What Is Publishing? A Report from THATCamp Publishing

[This is a guest post by Adeline Koh, an assistant professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey. Her research and teaching interests are in postcolonial literature and theory, 20th century British literature, African and Southeast Asian literature, global feminist theory, and the digital humanities. She is currently the director of The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, an online magazine on postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. Find her on twitter at @adelinekoh. -GHW]

How is academic publishing adapting to the Internet? This October, I took part in THATCamp Publishing in Baltimore, an “unconference” that explored some pressing new questions, such as

  1. Who should publish digital scholarly research?
  2. Should digital academic research be published by the university press, or the university library?
  3. How should the process of peer review change?
  4. And finally, who should provide the work that goes into producing a publication—editing, peer review, administration and graphics?

THATCamp Publishing provided a forum for three stakeholders in this changing industry: traditional academic publishers, libraries-as-publishers, and faculty. While traditional publishers are interested in the bottom line, libraries-as-publishers are focused on the problem of access. Faculty, on the other hand, are concerned with how their publications will lead to promotion, tenure, and the advancement of knowledge. THATCamp Publishing highlighted how the evaporation of funding for scholarly publishing and the rise of the Internet as a low-cost, easy-access means of dissemination are radically changing the nature of this industry, and the inter-relationships of these three stakeholders.

What is a “Publisher” Anyway?

The entry of many research libraries into the publishing industry has muddied the definition of what exactly a publisher is. These include M-Publishing by the University of Michigan library and the Scholarly Resources Integration department of the Ohio State University library.

Upon signing a contract with a traditional publisher, authors and editors generally expect that the publisher will be responsible for work like copyediting, administration, finding peer reviewers, graphic design, and marketing. But university library publishers do not offer this level of publishing support. This was raised in Patricia Hwse’s (@pmhswe) session “So You Want to Start a Journal,” where librarians stated that they are not full-service “publishers,” but offer “publishing support services.” By this they mean that they offer basic infrastructure for publishing online such as web hosting and software. All the other work is left up to the authors and editors.

Librarians indicated that the difference between a “publisher” and a “publishing support service” has been confusing for faculty. However, this distinction is an important one and has significant implications for potential authors or editors. On the one hand, using a library publisher can afford authors and editors more control over the publishing process, and over the cost of the publication. On the other hand, going this route means that authors and editors are now responsible for the substantial work of editing, administration, graphic design, and marketing. So does “publishing” simply mean the act of making content available (which is what library publishers do)? Or does “publishing” include the additional work of polishing and reviewing the manuscript, and later marketing and distribution?

This confusion is compounded by the fact that the relationship between these library publishers and the traditional university press is unclear and still in flux. For example, while the webpage for M-Publishing is housed at the University Michigan Press website, M-Publishing remains part of the university library and not part of the press.

Who Will Fund the Work?

The distinction between the role of a “publisher” and a “publishing support service” raises the issue of who is responsible for the work of editing, copyediting, peer review, design, and marketing—work that goes into the actual production of the manuscript. Scholars assume that this will be provided by the press, but librarian-publishers assume that this will be provided by the author or editor.

At the same time, traditional scholarly publishers stated that they have a hard time finding means to justify the work of production. Scholarly monographs are usually produced at a financial loss, and the press makes up for this by relying on the revenue from paid journal subscriptions to balance the books.

Thus, in relation to the work involved in manuscript production, open access publishing can be either a boon or a curse, depending on which side you are on. Academics and library publishers generally embrace open access as a means of raising visibility and the democratization of knowledge. But for traditional scholarly publishers, open access makes it difficult to recoup the costs of producing manuscripts. Open access journals—where there is no charge to access the content of the journal—do not generate any subscription revenue. This raises the question “If paid journal subscriptions are the main source of revenue for scholarly presses, where is the funding for the production of monographs going to come from if we move towards open access?”

The work of producing manuscripts has become a matter of passing the buck: it needs to be done, but each side seems to think that it is another party’s responsibility, and there are few avenues to find funding for it. This has deep implications for the future of academic publishing.

  1. Does this mean that academic authors and editors are going to have to take over the work of copyediting, design and marketing, along with the actual research and writing of their manuscripts?
  2. Who should do this “invisible” work, and where is the funding for this work going to come from?
  3. And how is the problem compounded with the rise of open access?

Should the Peer Review Process Change?

New forms of peer review may involve having a version of the manuscript published online before it is actually published by the journal or press. Peer reviewers for the online manuscript are generally sought from both the general public and a selection of carefully-chosen scholars. Notable experiments with this new type of publication include Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s (@kiftz) Planned Obsolescence, which was published online and commented upon by its two external reviewers online before being published by NYU press, and two issues of Sarah Werner’s (@wynkenhimself) edited Shakespeare Quarterly. More about this new form of publishing and the “Unpress” can be found here.

Many university press publishers indicated that academic authors were generally interested in these new forms of peer review, but that best practices for new types of peer review were still unclear. They raised concerns that making peer review completely “open” might encourage an onslaught of spam in the comments, while others pointed out that making the process open to only a selected number of reviewers might defeat the purpose of a truly open peer review. Attendees debated as to whether peer review could also serve as a marketing tool. One participant related an incident where a textbook with a large number of reviewers actually provided a ready audience for the book once it was complete, especially because these reviewers felt that they had a significant impact on the eventual shape of the book.

Anonymity is also a concern in new forms of peer review. Sarah Werrner related that while authors were unfazed by having to use their real names in this form of peer review, reviewers were more hesitant to break out of their anonymity. Another participant raised the issue of academic labor: if peer review becomes a “crowdsourcing” process, it will count less for service and lines on a reviewer’s CV, and make it less valuable as work.

Ultimately, all were in agreement that despite the difficulties it posed, new forms of peer review were intriguing and all were eager to find new ways to pursue it. Emily Arkin (@emilyarkin) at Harvard University Press suggested the possibility of adapting the review system from Slashdot, an aggregator for technology news that uses an innovative moderation system where commenters rate the usefulness of comments. Slashdot users earn “karma” for their ratings, which in turn leads to how seriously their comments are taken. I mentioned the new project experiment–still in developmental stages–which will provide a “peer review” of the entire Internet. Participants also raised a few illuminating examples of new types of peer review within academic publishing, such as the online journals Postmedieval and Kairos and the PressForward initative at George Mason University, which will be publishing the proceedings of past THATCamps.


THATCamp Publishing provided a valuable forum for academics, librarians, and publishers to interact. Together we discussed important questions about how digital forms of publishing are actively changing the way we conceive of publishing today. How all three will negotiate the changes to the industry is yet to be determined.

More from THATCamp Publishing:

  • Details on THATCamp Publishing: For those interested in further details on THATCamp Publishing, a Google docs folder containing notes on the sessions started by Aram Zucker-Scharff (@chronotope) can be found online. The twitter feed for the conference can be found using the hashtags #thatcamp and #pub.
  • For Librarians and New Forms of Publishing: Patricia Hwse (@pmhswe) has started a google group to discuss the subject of library publishing services (!forum/libpub), an extremely informative discussion space for exchanging ideas about library publishing services.
  • Useful Questionnaire for Faculty on “How to Start Your Own Journal”: Librarians expressed that if faculty who wanted to use the library “publishing support service” to either publish a book or start a journal often need to clarify how their publication would address a need within scholarship. They indicated that questions that faculty should think about include: 1) what is the mission of my journal? And, 2) what gap within established journals does my journal address? Amy Buckland (@jambina), on the request of Miriam Posner (, @miriamkp), shared a questionnaire on Google Docs which librarians might find useful to give scholars interested in starting a journal:

See also…

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr image "Mixed Media Painting (Detail) by Choichun Leung" by See-ming Lee]

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