The Printing Press of the Digital Environment: A Conversation with Stanford’s Highwire Press

High Wire[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 site 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 second 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. Part one was an interview with NYU’s Monica McCormick.

What the modern printing press was to the twentieth century, digital platform providers are to the twenty-first. With the move to digital, publishers no longer need large machines, paper and ink: instead, they need software and platforms that allow them to ‘print’ work digitally.

Yet these twenty-first century printing presses are often still called “publishers” or “presses,” which makes their exact roles confusing to navigate for the average scholar. To help the average faculty member or graduate student navigate through the hazy waters of digital publishing, I will be conducting a series of interviews with various types of university presses, libraries and journals to provide a basic map of important figures in the digital publishing ecosystem.

In this interview, I speak with the Stanford HighWire Press, which functions as one of the new “printing presses” for scholarly work. Established in 1995, Highwire offers hosting space and a publishing platform for publishers and scholarly societies. HighWire provides the publishing platform for about 150 scholarly publishers and over 1600 journals in all disciplines, including humanities content from Duke University Press and the University of Wisconsin Press. They are not involved in the curation and editing of research, but concentrate more on providing web hosting services and platforms for managing digital content.

Our conversation touched upon issues such as how Highwire makes a distinction between itself and university presses,  the open access debate to changes in the definition of “scholarly impact,” and what sorts of electronic data journals may be able to provide to individual authors. Present at the interview were Tim McCormick (@mccormicktim), Anh Bui and Laryssa Polika.

Since HighWire is a publisher—of digital journal content, predominantly—does it ever compete with the Stanford University Press?

HighWire Press and the Stanford University Press are both sister organizations under the umbrella of the Stanford University Libraries. But unlike Stanford University Press, HighWire is not a publisher—we do not try to actively solicit and develop content, but we host but don’t ourselves do peer review or editing. So we do not compete. However, because we work primarily with digital content, we have occasionally collaborated with the Press to produce electronic books.

HighWire is more of a platform provider than an actual publisher. Publishers and scholarly organizations are our clients. We do not work with individuals. People who wish to publish under HighWire would have to go through our partners and have their work accepted there first.

Our purpose is to make the exchange of scholarly work possible, rather than to be actively involved in the process of developing and curating that work, and we consider ourselves business-model neutral, meaning we serve publishers with various business models including open-access, access-controlled, and mixed.

Could you speak to your take on the open access movement?

There is an increasingly great push towards to make more journals open-access. This is also a more recent development. Historically, many journals would give free access to their backdated content, but this has changed for a while now. We believe that the push towards open access comes from this change; perhaps if journals had continued to give free access to backdated content the movement for open access would not be as strong.

Do you think that all journals should go open access?

That is in the control of the journals themselves. Journals have to figure out a financial model for the open access system to work, because ultimately someone has to pay for the work of editing, marketing and hosting.

On our end: we support a variety of publishers, some who have completely open access content, some which have some content that is open access–e.g. after six months, or certain featured articles–and some which are completely closed. Sometimes journals find that moving to platforms like HighWire may incur enough savings to allow them to go open access, because moving to a different platform can be less expensive than going through hosting by oneself.

Would you suggest any viable revenue streams that scholarly societies could use to make their journals open access?

Unfortunately we can’t, because scholarly societies are so diverse. What works for one may not work for another.

Could you speak to some of the important new discussions regarding impact, citations and metrics for digital publications?

Because we are a publishing support service and not a publisher, we aren’t involved in the selection process for vetting what actually gets published.  What we do suggest, however, is that scholars can put pressure on publishers to offer them access to their “value analytics.” While the number of citations an article gets is usually held up as the gold standard for determining its “impact,” particularly in the sciences, increasing numbers of people are getting interested in alternative forms of measuring impact, also known as “altmetrics.”

These metrics may include basic web data such as page views, the number of times content has been downloaded, etc. This type of data, however, is not just limited to web pages—ejournals also have access to that sort of data. Highwire has a function called the “Author Data Center” which allows individual authors to look up this data for themselves. This data may be helpful in making an argument for present impact of an author’s current work. To get cited is a slow process, but being able to look at the web metrics around a certain article can provide a more immediate view of an article’s impact to promotion and tenure committees. We would suggest that authors voice to their journals that supporting and optimizing for altmetrics, and providing access to such data could make that journal more valuable to contributors and researchers.

I have heard that Highwire Press is planning a foray into ebooks. Could you speak more about this?

HighWire already hosts a large body of eBook content from our current publishers, many of whose output bridges from scholarly journals to book-form works such as reference books or proceedings compilations.  We are currently working to standardize and extend these capabilities into a complete scholarly eBooks platform that is also well-integrated into the larger eBook ecosystem (e.g. ePubs, Kindle content and free / open-access content such as from Internet Archive).

What do you think authors should keep in mind regarding their digital publications in the future?

It is early days yet for digital publishing, and there are great areas of opportunity that are not yet well-defined or settled. We like to see scholars and authors being bold and experimentative, not just waiting for terms to be given to them.  While it’s true that certain structures of academia, such as tenure criteria, may tend to operate conservatively, on the other hand change happens eventually, and we see many signs of impending change, even disruption — for example with online education, education-related startups, altmetrics, and academic social networks (e.g. ResearchGate,, Mendeley).

One specific thing: in the coming years, authors will need to secure for their articles a DOI—a Digital Object Identifier, which works in a similar way that ISBNs do for books right now. If a DOI is assigned to an article, users may in the future be able to look up data on where and how the article has been used. An interesting site to look at in this regard is CrossRef, which keeps track of most DOIs across journals from different disciplines.  Tracking articles also leads and relates to tracking relevant colleagues, and finally to constructing an effective social/interest network.

Otherwise, keeping abreast of debates on alternative metrics (altmetrics) —especially the debates going on in the science fields and in the digital humanities]—may prove to be of great relevance across all fields in the near future. We would suggest that scholars keep their ears to the ground on this field and think entrepreneurially about the many ways they could publish and be recognized / rewarded for it.

Photo “high wire 2″ by Flickr user _gee_ / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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