Innovating from betwixt and between

Peter Brantley -- April 29th, 2012

As a relative outsider to publishing, I am still often surprised by how difficult business transformation can be for some organizations. I am a member of the Project Muse Advisory Board, and I’ve just emerged from their board and publisher meetings. Project Muse is a journals publishing platform; it aggregates journals in digital form and sells content packages to university and college libraries, research centers, and similar organizations. Muse is also making a significant entry into the higher education ebook market by providing access to publishers’ lists. Our meeting was energetic, and focused at a conceptual level on the challenges of delivering new types of services while transitioning away from more traditional aspects of journal publishing.

What was striking for me was not my anticipated discussion of content management systems that supported a wide range of data queries, might be more semantically aware, and capable of supporting a wide range of interactive media; indeed, these are today’s currency of the realm. Rather, it was the more basic conundrum of being caught between different kinds of customers: publisher suppliers, who are also customers, in a sense; and institutions, who buy their product.

The core conundrum for Project Muse, as with all platform providers, is that they can easily come into conflict with the priorities of the university presses and scholarly societies that provide them with content. For example, one opportunity discussed widely today in academia is creating “push to publish” services that are much closer to the user, often utilizing approachable tools such as WordPress; these services would be at home in library publishing units. If an existing platform provider tried to deploy such a lightweight and configurable publishing system, it could siphon audience away from constituent publishers. In fact, most new services that leverage internet technology and network-scale data sharing and computation end up being ones under consideration as well by university presses and scholarly societies.

The underlying issue is that the suite of possible new publishing services is within reach of multiple levels of the publishing field: university presses could make a go at putting broad net-scale services like PLoS One out of business just as easily as Muse or JSTOR, which operate at a higher level of aggregation. If a small press or society is willing to go through the significant tumult of re-inventing itself, it can reach the global community of scholars just as easily as Elsevier.

What that made me realize is that if you designed a publishing enterprise to support scholarly communication de novo, aggregating content from a range of sources but also developing direct publishing and reader/writer services, you could do it with very different constraints than Muse, JSTOR, and other platform providers have to grapple with. A new entrant, not unlike the Public Library of Science, could actually turn its back on existing publishing practice and design a direct-to-faculty or direct-to-discipline infrastructure that was wholly divorced from existing players.

That kind of disruption hasn’t happened much yet outside of science, technology, and medicine, but it is likely that it will, unless existing platforms quickly manage to figure out ways of innovating themselves into a new content environment while bringing their publishing contributors and constituents along with them, benefitting from the same new services platforms are designing for a broader audience. There may even be some unique advantages in sustaining those relationships, if they can be successfully leveraged.

The coming change in how we publish the humanities and social sciences, and in fact, what we can publish, could be even more transformative than the re-invention of STM. Building a new digital humanities infrastructure will mean interacting with visual interpretations of historical sites, hearing ancient or less common modern languages in linguistic treatises, and grappling with philosophical quandaries in a gaming environment with virtual goods. Ultimately this may reshape how faculty think about doing their research, as well as how it is communicated.

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