Monograph Publishing in the Digital Age

Graphic illustration of a row of books.

Donald J. Waters, former senior program officer for Scholarly Communications, on incorporating modern digital practices into monograph publication of scholarship in the humanities.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Against the Grain.

In 2014, my Mellon colleague, Helen Cullyer, and I sat in on a roundtable discussion of deans of humanities divisions in about 25 research universities in the U.S.  Of the questions that occupied them, one directly concerned the future of the monograph.  Wondering how they could make the humanities more interesting to their students, the deans observed that the present generation is immersed in the interactive web of multimedia to a degree that makes it harder for them to appreciate the book-based humanistic traditions.

The Value of Publication in the Humanities

As they wrestled with this key question, the deans explored several aspects of a much larger issue:  How do universities best shape the formation, interpretation, and dissemination of knowledge to emerging public needs and media?  What features define the quality of scholarly argument?  If the monograph is increasingly being challenged as a viable component of systems of scholarly communications, what other genres are needed to disseminate knowledge in the humanities?

For the last 20 years, nearly all the conversation about change in scholarly communications has rather monotonously focused on serials.  This discussion has been dominated by the need for open access with its pedantic debates about the meaning of the colors of gold and green. Proliferating funder and university mandates require the development of costly institutional structures of notification and compliance monitoring, and are resulting in guerrilla wars of evasion among various segments of the faculty, who may have even voted for the mandates on their campuses, but believe that they do not—or should not—apply to themselves.

Are these the topics of the conversation that members of the academy really want to be having about scholarly communications in the humanities?  Is publication in the humanities destined to follow the journals model, which amounts to little more than highly priced, print-derived articles in the Portable Document Format that take advantage of few, if any, of the interactive, annotative, and computational affordances of the web?  Shouldn’t scholars and publishers in the humanities address the core issue, which the humanities deans expressed as a profound concern that higher education is failing to reach its core audiences in the online media they are naturally using?  Isn’t it time to broaden our view of scholarly publication to include other forms of publication, including monographs?

New infrastructure for long-form publication

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a New York-based private philanthropy that supports higher education and the arts.  The Mellon program that I lead is Scholarly Communications, which supports academic libraries and scholarly publishers.  One of our objectives in the Scholarly Communications program is to help incorporate modern digital practices into the publication of scholarship in the humanities and ensure its dissemination to the widest possible audience. 

In 2013 we began focusing on long-form research publications in the humanities, and particularly the monograph.  As a result of this process, we created a working set of the features of the monograph of the future as we heard it described in our meetings across the country: 


Rich, challenging, and substantive as this list of features may be, note that it does not include open access as a defining feature.  The Mellon Foundation strongly supports open access, and believes that it will play an important role in how its vision of the monograph of the future is achieved, but open access is one of the means to the ends we envisioned, not an end in itself.

Some pieces of this vision are well within reach.  For example, a series of Mellon-funded experiments on digital annotation eventually led to the Open Annotation standard of the World Wide Web Consortium, which is now being widely implemented by the Hypothesis Project and others. However, other pieces are missing and there are many points of resistance. This is not just because no one is interested in change.  Rather, the system is large, entrenched, and complex and so there is no reliable single lever of change.  Moreover, as John Maxwell of Simon Fraser University has observed in response to our request to review Mellon’s approach to this complicated system, the inward-facing importance of the monograph as a credential has often overshadowed the outward-facing features of the monograph, which are intended to promulgate broad understanding of humanities research. Mellon is embracing the institutional and market-building dimensions of change required in a multi-pronged, multi-year funding initiative.  So far, in a little over a year, the Foundation has made 21 grants in this initiative totaling more than $10 million.

Quantity and Costs

The Foundation started this initiative with two baseline questions.  How many monographs are produced and what are the costs of monograph publishing.  The question of how many is a measure of significance.  Joseph Esposito explored this question for us, navigating the difficult definitional question of what is a monograph.  For practical reasons, we excluded the output of commercial publishers, as well as Oxford and Cambridge.  We also limited the survey to American university presses, and found that they publish approximately 3,000 monographs per year.  By any measure, this is a significant number of works that add to the base of humanities scholarship each year.  We have built on these data by asking OCLC to match the ISBNs to its holdings records and are now creating a profile of library purchases and the humanities fields, by the LC class number in which the books are published.

In 2014, ITHAKA S+R began working with 20 university presses to establish the costs of monograph publishing, which prove substantial.  The University of California Press in its Luminos Open Access initiative quotes a baseline cost of $15,000.  Raym Crow in his study for the Association of American Universities and Association of Research Libraries estimated the average cost at $20,000 per book.  In a recently published Mellon-funded study, the university presses at Indiana and Michigan put the average costs respectively at $26,700 and $27,600.  The Ithaka cost study attempts to get at full costs of the first digital file; that is, excluding the costs of printing and distribution of print copies, but including marketing and overhead.  The study reports average costs ranging from $30,000 per book for the group of the smallest university presses to more than $49,000 per book for the group of the largest presses.  These are costs for monograph publication only; the costs of innovative long-form genres that are non-linear, data-intensive, or multimedia rich are still not yet well understood.  These cost estimates are sobering: 3,000 books a year at an average per book cost of $30,000 yields a total cost of approximately $90 million in the US alone.

How are these costs to be afforded in a new regime of long-form monographic publishing? Can the need to advance scholarship be reconciled with the need to drive down the costs of both monograph and other long-form publication to affordable levels?  Let’s look at these questions from the perspective of the faculty, the university, the presses, and the reader.

The Faculty

Mellon staff have been visiting campuses for consultations with faculty about the future of scholarly publishing since early 2014.  Some faculty see no problem with the current system, others clearly would welcome support of a new regime, including those who want to work on digital projects, or want the means to produce publications that can only be accomplished digitally.  However, a primary concern of faculty is how high-quality digital monographs would be assessed for promotion and tenure.

As part of its publishing initiative, the Mellon Foundation followed the lead of the Modern Language Association, which has long-established guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship, and supported the development of similar principles at the two other two largest scholarly societies, the American Historical Association and the College Art Association (in partnership with the Society of Architectural Historians).  While it is clear that disciplinary guidelines have their force, institutional and departmental guidelines are even more important, and this brings us to the role of universities and colleges.

Universities and Colleges

Universities and colleges have substantial interests in promoting their faculty and in the fields they represent.  Sponsorship of publication could translate institutional interests into first-class digital products, representing a sustainable source of income for long-form scholarly publishing in the future.  There are two lines of thought that universities are currently exploring: a direct pay-to-publish model as one way of funding monograph publishing, and a slightly less direct model in which there is an on-campus agent who assists in developmental editing and in placing works with presses.

With support from Mellon, the universities at Indiana, Michigan, and Emory have walked through a model in which institutions would sponsor and pay to publish the works of at least some of the monographs their faculty produce.  The essence of the model is as follows:

1.  Presses recruit authors and review the quality of their publications through normal means.

2.  Institutions select authors to participate in a pay-to-publish model; authors could decline and pursue traditional forms of publication.

3.  For a negotiated price that the selected author’s institution would pay, the press produces a well-designed digital publication that it would:

a.  Deposit in at least one trusted preservation repository with full metadata;

b.  Make available online under an agreed-upon Creative Commons license;

c.  Market through social media, and

d.  Submit for disciplinary prizes and awards.

4.  Presses could also sell derivative works to other markets (print on demand, or in Amazon formats) or generate new services for sale to generate additional income.

The three institutions each deemed the pay-to-publish model to be feasible.  Michigan and Emory are now following up with plans to draft model contracts between the university and the author, the author and the press, and the university and press. 

The idea of a campus agent and other means of institutional support for digital book production are being explored with Mellon support at Brown University, and at the Universities of Connecticut and Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  These experiments promise to challenge and compete with the university press book acquisition process, one of the more costly and opaque activities identified in the Ithaka study.

The Presses

I turn now to the question of the capacity within the university presses.  With the help of subcontractors, most are already capable of producing eBook versions of print monographs.  But how are they addressing the needs of natively digital readers in a competitive environment that, over time, drives down costs?  To help answer this question, I have space only to list briefly some of the activities now being undertaken with Mellon support:

•    Michigan Publishing (with presses at Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Pennsylvania State) is developing a Hydra/Fedora platform for disseminating and preserving digital monographs and their associated media content.

•    The University of Minnesota Press, in collaboration with the City University of New York, is developing tools and workflows for publishing iterative scholarly monographs, in which works remain dynamic by means of the ongoing interaction between author and reader.

•    The Stanford University Press and Stanford University Library are developing peer review, editorial, publication, and preservation workflows for “interactive scholarly works;” that is long-form, born-digital publications that depend on the interactive features of the Web to link interpretive scholarship to related secondary sources, primary source evidence, visualizations, and software tools.

•    The New York University Libraries and Press are creating a discovery and reading interface.

The Reader

Now let me conclude with simply a gesture toward the most important ingredient in this complex mix, namely the reader.  All of the ambitious and creative activity that I have described has originated mainly on the producer side of the author-reader interaction.  The work of the faculty, the universities and colleges, and the presses is worthwhile if and only if a market is created in which readers find and read the works of knowledge that are produced.  The most important question, which the humanities’ deans raised in their discussion that I described at the beginning of this article, is:  What makes for an active reader in the digital age?  Exploring the answer to this question still lies before us as largely virgin territory.  We have an enormous amount of work to do. 

Donald J. Waters was senior program officer for Scholarly Communications at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1999-2019.

Field Progress

  • The University of North Carolina Press is extending its Longleaf book warehousing and distribution services to include editorial/design/production, business operations, and marketing services for other university presses.
  • The University of California Press and the California Digital Library is creating open source tools and workflows for the authoring, submission, peer review, and production of digital monographs in a variety of formats.
  • The Yale University Press and the Art Institute of Chicago are creating a platform and procedures for image-based monographs.  Yale recently reported that it is exploring how to make use of the Mellon-funded Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts to address the costs of licensing images for online use.
  • Michigan Publishing (with presses at Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Pennsylvania State) is developing a Hydra/Fedora platform for disseminating and preserving digital monographs and their associated media content.
  • The University of Minnesota Press, in collaboration with the City University of New York, is developing tools and workflows for publishing iterative scholarly monographs, in which works remain dynamic by means of the ongoing interaction between author and reader.
  • The Stanford University Press and Stanford University Library are developing peer review, editorial, publication, and preservation workflows for “interactive scholarly works;” that is long-form, born-digital publications that depend on the interactive features of the Web to link interpretive scholarship to related secondary sources, primary source evidence, visualizations, and software tools.
  • The New York University Libraries and Press are creating a discovery and reading interface.
  • The Johns Hopkins University Press is planning a repository in Project Muse for open access monographs, while the Association of American University Presses is planning UPScope, a discovery and delivery platform for University Press titles, based on the model of the National Academies’ Press’ AcademyScope.
  • With increased project management and information design capacities, the Center for Digital Humanities at Brown University is working with faculty and librarians to develop innovative digital scholarly projects and place them with presses for formal publication.
  •  The University of Connecticut’s Scholarly Communications Design Studio leverages the resources of its School of Fine Arts’ Digital Media & Design Department, its libraries, and its Humanities Institute to develop publications suited to a highly-collaborative and evolving digital landscape.
  •  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has established a new digital publication initiative within its Scholarly Commons, which will initially produce 8-12 new long-form works in conjunction with its Global Midwest and African American studies programs.
  •  In September 2015, Indiana University published a study which considers potential benefits and challenges of funding humanities book publishing through institutional subsidies awarded to authors.
  • Emory University recently received a four-year grant to design, develop, and market new long-form digital works in the humanities. Emory will also experiment with a new model in which faculty receive institutional funds to pay publication fees to nonprofit presses, which agree to make works available on an open access basis.