Why we need to collaborate.

The report from Ithaka on “University Publishing in the Digital Age” is almost a month old now, but I have delayed commenting about it until I had a chance to read it thoroughly. The report’s principal author was Laura Brown, a former president of Oxford University Press USA, so it is clearly written from inside knowledge of the university publishing industry, and the report subjects the roles of both university presses and libraries to careful scrutiny in the context of the changes taking place in scholarly communications.

University presses are criticized in the report for being slow to adapt to digital media, clinging instead to traditional models of business and distribution that are rapidly becoming out-of-date. Presses have also done a poor job of aligning themselves with the academic priorities of their parent institutions and demonstrating to those institutions that publishing is itself a core function of a university. University presses, however, show important strengths in selecting and editing quality material, developing an elaborate network for credentialing scholarly work and understanding the markets for the work they publish.

These strengths and weaknesses of university presses are the mirror image of the pluses and minuses found in university libraries, according to the report. Libraries recognized the importance of digital media early on – often pulled toward that recognition by the demands of users – and have maintained a consistently mission-focused position at the center of the university enterprise. They often have done a poor job, however, at selecting and evaluating material to be placed in digital collections; such collections are likened to attics where all too frequently random and unsorted materials are found, chosen apparently for availability and lack of obstacles like copyright restrictions rather than from a sound evaluation of the “market” need.

In view of how complimentary these flaws and strengths are, the most important recommendation that the Itaka report makes is that universities need not only to “remain actively involved in publishing scholarship,” but to recognize the strategic importance of developing a comprehensive framework to support a dynamic and multi-faceted system of scholarly communications. Only an institutional vision and commitment, the report suggests, can take advantage of the collaborative possibilities suggested by its analysis.

Clearly this report has generated, and will continue to generate, lots of discussion. There are overall descriptions and assessments of the report from Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Amongst the blogs, the most interesting to me have been the comments at if:book and Media Commons that point out what the report does not address – the changes that will be needed in how universities understand authority and scholarly credentialing as we move to the more flexible digital world, where work can be subjected to comment and criticism long before it is submitted for formal publication.