Reflections on a Digital Publishing Program, Part 1

Stanford digital colophon, a pixel tree

December 31, 2022 will mark the end of the eighth year of Stanford University Press’s nine-year digital publishing initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. With one year to wrap things up, it seems an appropriate moment to begin reflecting on our achievements. This program of born-digital publishing projects, initially christened Interactive Scholarly Works (ISWs), is not entirely unique to Stanford, but the extent of our program and the underlying process of acquisition, development, publication, and archiving is unique. It’s thus bittersweet to be recognizing the past eight years of incredible work, while at the same time announcing that the program will stop accepting new submissions from the end of this year. We will continue to publish projects acquired within this program over the next twelve months, and it is also likely that we will continue to publish occasional ISWs as part of our regular publishing program over the coming years. But the dedicated infrastructure created under this Mellon grant will expire after two generous rounds of funding.

All of our projects have been published under an open access license, meaning that they require external funding to cover their costs. Our hopes for experimenting with alternate revenue streams (subscription, pay-per-view, etc.) all required a significantly higher publication rate than was practical, and it was equally unrealistic to charge authors the types of fees that would be necessary to support our publishing infrastructure.

Our goal with this program was to provide an outlet for peer-reviewed, formal publication of interactive projects that demonstrated the equivalent scholarly engagement as our books program. Our keystone for this was that the projects identified, developed, and engaged a scholarly argument, and thus could be subject to fairly traditional content peer review. This went alongside a more technical assessment of the project that we considered a “technical peer review.” These two together allowed the projects to flow through our internal and university approval processes, including consideration, discussion, and approval by our full editorial board, thus giving these digital publications the same credentials as a published book.

Over an eight-year period we will have published eleven projects, and we have five more in our pipeline for publication in 2023. The projects already published have together attracted over 500,000 unique visitors and have garnered recognition from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the American Studies Association, the American Historical Association, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and Art Review. The sixteen projects were selected from roughly 150 projects that have been considered and, in many cases, peer reviewed. This rejection rate roughly matches our rejection rate for books and thus shows similar selectivity and standards, despite the projects being developed within a smaller ecosystem.

Along the way we’ve learned many significant lessons, most of which have been blogged here by Jasmine and Friederike. So let me take the opportunity to celebrate their work here.

When Friederike Sundaram joined this program in 2015 there was no formula or process for her to follow. She created, from scratch, a framework for developing a digital pipeline, for peer review, and for the formal publication approval needed to publish these projects. At all stages we used our book program as a template, with the goal of mirroring where appropriate in order to confer the same credentials upon these ISWs. But that still left plenty of room for interpretation, and I feel that Friederike has clearly defined what makes a publishable ISW. There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all for such projects, since they vary wildly in both their scope and their technology, but each of our published projects has benefited from Friederike’s careful intervention.

Jasmine Mulliken joined us in 2016 and immediately got to grips with what “publishing” an ISW entails. Again, there was no manual for this, and Jasmine either had to shoe-horn our ISWs into a book-oriented system, or persuade the gatekeepers to create a new framework for our ISWs. This included every entity in the publication pipeline, from CrossRef to the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office. Many were resolutely stuck in the print era – in our first year one agency asked her to “mail in a printout of your web site.” She has since gone beyond these print-equivalent processes to define an entire archiving model for our projects, ensuring their accessibility through future turns in technology, utilizing wrappers, web archiving tools, and Stanford’s Digital Repository. This form of web archiving goes far beyond that of our peers and should set the gold standard for the preservation of anything truly worth considering as a “publication.”

Nicole Coleman has joined the program along the way, to work with Jasmine on aspects of archiving, as well as preparing a visualization of our process, mapping it against the more traditional book process, that we hope to share on this blog in the coming months.

I am incredibly proud of the work of Friederike, Jasmine, and Nicole, and grateful not only for their commitment to the work itself, but also to the Press as a whole. They have been an integral part of the Press team, and we have relied on their wisdom and advice on many digital issues.

We’ll attempt to highlight significant milestones over the next several months, so please watch the blog during our final year for additional posting.

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