What is the Future of Academic Publishing? An Interview with Gita Manaktala from MIT Press

[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 fourth article in a series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by Adeline Koh. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world.

In this interview I speak with Gita Manaktala, the editorial director of the MIT Press. MIT Press is well known for its cutting-edge interventions in the fields of technology and culture, such as the series Software Studies and the History of Computing. In this interview, Gita comments on how MIT Press is dealing with the many challenges that academic presses are currently facing.

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 for a more traditional book?

GM: Exposure that reduces the audience for subsequent book sales may be a problem. Books are costly to produce whether in print or digital formats. The costs to develop, edit, typeset, design, produce, market, and distribute them are substantial and must be recovered through sales — usually within the first two years of the book’s life. For a typical monograph, it is unclear whether and what kind of pre-publication exposure might help or hurt the publisher’s ability to recover its investment in the work. Anecdotal evidence exists but large-scale studies are lacking. A serious study would control for the nature and length of pre-publication exposure as well as for the prices of paid editions and a range of other factors. Few (if any) university presses are in a position to undertake such large-scale experiments with their own publications.

AK: What is your 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?

GM: We have no policy but consider each project individually. In cases where it is desirable or necessary for the field, and where funding is available to support it, The MIT Press does publish open access editions simultaneously with print and paid digital editions. An example is our MacArthur Foundation supported reports series in digital media and learning. The reports in this series are downloadable in open PDF editions and simultaneously available for sale in paperback (AK: See for example Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.)

AK: What is your take on the traditional peer review process, and new forms of peer review? Would you be open to “publishing” a book online and soliciting reviews the way Kathleen Fitzpatrick published “Planned Obsolescence” with NYU Press?

GM: We are very interested in new peer review methods and in the results of experiments conducted by authors and publishers. There is every reason to think that open peer review can complement traditional peer review for many if not most book projects. That said, we have no plans to jettison traditional peer review, which remains a very effective way to evaluate and shape manuscripts prior to publication. Our authors routinely tell us they welcome this process — as a way to make the case for publishing their work, and as a source of guidance as they seek to revise and shape their manuscripts for the widest likely readership.

AK: Do you think that there is a space for the scholarly monograph in the current and future economy, given that they are expensive to produce and are almost never profitable? What do you think is the future of the monograph?

GM: There are many possible futures for the scholarly monograph. Ultimately its fate is not in the hands of university presses, which have struggled to keep it alive in spite of declining readership. (Academic libraries have likewise struggled to support the monograph despite falling circulation.) The future depends on whether scholars themselves value the monograph enough to keep reading it. If so, funding models for monographs can and will be found.

AK: 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?

GM: It could certainly help. A blog with many readers speaks to an author’s ability to command an audience for his or her ideas and their unique expression in the blog. A successful blog does not necessarily say anything about the merits of a particular book project, though. Book projects deserve to be evaluated on their own terms.

AK: 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?

GM: There now exist many platforms for open access posting; this is surely a welcome development for the wide distribution of of knowledge and research. My understanding is that academic libraries, though they might provide such platforms, are unlikely to assume the primary functions of book publishers: editorial development, copyediting, composition, design, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing.

AK: What do you think is the future of the university press?

GM: University presses will endure as long as they are in a position to offer significant value to academic authors and their readers, and as long as they have the support of their home institutions. In the present and near future, we will see new models for the university press including funded open access models, collaborative publishing models, and global partnerships to develop and disseminate high quality scholarship worldwide.

Photo “Shadwell Overground station” by Geograph user Christopher Hilton / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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