Intermediation and its Malcontents

Validating professionalism in the age of raw dissemination

Invited chapter in A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004), John Unsworth, Susan Schreibman, and Ray Siemens, editors.

Michael Jensen

Director of Web Communication, The National Academies

Director of Publishing Technologies, The National Academies Press

November, 2004



Over the last few years it's become clear that digital publishing is far more than just making a digital version of paper available online. Rather, we are (finally) beginning to view networked e-content as a new form of publication in its own right, with its own strengths and weaknesses, its own imperatives, its own necessary logics. What I hope to do in the next few thousands of words is to explore the issues of networked publishing from a nonprofit publisher's perspective, having been involved in computers and digital publishing within the nonprofit publishing world since the late 1980s.


I'll make a case, I hope, for encouraging a broader engagement between the many sectors within scholarly communication (publishers, scholars, libraries, technologists, editors, collaborators) by dint of common fundamental mission, audiences, and funding sources. Further, I hope to survey some of the important themes to consider as networked publishing matures from its infancy, and issues of significance to anyone considering the issues raised by digital publications in the new century. Finally, I hope to address the value of professionalism in the digital publishing arena.


The Nonprofit's Metamission


At an OCLC conference in the late 1990s, the new President of the University of Arizona, Peter. W. Likins, made an intellectually compelling distinction that I've tried to promote ever since:


"A for-profit's mission is to create as much value for its stockholders as possible, within the constraints of society. The non-profits' mission is to create as much value for society as possible, within the constraints of its money."


The academic and educational communication sectors have much in common, which ought to be driving many of the trends in online communication. How do we take advantage of this moment of unparalleled interconnectivity to "create as much value for society as possible," given the cultural constraints on our money? Do we maintain the same structures as before? Do the new capabilities militate for a revolution?


Networked publishing is going through its toddler phase, it seems to me—stumbly, never quite balanced, uncertain of its size and abilities, and amazed and delighted by itself. One key to toddlerhood is an utter ignorance of one's own ability to be ignorant. To counter that, let me first outline what I think are some of the constraints and capabilities of the current system—from the perspective of a nonprofit publisher.



The Current System


University presses, scholarly societies, academic publishers, and other nonprofit publishers currently perform a set of societal and scholarly roles, and also perform a set of practical roles.


The societal and scholarly roles include identifying promising (and often nascent) scholarly research; they encourage the development of scholarly publications, and enhance the accessability, readability, and comprehensibility of the works of scholars. In the context of scholarly communications in general, these publishers validate scholarly material, integrate and coordinate scholarship in discipline-specific collections, and (not least) provide authority for humanities and social sciences scholarship for tenure & promotion. They are also frequently publishers of what is called "midlist" publications—works which may sell between a five hundred and five thousand copies, indicating a small (if committed) audience. It also can be the scholarly publisher's job both to provide a promotional context for a work, and to put the works into the largest context—within the discipline or the field.


Everything Old is New Again


For an author, scholar, or scholarly publisher in the twenty-first century, the seemingly obvious approach to the new capabilities—and the seeming imperative—is to perform all these roles in the "E-arena." It's becoming ever more clear that this seeming simplicity is anything but simple.


Let me lay out some of the complexities before moving on.


In the world of print publishing, there is a truism: that “journals publishing can't be done small”—that developing the skill set and software for maintaining and applying individual subscription mechanisms is so costly that you need at least six or eight journals to share the costs. Otherwise, the publishing requirements and concomitant costs cannot be amortized among enough projects to make it affordable. Among the 120 university presses, only a handful have journals programs because of this principle: that you should stay with your  strengths, and not embark on huge new forms of publishing unless you can distribute the institutional costs among many projects.


That truism applies to technology as well. When the implications of the revolutionary changes of the last few years are taken into account, it becomes evident that entirely new systems have to be created to handle the realities of the New Publishing.


It's not as if the set of problems a publisher must face is only transformed into a new set of problems when you factor in networked publishing. Rather, the diversity of problems—and the diversity of skills necessary to address them—blossoms. Entirely new problems, unconnected to anything from the print world, must be confronted.


A print publisher must deal with physical returns of books from bookstores, while strategizing about how much content to give away on the Press website. A print publisher must determine print run sizes (because most books are still generally more economic to print in quantities of 600 at a time than they are to "print on demand"—at least as of January 2003), while deciding whether to include a CD in the book and adding $10 to the retail price. A print AND digital publisher must not only produce product, record-keep, and generate monthly reports on the order fulfillment of paper books (an inventory-based system), but may also need to produce, record-keep, and generate monthly reports on inventoryless material (e-books), and may need to do so on potential-inventory material (print-on-demand), and may even need to produce, record-keep, and the rest on subscription-based access methodologies.


This is not a decision like "paper or plastic." It's rather "cash or coins or check card or credit card or check or voucher or foodstamps or greenstamps or goldstamps or barter." It’s not only “transformed,” it’s metamorphosized.


The electronic enterprises themselves hold danger: it is painfully easy to choose the wrong preferred technology for an audience or discipline by misunderstanding their readiness for new technology or misreading their desire for alternative presentation modes.


Or choose the wrong technology for material by force-fitting new tools on old content, or locking older accomodations to print restrictions into new presentations. Or choose the wrong technology for a changing environment and by so doing lock the content into an nonadaptive format.


Or spend the publication budget on cutting-edge cul-de-sac software, or confuse “cool” with “valuable,” or conflate readers with purchasers, or audience with customer, such as by presuming that by developing a site aimed at students to promote one's texts, one can entice the libraries serving those market to purchase what their readers are acquiring for free. Or depend overly much on the novelty value of e-publishing, and believe that simply by building it, they will come.


Any single one of these threatens to either beggar the publisher or compromise the project, and shouts “Danger!” to most publishers like reefs to a sailor.


Those who have deep and broad knowledge of the processes of publication—publishing professionals—are vital in many ways. Who better than a professional publisher to help navigate these dangerous waters?



Appropriate Presentational Models


Every living reader today has grown up in a world in which paper dominated their informationscape in terms of authority, validity, and value. The primary models of argumentation and presentation in scientific and scholarly discourse are still predominantly linear, partly because of the nature of exposition and presentation in a linear-publishing, paper-based world.


This makes it likely that a large proportion of the output of scholars and specialists can be expected, whether consciously or unconsciously, to mimic the modalities of linear expression. Does that mean that most publications are served best by paper? Perhaps—though the answer to that question depends on many factors. As I said before, network publishing is a toddler, still uncertain of what it can and can't do. Some material is ideal for online publication (reference works, huge resource bases, highly interconnected and changing material, multimedia collections), though there may be no simple cost recovery system that can be implemented effectively for such publications. Other material may not be well-suited to digital publication—novels, traditional monographs, linear argumentation of thesis/promotion/conclusion, poetry, art (still), typographically challenging material, etc.


Different media serve different content types more or less effectively; it's important to recognize what a medium is best suited for. A million JPGs couldn't tell the story of Moby Dick like the words do; a million words can't thrill like the Ninth Symphony. We are just discovering the potential of networked presentation, but shouldn't be seduced into thinking that Javascript or Flash is the inevitable best (or only eventual) means of communication.


Appropriate Cost Recovery Models


Just as there are media appropriate for particular communications, there are economic models appropriate for particular media, content, and audience.


"Cost recovery is destiny," I've said more than once, but I also hold that an organization's mission should dictate cost recovery models; therefore the mission becomes the destiny, if you will. For nonprofit publishers for whom dissemination holds priority, new models are more easily implementable than for nonprofit publishers for whom fiscal stability is the prime directive.


For associations, cost recovery models are different than for corporately-owned publishers. Fiction publishers have different uses of the medium than reference publishers do.


Distinguishing between the varieties of possibilities of publishing choices is complicated. To make the best choices, an understanding is required of appropriate (even available) technologies, appropriate cost recovery and maintenance plans, and what the appropriate media (and cost recovery mechanisms) are for the particular audience.


What model will work best with your project? Institutional subscription? Print-ready PDF for a fee? Print-on-demand? Time-based access? Free old material, charged new? Free new material, charged archive? Making these choices ain't easy. I generally recommend professional help (a commercial publisher, a nonprofit publisher, an association publisher, a fee-for-service publisher, etc.), but that may not be the best route to take.


"Free" Publishing


I once realized that a project I was directing was spending more on developing access-restriction mechanisms (to enable subscription access) than it was on developing deeper-exploration mechanisms. Over 60% of our development dollars were being spent on keeping people from reading our material. That seemed silly, and helped convince me that I should be a bit more open to alternative models for scholarly and academic publishing.


At the National Academies Press, we make more than 2500 reports of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Engineering, freely available to any browser, hoping to encourage browsers to purchase what we consider to be the "optimal version"—the print book. We recognize that nearly all of our publications are designed for print reading (being predominantly linear exposition of how the best science may inform issues of public policy), and so see the online versions as only a minor "threat" to traditional print sales. That's one model of "free" publishing—using the Web to promote the content, while selling the container.


In the new networked environment, there are many mechanisms of nearly "outlay-free publishing"—though it's worth discriminating outlay-free publishing from the mythical "cost-free" publishing. With enough volunteer labor, or hierarchical control, or browbeating, or passion, today virtually anything can be made available "for free" via online presentation. The work may not be best served by this model, but it is a viable means of presentation.


The Web makes such raw dissemination possible, and it's an exciting prospect. Today, we're still in the wonderful volunteerism phase, where individual labors of love and institutional experimentation into electronic publishing are going on. My worry is that volunteerism is reaching its limits as the true complexities of online publishing begin to demand cost recovery mechanisms for sustenance.


Like many other volunteer efforts, e-projects have proven hard to sustain. Countless worthwhile volunteer projects have died when a central figure moves to another work, or when the project reached that first grand plateau (after which the real work begins), or when the grant funding for the "e-project" is two years gone...


Promoting a Sustainable Scholarly Information Infrastructure


Especially in an online world where disintermediation is at play, it's my contention that there is still a need for some kinds of intermediation—for publishers to be involved in the "making public the fruits of scholarly research” (as Daniel Quoit Gilman, first director of the oldest University Press in the country, Johns Hopkins, so famously said)—and it's my contention that it generally makes more sense for our culture to support nonprofit networked publishing through its institutional mechanisms (university presses, association publishing, NGO publishing, and the like) than to either relinquish it to the commercial sector, or to presume that volunteerism will enable educated discourse and debate based on a rich, robust set of resources disseminated online.


To accomplish that, it's important to have a cultural cost-recovery systems that support the right processes—that promotes experimentation, expands dissemination and access, yet prevents disruption.


Without an appropriate means of supporting the institutional acquisition, digitization, and presentation of significant resources, real dangers accrue, the likes of which I've personally witnessed.


The “Publishing Revolution” in Eastern Europe


I saw the results of those dangers first-hand, in a different context. During the period 1990 to 1995, during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was involved in a sequence of educational endeavors helping publishers in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia adapt to new technologies, understand how nonprofit publishing worked in a free-market capitalist system, and helping university presses adapt to the new realities of technology.


By far the deepest experience I had was in Czechoslovakia, before it split into two countries. Throughout this period I worked with publishers and scholars, frequently visiting Prague and other towns, and watching as the totalitarian socialist model—which had strengths as well as significant weaknesses—was replaced by systems constructed by amateur capitalists who had at best a naive understanding of the nature of capitalism. This created a publishing system with significant weaknesses, as well as (perhaps) a few strengths, especially in arenas like public-value, scholarly, and educational publishing.


The Soviet model of scholarly publishing was tremendously inefficient. It was to have every university publish its own stuff for its own students: introductory biology coursebooks, collections of essays, lecture notes, monographs, specific research, all were printed and bound at the professor's behest. There was heavy subvention from the universities, which were (of course) heavily subvened by the state. There was virtually no economic feedback system in regards scholarly publishing, because there were virtually no cost-recovery systems at all, apart from a token fee of about quarter or so per "scripta," as the class publications were called. Hardbacks cost the equivalent of a pack of Czech cigarettes.


Editorial selection hardly entered into the matter, at the “university publishing” level. Every year, a few works from university publishing were designated as worthy of being published in hardback, usually in order to give their universities a medium of exchange for publications from the outside non-Soviet world (librarians still remember the awkward near-barter system between Soviet institutions and Western ones).


Often these hardbacks were lavishly produced, but there was rarely any relationship between "list price" and publication costs. The system separated to the point of immeasurability, by massive bureaucracy, all indirect costs, and in fact discouraged any cost containment systems based on merit or audience. Instead, decisions were based mostly on "old-boy" status. An important professor, for example, could insist on having 50,000 copies of his book on the anatomy and aerodynamics of bat wings printed (in Czech, without translation); this was to his advantage because his personal royalty was based (by the Soviet diktat) on number of pages printed, rather than numbers sold.


Other state-run publishing houses also published scholarly work in philosophy, science, metaphysics, etc.; they had more freedom of choice of what to publish than university presses, but their work was also heavily subsidized, and prices and print runs were often at the whim of, ahem, important people. Nonetheless, publishing was considered a social value, and publishers operated in that way.


When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were countless warehouses with hundreds of thousands of copies of the writings of Stalin which nobody would buy, even at the minuscule prices charged in the Soviet days, much less in the post-Soviet economic crises. And those warehouses also contained about 49,800 copies of that book on the aerodynamics of the bat wing. In Czech.


But that same socially supported, exceedingly expensive publishing industry produced a broad variety of valuable, diverse, and very inexpensive books, which deeply affected the habits of the Czech culture. New books came out every Wednesday, and book sales bloomed like flowers in a field—every square had bookstores, every tram stop had a cardtable with someone selling books.


When I first spent time in Prague, just after the November 1989 revolution, I saw everyone—and I mean the butcher and the hardhat and the professor alike—reading books. On the trams, the metro, the streetcorners, and lining up to pay a few crowns for new titles, the citizenry read books. And not reading True Romance, or escapist potboilers, but rather philosophy, history, science, metaphysics. The inefficient system of subvention had created a highly literate, exceedingly well-read populace, who read for fun, and read with depth, all the time.


When the revolution fully set in, suddenly universities, whose subventions were being completely reconsidered by new governments, were telling their "presses" that they had to become self-sufficient in two years, and many were told they had to start giving money back to their universities—that is, make a profit—in the third year (much like several major U.S. university presses have been asked recently to do). For most of the Czech university policymakers, their recipe for capitalism was: add a pinch of slogan-level ideas picked up from reruns of "Dallas," blend with the flour of the Voice of America, add a dash of Hayek, and finally spice with an understanding gleaned from dinnertable conversations.


Their consequent policies gave little consideration to the realities of publishing costs and cost recovery; had no understanding of the infrastructure needs of the industry (like distribution, and warehousing, not to mention computers, databases, editorial experience, knowledge) required to have a viable publishing market; no understanding of the place of scholarly publishing in the educational system; and no recognition that in a revolutionary economy, nobody would have spare money to make discretionary purchases.


Three years after the revolution, the prices for books were often ten to fifty times as expensive as they were in 1990. The publishers who were managing to survive were subvening their continuing translations of Derrida and Roethke by publishing—literally—soft-core or even hard-core pornography.


During that period, bookstores closed down everywhere. Publishers closed down across the country. Citizens stopped reading every day. By 1995, nobody was reading metaphyics on the tram. A quarter of the university presses I knew of were closed, well over half of the bookstores I knew of in Prague were closed, and the scholars I'd befriended were telling me that they couldn't get anything published anymore—there were fewer outlets than ever.


This transformation was a sad thing to watch, especially when I'd been so delighted by the intense literacy I'd seen initially. The culture turned to free or cheap content (television, newspapers, advertising, radio, Walkmen) rather than to the new—and more complex—ideas contained in books. Promotion and branding became the watchwords of the day, rather than subtlety of analysis or clarity of presentation.


Let me be clear that I think that neither model was fully right: the absurd redundancies and inefficiencies of the Soviet system were far too costly for me to support. However, the result was frequently a marvelously high level of intellectual discourse. Regardless, the follow-on quasi-capitalist system was far too brutal, and had consequences that they are still feeling in the Czech Republic to this day: far fewer high-level publications in their own language, far fewer high-quality scholarly publications in general (a significant problem in a small language group), and cultural costs that are hard to quantify but easy to identify as causing a kind of intellectual hunger.


What this has to do with the current revolution of digital presentation should be self-evident, though the parallels are somewhat indirect. We must recognize that we are in a revolutionary period, and we must be careful not to damage the valuable qualities of the current system based on inexperienced premises—that is, based on a naive understanding of the coming state of scholarly communication, which is based on a few visionaries' description of what is "inevitable." As users and creators of scholarly communication, we must carefully assess what qualities we want to maintain from the current system, and be sure that we create evolutionary pressures that encourage a "scholarly communication biosystem" which serves scholarship well.


My fear is that without some care, we may undercut (if not destroy) the valuable characteristics of our current nonprofit publishing system by revolutionizing it without understanding it. That is, if we revolutionize ourselves out of the ability to effectively support a nonprofit industry of disseminating public value, we will have done more harm than good.



The Value of Publishers


Currently, scholarly publishers—specialists in the selection, preparation, presentation, and dissemination of scholarly material—are a valuable and necessary part of scholarly communication.


There are some who are still under the false impression that in the new environment, publishers aren't necessary, just as there are others under the false impression that libraries are soon to be moot, or that universities are outmoded institutions.


In our "disintermediated world" there is some truth to all of those points. Every  intermediary is potentially erasable by the direct producer-to-enduser contact made possible by the existence of the Internet.


It's true, for example, that some professors could teach students directly, without a university's intervention, or with only one big university's accreditation (and conceivably only a handful of professors); similarly, scholars could spend the time producing the complicated presentational structures required for effective online publication, without the need for a publisher. Universities could conceivably contract with mega-information providers for just-in-time provision of scholarly content using contractual agents, replacing the need for an active library.


But I maintain that having specialists do what they do best is the most efficient model in general, and that intermediaries, though not required, will tailor the intermediation for particular audiences, and will identify and produce material preferable to non-selected, non-edited, non-vetted, non-enhanced material. None of the intermediaries I mentioned—the universities, the scholarly community, the scholarly publishers—will become moot in our lifetime, if for no other reason than the inertia of the credentialing culture combined with the inertia of presentation systems.



Enough Naive to Go Around


For well over a decade I've watched members of the computer scientist community and the librarian community naively discuss publishing as either a networked-database problem or as a distribution and classification problem, and conclude that they each can do the job of publishing better than the existing publishing institutions.


And while some very interesting and valuable projects have come out of both communities (SPARC, the physics preprint server, UVA's Etext Center, etc.), many of the rest were diversions of resources that I believe might have been more usefully applied to supporting and expanding the scholarly world's existing strengths in the scholarly/academic publishing arena. The shortcomings in the perspectives of the various interest groups are worth noting:


Librarians too often think of scholarly content as primarily something to purchase, categorize, metatag, and archive (and provide to patrons), independent of the content's quality or utility.


Technologists too often see the world of scholarly content as a superlarge reference set, crying out for fulltext indexing and automated interconnections. "It's really just a bunch of XML content types," you can almost hear them muttering.


Publishers—even nonprofit publishers—too often see the world of scholarly content as primarily comprised of products, each requiring a self-sustaining business model to be deemed "successful." Unless a publication is self-supporting, it's suspect.


And status-conferring enterprises (like tenure committees) seem to see innovative work engaging digital tools in the service of scholarship as being "interesting exercises" akin to, say, generating palindromic verse, or writing a novel without an "o" in it.


The humanities/social sciences scholar generally sees his/her work as an abstract and tremendously personal effort to illuminate something previously hidden. S/he sees technology simultaneously as a hindrence to, a boon to, an obvious precondition for, and utterly inconsequential to, his/her work.


Scholarly communication is all of these, and even more. There are other players in the game of scholarly publishing: intermediaries, agents, public information officers, sycophants, supporting scholars and scholarship, student engagement, pedagogical application, external validation, etc. Each has its own interests and agendas, and sees the world through its own interest-lens.


What is required, it seems to me, are more ways for the scholarly and academic community to state that the question scholarly publishing should be answering is "how can we most appropriately support the creation and presentation of intellectually interesting material, maximize its communicative and pedagagical effectiveness, ensure its stability and continual engagement with the growing information universe, and enhance the reputations and careers of its creators and sustainers?" If that question is addressed, we are likely to answer it.


Without a mission driven by that question, the evolutionary result will be driven by the interests of the enterprises initiating the publication: library, scholar, nonprofit press, academic departments, associations—or if residing in the commercial sector, by the proportions of potential profit.



Mission-driven Publishing


The projects with sustainability in their futures, it seems to me, are those which are joint partnerships between stakeholders—such as scholar/publisher enterprises, publisher/library, scholar/technologist, association/publisher, association/scholar/publisher, etc. Hybrid vigor is a wonderful thing, and makes for hearty crops.


The History Cooperative (, for example, is a joint project between the two major historical associations (the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians) and the University of Illinois Press, with technology participation from the National Academies Press. These groups form the executive core of a project enabling the integrated networked publication of History journals, on the terms of the executive body. Currently comprised of nine journals and growing, the two-year-old project is increasing its specialized tools, its interdisciplinary value, and its pedagogical utility. More importantly, it's helped these groups understand each other in a collegial environment of shared goals.


The National Academies Press is another example (—a publisher "run by its authors" in the sense that it is a dual-mission-driven publisher, expected to maximize dissemination of the 180 reports annually produced by the Academies, and stay self-sustaining by print sales. This expert/publisher/technologist project has resulted in 2500+ reports being browsed by 7 million visitors for free in 2002. Every page is accessible for free, yet tens of thousands of book orders annually support the enterprise.


Project Muse (, a joint publisher/library/journal project, uses institutional subscription to make itself available online. Within subscribed organizations, free unlimited browsing of over 100 journals is enabled.


CIAO, the Columbia International Affairs Online (, is a joint publisher/technologist/library project, providing a resource pertaining to International Affairs that combines formal, informal, primary, secondary, and “grey” literature together in a coherent, institutional-subscription-based context.


The University of Virginia Press's Electronic Imprint (,  is leveraging the strengths of its University's electronic-publishing capabilities (IATH, the Etext Center, the Press), to craft sustainability models for significant electronic publishing projects. The Press's institutional skill (and ability) to process income enables that craftmanship, which may end up maintaining and growing important works of scholarship.


These and other examples of multiple institutions recognizing their common goals give strength to the hope that coordination is possible among the various stakeholders in the scholarly publishing arena.



The Big C


If the nonprofit stakeholders can coordinate, even slowly and gently, to achieve that mission to "support the creation and presentation of intellectually interesting material, maximize its communicative and pedahgagical effectiveness, ensure its stability and continual engagement with the growing information universe, and enhance the reputations and careers of its creators and sustainers," then perhaps their shared interests will become clearer in confronting The Big C of educational and scholarly publishing: Copyright.


"The Big C" usually means Cancer, and in this context is intended to, since the principles of copyright are currently metastasizing in ways unhealthy for our culture. The principles of author's rights have been shanghaied for the benefit of the vested interests of copyright-holders: publishers, museums, rights-holders, and other potential parasites.


I'm generally disgusted by the intellectual and academic boat-anchor represented by intellectual property law in the newly networked world. So far, copyright law has done more to preclude full intellectual analysis of our digital condition than anything else in society. As an author, I certainly am glad to assert rights to my own work, but the blade honed to cut paper doesn't necessarily cut wood well, nor styrofoam, nor tin.


That is, intellectual property law differentiates quite poorly between use types, which means that I can't glancingly allude (even transclusively) to someone else's work without risking lawsuits; I can't sample Snoop Dogg's samples without that risk; without risking legal action, I can't quote my own words (that is, if I've contractually signed away rights to those words). I certainly cannot harvest the video footage of CNN or the articles of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and then use that footage in a multimedia monograph, analyzing Bush's strategies for forcing a war attitude toward Iraq in the two pre-election months of 2002—even if it does not threaten CNN's or the Times' or the Post's cost recovery mechanisms.


Intellectual property restrictions, compounded by the attitudes of publishers, technologists, librarians, and academic bureaucracies, have left many writers and scholars dispirited. To acquire tenure, the scholar must have work published in print. To do that, great labor is required on many counts, but developing rich Webliographies is not one of them. Integrating intellectual-property-controlled material into one's own work is dangerous, unless it's done in the "dead" form of print.


In light of these barriers to full intellectual analysis of our own cultural and social condition, it's clear to me that something needs to change. Over the last decade, nonprofit publishers have been kneecapping themselves, by routinely siding with the for-profit publishers on intellectual property and copyright issues, instead of working to develop more culture-friendly standards and practices by engaging more fully and flexibly with the authors, scholars, societies, associations, libraries, and academic institutions upon which nonprofit publishing depends.


By making these choices (often passively, by making no choice), the nonprofit publishers have allowed themselves to be tarred with the same brush that is painting the commercial publishers, who are seen as parasites feeding off the authors, rather than as participants in the process of scholarly communication.


In this way the nonprofit publishing sector is impeding its own ability to be recognized as a resource; instead, it's allowed the meme that “all publishers are the same” to prevail. From my perspective, nonprofit publishers—academic, nonprofit, scholarly publishers—are a different animal.



The Needful Intermediary


The naive belief that publishers are a needless intermediary permeates a great deal of the intellectual culture, mostly because so many publishers can be seen to be, bluntly,  parasitic opportunists. Most truly aren’t, I believe—we may be parasites, but it’s hard work doing it. The value of the dissemination a good publisher can provide is rarely understood, and the ways in which nonprofit, academic publishers can assist the pursuit of knowledge have been poorly presented.


Remember the Likins quote from earlier—“a for-profit's mission is to create as much value for its stockholders as possible, within the constraints of society.” Commercial publishers are by definition trying to make money. But the nonprofit publishing world is by definition about something different, even if it’s forced to confront the constraints of budgets and risk. In Likins’ words, the goal is to “create as much value for society as possible, within the constraints of its money."


That’s what the National Academies Press tries to do for its institution—which itself is trying to create as much value for society as possible. We are part service, part business, part entrepreneur, part inventor, and an interesting model to explore.


As the publisher for the National Academies (the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council), we produce an actual physical entity—a book. Print is far from dead. In fact, it is our belief that for at least the next decade, without such an artifact, a National Academies publication would be perceived as something akin to a long, very well-educated memo. We produce something that is a pleasure to read, thereby providing the prestige of a real book, an item that can be purchased and possessed, seen in bookstores, promoted in the world, and read in an office, a plane, a bathroom, or a tram.


The Press makes every page of its publications browsable online, and is almost inarguably the most open publisher in the world. We had almost seven million visitors in 2002, reading almost 40 million report pages. That dissemination allows the recommendations of the reports to be communicated throughout the world to anyone wanting to read them.


The Press also disseminates and promulgates the works of the National Academies through traditional means. A colleague recently sent an email to me and said, "I ran into an NAP title at Powell's yesterday. It was in the Agriculture section and had a picture of a field on the cover." That small impact—of being found serendipitously while performing concrete topical searches—is easy to underestimate, when the goal is to provide value for society. In contrast, that impact is meaningless—in fact not desired—for a commercial publisher.


The Press’s business model provides an economic incentive at the institutional level for "push" marketing—catalogs, direct mail, email marketing, targeted contacts of all kinds. Without a business underlying the enterprise, it's hard to justify the expense of, for example, space ads in a particular journal.


The Press also provides an economic brake for political influence from "big swaggerers." Without a business underpinning, there is little to prevent the influence of a loud institutional voice from directing limited resources to his/her own pet project—like translating a Czech bat wing book. Similar waste is just as easy to generate via other "bad publishing decisions": bad online Webwork, insistence on “multimedia” or interactivity or animation for no communicative reason, poor design of a print component, insistence on four-color everywhere, dismal titling, and on and on.


We provide a business reason for good judgment, which can save huge amounts of money. A "Print on Demand" book may have a fixed unit cost—say $6 per unit—regardless of the print run. A unit cost for an offset print run can be as little as $1.50/unit. The advantages of POD are certain, within certain constraints; the financial benefit of good judgment (predicting demand sufficiently to decide between traditional offset and Print On Demand) is not encouraged by a POD-only model. Without a business-based motivator, routine internal expedience will be the intrinsically rewarded model.


We also provide a business reason to generate "pull"—to enhance the search value and search visibility of National Academies texts within the context of the world’s search engines. Without professional attention at that level, there would at best be spotty "search engine optimization" by those within the institution with the funds and staff to do so. There would be no systematic, institution-wide strategy to continuously strengthen the online visibility of all Academies reports.


Finally, we provide a business motivator that can justify underwriting the development of publishing enhancements. Over the last four years, the NAP has underwritten the development of "special collections" software, the development of novel search and information discovery projects, and much more. These sorts of tools are justified because on our Website, they do a better job of engaging the value of our unique resources to readers. We want to promote that value, because any researcher might be the one visitor in two hundred who might decide to buy the book.


The Press is far from perfect, but it’s a successful model of alternative modes of publishing, responding to the unique needs of its parent institution and authors, and to the media requirements of its primary audiences.




If there are four things I hope the reader takes away from this article, they are the following:


First, the depiction of the collapse of a vibrant state of public literacy in Prague between 1990 and 1995, in which too-sudden changes in the economics of publishing resulted in the loss of cultural and societal habits that encouraged educational engagement. Naïve revolutionaries are usually the most dangerous. To editorialize, it’s important to recognize that revolutions can too often end up in dictatorships of one kind or another. In this digital revolution, we in the US are running the risk of ceding (by passive acceptance) the rights to the intellectual property of the public, nonprofit, and educational sectors to commercial interests, whose metric of value is commercial, not societal.


Next, I hope I made clear the need to acknowledge the limits of volunteerism, and to see that some projects require a foundation beyond the passionate involvement of a few people; that cost recovery models can dictate the possibilities.  A cost-recovery model can enable or inhibit more development, may encourage or discourage dissemination and access, or may allow gymnastics on the high wire, rather than  simply forcing a static balance on the tightrope of survival.


I hope I made the point for a broader engagement between the many sectors within scholarly communication (publishers, scholars, libraries, technologists, editors, collaborators), and made a convincing argument that because of our common fundamental mission, audiences, and funding sources, we should be collaborating more with each other, and making accommodations for each other more often.


Finally, I hope that the underlying theme of publishing as a set of choices, with which professional help is useful, was clear. There are ever more potential traps that every  publishing project of scope and depth must now recognize and elude. Choosing appropriate partners—outside institutions, intermediaries, disseminators—can be the difference between a project of scholarly/academic/educational significance and a publishing novelty.


Networked publishing will begin to mature in the next decade. I hope that we can work to ensure that it matures within a rich community of support and engagement, and that the public sector finds ways to add value to society through a robust publishing and dissemination culture.