Building a Better University Press (or UnPress)

The Association of American University Presses convenes its annual meeting next week in Baltimore. “Toward a Culture of Collaboration” is the theme this year, with an emphasis on what presses need to do to adapt and survive. This has, understandably, been a driving theme for the association’s members in recent years. In March, an AAUP task force released a report on “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses,” then invited people to comment on an interactive version posted on MediaCommons, a digital scholarly network.

Meanwhile, people outside the press community have been busy airing their own ideas about what the scholarly publishing of the near future will look like.

Late last month, the Modern Language Association announced the creation of an Office of Scholarly Communication, to be run by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College and one of the founders of MediaCommons. On his blog, Mark Sample, a digital humanist who teaches contemporary literature and new-media studies at George Mason University, considered what that office might do:

I have no idea what to expect from the MLA, but I don’t think high expectations are unwarranted. I can imagine greater support of peer-to-peer review as a replacement of blind review. I can imagine greater emphasis placed upon digital projects as tenurable scholarship. I can imagine the breadth of fields published by the MLA expanding. These are all fairly predictable outcomes, which might have eventually happened whether or not there was a new Office of Scholarly Communication at the MLA.

But I can also imagine less predictable outcomes. More experimental, more peculiar. Equally as valuable though—even more so—than typical monographs or essays. I can imagine scholarly wikis produced as companion pieces to printed books. I can imagine digital-only MLA books taking advantage of the native capabilities of e-readers, incorporating videos, songs, dynamic maps. I can image MLA Singles, one-off pieces of downloadable scholarship following the Kindle Singles model. I can imagine mobile publishing, using smartphones and GPS. I can imagine a 5,000-tweet conference backchannel edited into the official proceedings of the conference backchannel.

Inspired in part by a Twitter discussion of some of Sample’s ideas, Roger Whitson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has now proposed a session for the upcoming THATCamp at George Mason University. (THATCamp stands for The Technology and Humanities Camp, which operates on a free-wheeling, participant-led unconference model.) This year’s unconference will take place June 3-5—the same time as the AAUP gathering up the road in Baltimore.

On the THATCamp planning blog, Whitson explained what he has in mind.  “I’d like to use the THATCamp spirit (hacking before yacking, collaboration, digital forms of communication) to try to imagine what a digital indie academic press (or UnPress) would look like,” he wrote. “Would it feature articles? Online conferences? Hacking sessions? Multimodal presentations? Could we institute peer-to-peer review? When would we publish?” He said he hoped participants would leave the session with “the beginnings of a plan” for some kind of THATCamp-affiliated indie press.

Meanwhile, over at the Scholarly Kitchen blog, veteran publishing consultant Joseph Esposito has just posted a two-part series that tackles these issues from the vantage point of more traditional publishing. Esposito focuses on Creating a New University Press and What Upstarts Can Teach Established Presses. Publishers should watch startups and learn from them, he argues; they shouldn’t scramble to imitate them, because their models are necessarily different.

“Contemplating the creation of a new press makes it very clear that the biggest obstacle to starting something entirely new is that the established publishers are very good at what they do and would be hard to displace,” Esposito writes. “The presses have established networks to draw on, important brands, and know-how in critical areas.  To compete with the presses today does not call for a new press; it calls for a new idea.”

To be continued.

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