners). Administrators wonder how they will recover their costs, which obviously cannot be done on an “open access” model. This is where university presses come in. They are far better suited to working with the needs of faculty developing such courses than their larger, commercial, competitors. University presses are simply more used to dealing with local faculty to develop work they need for their classes.

As we look ahead, we need to make sure that we maintain the distinction between archiving and publication. We need to respect the strengths of libraries as repositories for information, and of publishers as producers of new work. In so doing, we have an opportunity to strengthen communication between universities and the public that needs our product.


(David Potter is the Francis W Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and professor of Greek and Latin in the Department of Classical Studies, LSA.)

The Faculty Perspectives page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at faculty.perspectives.page@umich.edu. Essays are the opinion of the author. The chair this year is Annette Haines. Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words.

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