"Sequoia" by flickr user maraquista, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Sequoia” by flickr user maraquista, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I got an email on Wednesday that inspired me to think big. Like, blue-sky, no-limits, pure-possibility big. The subject of my (big) reverie was publishing in a university setting, as an integral function of the university. The publishing function in my dream wasn’t specifically situated in a library, or in a Press, or even in a single unit – it was rather about all of the roles that publishing could, and maybe should, fulfill in higher education. So as not to let my fevered imaginings go to waste, I thought I would share them here. I hope you find them inspiring, too.

What publishing at a research university could be…

A user interface

Think about how much knowledge is created at the university. Picture all of the articles and books. Add the conference papers and presentations. Throw on the pile all of the work that doesn’t get shared – student research projects and learning experiences, experiments that don’t turn out as expected, small projects that don’t get written up as articles, pedagogical experimentation and other praxis. What if there were appropriate venues for sharing ALL of it? Venues that provided a range of functionality, required a range of effort, and conveyed the appropriate context for the work? What if sharing the knowledge created at the university became second nature, because the barriers to doing so were removed?

What if publishing at the university provided a user interface for the community, so that the knowledge created there could influence and enrich? Think how much easier it would be to communicate the value of the university when budgeting time comes around. Think about policy debates being informed by readily available research. Imagine the intellectual wealth of the university made available and accessible – to the public and to scholars around the world.

A resource for faculty and students

If the first role was to be a user interface to the university for the world, this one is the reverse – a user interface to the world for the university. As much as the community (scholarly or public) needs help accessing the university, the university needs help communicating with the community. This isn’t just idealism; faculty and students have well-defined communication needs that a publishing program can support. Faculty need their research to create impact among their peers, and need to demonstrate that impact to get tenure. Students need to document their best work and demonstrate their skills to potential employers and graduate programs. Imagine a publishing program that supports those goals; that provides tools to publish (or promote already published) research, to build portfolios, and to measure and communicate impact to colleagues and funders.

Students and faculty have another well-defined need that a publishing program could support: the need for educational materials. I touched briefly on the textbook publishing realm in an earlier post about the CIC CLI conference, but it’s worth reiterating. A university publishing program could help faculty and staff create content to support teaching, and help them find and adapt open textbooks to meet their needs. Doing so would support student learning and help control the costs of education.

A driving force in scholarly communication

Universities provide both the content and the capital that makes the current scholarly communication systems possible. We have all the power in the equation. We could shape scholarly communication to look any way we wanted…so why don’t we? Why do we so often feel powerless to change things? It’s because there is no ‘we.’ The ‘we’ in this scenario is actually a fragmented constellation of agents, each of which has its own needs and motivations. Faculty need to get tenure. Students need to get jobs and grad school acceptance letters. Scholarly societies need enough income to survive. Scholars in one discipline need rapid publication and a home for their research data, while others need support for long-form scholarship. Presses need to support their operations in the face of shrinking support from their universities. Libraries need to provide the collections to support teaching and research, while demonstrating their value to decision-makers. The leadership of the university needs to keep the ship running in a million different ways.

Looked at that way, it’s easy to see why for-profit publishers keep running the show – who else is going to do it? A publishing program tightly integrated with the work of the university could provide the single voice. It could leverage the library’s collections budget, the research and editorial work of the faculty, the clout of the leadership, and the enormous pool of talent available – faculty, student, and staff. It could act as a trusted partner for scholarly societies as they navigate the changing landscape (another tidbit from the CIC conference). It could educate the scholarly community on the current state of publishing and possibilities for the future, and provide the organization for change efforts. It could be the ‘we.’

Dream on

That’s my vision of what publishing at a university could be. What’s yours? How could we start to make it happen? Dream on, folks.

(This idealistic post brought to you by the Fourth of July. Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans! Everyone else, I hope you’re having a nice day at work.)