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1. Planning for Expansive Digital Publications

Published onJul 14, 2019
1. Planning for Expansive Digital Publications

Expansive digital publications are complex. They can span many years, audiences, formats, and technologies; they can involve many creators from multiple institutions. Furthermore, in contrast to traditional scholarship, the processes and responsibilities for creating such publications often lack clear roadmaps. This lack of clarity is particularly challenging as we attempt to “publish” these works in a meaningful way; there are typically open questions about which production processes belong to the scholar, the publisher, and other support units (e.g., libraries, humanities institutes). Yet planning is critical if we expect expansive digital publications to have the attributes of accepted scholarship.

Challenges and approaches to planning expansive digital publications

Despite a strong consensus about the importance of project planning, we learned from our research, workshops, and interviews that good project planning often either doesn’t happen or doesn’t sufficiently guide decision-making. Why? We believe some of the most significant reasons why are:

Late-stage intervention. Because the publication has grown over time, scholars and teams may come to the library and other support units only when the project has become too large or complex for them to manage on their own. Significant (but possibly misguided) design and resource decisions have already been made at this point, which may frustrate attempts to adapt a project to existing workflows and platform requirements and make it more legible, discoverable, sustainable, and preservable.

Mistaking unique substance for unique process. Some challenges of expansive digital publishing arise because of misperceptions among stakeholders about the uniqueness of their publications. Workshop participants confirmed this widespread belief, noting that many creators — for whom digital projects tend to be a new experience — view all aspects of their projects as sui generis, including such activities as technology selection, design, project management, and preservation and sustainability. While many expansive digital publications do break new ground and deploy technology in new ways, regarding each project as distinctive means that most aspects of support remain non-scalable. Necessarily ad hoc and opportunistic, such publications often devote significant resources into creating (and recreating) standards, plans, and guidelines.1

Shifting goals and visions. Expansive digital publications often evolve over time: researcher plans may change, interests may fade, and individual involvement may wane or emerge in unexpected ways. Workshop participants noted that this instability means, among other things, that project creators sometimes add content that isn’t well matched to the original structure of their project. This mismatch is a problem because infrastructure and organizations may not be able to evolve flexibly. And as the project expands in unanticipated directions, sometimes indefinitely, editorial oversight may not be sufficient (or even available) to manage the scope or quality of the work.

Library Support for Planning

In light of these challenges, how can libraries encourage good planning practices early in project development? Some strategies below will be familiar because they apply to digital project planning generally, but we believe they’re critical for developing and ultimately publishing expansive digital publications.

Outreach and communication. Cultivating faculty awareness of relevant library services, as well as services offered by other campus units, helps to signal that expansive digital publications stand out as a distinctive category of publishing with special support needs. As mentioned above, many creators see their publications as one-of-a-kind and believe that few other scholars attempt such undertakings. For these creators, the assumption that universities have no systematic support structure for their work seems a logical conclusion. In fact, libraries and other support units regularly encounter these publications; they just need to do a better job of formalizing and communicating about the ways they work with them. For example, in addition to expansive digital publications as a general category, libraries should develop rubrics for subcategories of publications, with documented examples.2 Such a taxonomy would allow institutions to develop and communicate specific support structures around different publication types. Clear categorization also indicates that libraries know something about how publications will develop and, as a result, understand appropriate ways to support their success.

Libraries and other campus support units also need to coordinate their outreach efforts so that they achieve clear, coherent communication to faculty about the goals of their services. Working in concert to highlight sample publications and tools — and to connect these examples to specific services at different parts of the project lifecycle — helps to discourage the view of each project as a unique undertaking. By indicating that the university in general supports expansive digital publications, this kind of communication dispels some of the perceived risk of undertaking digital scholarship.

Finally, libraries should build relationships around digital publishing with other campus units. In particular, partnerships with humanities institutes/centers, offices of sponsored projects, and information technology divisions ensure that libraries become known points of contact for developing expansive digital publications — and have a seat at the table for discussions of university-level support.

Incentives. Libraries and universities can create incentives to drive good project planning that also takes into account the nature of expansive digital publications. For example, grants provide opportunities for awarding support, requiring cohort-based training, and inculcating compliance with local infrastructure and processes. Libraries and other campus units might award mini-grants (including both monetary and in-kind support) to incubate projects or facilitate planning meetings. For larger external grants funding expansive digital publications, tying project review to a requirement that PIs consult with appropriate campus units can help to encourage good planning, recognition of key infrastructure and staffing needs, and sustainable local support. Ideally, funding organizations could also encourage thoughtful planning by asking PIs for an explanation of how their work will engage with local or consortial support structures; this requirement could be analogous to the data management plans that are part of many grant applications.

Planning and guidance. Libraries can help streamline support and ensure scalability by creating tools or checklists to ensure best practices at all stages of project development, from proposal to preservation. Likewise, memoranda of understanding (MOUs) can be important tools for establishing expectations of support and preservation. For both checklists and MOUs, there are good examples that might suggest possibilities for the development of local resources, but it’s important to tailor such materials to specific institutions.3 All institutions also need to appreciate the scope and use of the most sensible MOUs: they should clarify goals and formalize agreements among stakeholders, but they should follow from — not precede or establish — a relationship between creators and libraries.

Project selection and support tiers. No matter how well or poorly resourced, all institutions lack the capacity to handle all potential expansive digital publications. To distribute resources fairly and protect staff from overcommitment, libraries should clarify what their institutional goals are, and actively solicit publications and publishing projects that align with those goals. Like scholarly presses, libraries could maintain a “list” of subjects and methodologies in which they support expansive digital publishing. Lists might reflect many considerations, such as available technology and staff expertise, subject matter expertise, or desired outcomes — e.g., reaching K-12 or international audiences.

This kind of selectivity creates an inherent tension with other key purposes of academic libraries. The service culture of libraries, combined with their mandate to support all researchers, means that any kind of selection process for a public-facing service may seem difficult to justify. One option may be to create and communicate tiers of service, in which all publications and publishing projects that clear some minimum threshold would receive some support, but libraries would direct the most significant investment of resources toward those aligned with local publishing goals and capabilities:4

  • Level 1: basic consultation support at any stage of the project;

  • Level 2: ongoing consultation and development, but no long-term commitment to hosting, support, or preservation by the library;

  • Level 3: consultation, development, project management and long-term preservation and sustainability commitment within certain boundaries (e.g., for specific, well understood formats)

Opportunities for Partnership

Early in the planning stages, libraries should work with creators to identify publishing partners who make the most sense for a given project. This may include university presses, but also other organizations such as other university libraries, or humanities institutes/centers that are increasingly engaged in scholarly publishing. Creating such partnerships would require significant preliminary work to develop a network of publishers who are willing to engage on different types of expansive digital publishing, most likely because of their aligned disciplinary focus. That work is beyond the scope of what one institution can achieve, though more local versions could be created. For example, the Mellon-funded project Publishing Without Walls offers one model for a developmental pipeline for scholarship. Fostering those relationships at a national or international level would be difficult but highly valuable. We believe a joint clearinghouse should be developed to help libraries, humanities institutes, and presses identify publications of joint interest to pursue together.


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