Throughout 2017, the Rebus Foundation undertook a research and development project to investigate both the ecosystem of monograph publication and people’s approaches to “deep” reading (i.e. deliberate, critical, and reflective reading for comprehension). This work was made possible through the support of a USD$75,000 planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The driving thesis behind the project was to focus on how the Open Web—its technologies, its business models, and its ethos—can improve scholars’ access to, and interaction with, scholarly monographs, and whether these approaches could transform scholarly communications for the better.
We began by developing a simple prototype of a scholarly reading management system (see Appendix i for a detailed overview of this prototype), working on our existing understanding of readers’ needs. In parallel we engaged with the major stakeholders in the scholarly publishing ecosystem (scholarly readers, academic libraries, and university presses) to understand whether a tool such as ours might find a place among them, and to learn how it could be improved to better serve their needs. In total, twenty-two interviews were undertaken (see Appendix ii for list of interviewees) as well as an online survey with more than 100 respondents, all of which serve as the basis for the conclusions in this report.
This report explores the perspectives of these major stakeholders in the scholarly publishing ecosystem, and provides direction for future work by the Rebus Foundation on scholarly reading.
We set out on the research portion of this project to engage with the major stakeholders identified in the previous section and achieve the following:
- Learn more about the scholarly publishing ecosystem from those most closely involved and invested in it.
While our research team had some experience in the context in which our stakeholders operate, the experience of the stakeholders themselves, on the front lines of scholarly publishing, proved indispensable in shaping our understanding of what could be possible in the future.
- Learn more about reader needs.
As with any (potential) product development process, an intimate understanding of user needs is critical. By engaging with scholarly readers, we could explore their current workflows, challenges, preferences, and pain points.
- Solicit input and feedback on product direction.
Along with reader needs, we sought to record specific feedback on the prototype in development and gather ideas for future feature development.
- Secure buy-in from key stakeholders for future work.
In addition to general observations on the existing system, we also hoped to secure commitments from organizations interviewed to work with the Rebus Foundation as we continue to develop our product and a sustainable business model.
- Develop a feasible business model for future work.
The long-term viability of a project to develop new technology for reading scholarly material is only possible with a sustainable business model. The development of such, informed by conversations with publishers and librarians, was a key goal for this project.
We conducted a number of interviews with a wide variety of people who engage with scholarly books: publishers and librarians, as well as professors and graduate students. The interviews were free-form conversations around the topic of scholarly books and digital reading, and each culminated with a demonstration of a prototype.
The prototype consisted of a web-based “personal e-library” software system, which evolved over the course of the research project. The prototype was based on a number of our hunches, with ideas for further development gleaned from interviews.
Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and synthesized into summary overviews, which were then excerpted into the present report. Each of the groups we spoke with—librarians, publishers, and readers—encompasses a diverse range of experiences and perspectives. Consequently, interviewees were expected to speak only to their individual professional experience. Effort was made to ensure the group of participants represented as wide a range of roles, organizational structures, and years of experience as possible. Participants included:
- scholarly communications, subject, copyright, and data librarians
- multiple directors and editors of university presses of varying sizes and models
- graduate students, adjunct professors, assistant professors, and department chairs in a range of Humanities disciplines, representing the spectrum of research experience
All interviewees were based at North American institutions. Please see Appendix ii for the full list of interviewees, who we gratefully thank for their time and insights.