A few notes on interesting points raised in yesterday’s Birmingham City University event on digital academic publishing:

We began with a presentation by Masoud Yazdani of Intellect Ltd. His journals go to India for typesetting, so some costs are lower but many remain the same. He regularly gets bills of £1,000 per article for copy-editing. Having a handsome print version is important as a spur to “get it right” the first time — there is then no possibility of later revision, as there is with digital. The average journal article gets an average of between 2 and 3 readers. He may have been referring here to time-worn averaged statistics on subscription print journals, rather than his own titles? Some possible software applications for the Intellect business were explored: “save with citation” software, which then would automatically generate a bibliography [at the end I asked a question about Zotero, but I had the impression he had not heard of it]. Annotations embedded into the document by the user, together with public margin notes, allowing more general annotations. Other areas of exploration: better transportability of texts, cheaper origination and distribution, new functionality, the possibility of some free elements.

Tim Wall struck a ‘Birmingham Cultural Studies’ note, and spoke about the need to consider communities, public narratives, and intra-personal narratives as factors that could impede/hasten the successful transition of academic publishing to digital. The culture of HE teaching is changing, which will present problems to traditional models of publishing.

Research student Rob Horrocks had conducted a number of research interviews with major UK publishers and gave an outline of these, and their themes and ideas. Digitising old books with large amounts of non-standard characters is apparently very difficult. Obtaining rights permissions on old material is similarly problematic or impossible — images being especially tricky. Embedding new media into digitised versions of old books is costly. Companion websites need to tie in better with the book being promoted. Piracy has always taken place, if one considers the manner in which lecturers used to photocopy chapters to compile a course reading pack for students. Systematic monitoring of “file-sharing sites” and issuing legal notices has “been effective” [possibly this has only been limited to the likes of Rapidshare, since there seem to be an abundance of textbooks on the torrent sites]. Publishers are worried by the profusion of ebook and ereader formats, and the costly manual checking that is needed for each output in a different format. PDF is still looked on favourably by publishers, but readers want resizability and reflowability. Humanities publishers will likely be dragged along in the wake of science publishers, in regard to standardisation for ebooks and ereaders.

There was further talk of:

* how the book or journal is being disaggregated to the chapter / journal article level, and even to the page level when only alighted on in a Google or Google Books search.

* the need for the curation of content — specialist paid editors, or trusted amateurs. How do we trust? Can we expect taste-matching software to do it for us? The track-record of taste-engines is not good.

* piracy of textbooks. Students don’t really use all of them, so they feel ‘put upon’ by having to buy them. In future, as open courseware textbooks are available, kept up-to-date and highly polished, they may be asking lecturers why they can’t use those instead. Especially in the technical field.

* UK Research Assessment Exercises (REAs) have strongly influenced the timing of the flow of papers to journals. As we move in the UK to new models of engagement / influence, how can this policy shift be influenced by publishers? Will the vast variety of formats, the Balkanisation of content, paywalls etc, put government off the idea of the possibility of a valid metrics — since such fragmentation of access will surely skew any new metrics (even more than paywalls currently skew it). Currently the metrics needed for career advancement are crudely and rather narrowly collected. But is this a UK-centric view. Should we not be thinking in terms of the wider English-speaking world?

* there were two unspoken “elephants in the room”: Google and librarians (their culture, training, financing and cultural/academic status) were not part of the discussion so far as I heard it. These two giant forces appear very antagonistic to each other, which may throw some tricky roadblocks in the path of digital academic publishing strategies and business models.

* ongoing change will be permanent — no-one can see what will be happening in two, five, ten years.

* posterity is important, especially in the arts and humanities (science and medical papers have a far shorter useful “shelf life”). Digital media is far more fragile than we assume. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it will stay there forever. Our great-great grand-daughter may thank us for keeping a paper copy of a journal, possibly the only way it survived into her time?

* book/journal-based communities and discussions are a recognised need. But where will academics and students find the time, amongst everything else they have to do? Best to find existing communities?

* very little actual implementation of new ideas. Will they be developed too late, too slowly for the fast pace of change, in a financial situation that is not going to allow them to flourish?

* separate form from content – elegance vs. portability. Technology has a role here, in allowing me to “skin” my ebooks and ejournal articles in ways that I want. This same technology will however also allow “blocking filters” – so everyone may not see the same page as intended by the author. Allowing interventions into the content and look of the text potentially opens it up — but this may lead on the one hand to a “playground-style” peer-pressure and herd-following as seen among the Twitterati, and on the other hand to per-book censorship mechanisms in repressive areas of the world (e.g.: China).

* need to train a new generation of digital curators. One of the ways to start would be serious and regular training for search skills starting in primary school. At the other end of education, need to encourage ‘overlay journals’ produced to gather open and repository content.

* ethical dimensions of funding research with public money and then not sharing it with the world. Let’s just give it away to anyone on the planet, as a gift from the British people. Cultural influence may be more valuable than the relatively tiny academic publishing industry. Let them then find new ways to extract value from ‘free’.

* undergraduates hardly access and evaluate journal articles for most of their course work.

* need for stable URLs that are Google-friendly.

* with the right expertise, and a closed academic audience, certain theatre / dance / performance rights can be cleared for online/digital use. But it’s not going to be cheap. However, the record of the performance is not the performance. There is a danger of critical work proceeding from the cultural artifact, and not the actual performance itself.