10 November 2011

Collaborative platforms : dissolving boundaries between researchers, publishers and librarians

Earlier this month, Jayne Kelly (ebooks@cambridge Administrator/Cambridge University Library) and I were invited to speak at a seminar held jointly by the Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute and the Centre for Material Texts.

The topic was ebook platforms and their impact on scholarship, research, research skills and the end user. Hannah Perrett from Cambridge University Press (CUP) spoke from the publishers' perspective, while we presented from the point of view of academic librarians.  The audience consisted of ARU and Cambridge Uni staff and students, including some studying for a postgraduate qualification in Publishing, and librarians.

Hannah's presentation described CUP's plan to bring their existing electronic collections, and new content from other academic publishers, together on a single platform University Publishing Online.  She explained the background to and challenges involved in taking this on.  Jayne and I followed on, and our talk can be summarised in the slides which can be found at the foot of this post.

The following discussion was lively, well-informed and covered diverse issues.  I would suggest that many arose from the well-recognised tension between the need for publishers to keep generating income by retaining rights and restricting access to their content; and researchers' desire to have as much of it as possible available with the least amount of restriction.  Although the web would appear to offer this opportunity through open access publishing, the entrenched academic system of peer review, the need to publish to secure academic posts, and in some cases the need for income from sales, inhibit change.

The point Jayne and I tried to get across was that publishers, researchers and librarians could work together effectively and pro-actively to solve these challenges.

Some more specific comments I noted:

1.   How might researchers' work be mapped so that in future others could follow it? Emma Coonan had suggested to us the concept of "Darwin's Kindle", ie how will it be possible to store annotations in ebooks and exchanges via social media?  How do we know whose work should be archived because it will be significant for future students?

2.   Could ebook platforms be the place to accommodate this kind of information?  As researchers' work is usually published by different houses it's unlikely this will happen just yet. 

3.    This brought us on to information silos.  Basically, the more content is aggregated on platforms the greater the risk that these platforms will defend their investment by making it harder to share content outside its boundaries.  Meanwhile researchers would like to be able to move from platform to platform to pursue their topic, browsing serendipitously. Industry standards might be useful here but again agreement between publishers is years away, and there would be considerable challenges to keeping platforms interoperable after upgrades.  Archiving issues were again discussed in this context.

4.    Questions were asked about textbooks in eformat. CUP are not about to make their textbooks available electronically through sales to libraries; in common with most publishers they want to defend this revenue stream. However, Hannah drew a distinction between publishers like CUP and the big US companies currently marketing e-textbooks directly to students to replace print sales, and reminded the seminar of the differences in publishing models across the globe.
The discussion was well-informed and stimulating.  Jayne and I were grateful to Dr Leah Tether, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Publishing, Cultures of the Digital Economy Institute, ARU for allowing us to participate.

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