A View from Ithaka: An Interview with Kate Wittenberg

Early in 2009, Kate Wittenberg was appointed to the position of Project Director, Client and Partnership Development at Ithaka. A longtime member of the AAUP community, she had previously served as Editor-in-Chief at Columbia University Press, and went on to found and direct the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC) at the university.

As head of EPIC, Wittenberg oversaw pioneering projects in digital publishing, including CIAO (Columbia International Affairs Online), and Gutenberg-E.

Wittenberg brings this history of innovation and experimentation to her new position at Ithaka, in which she focuses on consulting for research institutes, scholarly publishers, and libraries who are involved in the planning and sustaining of digital resources. Among the services she and her colleagues in Strategy, "help clients conceptualize and plan projects, develop business models, think about partnerships, and analyze infrastructure and staffing issues that need to be addressed in the digital environment."

Responding to questions by email, Wittenberg offered her thoughts on press partnerships, digital scholarship and tenure, sustainability for scholarly publishing, and the thinking that is driving Ithaka's newest projects. Says Wittenberg, "I believe we are in a period in which there are unprecedented changes taking place in digital research and scholarly communication, and I find it very exciting to be able to play a role in helping those involved in this important work."

MB (AAUP): Gutenberg-e, which you worked on at Columbia, focused on the relationship between publishers and scholars and the challenges of prevailing tenure standards. Is Ithaka doing any work on these issues?

KW: The relationship between publishers and authors and the related issue of academic credentialing is at the heart of scholarly communication and university press publishing. The Gutenberg-e project suggested new ways of thinking about born-digital scholarship and demonstrated that both scholarly publishing and peer-review can make the transition to a digital environment. These issues are also central to Ithaka's work, and a number of our projects here focus on these and related issues. In one of our current projects we are consulting with a research center that is developing an inter-connected set of digital initiatives that will introduce new models for publication of digital scholarship as well as the mechanisms for peer review and credentialing of that work.

MB: It seems that while publishers have been willing to try new digital models, junior scholars are reluctant to change, fearing that those making tenure and promotion decisions are not as open to these formats. Do you think presses can work more with scholars to change these perceptions or is this something that will have to happen within the community of scholars?

KW: This gets right to the heart of the problem. I honestly don't know whether changes in the perception of digital scholarship can come from the outside through innovative work being done by presses, or whether it is something that must be generated by the scholarly community itself. I suppose I really believe that it will have to come from a number of places. That is, as presses provide an increasing number of viable options for publishing peer-reviewed digital scholarship, and as scholars themselves demand the platforms and tools that will allow them to present evidence and make arguments in new ways, the academy will have to create new mechanisms for credentialing and professional advancement that acknowledge the value and richness of these new types of scholarly communication.

MB: What are the biggest obstacles to press partnerships with other institutions?

KW: Historically, presses have worked independently from other parts of the information industry. Until now they have not only controlled the development of content, but also its discovery and delivery, creating and managing their own systems for content development, production, and marketing. In a print-based world, it was possible to remain largely independent, and thus maintain one's autonomy and "brand" in the publishing environment. I think that this tradition has made it difficult to create close partnerships with other organizations, partly because of a concern about losing one's identity. But now, the old model of working in an industry that operates independently from other sectors of the community is no longer effective. The desire to remain apart from other players in the information industry has become a handicap for presses in an environment where collaboration and partnerships are necessary in order to succeed.

MB: Has the current economic climate made the need for new partnerships and initiatives more urgent for presses?

KW: Yes, the current climate has clearly increased the urgency for new partnerships, and although this need has been driven by a very difficult economic environment, I believe that in the long-term, this drive to collaborate and innovate is a good thing. Presses cannot deal with the dramatic challenges posed by the economy and advances in technology alone. While one natural reaction to these changes is to focus on trying to repair the traditional model of university press publishing, I think that all of us involved in this field are starting to see that partnerships, collaboration, and new models are where we need to focus our energy in order for presses to survive and thrive.

MB: Has the Case Studies in Sustainability project affected Ithaka's thinking about future projects that it might undertake?

KW: Yes, this project has definitely affected our thinking about future projects. We have been thinking about how to maximize the impact of this project for the community, and we are considering a number of possible next steps. One possibility is to develop tools for project leaders that will help them plan and implement sustainability strategies from the early stages of their work. Another idea is to develop a curriculum or institute for project leaders that would enable discussions and interaction among leaders who are facing similar challenges and need some guidance in thinking about their business and organizational planning. We are interested in knowing from the scholarly publishing community what would be helpful next steps in this project in terms of the challenges they are facing.

MB: What sorts of new initiatives or experiments do you see as most promising for making scholarly publishing more sustainable?

KW: Scholarly publishers face real challenges, but also significant opportunities in the current environment. Academic presses have played an enormously important role in advancing the scholarly communications process, and the value and skills that they bring to the table can remain important going forward. Presses must be seen as central to the university's mission, as well as important players in the scholarly communications process. I believe that the most promising activities for presses will involve the following: thoughtful but bold experimentation with partnerships that complement their skills and reduce their costs; a clear focus on the next generation of readers/users and their changing expectations and needs for scholarly content; and a willingness to embrace change by re-envisioning their role, and thus making themselves essential partners in the academic process.

For example, presses might begin to see themselves more as research centers that play a significant part in leading innovation in a scholarly discipline, rather than as production-and-dissemination organizations. Or they might consider partnerships with technology organizations that can support the new ways in which scholars and students conduct research, teach, and learn. A number of presses are already moving in these directions, and this is a very positive and exciting development. It will be important for the scholarly publishing community as a whole to do this on a larger scale as our environment continues to present both new challenges and opportunities.

Interviewed by Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP