Electronic Publication: The State of the Question

Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G. Musto

Our paper will have two parts: we will begin by briefly introducing the project and describing our model and approach to scholarly electronic publishing, and we will take up the relationship of this project to the changes occurring in scholarly communication. We'll concentrate on the experience from our own Project, but we will note progress on issues in electronic history publishing being made by the other important projects currently underway.

The History E-Book Project was originally conceived by John D'Arms as president of ACLS and funded in June 1999 for five years with a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with additional funding from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

Complete details of our theory, methods, goals, titles, technical approaches and policy statements are available on our support web site, as well as information about our partnerships among learned societies, university presses, the Scholarly Publishing Office and Digital Library Production Service at the University of Michigan, and the library community.

As of January 2003, we have over 800 backlist titles online - this is our retrospective conversion of previously published books. We are adding 250 titles a year to this collection. We've launched our first dozen frontlist titles -- these are newly-created for the project -- and we have three dozen additional titles now in development, ranging from “print-first” to “born-digital” titles, including titles of particular interest to this audience: Roger Bagnall and Raffaelle Cribiore on Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC-AD 800 and by Bernard Frischer with The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient-Greece. Second, Electronic Edition. We are working with eight participating learned societies plus we have ongoing conversations with others, like the Society of Biblical Literature on possible new books in archaeology. We have agreements with over 60 participating presses and have paid two rounds of royalties to presses, authors and authors' estates. As of this date the project has 250 subscribing institutions with over half a million hits annually. Almost 2.5 million scholars and students now have access to the books on our site.

Our approach to electronic publishing differs somewhat from what most scholars in historical studies have seen until now, and from the approach of other projects, which are website/HTML-based resources. First, let us make a distinction between websites that are digital archives, like Perseus -- and are not the subject of our comparison here -- and websites titles like The Valley of the Shadow and those included in Gutenberg-e of the AHA, which are in essence distinct HTML websites.

These websites are great teaching resources; and within bounds great research tools. As a first-generation research tool they exposed lots of historians to the methods and issues of electronic publishing. But they have their limits in terms of an electronic publishing program. Our approach at ACLS is not to build discrete websites. These websites stand in effect like the artist's book to the mass-produced tool of knowledge we are familiar with. On the positive side they allow for the broadest and deepest possible creative assemblage of argument, evidence and illustration; they are collaborative, which has shown a way for other electronic publications; and more often than not they are accompanied by the creation of substantial and sometimes vast digital archives.

But the problem with the website approach is that they're unique creations that in most cases cannot be replicated; and they cannot be fit into structures of knowledge, i.e. they can't be searched, cited or navigated with any degree of predictability. The result is that historians are often unable to test hypotheses with any degree of certitude that they have before them in clear view or comprehensible shape and scope all the arguments and evidence that the author has deployed. These websites lack common standards and common norms for reading and review. They're also costly (especially those that we label “free”); they're unpredictable and open-ended in terms of budget and schedule. Open-endedness also makes them un-amenable to common publishing and scholarly practices of fixed revisions and editions. Although collaborative, they are often individually maintained and therefore difficult to sustain and preserve. And finally, the collections of digital documents associated with websites are not true archives in the sense of representing complete hard-copy depositories, but selective and sometimes subjective amalgams of documents brought together with the same critical methodologies that scholars bring to bear in assembling evidence for their own monographs -- limited in focus and scope. In addition these digital archives have produced no common structural, organizational or access methodologies.

These websites do take on a uniqueness akin to the artist's book, beautiful works, like those by Picasso or Matisse, works that are not intended to be duplicated but stand alone to present to us the freshness of the state of the art. Without having going so far as Walter Benjamin's critique of “fetishization of the [individual] object,” we can observe that these web sites are unique entities, almost created for their own sake and not really as tools of historical/scientific methodology.

Now that historians have cut their teeth on this new way of working with history, the environment is at hand for a shift to the second phase: to that of standardized production, distribution, and evaluation of scholarly work in electronic format. This is what we have worked to achieve in the History E-Book Project and particularly with our frontlist where we can offer an alternative to the discrete website model of electronic publication.

Before we could begin to publish these frontlist works online we had to actually parse the history monograph into its constituent parts. What we decided to do was create a series of simple coding modules that would take into account every feature of the scholarly book. Once these modules had been identified and constructed, we had created the building blocks for the most complex electronic publications that a historian would want to create.

Our next phase was to build a structure with good technical features that would be ready to manage these individual element. Then we needed to integrate that structure -- where these new books reside, are read, searched, navigated and studied -- with the structure that manages our backlist, which uses a completely different technology. These frontlist and backlist books are now integrated into one fully-searchable collection where books are linked to their reviews that are available online, where new books are linked to related historiography in the backlist, and where books are linked to external archives like Perseus and APIS, true electronic archives. We have now also published this first series of standards, which are available on our website. While won't go into technologies issues in this paper, we do want to emphasize that choosing and integrating different technologies are a critical concern in terms of cost and sustainability for scholarly materials. Commercial technology models had somewhat muddied the waters concerning our choices about technology, but we have discovered that complex technology, for the sake of technology, is not necessarily an effective means of delivering scholarship.

Through frontlist standards and production methods and through frontlist integration with the backlist in terms of searchability and interface we have achieved a production model for electronic scholarly communication that is predictable, accessible in terms of citation and search, replicable, comprehensible, reviewable, and sustainable: both economically and for the long-term.

This model offers an opportunity for building a cyber-infrastructure for scholarly work in the humanities. Looking forward, an electronic publishing model is a necessity because we are at a time when university press publication is increasingly under stress and scholars working in the humanities, both junior and senior, are seeking alternatives and experimenting with different formats for scholarly communication. Looking backward, this sustainable production model is also a necessity, because we had been in danger of losing the last ten years of electronic scholarship, but now as we seize the opportunity to move into this second stage of electronic scholarly publishing, we will be able to shape this medium to our own scholarly purposes.

During the life of this project thus far, we've encountered several important issues in scholarly communication, which we would like to address in this paper. ACLS designed the History E-Book Project for two purposes. The first was as a practical publishing venture: to break new ground in the research, writing, publishing and reception of history. Our efforts in this regard have parallels among several of the other electronic history projects now underway: Gutenberg-e, History Cooperative, the AHR's experiments with electronic publishing. Our project was also designed as a limited experiment: to use the new electronic medium to rethink many of the basic issues of history publishing and of scholarly communication that are generally discussed under the rubric of “the Crisis in Scholarly communication.” This involves: the fate of the print monograph; its role in professional assessment and advancement; the future of the university presses; and the role of the library in collections, access, and preservation of digital scholarship: what's now called the “cyberinfrastructure.”

We would like to address these issues in general by focusing on just one, which has become a core issue, at least for historians: the declining reach, profitability, and responsiveness of the university presses as publishers of our primary research: the history monograph.

We've all heard the litany of causes many times: In the crisis in scholarly publishing the problem is

  • the high cost of paper and other manufacturing
  • the greed and inefficiency of publishers
  • declining library budgets in the humanities
  • the high costs of science journals
  • cut-backs in university funding for presses
  • the narrowing of focus among historians to esoteric specialties
  • lack of publishing subsidies for authors
  • the universal dumbing down of the culture

All these are played out almost weekly in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Aside from anecdote, however, we also now have some sound evidence, as reviewed recently by Rob Townsend in the AHA Perspectives (“History and the Future of Scholarly Publishing”). We can focus on just one set of numbers: between 1980 and 2000 average sales/titles have plummeted in the key monograph market, the library, from about 2000 copies in 1980, to 1000 late 1980s, to 500 by 1990, to 200+ today -- not even enough to cover publishers' overhead costs.

By the late 1990s it was acknowledged that something had to be done. And the maturing of the electronic media touted by historians like James O'Donnell (Avatars of the Word), Robert Darnton (as president of the American Historical Association), Jerry McGann (“author” of The Rossetti Archive), Ed Ayers (“author” of The Valley of the Shadow) and Roy Rosenzweig (now Vice-President for research at the American Historical Association) seemed to offer a solution. So the ACLS History E-Book Project was launched with the university presses as a key partner, and in the expectation that turning around the economics of monograph publishing would solve most of our problems. Nevertheless, four years later in our project, in the realm of both print and in electronic work, while we are seeing tangible gains in most areas of e-publishing, from the scholar's perspective, we are seeing many university presses focusing on only one model of e-book: the derivate, electronic version of print-first monographs.

Why? And why have they not fully embraced the new electronic media both to advance scholarship in ways extolled by Darnton, Ayers, or McGann, and presumably also to save their bottom lines?

Despite many efforts at funding and coordination, including our own, the university presses are still -- with notable exceptions -- producing digital versions of print books, still focusing on traditional markets, and still distributing them using their tried and true networks, pricing schemes, and production methods.

How do we explain all this in a comprehensive way, in a way that takes the scholars perspective, but that also gives due credit to the vast pool of experience and expertise that resides within the university presses? Why are our traditional partners in scholarly communication apparently falling behind?

One model that we have found very useful to analyze this phenomenon is that of The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (Harper & Row, Harvard Business Series). This work focuses on the distinction between “sustaining” and “disruptive” technologies. (By “technology” Christiansen means far more than the strict sense of the word and includes the structures and cultures of work and production.) Sustaining technologies “foster improved product performance,” i.e., they attempt to perfect current models and maximize revenue streams and work flows. This is exemplified by companies that have had excellent management, design, distribution but that have suddenly failed: for example, Sears in retail, IBM in mainframes, Xerox in reproduction.

In this sense the university press print monograph and print-first e-book models are perfect examples of a sustaining technology: the university presses do these very well; but like many sustaining technologies they have, until recently, remained hesitant to invest time, expertise, and money on innovative electronic approaches.

In comparison, “disruptive technologies” in the short term under-perform established products in mainstream markets. They are aimed really at emerging market, but also they are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller and easier to use; using experimental workflows and work groups. These all take risks and use unproven technologies. Recent examples might include the cell phone, digital photography, the electric car, and now online music stores. The move from Napster -- a marginalized, and ultimately outlawed technology -- to the highly successful iTunes in the space of only 2 years has supplanted decades-old marketing methods and institutions. It is a perfect example of disruptive technology. It demonstrates a new attitude toward technology per se, toward copyright, distribution, access and forms of use. In e-publishing, examples of disruptive technologies include JSTOR, Gutenberg-e, the California Digital Library, and our own History E-Book Project. These are -- or began as -- small work-groups, spin-offs of larger organizations, flexible in their personnel, budgeting, technical innovation, and marketing, able to sidestep the structural roadblocks of scale, corporate organization, and marketing truisms. So far, beyond expectation, they're working -- structurally and even sometimes financially. Christiansen's work is far more complex and detailed than we've laid out here, but his approach, we believe, helps explain the current model of the university presses elegantly: to change what they do so well would require fundamental adjustments in structure, personnel, workflow, and business models that so far are not forthcoming.

ACLS has therefore also begun to look to other partners: the learned societies with publishing programs (e.g., Renaissance Society of America, the Medieval Academy, Society for Biblical Literature, College Art Association, the American Historical Association), and to university libraries with digital publishing arms: Columbia, NYU, MIT, Virginia, Michigan, the Virtual Reality Laboratory at UCLA. These all now have active publishing programs that we hope to enlist to produce some of our most forward-looking titles, while maintaining our alliance with the university presses.

Our publishing alliance remains essential, for if the university presses did not exist, or if societies and libraries fully embraced electronic publishing in all its professional and structural elements, we effectively would have replicated the university presses in all their essential functions.

At the American Historical Association Annual Meeting (Washington, D.C., January 2004), as a prelude to its annual meeting, AHA will host what now appears to be a standing-room-only plenary session entitled “Entering the Second Stage of On-Line History Scholarship.” It will bring together the leading players in the field of electronic history publishing: the AHA, the American Historical Review, the Gutenberg-e project, the Organization of American Historians, the History Cooperative, and of course, the History E-Book Project.

The message of the full-day session will be that we have, together -- over the past several years -- been quietly and consistently working through the once barely imaginable issues central to scholarly electronic publishing -- editing, production and distribution, evaluation standards, review, and sustainability -- and are now poised to plan that new, second phase.

The digital future is now upon us, and the good news to be reported here and in Washington next week is that historians and other scholars are actively helping to shape it in our image.



Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G. Musto
Directors, ACLS History E-Book Project
Founders and Publishers, Italica Press
egardiner@hebook.org; rgmusto@hebook.org

Return to Electronic Publication and the Classics Profession
May 2004

Last modified on September 19, 2013