The scholarly literature incorporates a number of different material types. Reference publishing and collections have perhaps been transformed more than any other content type; why should a database be issued in print format at all? Journals and other serials have transitioned away from the print format in so many cases to the point where publishers are winding down even humanistic titles, or considering how and when to do so. For both reference and journals, business models have been transformed alongside the format transition. But monographs are an entirely different material type. What is going on with them?
Although journals, other serials, and reference have made a large scale transition away from print, we must not assume that the same path will inevitably be pursued for other components of our collections. A combination of business models, reading practices, and other user needs will play the biggest role in determining the prospects for the printed monograph.
In terms of business models, there is great interest in transitioning to e-only monograph publishing, driven not least by the prospect of a shift to open access models. Traditional models are in many cases struggling, with sales declining at many presses and institutional subventions coming under regular scrutiny, such that many presses have been merged into libraries as a way of protecting them from market forces. At the same time, there is an abiding interest in how access to the core knowledge production of the humanities can be expanded to suit their public purpose. We are starting to see new open access options, such as Lever Press, where academic institutions support presses and thereby subsidize the publishing costs, rather than authors having to pay. My colleagues at Ithaka S+R have examined the costs of publishing a monograph, with the goal of informing the dialogue about a possible transition to new publishing models at traditional presses. John Sherer has argued that “Any new funding model for publishing humanities monographs in open access must be paired with markedly different workflow and dissemination models,” making clear that costs should not be seen as fixed. Strategic issues on the supply side thus may pull monographs digital and open on their own.
But in a competitive marketplace — competitive certainly for attracting star authors — reading practices and user needs are not to be trifled with. My colleagues and I at Ithaka S+R have been studying these issues for scholarly content (and others touching on teaching, research, and discovery practices) for more than 15 years, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Today, we release the latest cycle of The Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey, which covers a random sample of faculty members at institutions that grant a bachelor’s degree or higher. We designed this project to allow for the examination of practices and needs of individual disciplines and disciplinary groups, such as the humanities, as well as providing the means for tracking change over time. In this cycle, we have strengthened our coverage of monograph-related issues.
Because reading is only one of the important uses for a monograph, in our survey we examine six possible use cases and asked respondents to rate each of them as being easier in print or digital format. In 2012, we found that a strong majority of respondents felt reading behaviors were easier in print form, which searching and exploring a monograph were easier in digital form.
Our most recent findings are out today. They show that a higher share of respondents now prefer print formats for five of the six monograph use cases than they did three years ago, alongside an across the board decrease in the share that finds it easier to perform the activities in digital format. Reading cover to cover in depth was the one behavior that hardly changed at all.
These findings make clear that academics’ preferences have not shifted towards digital format at all over the past three years. If anything, there is a shift away from digital format back towards print.
As the use cases suggest, monographs are not only used for reading; indeed reading may not even be one of the most important use cases for monographs. The monograph’s form is full of clues to other kinds of behaviors. The index provides vivid illustration of the importance of search-driven browsing or skimming, a set of behaviors that have grown tremendously easier for millions of titles first through Amazon’s search inside the book and ultimately through Google Books. Search-driven browsing may well be casually called reading by scholars, but it is far different than long-form reading. A substantial share of search-driven browsing takes place through Google Books alone, although in many cases scholars hold a print version concurrently in their hands.
The key question emerging is whether we are in a dual format environment only for a transitional period or for the long term. If the reading experience for electronic monographs improves — not simple unthinking replications of the text of print monographs in digital form but a real adaptation to the complex ways they could be used — then the dual-format period may be only transitional. But if we are unable to match the print monograph reading experience in digital form, then the dual format period may extend indefinitely. For myself, I do not believe the question is about whether it is conceptually possible to create a strong digital reading experience but rather whether interests and incentives can line up to make this possible before the monograph itself declines for other reasons.
In the meantime, even during a dual-format period, access patterns are shifting as some use cases migrate to digital format. As a result, libraries are beginning to wonder about whether, and if so how, to optimize the provision of monographs and other books. What portion should be stored off-site? Or perhaps on a shared basis in a metropolitan area? Or perhaps on-demand in some kind of larger and more systematic network? And, as local ownership declines, how will responsibility for the preservation of print be maintained?
These choices are essential if not existential for libraries, and they are equally important for publishers. Prospectively, the opportunity for a group of libraries to vastly reduce the number of copies of a given print work they purchase has a very immediate impact on sales. Models where digital access is provided to all users of a given consortium, while a single copy of a print book is sold to that consortium of libraries (with rapid simple delivery on demand to the researcher), can be expected to develop further. It is interesting to reflect on the opportunities and constraints on providing such models and the strategic benefits that ProQuest and EBSCO (which now own Coutts and YBP along with digital content platforms) gain if they can readily fulfill print and digital orders, not only for individual libraries but on a consortial basis.
I have wondered for some time if the print to electronic transition that has swept scholarly communications and many of its material types will manifest differently for monographs. Today, it seems that a dual-format environment may remain before us for some time, and there will be advantages for the libraries, publishers, and intermediaries that can develop models for monographs that work best in such an environment.