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A Framework for Library Support of Expansive Digital Publishing

This report summarizes the work of an investigation at Duke University into how libraries can embrace their role in the maturing space of digital humanities publishing, particularly as they seek to support what we call “expansive digital publishing.”

Published onDec 06, 2018
A Framework for Library Support of Expansive Digital Publishing


By the late 1990s, digital publications like Valley of the Shadow had dramatically changed the world of humanities scholarship. Such online works became a favored means of communication among scholars because of their ability to reach broad and diverse audiences, weave together primary and secondary sources, and efficiently connect whole bodies of scholarly discourse. In response to these developments, university libraries invested heavily in staff and infrastructure; they hired web developers, publishing consultants, and technical editors. Promotion and tenure committees revised their standards to account for the special characteristics of digital humanities scholarship. University presses developed a digital publication peer review network and began to publish digital works along with traditional monographs and journals.

Actually, most of that didn’t happen. On the one hand, scholars are enthusiastic about the potential of digital publishing, and libraries and presses have explored and invested in ways to support. But change has been slow and uneven. Producing digital scholarship is still difficult and risky, which can inhibit presses’ willingness to publish it. While peer review networks emerged that provided reputable resources for evaluating and publishing digital works (e.g., NINES for Nineteenth Century Literature), their location outside of the traditional publishing system has limited their potential influence. Many scholarly societies have proposed guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship; yet promotion and tenure committees do not consistently consider digital scholarship as part of a faculty member's review portfolio. Libraries have invested in expertise, but not at the level needed to produce more than a handful of ad hoc publications per year.

There are good reasons why digital humanities publishing did not develop as quickly as it might have, and as many academic prognosticators predicted it would. The digital humanities themselves were, and in some ways still are, technically and methodologically experimental. Yet while research remains inherently experimental, in recent years digital humanities technologies and methods have begun to mature, barriers to entry have lowered, and technical experimentation is evolving toward routinization.1 Given these developments, we now find ourselves at a critical juncture, trying to identify how to encourage maturation in a way that promotes thoughtfulness about publishing practices and efficiency in their implementation.

This report aims to help libraries — working with a network of presses, humanities institutes, and foundations — embrace their role in this maturing space. More specifically, it aims to offer a set of considerations that can help libraries offer a cohesive framework of support for what we are calling “expansive digital publishing.”

What is expansive digital publishing? We use the term "expansive" to characterize online publications that challenge current systems and expectations of publishing, primarily because they push against and beyond the limits we typically use to successfully manage publications. These works are often undertaken by scholars at multiple institutions and in different fields; use many different technologies; have multiple scholarly outputs; grow over time; operate over the long-term or are multi-phase; aim to engage with multiple audiences; and, in general, use digital tools and methods to explore or enable scholarship that would be more difficult to achieve through traditional publishing.

Pointedly, we do not view expansive digital publishing as antagonistic to traditional publishing and scholarly communication (e.g., the production of scholarly works by university presses; the vetting and promotion of scholarship through scholarly journals). Rather, we observe that, in an effort to better avail themselves of the limitless potential of digital publishing, scholars are building and using works that, in many cases, fall outside the predictable (and efficient) categories that have traditionally helped creators receive credit for their work; publishers to reliably manufacture and market these works to those who need them; libraries to collect and provide access to these works; and researchers to discover scholarship that they can build upon and incorporate into their work.

Expansive digital publishing cannot be reduced to just “digital publishing,” though the affordances of digital publishing contribute considerably to expansiveness. Rather, our focus on expansiveness calls attention to the fact that the broader publishing ecosystem that we have been relying on, and that has been adapting incrementally to incorporate digital formats and publishing workflows (such as Highwire Press for online journals), does not yet accommodate works that arise or grow outside of that system — publications whose definition and growth is not contained at the outside by a publisher’s list, platform requirements, or other pre-defined limits that help make works discoverable and sustainable. In many cases, expansive digital publications lack a clear analog in traditional publishing (an online version of a print journal; a text monograph published digitally) and instead appear to be an amalgam of multiple genres, added or adapted over time to address changes in the scholarship. Expansiveness is an acknowledgment of both the creativity and potential that drives scholarly innovation and the limited capacity of our current publishing systems to fully address their needs.

Why focus on these “expansive digital publications”? In our view, these publications embody many of the best characteristics of networked digital scholarship. They open new possibilities for engaging in conversation with a broad set of readers — both peer scholars and publics — and, simultaneously, revise and expand knowledge based on this engagement. Their multi-format, multi-audience, multi-output orientation makes publishing more like an ongoing, polyvocal scholarly discourse and less like a one-to-many imparting of fixed wisdom in a linear text that appears unambiguously at a single moment in time. Secondly, we believe others have already begun to address the challenges of digital publishing that have clear analogues or precedents in printed media. For example, digital scholarly editions and monographs have received significant attention. We aim to build on such work to untangle the knottier problems of expansive digital publishing.

Why use the term “publishing”? In the context of digital scholarship, we believe publishing remains important because of the traits that give meaning to the idea of scholarly publication: peer review, editing, design, readability, citability, wide dissemination, preservation, and the imprimatur of a publisher, which confirms that a community of experts have addressed these key attributes of scholarship and provided a sufficient degree of quality control. Furthermore, it's important for scholars to have their work recognized and rewarded as a significant contribution to knowledge -- whether within their field or beyond it, through the promotion and tenure process as well as in the more informal development of a positive reputation among peers. For digital publications to flourish, they must retain their expansive qualities and also embody these characteristics of existing scholarly publication.

Finally, why limit the scope of our study to the role of libraries? Libraries occupy pivotal niches within both the scholarly communications ecosystem and the university campus. Their institutional position gives them comparative advantage in building partnerships across campus units, university presses, and external vendors or organizations, and their staff expertise corresponds to many of the needs associated with expansive digital publishing. While some universities have humanities institutes or presses that may also meet those needs, most do not. But all have libraries. Libraries have the capacity to drive positive change in several dimensions of digital publishing, including infrastructure, resource allocation, assessment, and long-term sustainability.

Background & Principles

This project grew out of an effort to support a series of expansive publications at Duke University Libraries (see Figure 1). As we grappled with some of the challenges detailed below, we came to more clearly define and understand the broad scale of the challenges and the need to address them with collective input from across the academic community. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we invited a wide range of stakeholders in digital scholarly publishing2 to workshop these ideas and help us articulate and think through many of the problems outlined in this report. We augmented these discussions by interviewing other faculty, staff, and administrators. Additionally, we reviewed literature and existing practice in an attempt to develop a framework for the support of expansive digital publishing. The key areas of our exploration included Planning; Resource Allocation; Discovery; Evaluation; and Preservation and Sustainability.

Figure 1: Diagram showing the ways in which two publishing publications at Duke demonstrate two dimensions of expansiveness -- multiple audiences and formats -- and how these relate to more familiar scholarly genres.

In this report, we aim to share what we learned about each of these topics and to provide the beginning of a framework for universities--and libraries in particular--to improve their support for expansive digital publishing. This report is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the challenges and solutions. What we focus on are key issues as well as practices that have worked in other contexts, and we use those to suggest what library and external support might look like.

Assumptions and principles underlying report

We entered into this project with some assumptions or basic principles about scholarly publishing and digital project development, which we used to help develop questions for our interviews and session topics for our workshop:

Digital publication development is often opportunistic or reactive, rather than strategic.

Organizations supporting expansive publishing, and especially libraries, must be able to say “no” to certain proposals, partly because it’s impossible to do them all, but primarily because selection improves reputation. Selection should depend on clear processes and criteria. The latter should include quality and importance, of course, but may also include alignment with institutional priorities that facilitate concentration of resources and effort in areas where scholarship can make a significant impact.

Not all new scholarly ideas require entirely new approaches to expressing them. Scholars produce monographs through a process that involves many contributors beyond the author, and a given monograph passes through many hands, networks, and infrastructures as it makes its way from a press to an audience. Expansive digital publications must have similar networks — and, ideally, established pathways for traversing these networks — to avoid establishing new paths for each project.

Resources for developing expansive publications are often inadequate, uneven, and misaligned.

Publishing business models do not support expansive publishing publications. Scholarly publishers, such as university presses, have many of the skills and much of the expertise to support expansive publishing, but the financial and production models that they typically operate under make it difficult for them to undertake expansive projects that demand a different model. Expansive digital publications created to date have tended to use business models that are not based on subscription or sales revenue, in part because there aren't yet common established platforms for such diverse projects, and a marketplace that readers and their proxy institutions can use to facilitate payment. Such projects also often span multiple platforms, and their goals often require them to be freely available in order to reach the broadest possible audience. For all these reasons, they typically seek to fund their development and operations through mission-based funding sources, rather than market-based revenue streams.

Libraries are better positioned to support expansive digital publishing, but not at scale. Libraries have planning and funding models that could support such publications and, increasingly, staffing and infrastructure necessary for this publishing work, though not yet at the scale of presses. This suggests both a potential for libraries to partner with presses more in order to provide scalable support for expansive digital publications, as well as a growing opportunity for libraries to develop new publishing services when publications do not align with a press’s priorities.

Incentives and financial models should align with broadly useful infrastructure and support. Most financial support and rewards currently go toward well-established publishing models or innovative experiments. More resources are needed to support the translation of successful innovations into sustainable infrastructure and processes, or the provision of resources to those who establish useful templates and patterns rather than building one-offs.

Evaluation processes remain rooted in monograph culture.

Traditional scholarly publishing privileges the faculty author, with others who contribute to the work (editors, designers, technologists, etc.) receiving recognition for their “support” role, if at all. In expansive digital publishing, many kinds of expertise and effort shape the quality of any project in significant ways, and these contributions should receive appropriate rewards.

Publisher reputation is critically important in the current tenure and promotion process. If established and reputable publishers support expansive publishing models, these works will more quickly gain traction and acceptance.

As technology closes the gap between author and reader, the audience can play a greater role in how scholarship develops.

Engagement with readers and contributors is essential. In traditional publication models, the scholarly argument and subsequent discussions about it typically occur in a disconnected, often ad hoc fashion--whether in other peer-reviewed publications, the give-and-take at conferences, or now through social media platforms. New technologies make it possible to integrate these contexts, or at least more explicitly connect them, thereby allowing richer and more informed exchanges. Expansive digital publishing should aim to foster these connections, and financial and infrastructure models should support them.

Reader experience must be considered in digital publication design. In some programs that support digital publishing, the balance of resources and effort implicitly favors the author’s vision over the reader’s experience. Support for expansive digital publishing should acknowledge the experience of potential audiences alongside the desires of the author.

For expansive digital publications to have scholarly relevance and long-term impact, they must be embedded in scholarly communities.

Scholarship exists in a network, not on its own. A scholarly monograph may look like a self-contained, standalone object, but it exists in and builds upon a network of scholarship, and it lays a foundation on which others will build. Similarly, expansive digital publications exist and grow within a context, which creators must keep in mind through all stages of planning and development.

Scholarly value, impact, and integrity is determined over time, by scholars. The values driving development of expansive digital publications arise from pedagogical and research questions, with measures of success concomitantly driven by how and whether those questions are answered (rather than by efficiencies of time and cost). Situating expansive digital publishing programs within scholarly environments provides the best way to ensure that they are guided by scholarly and academic values.

What follows in each of the five sections below is a summary of the key challenges we identified in each area, as well as recommendations about how libraries and universities can improve their support and reward structures for expansive digital publishing. Because many of the challenges we identify are system-wide, we also offer suggestions in each section on opportunities for partnership among institutions to collaborate together to help resolve those issues.

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