Brown University’s model for digital publishing in the humanities

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications


I first talked with Allison Levy, the digital scholarship editor at Brown University Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship, at AHA 2019. She was shopping to presses the first few born-digital multimedia projects by Brown faculty developed under the University’s Mellon-funded Digital Publications Initiative. The projects were very cool, and as an acquisitions editor I’ve been interested in getting involved in this kind of work for a while. Still, her pitch raised a lot of questions for me because Brown’s initiative represents a reconfiguration of the usual relationship between universities, their faculties, and university presses. 

Typically, while universities offer the crucial financial support for scholars to pursue scholarship, if they intervene in the relationship between author and press, it’s to offer a subvention defraying some of the costs of production. The book contract is between the author and the press; the author researches and writes the manuscript and the press has it peer-reviewed; the author finalizes and the press produces and markets the book; and the royalties accrue to the author, the sales revenues to the press. 

What Allison was proposing back in January 2019 was that Brown’s Digital Publications Initiative would offer robust editorial, design, and technological support to humanities faculty to conceive and create a work of digital multimedia scholarship. Once a project was pretty far along, she would help the author find a press to handle peer review, copyediting, and marketing. In such a scenario, the press wouldn’t have its usual role of designing and typesetting, and of course there would be no printing, binding, shipping, and warehousing. With no archival copies wrapped in brown paper to protect them, how to preserve born-digital works and who would take that responsibility remain open questions.

Now—in fall 2019—the first project Allison has shepherded through is almost ready to go, and she’s in discussions with a university press. The publishing model for this project, supported by a custom-built site with a wide range of interactive features, involves the press handling peer review, copyediting, and marketing. The work will be published as open access, available through the press’s website. Brown will host the site on its library’s server and will be responsible for maintaining it. Allison expects to see other models emerge as future projects are placed with university presses. For example, not all of Brown’s digital publications are intended to be published as open access titles. 

Behind the scenes, Allison and the folks at Brown are tackling other big questions, like helping to develop the way that digital scholarship is understood and recognized as scholarship. The dean of the faculty, a co-PI on the grant, has worked with all departments in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to include language on digital scholarship in their Standards and Criteria documents—a strong signal of support to junior faculty. The substantial financial, technical, and logistical support Brown offers to its faculty involved in the initiative is encouraging more scholars to take on this kind of project. The initiative is also moving to ensure that future projects are designed and built for sustainability and ease of maintenance. 

The Mellon Foundation, the godmother of so many digital publication initiatives, has extended its funding for Brown’s initiative for another six years, and Allison has more exciting projects in production (truly worth checking out, so here’s that link again). I asked Allison why the Digital Publications Initiative doesn’t just set itself up as the Brown University Press, since she and her colleagues are doing much of the work that presses do. That isn’t Brown’s goal, she said, and in the future Allison envisions a larger role for partnering university presses in editorial and production decisions. She and her colleagues are also open to building on existing platforms such as Fulcrum and Manifold. One current project is supported by Scalar.

Brown’s initiative highlights some of the ways that digital affordances can reconfigure the relationships among the players in scholarly publishing. What’s your experience of this rapidly changing choreography? I’d love to hear from authors who’ve created scholarly digital multimedia projects. What was the process like and who was involved in addition to yourself? Did you and your institution (if any) count this project as a publication? How do other scholars and students use the project now? At what point (if any) do you consider the project complete? How long a life does or did your project have? Guest posts welcome.