Brad Scott

The idea of an Irish digital scholarly imprint

What are small academic presses and scholarly societies to do when faced with the digital publishing and online universe? Though it is somewhat easier and cheaper to make content available digitally now than when I started work in this sector in 1994, it still requires a reasonable amount of infrastructure and expenditure.

This was the question behind the seminar in Dublin at the end of March, convened by Susan Schreibman of the Digital Humanities Observatory and hosted at the Royal Irish Academy. The seminar pulled together publishers, librarians, academics and scholarly societies in one space to start to imagine what a digital publishing infrastructure might look like for the whole island of Ireland. Susan very kindly invited me along to talk about some of the practicalities such a project will face. You can watch podcasts of all the talks on the DHO site.

Within the scholarly area there are already some projects to work out what a digital future might look like, not least in the humanities. For example, the University of Virginia Press started its Rotunda electronic imprint back in 2001.

In a time when many university presses are either folding or re-imagining themselves as trade publishers, the University of Michigan Press has announced that it is going primarily digital.1 This doesn’t mean that it only produce digital products, but digital will be at the core of its activities in a way that it wasn’t before; at the very least, there will still need to be some print on demand (POD) support.

“I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on printed monograph was not merely failing but broken,” said Phil Pochoda, director of the Michigan press. “Why try to fight your way through this? Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to do it now?”

University of Michigan Press has already developed an open access model in partnership with the university’s Scholarly Publishing Office. By this means, books are available online for free but can also be bought in hard copy (see In much the same way, the Australian National University has been running its E-Press for some time, with the books available for free download2 and the small-scale open access e-press at UBC Canada (

Less radically, at Duke, the new e-Duke Books provides digital access to all the books published for a one-year period at a flat rate, via ebrary.3 It uses the Carnegie Classification for its broad subject categories and allows libraries to buy the subject clusters. This is much more typical of the cautious testing of the digital book market that we have seen for some years now.

Beyond monographs, textbook publishing has numerous issues to address as outlined on the Future of Publishing blog. There have been attacks on textbook publishing from institutions and government, especially in respect of price rises and the utility of some of the add-ons.4 That piece cites several new initiatives to challenge the traditional model: Open Text Book is a “Registry of open source textbooks and textbook projects” which can support collaborative authoring (; and Flatworld Knowledge provides free online newly-commissioned textbooks which are available to buy in hard copy/audio books, customise, use via forums etc.: (

The range of new technologies around now can be baffling, not least in terms of how publishers might use them effectively. Publishers need to rethink the relationship between content and the delivery system. We’re so book-focused that that rigidly shapes our understanding of how the content is created in the first place. Once we can properly engage with the benefits of delivering content in more sophisticated ways (in the ways that users will want), we then need to figure out how to manage its creation.5 Indeed, the cost of creating the sophisticated chunked, correctly editorialised content could be an issue. This highlights the importance of setting up the authoring process for multiple delivery formats at the outset, including ensuring links are in the data.

The technology affects all parts of the publishing lifecycle, from authoring to selling and ongoing use. The Institute for the Future of the Book have outlined a project using blog-based peer review, for instance.6 There are options too for changing the relationships between publishers, perhaps with some sort of collaborative publishing.

The basic infrastructure of publishing is now democratised and cheap in some sense, but that isn’t all we do as academic and educational publishers. Where publishers are now moving forward is into that space which is the difficult, complex and (potentially) expensive part of the publishing mix; creating the right content for someone to use in the form and medium they want when they want it and which let’s them use it as they think fit.

So where do we go? The creation of an Irish digital imprint is not the only show in town. Other activities are going on elsewhere, and we can learn from and be guided by them. Even since I’ve come back from the seminar I’ve found the recent piece in the Journal of Electronic Publishing,7 which may give further useful shape to an Irish project, and also notice of analogous activities in New Zealand.8 These are all still very focussed on traditional publishing though; we also need to keep sight of how best to support and accommodate digital scholarship more creatively.9

  1. Jaschik, Scott. “Farewell to the Printed Monograph.” 23 March 2009. Inside Higher Ed.
  2. ANU E-Press. Australian National University. 29 March 2009
  3. E-Duke Books Scholarly Collection. Duke University Press. 29 March 2009
  4. McIlroy, Thad. “The Future of Educational Publishing.” The Future of Publishing blog. 7 Aug 2008:
  5. Wickert, Joe. “My Ideal How-To/Reference Book of the Future.” Joe Wickert’s Publishing 2020 blog. 8 March 2009.
  6. Vershbow, Ben. “expressive processing: an experiment in blog-based peer review.” if:book blog. Institute for the Future of the Book. 22 January 2008.
  7. Willinsky, John. “Toward the Design of an Open Monograph Press.” Journal of Electronic Publishing. vol. 12, no. 1, February 2009. DOI:
  8. Taylor, Martin. “New Zealand publishers set action plan to boost digital industry.” 6 April 2009. eReport – Digital Publishing Downunder.
  9. Working Together or Apart: Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship. March 2009. Council on Library and Information Resources.

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