Penn State Press and Libraries Come Together for Digital Publishing

While the opportunities and challenges of digital publishing remain hot button topics in the scholarly publishing community, the Romance Studies series from Penn State University Press represents a concrete example of how online and print-on-demand publishing can sustain projects that would otherwise not be possible.

Originally titled Penn State Studies in Romance Literatures when it debuted in the early 1990s and discontinued early in the new century, the more broadly-based Romance Studies series allowed Penn State to continue publishing "first book" monographs in this field by taking advantage of new digital technologies.

"Penn State Romance Studies in large measure responded to the need to support an area of scholarship that was underserved, expanded its editorial focus to move beyond simply 'literature' to include film, theatre, translations, and other foreign language-related titles," said Patrick H. Alexander, Co-Director of Penn State's Office Digital Scholarly Publishing (ODSP), which oversees Romance Studies, and Associate Director/Editor-in-Chief of Penn State University Press. In addition to the four books currently available on the Romance Studies site, Penn State plans to release future titles at a rate of about three per year.

"This development coincided with the university's press and libraries creating the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing (ODSP), under the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Peter Potter (now editor-in-chief at Cornell University Press) and Bonnie MacEwan (now dean of libraries at Auburn University)," Alexander explained. "Now co-directed by Michael J. Furlough, assistant dean of the libraries at Penn State, and myself, ODSP brings to bear the strengths of both library and press to experiment with making the volumes available–––at least initially–––both digitally and in a traditional, but 'on-demand,' print format." He added that the press handles traditional publishing concerns, including peer review, copy editing, and design, while the library creates and hosts the online version using DPubS software, a platform originally developed for Cornell's Project Euclid.

Given that the Romance Studies titles are available for sale in a print format as well as having significant portions available for free online, there was, at Penn State as with other presses exploring digital models, some concern as to whether the availability of these free chapters would ultimately hurt sales of the print volume. "Indeed there were concerns, and the jury's still out," Alexander said. "We wrestled with the conflict of interest between an Open Access online version and a printed edition. If the volume were available online, who would buy the print?" He added that the press's partnership with the library alleviated many costs associated with digital publishing and distribution, but that print sales were still very important to offset the editorial, production, and other overhead costs of publishing.

"We weighed various options: no access, partial access, degraded print access, and full access," Alexander said. ODSP's solution was to offer all of books' content available as chapter-by-chapter downloadable PDFs, but only around 50% of each book will be printable from these files. "It's possible that some potential readers of Romance Studies titles will be happier to get a single chapter or do a short check online, rather than buy a book. But the online reading experience will not replicate the in-print experience, nor will printing out a whole book on the laser printer really replace the book." He noted that the open access model presents an opportunity for greater dissemination of scholarship, but that questions remain as to how a majority of users will interact with the material in digital and print formats. For example, are the PDFs read on screen or printed out? What would each case indicate as to how Penn State should offer the Romance Studies books? Are users likely to print out an entire book, if all chapters were available, rather than simply purchasing a bound copy? "The problem is that we won't be able to definitely prove these assumptions unless we can discover what motivates our readers' behavior," Alexander said.

Regardless of the challenges, though, the Romance Studies list from Penn State Press and the university's Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing represents an important step for the press as it navigates the changing landscape of scholarly communication. "We recognize that standing still is not an option when the flow of knowledge and information and the demand of users for digital content are so great," Alexander said. "ODSP has become a sort of Petrie dish that permits us to experiment in ways that as simply a 'press' we would not be able to do. In a noncompetitive environment, it allows the press to learn more about its own strengths and weaknesses and how to bring those to bear in fulfilling the university's overall mission to disseminate knowledge and information.

"The Penn State Romance Studies series also represents a commitment to experimenting with 'open access' to book content that was emphasized as an imperative in AAUP's Statement on Open Access drafted by our director, Sanford Thatcher, so as to help bridge the growing 'digital divide' between book and journal content in the OA world."

Sean Manning
Communications Coordinator, AAUP