Are You a Press or Are You a Library? An Interview with NYU’s Monica McCormick

Libraries are creepy[Adeline Koh is an assistant professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey. She currently directs two digital humanities projects: Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen,’ an open-source resource on 19th century ‘Asian Victorians,’ and The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, an online magazine on postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. Find her on twitter at @adelinekoh. -GHW]

This is the first article in a new series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by guest author Adeline Koh. Each article in this series will feature an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world.

Think of a library and most people conjure up an image of a stately building with stacks and stacks of books. This vision is rapidly changing. Libraries are beginning to expand their missions by making forays into the publishing world. This is especially the case for academic libraries—those attached to research institutions such as Harvard, New York University and Michigan. But the role of publishing has traditionally remained the purview of the university presses attached to the same research institutions. How is this rapid change in the mission of the university library affecting its relationship with the scholarly press?

This interview covers one example of the ways in which a university library and press are learning to negotiate this new publishing ecosystem together. I spoke with Monica McCormick (@moncia), who holds the interesting and unusual position of simultaneously working with both the NYU Press and the NYU Library in her position in the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing. In our conversation, we covered issues ranging from the relationship between the Press and the Library at NYU, her position on open access, and the important and undervalued work that editors continue to play in academia.

AK: Thanks, Monica, for speaking with me today. Could you tell me more about the relationship of the NYU Press to the NYU Library?

MM: At NYU, the press is a department of the Division of Libraries, and receives support for infrastructure like IT and human resources. But NYUP press operates under a separate budget from the library. I am the only position that reports to both to the press and to the library.

AK: Let’s talk a little more about this relationship. Academic libraries are increasingly taking over some of the roles of academic publishers, especially in terms of providing platforms for open access publishing. How do you think the relationship between a university library and university press has changed and will continue to change?

MM: I don’t know if I would agree with the statement that academic libraries are “taking over the roles” of academic publishers, because they fulfill somewhat different missions and have different funding models. University presses are generally expected to support themselves by sales of books (and sometimes journals), so their decisions about what to publish are at least in part based on market considerations. Library publishing programs, generally speaking, do not have to cover the costs of their publishing ventures in the same way. As a result, university libraries have more leeway to publish as a service rather than a business, by, for example, providing a repository for their institution’s research, or hosting space for online journals for their faculty. This means that library publishers and university presses—for the most part—are not in direct competition, because library publishing to date seems designed to fill a gap that is not met by academic publishing.

AK: Why do you think academic libraries are able to ‘fill the gap’ that publishers cannot?

MM: Presses and libraries work on different revenue models. While publishers are required to make enough money so that they balance their books at the end of the day, there is no income stream required so far in most library publishing. Libraries, in other words, don’t need to justify their costs in the same way. Also, because library publishing generally doesn’t provide the same set of services that most UPs do (editing, design, production, marketing, sales, and distribution to retailers) their overhead costs are lower. To put it simply: many library publishers are not yet really operating as businesses, but as part of a service organization. That means they can publish material (like research papers, technical reports, newly-launched journals) that is valuable scholarship without worrying about whether it has a market.

AK: Do you think that the role of the library has changed in the world of academic scholarship?

MM: University libraries have realized that there are new kinds of services that they can provide to scholars and authors—and in some cases, this has meant that they have gone into “publishing,” which I try to think of in the broad sense of “making scholarship public.” Library publishing is just part of a whole continuum of services that libraries offer to support scholarly collaboration and research, which might include data management, curating scholars’ born-digital research collections, providing guidance on copyright and intellectual property, and making the research results available. I see libraries engaging with scholars more deeply and at more points in their work.

AK: Do you think there will come a time where all academic publishing will cease to exist except for library publishing?

MM: I don’t think that will ever happen. Some of the university presses may go away, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many of the nascent library publishing operations also come to an end. We may see the growth of more scholarly societies, composed of collectives of scholars in different fields, getting involved in publishing. I don’t expect there to be a ‘flipped switch,’ where suddenly everything becomes different, but an evolution over time. For example, the form of the monograph may change, and we may see more variety in publishing venues and forms than currently exist. We could revert back to some new version of the 19th-century model, where universities took responsibility for publishing the work of their own faculty and exchanged these texts for free. Research libraries were in the past built on this sort of exchange. But even with a robust exchange of freely accessible online scholarship, I assume some folks will figure out how to select, refine, and sell scholarship, too.

AK: Kathleen Fitzpatrick has urged scholars to ‘publish’ work online before seeking publication in traditional academic outlets (for example, blogging a book project before looking for a publisher). How do you feel about this? Will this help or hurt the author in finding a university press/library publisher for a more traditional book?

MM: Well again, this depends on what you mean by ‘publishing.’ I think it’s very important for authors to have some kind of an online presence. Blogs can be a great way to hone writing skills and test ideas. Blogs with larger followings also help to establish name recognition for an author, and may show to publishers that the author can write for a more general audience. But I think scholars should be strategic about what, when, and how much they make publicly available. Particularly in fields where books are the requirement for tenure, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that someone put their unrevised dissertation up online. As a long-time book editor, I think of dissertations as first drafts. I advise scholars to think carefully about the version of their work that they want to share.

In pragmatic terms, it all depends on what you want the book to do for you. In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s experiment with Planned Obsolescence, she had the best of both worlds—she had traditional peer review in the form of two blind reviewers. She also posted her manuscript (with the full agreement of her editor) on the MediaCommons platform, where she got feedback from a wider community with whom she’d been in conversation for years. The author and the press both wanted this broad engagement with the work. From what I can see, the final book was more nuanced, and the audience for it was well established before the print and e-books were for sale.

Another book by another author on another topic might not have the same outcome. At NYU, we’re interested in thinking harder about how peer review will work in conjunction with open online publishing. To that end, in 2011 NYU Press and MediaCommons were awarded a Mellon grant to consider standards and necessary technology to support open peer review. We’re hoping to have our white paper on the subject ready for public comment by the summer.

AK: Which leads me to my next question. What is NYU Press’s policy on open access publishing? Would you be open to simultaneously publishing a monograph in paperback, and a digital copy online? What sort of options for online publishing does your press offer? Do you think that there exist viable revenue streams for open access work?

MM: In terms of what we did with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book—where her entire book was available online before it was actually in print—that was an experiment, and is a long way from a policy. Which is not to say that we won’t do it again. We’re discussing similar approaches with several other authors.

We’re exploring several ways to work with open access. For example, the Press is working with the NYU Library’s Digital Technology Services group to make a select set books from our backlist available in open access. These books will be free to read in a browser, but not downloadable. We’ve also just begun co-publishing with NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, who will be making data-rich versions of their archeological works available for free online, while we offer print-on-demand and e-books for sale. We will see what we learn from all that.

On the library end, we certainly support open access. I lead services for our institutional repository and for open access journal publishing (using Open Journal Systems software), and my colleagues in Digital Library Technology Services provide the platform for MediaCommons—which allows for several forms of open access publishing, enabling not only open peer review but also different kinds of scholarly writing, collaboration, and commentary. It’s all being developed closely with the scholars who use it.

So we’re experimenting with open access on a number of levels. It’s important to say, though, that we’re certainly not the only institution where the Press and the Library are working together; I’ve learned a lot from the press-library collaborations at the University of Pittsburgh Press, the Penn State University Press, the California Digital Library, M Publishing at the University of Michigan, just to name a few.

AK: Going off that, could you speak about what you think the future of the scholarly monograph will be?

MM: We hear a lot these days that the ‘monograph is dying,’ that it’s going to disappear. I find it perplexing, because it seems that more monographs are being been published every year (though it’s hard to find good data about this). So on the one hand we’re saying that the form is dying, yet on the other, we keep producing them in increasing numbers.

Ultimately, I don’t think that the monograph is going away entirely. It may be harder to get them published, as each one sells fewer copies. We’ll have to get more creative with how we finance them. Presses may need to ask for subsidy from authors’ institutions as well as the Press’s home university, for example. But I think so long as there’s an intellectual purpose to the monograph—it isn’t going to die out. The question is, whether it will stay in its current form or not. The scholarly community has to decide what it wants the monograph as a form to do, and that should drive the publishing choices.

AK: On that note, how do you look at web metrics as alternate forms of recording scholarly impact? For example, would you consider a blog with 3000 page views the equivalent of a high “impact factor”? Would this help or hurt the author in securing a contract with a scholarly press?

MM: I’m not quite sure about how to think about this, especially in terms of books. A blog with 20,000 unique visitors a month doesn’t translate into 20,000 copies of a book based on that blog. They are different forms, with different uses. Also, in humanities fields, ‘impact’ develops over a much longer period, as a book finds its audience. Both altmetrics and ‘impact factor’ that are used in STEM fields don’t really do a good job of measuring that kind of impact. I’d say that the metrics that we do have are pretty blunt, but haven’t developed my thoughts on what to do instead.

AK: Finally, could you talk about what you think the future of the university press will be?

MM: As I said before, it seems possible that some existing presses may not survive in the existing business model. It’s possible that some presses will evolve into providing more services for their home institutions, in exchange for more financial security. I have no inside knowledge of any place in particular—this is just my sense of the options.

I do hope we can keep in mind the impact that publishers can have in creating new fields of scholarship. Key publishers have been, for example, the locus for developing new fields such as disability studies, or ethnic studies—you first notice one book coming out from a certain editor or house, and then more and more, until it becomes a ‘field’ of its own, and the scholarship can develop. The publisher becomes known for its expertise in this subject area. This requires a lot of judgment and skill in curation, and is something that I deeply respect. Good editors, who identify emerging trends in intellectual work and bring them together, can make a serious contribution to scholarship. I think it’s important that we recognize the value in that. However scholarly publishing will be paid for, there’s definitely a key role for editorial curation in the future. Editors can be very much important players in the scholarly field, not cogs in the machine.

AK: Wonderful, that wraps up my list of questions. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

MM. You’re welcome!

Photo “Libraries Are Creepy” by Flickr user Paul Lowry / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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