3 July 2011

You can't come in, I'm changing!

This week I was fortunate enough to be able to attend events at which two academic publishers offered updates : the first being a focus group at Cambridge University Press attended by their staff and a small group of UK librarians; the second a presentation by Dr Rupert Gatti of the  Open Book Publishers, Cambridge (OBP), as part of the English Faculty Library's Food for thought afternoon*.

There are a couple of areas I would like to pick up in this post, both of which are interesting because of they highlight the potential impact of future developments.  The first area is The Book.  Arts, humanities and social sciences are disciplines where the monograph is still the primary method for communicating the results of academic research.  OBP are a new company, their list consists of 14 such titles.  They are using an open access model, offering free downloads and inexpensive print on demand.

This is a great new venture.  Will they develop their product further, for example by making their material available at chapter level? (If the whole book is free anyway perhaps there is no particular advantage to either the publisher or reader in doing so?)  Are we seeing a division between open access monograph publishing while bigger publishers invest in developing "super" ebooks?  How long will the e-version be available, for future researchers?

Meanwhile, CUP were anxious to assure us of their commitment to The Book, especially the print format, for the foreseeable future.  Even though their Cambridge Books Online platform has proved very successful, they see the ebook as complementary to, rather than as replacement for, print.  The reasons given were that print sales demonstrate demand, and because climbing the rungs in an academic career is still dependent on successfully publishing in print. Time will tell, and of course. CUP are selling print books in many countries where internet technology isn’t as widely available as here.  From the tour of their print works, which we were kindly given after our meeting, it was clear that they have a heavy investment in the process, while being engaged in digitisation projects such as the Cambridge Library Collection.  I asked how they felt about libraries digitising out of print works, such as the British Library/Google agreement, or Ed Chamberlain’s Arcadia project – the answer was that they were ok about it providing the books weren’t likely to be popular (ie sell in quantities) but on reflection I wonder how they will be able to judge this in advance of digitisation, and what they would do about it afterwards if a resurrected book proved to be popular, especially if the copy had been given to a Library on copyright deposit in the first place.  

 The second area of change is in the roles of academics, publishers and librarians.  OBP has been set up with the expressed intention of providing an opportunity for academics to disseminate their work without the frustrations caused by (a) having to shape their writing to satisfy the requirements of editors in traditional publishing houses, and (b) being restricted by copyright law in how it is distributed; clear evidence of the internet's ability to disrupt traditional processes and power bases.  If OBP and similar publishers achieve a reputation for publishing works of academic value they will certainly change academic publishing for good.  But in a free download world like this, will there be any need for librarians?

CUP were confident that their reputation as an established publishing house (the oldest in the world) and their global marketing reach will continue to attract top academic authors. The impact of the internet is already evident in their need to employ a couple of staff to uncover pirated editions of their publications, as soon as one is taken down it pops up somewhere else, unsurprisingly. However, from the local point of view, as not-for-profit publishers they pay a proportion of their income to the University – what happens if their business cannot respond fast enough to the challenges from both the open access publishers and the pirates? 

I was also reminded of the discussion at the JISC/Elsevier/Open University meeting in January, where their Librarian, Clare Grace, suggested that libraries might move towards Just in Time collection management for electronic resources, allowing users to purchase access to a text (ejournal article, ebook chapter or database content) when they want it, rather than have librarians build up electronic resources collections just in case, this being subject of course to the Library negotiating licences with suppliers in the first instance.  If this were to come about, it might be sensible for publishers to find new ways of maintaining, collating and describing their online content so that readers can find it in the first place. Oh, that sounds like librarianship.

In conclusion, what interested me most was the shift in roles – if academics turn publisher and bookseller, and publishers turn librarian …what role will there be for the librarians?  I'll leave that one for another post.

  *Cambridge librarians, where were you? This was a brilliant event!

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