April 21, 2018

Mark Edington on the Future of Academic Library Presses

When Amherst College opens its first press early next year, the open access publication will publish its entire catalog in digital editions first. Following a growing trend, the press will also be a new arm of Amherst’s library, and Mark Edington will be at its helm, the college announced on December 6. He will start January 1, 2014. Currently the director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, Edington comes from a diverse work background, encompassing everything from editorial work at the journal Dædalus to social entrepreneurship. Library Journal caught up with Edington to talk about the new model Amherst is pursuing, the opportunities it opens up in the publishing world, and the challenges of presenting scholarly work for free while staying sustainable.

Library Journal: How is Amherst’s press going to distinguish itself? What are the priorities for this new press? What’s job one?

Mark Edington: We’re a press that wants to operate at the nexus of libraries and publishing. We know there are serious and well-established publishers like the University of Michigan that have moved in this direction. What’s going to be distinct about us is that we’re deeply committed to Open Access. We’re already forgoing a revenue generating model that depends on sales. Instead, we’re interested in finding work of high quality that we will present to a broad audience free of charge. The front end will look like any other press. Our articles will be carefully selected and peer-reviewed. What will be different is that when we get to the first copy, it will be a digital artifact at birth. There will be a path to print for every title, but that’s a secondary concern for us. Our first mission is to make the tool of digital scholarship freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Why are you going with digital first publishing? Will that policy mean ‘digital only’ for a lot of content?

Right now, digital distribution is the best lever we have to change publishing. a lot of the cost in publishing comes from the physical artifact, from printing to shipping. We’re not against books, and we’re going to print books, but we feel the emergence of digital scholarship tools gives us the best opportunity to present a broad range of ideas to a broad audience.

I work with nonprofit organizations in Africa, and I like the idea that we can make scholarship available to researchers at, for example, the University of Dar es Salaam who would otherwise have no way to access that information.

What do you see as the benefits of being involved with Amherst’s library?

Librarians naturally think about the future, because the business of libraries is to preserve scholarship for the future. We go into this with questions to answer that the book has eloquently answered for thousands of years. We need to figure out how to do the same in digital scholarship. I’m interested in asking what these new tools give us in the way of presenting information. If we can build multimedia content into new work, if we can marry narrative and data sets, then we’ll be doing new things that books are not that good at. Libraries think creatively about how to solve those problems, and that makes it a really good place for us to be located institutionally.

You’ve got something of an unorthodox resume for this position. What made it attractive to you?

One of the things I’ve always been involved with in my work is collaborating with faculty to promote and translate their ideas. I’m interested in how ideas get translated into conversation in the academy and broader social movements, and this position gives me a chance to do that full time for a living, covering the waterfront of the world of ideas and presenting them to a new audience of scholars.

What are some opportunities you’re looking to take advantage of that other presses might not be able to?

I’m just getting starting to get my head around that. Due to the nature of this press, we don’t have to find works of scholarship that will hit 100,000 downloads. Instead, we have the liberty to find works that speak to an undeserved field. We can publish things that might not be big hits in the market, but fulfill a real need in the community of scholars. We also have the opportunity to use the platform to its fullest extent as a means of scholarly communication. I’m certainly not averse to large scale hits, but we have the liberty of thinking in both directions.

We’re not going to move too fast in deciding where we’ll specialize. That said, we will be paying special attention intersections in research, places where social sciences and natural sciences bump up against the humanities—those nexuses that might not otherwise have a natural audience. We’ll be interested in finding people at universities that are not usually thought of, because you never know which book has that possibility to be a touchstone, and you have to think every next book has that potential.

What role do you see small, open access-focused university presses playing going forward?

I wouldn‘t claim that this model is the future, but it has the potential to be a future. It’s not the be-all, end-all solution to the crisis of scholarly communications or academic publishing. We propose to offer a solution to the current model of publishing. We think because the confluence of digital scholarship, and the need for a richer format, this is one of the alternatives that has a bright future, and we want to give it a chance.

Are you interested in working with some of the presses operating under similar models and seeing what you might be able to do together?

I think we’ll see more initiatives like this in the future, and I do think there is room for collaboration between them. I come from startups, and I’m a practical guy. All this hard work and research has to be paid for. Look at it this way. Right now, libraries have to raise money to pay for books—when I go to a library on a campus, there’s often a bookplate saying ‘This book made possible by a grant from so and so.’ Libraries raise money to make books available to scholars. We’re doing the same thing, except we want to make the books possible in the first place. The basic role of the library doesn’t change—it’s just a different way of conceptualizing that role. Printing books in the basement is not possible for the library. Instead, we’re trying this new model, which harmonizes much better with the role of the academic library.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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